“DOORS OF HEAVENS, or WHEN JIMI HENDRIX WAS BULGARIAN”
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“Doors of Heavens” is the novel that I have decided to write for my thesis. This novel is a story comprised of many other stories. They have different moods, pulses and beats similar to the music that I have always adored – rock ‘n’ roll. But this is also a poetic analogy and devotion to the passion, spirit and the thrill, of being a small particle within the great idea of the human and liberal sciences. A devotion to the spirit and the thrill I was inspired by as a student at the University of Chicago.
Before I begin with the introduction to the “Doors of Heavens,” I would like to reveal the roots and the reason for my choosing this particular topic. This, I hope, could provide the readers with understanding of the feeling that was hidden inside of me, and was pushing and bothering me, teasing and tormenting me for a long time, until the moment I sat and expressed it in writing. The introductory essay about the essence of the “Doors of Heavens” I named “When Jimi Hendrix was Bulgarian.” (Oh, yeah, I can see the suspicious smiles!) How come? What does Jimi Hendrix, an American, black rock musician have in common with an Eastern European country that you can’t even find on the map?
It was somewhere in the beginning of the 1970s. I was a kid, living in the lonesome, odd, quaint, erratic and misunderstood Bulgaria. It was one of those last hot sleepy summer days of school vacation. My friends and I, living in a blue collar neighborhood of Sofia, did not have many chances in front of us. But we also did not have, many things to worry about it. While our parents were working in the nearby factories, we were spending our days playing soccer, breaking the windows of houses with the soccer ball, repairing our rusty bicycles, stealing plums, peaches, apricots and apples from the green orchards around and waiting for the time when we would grow up and, like our parents, be swallowed by the same surrounding factories.
Like all kids in the summer, we had our favorite moments. One of these moments was when the day was over and the red sun was stepping down behind the forests. Then, the dark haired evening, full of magic and miracles, would come to take us away to the world of the fairies and fantasies.
We gathered under the balconies and roamed around the sleepy cobblestone streets– old, poor, crispy, fragile streets, sunk into the hug of the chartreuse linden trees. We stayed hidden, under the wild bushes and started dazzling each other with volumes of different stories. Some of my cohorts told how they had helped local hunters catch a wild grizzly bear, or a wolf or a hundred-foot-long, sheep-eating snake.
Others told how, a few years before, when they were young (can you imagine :-))), they helped the local sheriff catch a thief, or criminal, or spy who was about to burn the village where they had visited . Still other stories were about saving the life of the people who were drowning in the sea, or the river, or the lake, or in the swimming pool.
Each night the wolf, or the grizzly bear, or the criminal, or the spy were different, but the plot remained always heroic and was retold again and again, with the same poignancy and pathos. And we would retell these youthful sagas, hiding in the bushes, until the birds fell silently asleep and the lamps behind the drapes faded into blackness. The tales would cease when our parents, tired from the day at work, opened the windows and called us to go to bed.
Each summer night was like this, stories and storyteller constantly emerging anew. I don’t think we ever listened closely to each other’s stories, but we still liked to tell them, to everybody. In our budding pride, we believed we were telling them to the whole world.
Later when I grew up, I realized that we had a listener, and not only one, but thousands of thousands of listeners. These listeners were the stars, shining quietly from the shoulder of the mountains around our Sofia. They were the only truthful listeners, who really understood us and kept inside of them the mark of the time when we, indeed, were kids. Even now, when I am marveling at the dome of the starry skies glistening above my house in the Fox River Valley, I search to find these naive, innocent years and stories of my childhood as the key to the inspiration. Some times I hear my friends’ voices, but never see their faces.
Yes, it was one of these last summer days of the early 70’s. My friends from childhood and I were returning from the only movie theater in our neighborhood – Krasno Selo. Although it was falling apart and had the creakiest and the noisiest wooden chairs in the whole world, it was our favorite movie theater. This day was very special and we were very excited. We were speaking loudly and laughing, because we had once again pulled our favorite trick. We bought tickets for two, and then, when the movie started, we snick behind the exit gate attendants and opened the theater doors. The kids from the neighborhood were waiting outside, and as fast as they could, rushed into the building and sat in the empty chairs, where nobody could catch them. Then, with the money we saved from the tickets, we bought more ice cream, candy or soccer balls for ourselves.
