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Guest Blog: Rocking for the Free World (2/3)

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This is a very special series for Winds of Change.NET. Thanks to the cooperation of Andrαs Bacsi and the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, Hungarian Ambassador Andras Simonyi's speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is being featured here on Winds of Change.NET as a Guest Blog. Ambassador Simonyi's speech tells a very personal story of music and freedom, and the enduring relationship between the two. It's a story that remains relevant today, and touches on topics we've addresed in articles like "G-d Gave Rock N' Roll To You..." and "Keep On Rocking for the Free World." Initiatives like Radio Sawa are proving every day that Rock n' Roll isn't just cultural fluff. In a very deep way, it has been - and remains - the essence of America's story. Jeff "Skunk" Baxter played for The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. He now works as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense, and added some fine stories of his own in yesterday's introductory remarks. Today, we feature the Ambassador himself...

"Rocking for the Free World: How Rock Music Helped to Bring Down the Iron Curtain"

(Transcript of Hungarian Ambassador Andras Simonyi's speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland on November 8, 2003)
Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. Hey, hey, that's not good enough. Good evening! That's great. I used to play in a rock band when I was younger and we used to do this stuff so I can tell when it's quality. The second one was OK. Let me ask the first question. How many of you have not played air guitar, ever? Once more, please. That's better. I like people being honest. This whole thing we're talking about is about honesty. Preparing for this lecture, the funniest question I got – this was yesterday – they've asked me five times, "What tie are you going to be wearing? Are you going to be wearing a rock and roll tie?" And I said no, I'm not going to be wearing a rock and roll tie because I'm not here to pretend that I'm a rock artist. I'm here to tell you that I'm an ambassador of a country that is closely tied together with the United States today. We work hard to maintain our relationship. And there is a pillar that has been so important to me all my life when I was a kid, when I grew older, and now, which I think is one of the real ties between us. I want to make sure you understand that I'm not doing it because I want to pretend that I'm Skunk. I am not Skunk. I wish I was Skunk. And I think his next target is to be ambassador in Budapest. (Laughter.)
The other question I got yesterday is, "Do you really think that rock and roll brought down the Iron Curtain?" And I said no, I don't because the Iron Curtain was pulled down by efforts on both sides, government and people on your side and people trying to influence things on our side. But I do believe that rock and roll played a key role. This is what I am going to be explaining to you, why I think so. And I'm sorry if I will be too personal but I do think that the things we're doing, you know, diplomacy, is not made by diplomats, it's made by people. Successful diplomacy is about people. So therefore I'll try to get close to your hearts and your minds and probably the best way to do it is to tell you my personal story and how I got here. But before I start, I'd like to thank this wonderful museum and Terry, who is now a good friend, his colleagues at the museum, who have embraced this idea. I want to thank the Mayor through John; thank you very much for that nice message, I want to thank the Congressman, the Senator, and the Governor for the nice messages. I was four when Russians tanks rolled down the streets of Budapest. It's a strong memory I have. I was just a kid and I didn't really understand what was happening. But it did leave a strong mark in my mind. I must say that I had a great family – a great father, mother, a brother and a sister, who helped preserve a life for me. That was pretty much like yours; they were very protective. This family took me to Denmark in 1960 where my father was trade representative, I had the luck to go to an American school – that's probably why I picked up some English and Danish, and I had the honor to just live the ordinary life of an ordinary guy on the streets of Copenhagen. Here is how it all started. Let me just write this on the blackboard. (Writes "All My Loving" on the blackboard.) You know this too? This was the first Beatles song that I ever heard, at a party at school. It caught me and I said, this is my music. And it hasn't let go since. While I was in Denmark, particularly in '66 and '67, like the Danes embraced the rock music at its best, like the Danes got to know Cream, Jimmy Hendrix, Zappa, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and you name it, I got to know them as well. I was listening to this kind of music day and night. I didn't know what the underlying message was and I didn't care. I just thought this was something that I had to embrace. In 1965, I bought with the help of my father my first guitar. Can we show this slide? How about that? I want to thank my wife for smuggling [this photo] from Budapest. I didn't know she had it and she said "Are you sure you want to show this?" And I said "Maybe it is good." It was a great guitar, it's a copy of a Fender Jaguar. I had a great time until in '67 we moved back to Budapest. Budapest at that time was not a very funny place. It was a pretty tough, dark, and gloomy place. It was just ten years after the 1956 revolution which was broken by the Soviets. Still, society was quietly and slowly coming alive. But it was a very tough place to be, especially for me who'd got used to freedom – freedom in the way I dressed, freedom in the way I communicated, freedom in the way I talked to people, and freedom in the way I picked up my music. The music that I thought so much of was simply not available in Hungary. I stayed a year with an aunt and uncle of mine who turned out to be a very conservative communist. And honestly, they didn't get it when I started to explain about Good Vibrations and the Four Tops and the Spencer Davis group. She didn't understand. And my brother and I, we had a big old Bakelite radio that I got from my father so we could listen to Western radio stations and we used to listen to that at night. Listening to that music at night was very important to us to keep track of what was going on in the West. One night as we were listening to some real nice stuff, the old man came in, very angry, and took away