January 30, 2023

(L)o(A)dyssey

 

How do you prepare yourself? No way. Nothing can mentally prepare you for such a situation.

You stare at the abyss, while its cold glassy glance sees right through you because it has known all about you for so long. You have a choice and an immense fear that it will be the wrong one, no matter how many times you try to reason with it, measure it and analyze the options.

There’s this band, not so important on some global scale, if it was tuned the old way based on the number of records sold, or more modernly on number of streams and views. It’s not like they had this one flash either, one moment when they were at the center of attention, only to disappear later. I figure that a lot of people whose homes are equipped with records they themselves purchased, probably never heard of them. And then again, they are the reason I’m still alive. They’re called Life of Agony.

Their path was a strange one. They got together, they worked hard, in October of 1993 they released their debut album which really made waves on the scene, they continued to develop and released two more albums, even managed to knock on the door of mainstream rock radio stations, only to break up soon after, and all this in the space of five to six years. After a four-year break they reappeared, got signed by Sony and had an incredible comeback album, only to get stuck again. While they did tour sporadically, they didn’t release any new music until 2011 or 2012, when they split again. Then two years later they got back together once again, following a certain number of changes they released two more albums, and they are playing in Stuttgart tonight.

UTRECHT 2003

The first time I saw them live was in the fall of 2003 in Utrecht, and some asshole-me from a parallel universe would probably describe that concert as some sort of a religious experience. What can be factually determined, among other things, is that upon returning from there I became aware that I definitely no longer wished for the world to end, and in the same way I knew how much I wanted to get back together with Iva. A few years later I sat down and wrote a story about the experience. The story was something I had both proudly and shyly showed to a few closest friends (Iva liked it, Veki decided to check out what it was they played, and I don’t remember if and when I showed the story to anyone else), only to turn into the foundation of something which would slowly come together during the subsequent 10 years, and which would end up being a book. That’s what got the ball rolling.

A chilly but sunny early November morning at the entrance of the Surčin airport building. A sleepy taxi coughed me up in front of the terminal. Until moments ago, I was sharing a warm bed with the person I love the most in the whole wide world, in a room with another small being which had recently started to conquer spaces of my heart I never knew existed, or create them on its own, and that at a fast pace. Either way, this shouldn’t be interpreted as a woe is me moment, on the contrary. Me being here is my own choice and I will return to them soon. But I have some business to attend to first.

I’ve no luggage, merely a few items in a small backpack. Straight to the passport control, and from there onwards to the gate. Saturday morning. Hardly anyone is flying from Belgrade, yet I still come across a couple of people I know. I don’t know where they’re headed. I’ll start with Zurich.

My headphones are defeating the noise of a pair of Pratt & Whitney engines. Bought by mistake, as a USB key or something like that which I actually wanted turned out to be faulty, so I was kindly told that it is much easier to find and take something of similar value, than to go through the refund procedure. The joys of Serbia.

I hear everything clearly: drops hitting the water surface in the tub, slow and faint heartbeat, recording of a conversation between an emergency dispatcher and an ambulance sent to a location with reported massive bleeding, siren… And then that song beginning. I’m ready. Let’s go.

MUNICH 2005

By Munich and December of 2005, Broken Valley came out. It was an album which was supposed to break down all the doors and with a steady murderous intent worthy of a T-1000, or Anton Chigurh if the former was busy, hold you by the throat and let you know that you have two seconds to realize that it’s the dopest record you’ll hear in quite a while, and you should look no further. Why this did not come to pass, I will never know. Some say Epic and Sony screwed them, that they packaged, promoted and tried pushing them with some nu metal leftovers (back when that stuff was still selling). Some say that album sales took a major hit when the whole American circulation had to be removed and replaced on the shelves merely three months following the album release, since their label had mistakenly placed a copy protection software which turned out to be some kind of spyware shit on the CDs. All that came later. That night in Munich things still looked to be not on an upward trajectory, but rather on a serious launch ramp, and I was fully prepared to go ballistic. I remember that they set it off with Don’t Bother, that I tried to get that on video, but that some 28 seconds in I realized that “fuck this shit” is a far better approach to the notion of wasting time and holding a camera, which I promptly stuffed down my cargo pants side pocket, placed both hands on the front rail and proceeded to lose my voice.