This day we saw the latest episode of our long awaited black and white Western serial, “The Sons of the Great Bear.” These were the only Westerns to which we, in Bulgaria, had access during that time (they were made in Eastern Germany). They featured the Yugoslavian superstar Gojko Mitic (sound like Mitich), always playing an Indian warrior, who was mercilessly beating, kicking, killing, and scalping the Americans, who were daring to mess around with his people.
Every Friday, in our movie theater they showed a new movie with Gojko Mitic and every Friday we went crazy over it. We even did not sleep, so riveted we were on how Gojko Mitic was going to punish the bad cowboys and restore the justice and the order to the Native tribes. Hollywood has no idea what they were missing, not showing Gojko Mitic’s Westerns made in Eastern Germany in the United States. After seeing Gojko Mitic I cannot watch American Westerns. I have tried, but they looked to me too stale and shallow without Gojko Mitic – the Chief from the Balkans in the East German Westerns.
Once, after leaving the movie theater, while we were laughing, devouring our Eskimo type ice creams and imitating Gojko Mitic’s walk and talk, we, the kids from Krasno Selo, have approached a house next to the neighboring fruit market, that reeked of rotten tomatoes and watermelons.
Suddenly, from the open basement windows, a glorious exotic drumbeat shook the street, as an earthquake’s tremor.
We were just blown away! We gazed with open mounts, not knowing who we were and where were we going. We stopped and stayed and listened to this mesmerizing music, as a flock of little sparrows lumped together over a piece of bread on the sidewalk.
How long we stayed and listened to these new sounds, I do not remember. The ice cream melted over our threadbare tennis shoes. We were holding the empty cones with our sticky fingers, captivated by what we were heard.
When we awoke from this hypnosis the music was over. The sun was going down behind the mountain of Vitosha. It was time for us to go home.
That night we did not go outside after dinner. We did not go to the bushes. We did not tell any heroic stories. The grizzly bear, the wolf, and the immeasurable snake survived the hunt. The spy, the thief, and the criminal roamed unpunished. That night we stayed in our rooms staring at the ceilings, and listened to the voices of the night from our opened windows.
Somewhere a baby was crying. A woman was arguing with her husband who was coming back from work drunk. Elsewhere, girls were laughing at some boys’ amateur attempts at courtship. A TV’s soccer game was turned up as loud as it could be. A little farther away, somebody irritably was slamming a door. From the near by street, the old-fashioned street car was jangling tiredly to its last stop, as the crickets from the back yards gathered together for their nightly choir recital. For the first time, we were discovering the sounds that were living in the night.
The next morning we went again to the basement, where they played the music. There was nothing. The following day gave us the same – nothing. We itched through a whole week of nothing, until the next Friday when, from the basement blared the same sounds and the same bewildering excitement. We tried to see what was behind the opened window on this basement but we couldn’t see it. Then, our curiosity overcame our embarrassment and we went down the stairs. We knocked once. Nothing. Twice. The same – nothing. Only the music was getting louder and louder. Then we started kicking and kicking on the door, until somebody came.
It was a skinny guy, about 20 years old, with tight jeans and bushy hair. I do not remember his name, nor do I remember what we said or what he said. We were surrounded by sets of drums, speakers and stereos. This guy was listening to the British rock band Deep Purple, and the song that he was playing again and again was called “Stormbringer.” And he put it on, one more time just for us. After the first few cannon fire guitar chords, we were really unleashed into space.
The next morning all the walls in our neighborhood were decorated with these two magical words “Deep Purple”. Well, somewhere it was written “Deer Puple” or “Deep Purle,” or “Dep Durple,” but that was insignificant. We were all freshly in love with the Rock’n’Roll.
To all of us “Deep Purple” was such a magical phrase, like a howl pumped into our children’s souls. Finding LP’s of Deep Purple was not a simple task, especially for 10-year-old kids in Bulgaria. But we found them. Because we were the rockendrol kids from Eastern Europe. On the cover of the first of Deep Purple’s album we saw, was a Pegasus flying to a rainbow.