the radio. Next day we asked for an audience and we said "Sorry for having listened to this music so loud," and he said "The problem was not that it was loud. The problem was that you were listening to a Western radio station." That was something that really hurt us – I was 14 and my brother was 16 – being told you're not allowed to listen to music on a Western radio station that we always used to listen to. That was real tough. And we got to understand very quickly that this Hungary is not very similar to the Denmark where we used to live. Still, you had to keep going and it was so important for me, my continuing to keep in touch with the music scene in the West. It kept us sane and kind of made us part of the free world. We would listen to Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, and above all, to Radio Luxemburg. We used to listen to this stuff at night and as we listened to this radio, as we listened to Radio Luxemburg, we were suddenly out of our bodies and our soul was part of the free world. We would join our peers in the West. We would be part of the scene that was so natural for all of you here in the United States or in England or Denmark or Holland or elsewhere in the free world. As I returned to Hungary, I was a good student. I don't know if I was smart but I always had good grades and that was in order to get things out the way so I could do my music. I did a lot of practicing, formed my own band, and got in touch with the Hungarian music scene which, strangely enough, started to grow immediately after the rock explosion in the West. The instruments were lousy, so I was a cool guy, I had great instruments. Instruments in general were no good but some guys somehow managed to get great instruments and they produced some good sound. And it was so good to be a part of this. That's where I met my old-time very best friend, Gabor Presser, who was my mentor, was my great friend – he's still my best friend, and he's still a great musician. You know, it was interesting that you all ask how we got hold of this music. Of course, there was no records to be had. Here, you heard Led Zeppelin on the radio, the next day you walked into a record shop and bought it. In Hungary, we couldn't do that. Therefore, when we got hold of records, it was so much valuable. It was much more meaningful to us – it was not just something to consume, to buy. It wasn't just owning it; it was way beyond that. No one Hungarian had all the records, but somehow Hungarians together managed to get all the records. We would copy these records. I hope the copyright guys don't listen now because, honestly, whatever the reason, they would have clamped down on the Hungarians copying this stuff. But we would walk into this record store that would make one single copy of a record and sell it to us. We would tape it and then spread it five hundred times. That was kind of nice. That was really important to us. One way or another, we were very much part of the scene. And there were some funny situations, too. You know the Led Zeppelin song called "Dazed and Confused?" You know, it goes (humming). When I heard that on Radio Luxemburg, the funny thing was that they had somehow put it together with this song from Three Dog Night called "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)." Right? And there was a lot of fading because of the distance of radio. I was shocked when I first heard the Led Zeppelin record, there was no "Mama Told Me Not to Come" and there was no fading, so the record was no good. But that was a part of our lives. And you know what? The quality didn't matter. What really mattered is that we were part of it. I created my own band and it was kind of a strange band. Can we have the next photo? This is me sitting at home in Budapest with my beloved guitar I still have, trying to figure out how to play some stuff from Traffic and all those guys. We used to play Cream in '67, '68 and '69. I would do Rory Gallagher, I would do some early Fleetwood Mac stuff. It was really very special because I'd always thought this was at the avant-garde of rock music. In 1969 however a band led by Stevie Winwood called Traffic, which I loved so much, came to Budapest. I had no idea how they got there and it was the strangest thing because I would know all the Traffic tunes by heart, you name it and I could sing it and I try to play it. "Mr. Fantasy" and "Medicated Goo," or whatever. Can we play a piece of music? (Music.) Thank you. I think that was kind of cool in '69. Preparing for this lecture, I told my colleagues to try and get hold of Stevie Winwood because here is what happened in 1969. With the help of my father, I figured out where Traffic would be staying, which hotel, and after the concert I'd hang out at the hotel and Stevie Winwood shows up and it is like, I don't know, may I say it is like God showing up? And I started talking to him and we had some words and he said I'm sorry, I got to go, but I figured out that maybe it would be a good idea that I act as a guide for the rest of the group. So I took Jim Capaldi, the drummer, and Albert, the road manager down to Lake Balaton – which, by the way, is a place you've to got visit sometime – and we hung out for a couple of days. I was very really into something very special, talking to these people. That left a lasting mark on my attitude to music. Here is what happened: A few weeks ago my guys came back and said Stevie Winwood is playing in Washington this weekend. We got hold of Stevie Winwood and I went down to see the concert, a great concert. We started talking about what happened 35 years ago. He said "Yes, I remember. I didn't go to the Lake with you because I had to go and listen to some gipsy music." And I said "Steve, how did you get [to Hungary]?" He said "I don't know because we didn't go to any of the other East European communist countries." "Can you give me an explanation?" He said "Call Chris Blackwell." So I called Chris Blackwell, who was then their manager and I asked, "Chris, what the hell was Traffic doing in Hungary?" He said, "Look, I think you had some opening in '68 because no one else would take us in but Hungarians were crazy with this music and somehow the authorities allowed this to happen." I didn't know then, and it didn't click, that was exactly the couple of years when the system lightened up a little, culture lightened up a little, economy lightened up a little, and of course Hungarians embraced as much as they could from the free world in this short opening which only lasted until 1972. But it was also something interesting that I have to tell you, and it didn't click before I talked to Steve Winwood: Hungarians didn't understand the text [of any