The whole Munich trip was a perfect crime, as at first I didn’t even think it’d be possible for me to catch them on that tour. Filipe’s wedding in Lisbon was scheduled for December 8. The cheapest ticket I could find was via Munich. Check this shit out, I’m gonna miss LOA there by only 2-3 days. Hang on a minute. “Would it be a problem if I were to arrive to Lisbon a couple of days earlier? No? I could even help out with a few things before the wedding. Let’s go!” I didn’t even buy a ticket for the show. I asked Elvir to buy one for me, which seems pretty naïve, considered from this distance. He dropped me off at the entrance of the club, where I realized I was on the guest list. A guy who has zero interest in music but with a heart of gold and therefore so many connections around town managed to bullshit someone I was a journalist coming to Germany only for this show all the way from Serbia, and that someone put my name on the press list.

I’m pretty sure this was my first foray to the front row at a gig. And that was when I realized that when Life of Agony is playing, that’s the only place for me to be. Although I remember some pretty Whaa? moments, like when Joey extended his arm towards me and I nearly fainted when I realized he was handing me a pick. I held it firmly and placed it together with the purple one I caught from Alan later in the deepest wallet pocket, checking up on it every night for the next eight days until my return home.

Later I was regretting the fact that I didn’t stay on after the show and try to reach anyone from the band, but I had to catch the last train.

Zurich airport, passport control. Where am I going to? I’m continuing on to Stuttgart. What do I intend to do there? Attend a concert. A concert? Yep. I’m coming back home the next day. The officer is smiling at me. “Enjoy the show.”

I didn’t think I’d be able to see them this fall. They did announce their European tour itinerary some time ago (this time there was not even a hint they might play someplace close by), but somehow I knew I’d have to sit this one out. I’ve no leave days left, I’ve spent them all. Plus, I’ve seen them last year, one should not get greedy.

Then The Sound of Scars came out and… That same night when I sat and listened to the whole album from A to Z with the headphones on, I just knew a solution had to be found. An in & out deal, someplace where they were playing on Friday or Saturday, which I could reach in time if I were to leave Belgrade on Friday after work, or on Saturday morning, and get back home by Monday morning and pretend nothing happened. Then it turned out that the Stuttgart gig is on a Saturday night, and that there were plane tickets available which didn’t entail highway robberies. Crazy Drecun[1] had once in a deranged tirade on RTS of old days been explaining how Kosovo is the target for weekend terrorists, Albanians sponsored by western powers who come there from Western Europe where they lived, to partake in acts of terror over weekends, only to return home to work on Monday. Weekend terrorists, you crazy son of a bitch. What am I then? A weekend fan(atic)? OK, I’m down with that. Nobody at the office on Monday will ever know where I’ve been.

I’m quite fond of the Zurich airport. I’m walking around, barely awake, rubbing shoulders against all sorts of fancy retail stores, so fancy it’s wiser to just glance at them from the outside. Pictures of my last passage through this terminal are running in my head, back when we were changing flights with Fipi last spring to take him to Portugal for the first time, or last summer when Lončarević and I finally found our way home after going straight through hell with Austrian Airlines, which is why I’ll attempt not to fly with them again for the rest of my days.

The flight from Zurich to Stuttgart is incredibly short. You’re barely airborne, and you’re already there.

BUDAPEST 2008

It was the start of summer 2008 and I remember the day being wonderful and warm. I made it to town in a van and headed first to the club, I mean boat on the Danube to pick my ticket up from the box office, only to absolutely lose it when upon disembarking I saw Joey on the riverbank standing next to the pontoon. I approached him, visibly shaken, not realizing I was still holding the ticket firmly in my right hand, only realizing it when I saw him reaching out for it and very kindly asking me if I wanted it signed. Thankfully my wits (as much of it as nature granted me, of course) returned soon enough for the words to return to me from lost & found, so we chatted a bit about… who knows what, most of the time I was pinching myself to be sure this was really happening. Joey is a great guy, a total sweetheart.