The moment I held for the first time in my hands this album called – “Stormbringer” is to this day a touchstone of memory I use when I need to reconnect with a fading sense of wonder in my life. It was amazing! In this day me and my friends were sitting under the shade of a giant oak tree near, the ruins of an old brick house covered with huge green ivy, and we, as Newton and the apple that helped him to discover the laws of the gravity, were discovering, with this album in our hands, the firmament of the anti-gravity.
Our spirit and imagination took their first flights into the unknown bizarre feeling of joy. Our young souls for the first time soared into the endless orbits of the excitement from a sound that seemed so in tune to ourselves.
In a moment, the summer vacation was over and school had begun. We never heard music from the basement again. The guy who was listening to “Stormbringer” disappeared. One day, one of the kids from a higher grade, who lived close to the house of the “Deep Purple” (as we called it), told us that a cool rock band had lived there, but after a concert in Norway they all immigrated to North America, to play rock and roll.
“That is not true!” interrupted another kid, who also lived close to the house. The basement was a public property and was closed because of the noise, and the guy with the bushy hair, was sent to the Bulgarian army, he said.
This dude never became our friend. We did not believe him. We believed what the first kid had told us, that the guy and his band were somewhere in America and were playing, probably together with Deep Purple.
The Fall came soon, coloring our city Sofia and the mountain of Vitosha with its canary, lemony, scarlet, reddish, emerald colors of melancholy and sadness. After gathering after school, instead of falling to our home work, we would go somewhere and listen to “Deep Purple.” We loved to hang around the “big guys”, who were selling illegally LP’s from the West on the Sofia’s “black market”.
Once we had bought an old LP of another band we were also in love with – Black Sabbath from some guys older than us with the money that we saved from our lunch. They, of course, gave us an LP streaked with scratches and when we put it on the record player, the player never finished the songs. The same riffs would just roll and repeat again and again. So, if we wanted to listen to the song from the beginning to the end, we learned to kick the record player or push the needle forward only to make more scratches.
The “Purple” mania soon infected the all kids from our grade. We proudly showed to everybody from our class our greasy, scrape, chafed LPs. The kids were “aahh”-ing and “ooohhh”-ing and looking enviously at us. Soon everybody started bringing black and white pictures of rock bands, tapes and more LP’s. The maniacal fascination with the rock music was turning into something new. Instead of listening, some of our friends started learning how to play the tunes from Deep Purple. The fact that you can play on the guitar the first few chords of “Smoke on the Water,” was the real proof that one was very gifted and could be a great musician. For decades “Smoke on the Water” remained the most popular song, the alphabet of the generation of not only rock musicians, but ordinary, amateur Bulgarian performers who were entering into the world of rock and roll in the mid 70’s.
Eventually another summer has arrived, and with it another long awaited vacation. We still played soccer. We still broke the windows with the soccer ball and had problems with the rust on our bicycles. The weekly ceremony of the cult of Gojko Mitic and the Westerns from East Germany continued. And we still gathered in the bushes, but not to tell the stories, rather to listen to and play rock music.
Over one year our neighborhood Krasno Selo had grown up. They had built more buildings and more kids started roaming on the streets, and we started gathering together with them, liked or not. Some of the new comers to the neighborhood were a few years older then us, but somehow we became friends. Now, we were not so crazy about the soccer balls. We were thinking of guitars. We did not have money to buy them, but desperately wanted to have them. We even tried to make one and stole the strings from the violin of the school orchestra.
Among our friends there was Yoni. Yoni was the worst soccer player in all of Bulgaria, or maybe in the world, but he had something that we always wanted. He had a Cremona, the Bulgarian version of Fender Stratocaster guitar. The Cremona was a multi-functional guitar because of its many functions. You can use it for a hammer, for table, even for a sled for the winter. A very sturdy instrument, and a perfect metaphor for Bulgaria.
Since Yony was taking guitar lessons, he could play very well. As such, he was always bragging to us that he had seen once on TV part of a concert by a dude who played madly and fantastically, and could even play the strings with his … tongue. Then this unnamed hero had smashed the guitar and set it afire…literally. And if you hear him, Yoni claimed, you could not stop listening to him. This was clearly the greatest guitar player in the entire world.