of the rock tunes]. And I just suddenly realized that it was not the text but the power of music, the power of a couple of guys standing on stage with a Stratocaster, with a Fender bass, a guy playing on organ, a drummer playing a Gretsch drum set, that really made Hungarians think this was something very important. So while the authorities tried to limit through the propaganda machinery the impact of this on Hungarians and obviously also on other Central Eastern Europeans, there was no way to stop the onslaught of the message of freedom through rock and roll. That was the most powerful instrument to convey the message to my generation about the free world. I do believe today, what the satellite and VHS was for the '80s and what the Internet is today, was rock and roll and rock music in the '60s and the early '70s. It was about sending a strong message of freedom through the Berlin Wall to us who were living behind the Iron Curtain. [After these experiences] I had really gone into this music scene and I was going to be a rock musician. But my good friend Gabor Presser said, "You're crazy if you do this, and you'll go even crazier if you stay behind and try to play your kind of music. You simply can't do it; this is not for you." […] But then he told me, you go on to university. But before that some interesting things happened. The first supergroup was formed in the West, called Blind Faith – great news in the world. Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker from Cream, Rick Grech from a group called The Family, and Stevie Winwood would sing and play the organ, and it was a great thing. Of course, it was important for us to follow, so my friend Gabor formed the Hungarian "supergroup," [Locomotive GT] and I am proud to tell you that I played on their first record which I think made rock history not only in Hungary, but also in Eastern Europe at large. To an extent, it is still the only band that ever made any success in the West. Can we play the second music? And can I also have the next picture? (Music.) I just wanted to have you listen to this because this is 1971, Budapest. Skunk, I don't know how good that was, you tell me later, but I think the hearts of all these guys, including myself, went into that music. We wanted to make music come as close to the best of the best in the free world as we could. (Pointing to slide.) This is in fact at a studio in Budapest and I am practicing for this album. And the funny thing was – you should understand that the lyrics were censored. We always had to scratch out something. We always had to change the words. When we spoke about the freedom of man or the freedom of the world, they would put something foolish into the text. They didn't realize that the music itself was more powerful than the text. They didn't realize that the real power lay in the music. So therefore my fellow musicians, those who came after us, they tried and expanded our little freedoms as much as they could. Sometimes they would hurt us, sometimes they wouldn't. Sometimes they would "understand" what we were doing, sometimes not. But I think I can probably say that we tried step by step to get closer to [the mainstream of rock in the free world]. And maybe we did succeed. In 1972, I was going to defect from Hungary. I said, this is not the world I want to live in. I remember in 1972, I was standing in the railway station in Copenhagen and I called my mother and I said "Mom, I am not coming home." And she said "Son, okay, you're not coming home, but then I and Dad and your brother and sister will not be able to live the lives we want them to live." So I went back. And frankly, I didn't regret it because in 1974 I met Nada, my wife. That was a big deal and I think I enchanted her by starting to – I remember we were sitting in a bus and I started explaining to her about the new George Harrison hit "Bangladesh" and, you know, I described it to her from all angles. I think I was successful because she changed a lot through my convincing. But I also want to tell you that in the meanwhile there was a hardening of the system and two guys from the band Locomotive GT that we have just heard defected to the United States. The drummer [Jozsef (Joe) Laux], and my great friend and hero the guitarist Tamas Barta. The saddest of all stories is that Tamas arrived in the United States and figured out that he will not be the great star that he used to be in Hungary and he will not be able to make it here and he ended up being shot in Los Angeles. It's a sad story but he really never was able to leave Hungary spiritually. Wanted to embrace so much the free world, the West. And this collision of the lack of freedom and wanting to be a Hungarian led to his fate. I miss him still. Some years later – can we have the next slide? – I was engaged in youth exchange, I was pretty proud to move on and promote cooperation between East and West. I had long hair when Nada got to know me. It was pretty exciting. And you will understand that the guys that started to grow up on this powerful music, the guys who embraced this music and through this music embraced Western culture, the culture of freedom, slowly realized the world was starting to change. You remember, in 1975 the Helsinki Conference happened and I think we Hungarians were the ones who really tried to push it to the limits. This was pretty much about opening up to the free world. It was about East and West slowly growing together, and it was the guys who had grown up on this music that slowly began to infiltrate the ranks of power. And I seriously believe they opened us to the world, them wanting to end the Cold War, them wanting to hold hands with Americans, with Brits, with Germans, with Danes, with Norwegians. They were the ones with whom I had spent so many years walking in the streets of Budapest, talking about this music, and talking about us being part of the free world. In 1988 – and that's a big jump; I am not trying to give you history lesson, just trying to tell you what this whole thing meant to me – so in 1988, Amnesty International was on a world tour, and that was the year when I knew the Wall will be torn down and we will put an end to the Cold War and Hungary will soon be free. Amnesty International was brought to Hungary by Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Bruce Springsteen. Just imagine the powerful message of Bruce Springsteen singing "Born in the USA" at the stadium in Budapest and 80,000 Hungarian kids roaring and saying, yes, we're together. That was the year when I was 100 percent convinced that [communism] will be over soon. My friends in the West reacted in disbelief, but I was right. What stronger message than the message that