I remember the sun was slowly setting while I was walking back to the club from my hostel and crossing the bridge towards Buda. Mile was at the show too, I met him at the bar. That was the time he took me under his wing and ordered us a drink finishing with: “And an orange juice for the kid!” The show was a total party, since the support acts were LOA members’ side projects. First there were some dudes with Sal Abruscato on the drums, I forgot their name, followed by Alan’s Spoiler NYC. LOA blew the roof off the place. They were on fine form, they demonstrated force and in about an hour and 20 minutes between River Runs Red and Underground they ran through all their biggest songs.

What happened next was truly amazing. They simply finished the show and climbed down from the stage, joining the crowd. You could just approach and talk to anyone of them for as long it was interesting about pretty much anything. Someone from the venue brought Alan food on a plastic plate, he was chowing it down while still telling me stuff. I tried explaining to him how I measure up all the shows I go to to the one from Utrecht in November 2003, maybe even all life highs too. With Joey I shared how happy I was to be there and how happy they seemed on stage, and how inspiring it was to see their music going full circle from the despair of River Runs Red, through new troubles and disappointments of Ugly, over the flash of hope but also somber warnings from Soul Searching Sun, all the way to the answers on why it is so important to not give up that radiate from Broken Valley. Mina was still Keith back then, and I remember how I managed to explain to her how impressive it was and how grateful I was that throughout all the things that were taken away or never handed out to her, she still shined on and helped so many people. In the end she was thanking me.

The next day, in the van riding back to Belgrade I came up with a few smart things regarding my then near future.

I remember that time, that one and the next year as probably the happiest period of my life. I’m biased, obviously, but how else could I look at it?

It’s not Bavaria, but it is the rich south of Germany. Swabia. The city which is the seat of both Porsche and Mercedes. Élber, Balakov, Fredi Bobić[2], a fine squad from the mid-nineties. The stadium used to be called Gottlieb Daimler, before this awful instant modern age came around the corner, where if you pay enough, the stadium can be named Ass Park in your honor, only to be renamed after a new sponsor once your deal expires, and nobody can tell what came before, and what before that. Stuttgart had another fine generation early in the new millennium, when they took the title out of nowhere, nobody knew quite how. Timo Hildebrand is the only guy I remember from that team, although even he kind of disappeared afterwards. And that’s where the story about what I know about this town I’m reaching on an airport train ends.

The center of the town is a bit odd, all under reconstruction and stuff. The hotel should be right around the corner somewhere from that main pedestrian street. I’m looking to check in first, and then head to town. I should eat something, check out the area, have some rest, and ask Google how to get to the club, which isn’t that near, it seems.

I don’t consider me traveling to shows like these some kind of elitism. Music is basically the only thing outside of the vital necessities that I spend my money on. Actually, I’ll take that back, because music to me falls right within that spectrum. And it’s not like I have a ton of bands for which I’d travel on a whim like this. Life of Agony are undisputed champions of that. All things considered, they are the reason for which I have crossed over 12,000 miles during the last 16 years.

LUCERNE 2009

What was I doing in Lucerne? In 2009 Iva and I were living in Paris, and we decided to use a portion of the summer to visit relatives and friends in Geneva and Lausanne, and the key when planning that trip was where and when would LOA play in relative vicinity.

It was a cute little club, like a barn that got a bit of a makeover. Nobody knew me there, I didn’t know anyone, just as I like it. I’ve got a bit of an issue with the way I act in public when I’m with people who know me. I get a little wrung. I don’t think I could loosen up so much if they were inexplicably to play in Belgrade. Or I don’t know, maybe I could, maybe that barrier would fall too. In any case, it’s nice to be anonymous, when you’re already an introvert. You can be at ease when you show how much you care and start singing, I mean screaming every damn word as if it was about you and you wrote it yourself.

And not only that. I cried when they played The Day He Died. I don’t know why exactly, I guess a lot of stuff just unraveled: projections, empathy, but also some personal stuff. That’s the way it goes when you spend too much time sweeping things under the rug, I guess. Otherwise, there was some crying at LOA shows that came later. Happens to the band too. There’s that shot from New York when Joey’s playing How It Would Be flawlessly, but can’t help himself from weeping uncontrollably, while Keith is singing and comes over to hug him and kiss him when he saw him that way.