“Deep Purple” was OK, but this was something serious! Jimi Hendrix was his name, said Yoni, and with that strange name, lit in our hearts the flame of curiosity for Jimi Hendrix. We started searching every record bin and music store nearby to find some LP’s or songs from Jimi Hendrix, but never found anything.
The initial lack of success motivated us and we started again with the same zeal and passion to look for his music. And then the legend about Jimi Hendrix among the Krasno Selo youth started growing and growing.
At last, we heard Jimi Hendrix. It was raining and we were walking to the soccer stadium “Slavia” to watch a game, when we saw Yoni walking toward us with a big smile on his face. He said that he had just found some tapes of Jimi Hendrix and was going to listen to them at his house. Forgetting about the soccer game, we slavishly followed him to his place. There he turned on the stereo and an ocean of sounds, guitar riffs and drums was poured over us.
I still try to describe this sound, that was so enigmatic, hard to be absorbed but still attractive to us, the kids behind the Iron Curtain, the kids from Krasno Selo. Deep Purple’s sound and rhythm were some kind of visible and touchable thing, while Jimi Hendrix was a temper, an emotion. His sound was like a crying, begging, arguing, fighting elf, escaped from the world of the fairies. Other times, it was a little vagabond, roaming around the streets and laughing with the joy of all living beings. This sound, we understood immediately, you could not see or feel it–you just had to live it!
Jimi woke us up and we grew up. We saw the country we lived and the political regime that was ruling it and dictating us how to live. We saw ourselves isolated, enduring in a reality without realms. We had identities, but did not have individualities. We wanted to travel outside of the country and see the world. But it was forbidden, because we were Bulgarians. All our lives we had been told that Bulgarians do not travel. Nobody wants to deal with the Bulgarians. They do not go the West because there was a Cold War raging.
Yet, my friends and I felt the feeling surge through us, that we were the pioneers of the new society, a new class of the voiceless and choiceless. We were the builders of the new world, the world of fake social justice and travesty-like equality. There were the rich party leaders and us, poor working people. We were free but never freed from the chains of the prejudice, artificial patriotism, irrelevant values and screwed up morals. In short, we were believers without beliefs, living in a space of social justice, but the justice was not alive among us. It was for the others. For those who were close to the system.
Jimi Hendrix became an emblem of not being like those others. To us, Jimi took form not only in the music but in the social behavior. He represented tentative, novice, raw and inexperienced rebellion against the falsehood and the conformism we saw everyday. He was speaking to us to a new language of the imagination. Very quickly, we learned this language. Every tune and song played by him sounded different. It was like solving a riddle. Jimi was different, unmatched, unequaled to in not only our world, but in the world of Eastern European kids.
His own Western world, we had learned, was not so accepting as we were. His music was rejected not only by the Bulgarian radio stations (who were ideological enemies of the Americans), but by the Americans. The white radio stations were rejecting his music, because his style was heavier. The Black radio stations did not supported him, because his music was not “black” enough and not addressed for the Black audience. But Jimi was unlike anything before and so were we. And that is why, probably, his image and performance were more than an act of art. It was a life to us.
We were Bulgarians in the Balkans. To the Europeans, we were not European “enough,” for the Eastern Europeans from the Central part of Europe, we were not Eastern enough, nor even Central European enough. We were not “enough” for the whole world. Jimi was one of us. He was a guy from the Balkans, a Bulgarian. This is the conclusion that we made one night, singing “Hey Joe” in Bulgarian.
And then I saw the birth of the poem! We did not know the words in English, but we knew them by heart in Bulgarian. Remarkably, nobody knew this song in English, yet everybody was adding some parts in Bulgarian to it. For our neighborhood the lyrics were one version, but for another neighborhood a few blocks down on the street the words were mutated.
“Hey Joe,” a song about a murderous desperado, turned into an oral transformation of the birth of a folklore and mythology. We were all poets and composers. We were all little Jimi Hendrixes, isolated, misunderstood and unfit for any society or social group. In Bulgarian his name would be Dimitar Hristov! This was one of the last jokes from my childhood that I remember, and it kept us laughing for a long time.