came through rock music can you imagine? In 1989, the world moved on and Hungary was free again. You might wonder, what next? My personal life, the music that I embraced all my life has played an incredible role of since. I have a very easy rapport with my friends and colleagues in the West, primarily in the United States. I got to know friends who are working for the U.S. government when we suddenly figured out that we were listening to the same kind of music. I name one song, you name the band. That's how I met your ambassador to Moscow [Alexander Vershbow], who used to be my friend and colleague in NATO, and he used to be a rock musician when he was a kid, still plays. And as we grew closer, as Hungary started to move into NATO, the closer this friendship grew. We jammed together and this really made our friendship close. We both agree that this is something that has to continue to glue us together. I believe that rock music is not imperial, not imperialistic. Mozart used to belong to the Austrians. Does anyone ask anywhere in the world – in China, in the United States, in Brazil, in Moscow – where Mozart came from? You couldn't care less. The music that Traffic played, that Cream played, that Jimmy Hendrix played, that "Skunk" Baxter played belongs not to the United States or to the UK any longer – it belongs all of us. This is a glue. Rock music has been influenced just as much through our efforts for freedom, by the pride of the people in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America as much as you have influenced our peoples in Europe, in Asia, in Africa and in Latin America. Rock and roll music is universal; it is a universal language. It's easy to embrace. It speaks to the people. That is why it was so useful and meaningful in penetrating communist society. Because it was understandable for all the peoples. It was not aristocratic, it belonged to all of us, the man on the street – the little guy who was walking on the streets of Budapest and the little guy who was walking on the streets of Warsaw or Prague. Just like the little guy walking in the streets of New York, Los Angeles, or Cleveland. Try, if you haven't tried it, the excitement of strumming a Stratocaster. I think that's the closest you can get to heaven before you really get there. Rock is about freedom, rock is believing in our freedom and the freedom of others. I reject the attacks that I hear on rock and roll music. I really think this culture, this museum that Terry Stewart and friends have given us, that the musicians have given us, will remain a lasting pillar in our relationship. I want to make sure that I use this opportunity to thank on behalf of many many millions of Hungarians, Russians and Czechs and Poles, East Germans for what you have given us in hard times, when you were the light for us, when you were the vehicle to the free world for us. Thank you Jimmy, thank you Eric, thank you Johnny, John, Paul, George and Ringo, thanks to Jeff, thanks to Steve Winwood and all the others. You have formed our minds, you have formed the mind of a generation. We are now in the West ourselves. Thanks God you did not let us down. Rock is not a commercial success – rock is a cultural success. You have kept millions going. You have kept millions and millions hoping. You have warmed up the hearts of many millions of people behind the Iron Curtain. The message went through the airwaves and through the Iron Curtain, it went through the Berlin Wall. It was a bridge. Now before I conclude, let me play a little piece and I want you to do a little guessing. I want you to guess who these guys are that were playing. (Music.) Thank you, that was the message of freedom and you tell me later who that last guy was. Can you guess it? Who was it? Well, that was me [playing "Crossroads"]. Thank you so much. (Applause) Thank you. Skunk and I will be happy to answer questions related to this topic. Q1: Your message in terms of the impact that rock and roll had in Hungary's culture and politically was very strong. Today, we're faced with the difficulty of Middle Eastern cultures. Are there any similarities to this situation? AS: Absolutely. That's why I said I don't think rock and roll is imperialistic. It has been influenced by so many – I remember in 1967 I met with Ravi Shankar in Budapest. A great talk – he didn't know what the hell I was doing there. I was there because of his rock involvement. They have influenced Western music. So has the music from my country. So there's nothing wrong with interaction. Those who say that through rock music we are importing an imperialistic attitude are wrong. I think those who are rejecting rock music, popular music, blues music in the Middle East and elsewhere are really scared of its power. A strong culture will not be defeated; it will be enhanced and it'll only be better. And I do believe that the Muslim world should and could influence our cultures just like there is nothing wrong with us influencing and meeting their cultures. It's not about pushing the other down, it's about holding hands. It's about the freedom of man. Skunk? JSB: It adds another color to the palette. Sting about two years ago took a Persian lead singer with him, and much of his music was influenced by the Middle East. I know that it sounds like we are coming up with an original idea; it is and it isn't. There's even codification. There's a gentleman I'm sure you are familiar with, Joseph Nye, who teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who wrote an incredible essay in the Foreign Affairs quarterly about eight years ago, which I read, called "Soft Power." Yes, the United States is militarily and economically strong but what's the real power? It's the power of the culture. And just as we melded all the different kinds of music in our culture, as soon as media and as soon as communications became worldwide again, that music took and picked and chose and drew from every other influence. And sooner or later we're going to have that same kind of mind-meld with the Middle East. But as you know, there's a tremendous amount of fear. The one thing that the fundamentalists of any religion or any philosophy are most frightened of is individuality and freedom. And they're going to fight this tooth and nail. But what happened with Andras? The Berlin Wall was made of cement, barbed wire, landmines, dogs, guns, rifles, but it didn't make any difference. As I said when I came out of Moscow at that time, you could build any ballistic missile system but you can't build an anti-groove system. And everybody wants French fries, blue jeans, and Elvis Presley. (Laughter and applause.) Monday: More Q & A Session with Skunk and Ambassador Simonyi

