Crying to and for Balašević

The first time that I remember crying to a song was with my Grandmother and Mum, after a Đorđe Balašević concert.

That must have been in December 1995 of 1996, while we were staying at Grandma’s and I remember putting on a Balašević tape as we loved the concert. At one point it played „Priča o Vasi Ladačkom“ (The story of Vasa Ladački), and all three of us teared up for the chorus, describing an ultimately failed life of the protagonist, who traded love for wealth, only to die as a lonely alcoholic in a kafana.

None of us, of course, especially at that point, could say that our lives rhymed with the topic of the song, nor did we experience the almost mythical vaguely pre-WWII Bačka small town life that Balašević conjured in his songs with old-timey references (despite being born in 1953, only six years before my Mum).

And yet, his genius turns of phrase, his matter of fact delivery and wonderful orchestation, made us see our individual strands of sadness and pain in the rich tapestries he weaved in his songs.

Since then, and for a long time, he was my favourite musician, whose songs I weaved into my life: performing them in primary school talent shows, going to his shows with my family and, later, friends, listening to them to soothe or cry. While he was considered somewhat cringe and saccharine by the cool Belgrade kids, and I rarely bandied my fandom around, his songs were the soundtracks to some of my most coveted memories.

I vividly remember being taught to remember the lyrics to “Prva ljubav” (First love) when I was walking with Mum by Tašmajdan on a warm May day, as the sun was setting behind the St Mark’s church, and then reciting them, a few weeks later, with my 2nd grade sweetheart. More than a decade later, one winter, he was there when I was very homesick leaving the library of Warwick University to “Ne volim Januar” (I hate January) on a particularly windy night, and then meeting my Croatian friends in one of their student dorm kitchens to share a rakija and listen to some more of Balašević. Another night, in another student kitchen in Oxford, a Serbian friend and I were drunkenly translating the lyrics of his catalogue to our amused South African friend, only stopping for some sobbing and saying how he was Serbian Leonard Cohen, or Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. While I was working in London, I went to his concert in Chelsea, and then equally eagerly went to it again when I was home. As the memories accumulated and I had more direct experience with disappointment, lost loves, feeling of failure and inevitable tragedy of life, his songs made me immediately remember when and with whom I was listening to them, and which painful memory best rhymed with each one of them. Despite that many of them started hitting hard, I savoured that poetic pain, and felt that the songs made it actually more surreal and artful. Rather than seeing myself as a lonely 20 something dude working in Consulting in London, I could, for those few minutes fancy myself a fallen pre-war aristocrat bohemian.

When I moved back to Serbia, I started taking Balašević for granted and for a few years I kind of stopped listening to him. For the first time I felt it was all too schmaltzy and self-involved, while I was trying to set myself up for a life of constant personal improvement and excitement, with little time for revisiting pain and longing which was very much part of my mid-20s.

Last February, the story of him getting a particularly bad case of COVID, coincided with my Mum’s cancer diagnosis, and in the general spirit of forced positivity I did not allow myself to think anything other than that he would recover, just like my Mum.

On 19th Feburary, as I said bye to my Mum who was to undergo a surgery, I learnt, however, that Balašević passed away.

After returning from the hospital, alone for one night and thus able to let my guard down, I got pljeskavicas, cracked open a few beers, and started playing and sobbing in my kitchen, which checking all the tributes to him on my phone.

It all came back: the painful memories hurt less than the happy ones – mostly of going to his concerts and singing his songs with my Mum – which I realised will never happen again, and which, even more depressingly, I would soon become the only person alive to have actually witnessed.

As this time crying to Balašević was the first time that I was crying for Balašević, his songs hit differently – they sounded actually deeply dark and tragic, rather than bittersweet. Hearing him crooning, often whimsically, about loves and lives that are forever gone, I realised I will never hear those songs live, nor will their darkness ever be made lighter with a joke or an anecdote which he would sprinkle at performances. Balašević’s great skill was always to help us make us make sense of and digest our sadness and pain, by making them beautiful, often majestic.

Since that night the painful parts of his songs, those of squandered youth, lonely hearts and married former loves are no longer sound soothingly beautiful nor quaint to me, but jeering in their savagery. Whenever I Balašević  now, I not only immediately remember that night but his songs still sound much rawer and more true to life, which can and does end all too early, but not poetically in a kafana after a poignant monologue, but in a lonely badly lit hospital room, due to a dumb respiratory virus or an aggressive cancer.  

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