Then the stone faced time of the teenage years came. Without compassion, without warning, it just arrived. It started by grabbing us and whirling abruptly and mercilessly. Some other, younger kids were sitting in our bushes and telling their stories about the grizzly bears and the wild wolves. In a snap, we found ourselves sitting more and more in the back yard of the school, and looking longer with thirsty, wide eyes after the gentle walk of the girls roaming on the streets. And Sofia girls knew how to walk. Some of my friends had already stolen their first kiss, while others had tried their first cigarette. Or first sip of beer. Everything was changing, including our attraction to the rock music. This religion, took on more and more importance.
For me, this was the time of revelations, because I was discovering the worlds of culture, civilization, and human science. As much as I was listening to the rock music, I also read and discovered the hidden treasures of history. I was listening to The Doors, and was reading about the band, when I learned of the poet William Blake and his toughs about the doors. These spiritual doors lie between the things of the known, and the things of the “unknown”. I was listening to Led Zeppelin, and after hearing the legendary drummer John Bonham beating the drums in “Moby Dick,” I found the book “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville and read it from beginning to end in Bulgarian. I heard the band “Steppenwolf” and their hit “Born to be Wild,” and the next week I read “The Steppen Wolf”, the Herman Hesse’s book from which the band had taken its name. Because of the rock band Uriah Heep, I read Charles Dickens and his book David Copperfield, since one of the characters in this book had that name.
I wanted to know what the name of the band Styx meant, and I found it in the Greek mythology. From the band Nazareth, I learned that this was the name of the city where Jesus Christ was born. I heard Bob Dylan and the next morning I was already in the bookstores searching for the poems written by the Irish poet Dylan Thomas, from whom the singer Bob Dylan, with the real name Robert Zimmerman, had adapted his name.
A new pantheon of rock and roll and literature ruled my consciousness. In my teen imagination the songs of Mick Jagger embodied the Declaration of Independence, Jimi Hendrix was something like the statue of the liberty, Bob Dylan’s music was the voice of the emancipation. I was going to the movie theaters not to watch the movies, but to listen the music that I could not find in the stores. The music, that I could not listen on the radio. I saw “Apocalypse Now” three times, because there were songs from the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Doors. And all this was because of the rhythm, the beat, because of the rock and roll and Jimi Hendrix.
It was the time when the doors of the heavens got opened! Just for me! I found the inspiration that made me free, strong and determined. I began my search for the words. With them I started carving my new universes. I felt the breeze, the rain, the sun, the moon, the stars, the night in a different way. I was writing my first poems.
Then came another new, inevitable, fierce reality. I was almost 18 years old, and I was drafted and sent in the army for two years. The time had stopped, but not the inspiration! The first thing that I did after coming back home, after those two years, was to grab my old bag pack with some sheets of papers for writing poetry and to roll down on the enticing roads ending on the hug of my lovely , lonely Black sea.
It was the late 80’s, and I remember these summers spent hitchhiking along the dusty roads of my odd, crazy, naive and charming Bulgaria. I was crossing the soft, gentle valleys, eating the juicy apples from the trees around the tiny routes. I was wandering around the mighty green, cool mountains, from the rainy paths to the warm golden beaches of the mystique and full with love Black sea. I had nothing but dreams for something good, helpful, remarkable, that people will remember and will make life better and more compassionate.
The hurricane of the Bulgarian “velvet” revolutions (from 1989 and 90’s) did not miss me and my friends. It was the time of taking action and raising your voice. The indifference, the lethargy, the apathy, the aloofness were equal to betrayal to the ideals. The ideals of not to be like them, like the others. A betrayal to Jimi Hendrix. We were on the streets, the village squares, the universities fighting for the only thing that was remained in our souls – the dreams. This was the battle and we fought to win it!
Now so many years after these events, I am still asking myself if we really won? Did we really manage to get rid of the old renegade political system that was oppressing us? And more and more, as I look back on the years, more and more I realize that the thing that was made with such a passion and love, during these turbulent times was not the freedom or the democracy that we expected. It was an ugly, pesky, hideous, grotesque hybrid of the lack of law and order. State and police corruption, hyper inflation, organized crime and fear of the ordinary people .