5 TrackBacks

Tracked: November 29, 2003 5:21 PM
Excerpt: Winds of Change has the full text of the Hungarian Ambassador's to the United States' speech at the Rock and Hall of Fame about his experience in the Hungarian underground of the sixties. It sounds pretty rocking....
Tracked: November 29, 2003 6:04 PM
Excerpt: But instead, I'll point you to this post, and this one, where the rockin' and the rollin' and the blogging have already been done for me. Read and enjoy. *Yes, when I was a kid, I was a KISS fan....
Tracked: November 30, 2003 3:07 AM
Excerpt: Winds of Change has the full text of the Hungarian Ambassador to the United States' speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about his experience in the Hungarian underground of the sixties. It sounds pretty rocking. Still, you...
Tracked: November 30, 2003 11:04 AM
Excerpt: Rocking in the free world, dept.: Andras Simonyi is the Hungarian ambassador to the United States. He is also a guitar player, and this Winds of Change post contains a transcript of his speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Check it...
Tracked: December 11, 2003 4:47 PM
Excerpt: The religious and the straight-laced in the world have always looked upon rock & roll as a shining example of...

6 Comments

Wow - amazing. Thank you so much for sharing that.

I can't wait to read the rest of this.

That is very moving stuff.

Vaclav Havel said very similar things about the effect of the Velvet Underground on the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia.

Thanks.

...Something Simonyi notes in Monday's post. Yes, it is moving stuff.

Fantastic. Great article. I'll be linking to this from the Planeta Headlines page.

I salute Ambassador Simonyi's being so down to earth (read: SKUNK!). I am just very lucky to be a Filipino who have even more freedom than the Americans ... (we do not have much money though ... laughs). What we have is our heart for music. I am a musician myself and I very much agree with the Ambassador's opinion that music is universal ... it bridges people. I have gained so many friends and acquaintances through music . . It is one commonality that can strike a conversation with strangers. I remember meeting a German missionary, our mouths didn't talk much. Our instruments did the talking. Rock 'On SKUNK!

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