Over their haggard faces laid the shadow of the pain of how to pay the bills, how to feed your family, how to buy warm winter shoes for their children. There seemed to be no poetry, no feelings and no tenderness. My friends were not talking anymore about the music, the books, and the great ideals. They were worrying how to find job, how to find money to support their newborn kids. They were worrying how to survive. Many of them had found their salvation, as immigrating out of Bulgaria. Somehow Jimi Hendrix, our leader from the years of our youth, that have inspired us not to be like the others, but to find our own paths, had vanished. Vanished together, with the dreams. The dreams about us and Bulgaria. Unfortunately, they, “the others”, those who we fought had won!
Last year (this text was written in year of 2003) I returned for a week back to Bulgaria to see my friends and relatives and to take my writings that I had worked on before I came to Chicago. My city Sofia was turned into a peculiar mixture of luxurious new shining buildings, sporty cars speeding on the highways, boutiques, fancy auto shops, hotels, billions of little coffee houses, pubs, bars, restaurants, American fast food chains on one side, and on the other side still the same, forgotten, old, crumbling, gray apartment buildings, tiny houses, shabby narrow streets with potholes like craters from Lilliputian volcanoes. Above everything was the constant tumult from the cranes and the bulldozers demolishing the past and creating the new face of Sofia. Plastered over was the city of the linden trees, wild bushes, Jimi Hendrix and my youth. It was one of those last warm days of October. The mountain of Vitosha was glowing with the flames of the lovely passionate fever of the Gypsy Summer (called in America “Indian Summer”).
This was my last day in Bulgaria. I was returning to my parents’ home from the interviews that I had been giving the entire afternoon, one for the cultural program “12 + 3” broadcasted by the Bulgarian National Radio, and the other for, the newspaper I used to work – “Novinar” (well, after all, it is good to be a star, even in Bulgaria :-)), just for one warm, drowsy, autumn afternoon!).
After a day full of meetings and talking with the people, I wanted to be alone for awhile with my thoughts and memories. I was walking in the park behind the national stadium “Vasil Levski”, over a saffron carpet of the fallen leafs and enjoying the last sun sparkles before dusk. I was approaching the end of the park, and there, behind a bus stop close to the crowded street from the right side of the wild bushes, I overheard the notes from an acoustic guitar. I immediately recognized these sounds that trembled deeply in my soul. Some force irresistible grabbed me and took me to the bushes from where the sounds were coming. There, a pack of teenagers was standing around a bench and were gazing at another one, who was playing on a guitar “Hey Joe”!
I’ve never intentionally intruded into somebody’s company that I do not know, and I will never do it again, probably, but this time was different. For a second in these kids I saw my friends, my old neighborhood and the years that we were discovering the joy of the music. “This is very good, guys!…Yes!…Very good!” said I, although I knew I sounded like a fool.
The young guitarist continued playing the song, paying no attention to the world around him. He was sitting quietly and his fingers were running around the strings like wild mustangs on the prairie. After a minute of listening, I turned my back and I was just about to leave the kids alone with their friend with the guitar, when the music stopped and somebody said: “Thank you!”
I looked back and pairs of flaring eyes were staring at me. “You…you are very welcome…”, said I and then added, “I really liked the music that you guys play…” “It was Jimi Hendrix!” responded the boy with the guitar and then looked at me. “Do you like Jimi Hendrix?” “Yes”! I nodded. “I…actually grew up listening to his music…” He looked at me. A little smile came upon his face and he said: “Then, you probably know, what Jimi Hendrix’s name is going to be in Bulgarian? Do you?” Such a mystery! Our joke, from over twenty years ago, had survived the political systems, the changes, the corruption, the inflation, the generations. And it has been living there, in the forgotten years, to remain always precious, naive, innocent, honest as the time of the youth. As the time of the inspiration, as the time when Jimi Hendrix was Bulgarian!
Later on the night flight from Europe to Chicago, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, or maybe over the frozen lands of Greenland, or maybe the vast plains of Canada, while I was peering trying to see the moon’s reflection over the moving clouds, the idea of writing the book “Doors of Heavens” struck me.
I love you and I’m so happy I can get a little glimpse into your writing