I made it to the front rail again, this time in front of Alan’s rig. It’s impossible to put in words the feeling of singing one of their songs right in their face, when they can see how big of deal it is to me. By the end of the night, I caught a pick from Joey, but also one of Sal’s sticks.

Keith was visibly pissed off after the show and the only reason why he exchanged a couple of words with me was because he couldn’t open the door of the bas and get in. Alan was more talkative.

That summer Vuk had translated into English that story I wrote, by then a chapter from the book which was still taking shape. Sometime in the fall I mustered some courage to send it to the band. Both Alan and Joey replied with the most wonderful and warmest thoughts I could possibly wish for. They liked it.

How do you prepare yourself? No way. Nothing can mentally prepare you for such a situation.

You stare at the abyss, while its cold glassy glance sees right through you because it has known all about you for so long. You have a choice and an immense fear that it will be the wrong one, no matter how many times you try to reason with it, measure it and analyze the options.

A wooden train, or a Lego house?

Toy stores were the purgatory of my childhood. Places of equal (but also very short) distance from both heaven and hell. You must choose and choose wisely, and the choice you make will determine your future. And whatever you do, in the end you’ll surely regret the choice you didn’t make. From my adolescence up to this point that role had been elegantly taken by record stores. Either way, I am where I am, and I have to use all my intellectual might and emotional capacity to select the best gift for Fipi. That small backpack in the shape of a tiger and with a bunch of hidden details, I’m already carrying it with me, that’s a sure shot. If only I could make up my mind and figure out which of the two shortlisted toys I should get.

In the end, I made it out of the store carrying a pretty large bag with the Lego set in it. How in the world I’m gonna get on the plane tomorrow with this, remains to be seen.

BRUSSELS 2010

In the fall of the previous year, I had defended my master’s thesis, but the diploma was only to be issued sometime in the following spring. Nothing better than to have a reason to go to Paris. That same previous fall LOA had celebrated their 20th anniversary and driven by emotions they announced a special show in Jersey at which they were to play the first album in its entirety. I remember how insanely good that idea sounded and how much I hoped that the show would be taped and released on a DVD, so that the likes of us who couldn’t make it to the States for that occasion would be able to enjoy it. That part was omitted from the announcement, but what was announced sometime around New Year’s was that River Runs Red was going to be played front to back at three additional shows in Europe the following spring: in Cologne, Brussels and I think Amsterdam. Hey, wait a second. What if I was to arrange my journey to get my degree in Paris that way I could also hop over to Brussels? The motion had been adopted unanimously. A couple of days after I bought my ticket, the band announced that the Brussels show was to be recorded for a future DVD release.

Rive Runs Red to me is a record that’s… How should I put it? Most influential? Most important? Both are at least partially correct, but that’s not the point. Rive Runs Red is the most lifesaving collection of songs that have in form of a long-playing record made it to my ears, thoughts, and heart. Generally speaking, a young band like that deciding to put out a conceptual album as its debut, and then the concept turns out to be based around suicide of a kid of not more than 19 years who in the span of less than a week loses his job, finds out that his girlfriend is leaving him, receives the news that he’s failing his final year in high school, all while you’re receiving pretty clear and gruesome picture of the horrors of a dysfunctional family surrounding him – that’s a pretty gutsy decision. You’re piecing together the protagonist’s story from documentary skits intertwined with 10 emotionally charged songs, but ultimately 10 songs which are all more powerfully than the previous one pummeling you with unstoppable gut punches. There are those who can take that tempo. The protagonist wasn’t one of those, as the record is concluded with him locking himself in the bathroom and slashing his wrist.

Ancienne Belgique is one of the most important concert halls in continental Europe. There’s hardly a big name who hasn’t played there. Calexico were to release three live albums recorded at the venue. And as soon as you entered, it became clear what type of a place you were at. There were two support acts, they were OK I guess, nothing special neither good nor bad about them. I hugged the barricade stage center-left on time. And I lost my mind with the opening bars and verses of This Time. “You’ve got time, but you ain’t got time for me.” If you never felt that way growing up, you probably still haven’t grown up. That, and the “Remember the ones you left behind” part never failed to give me the chills.

If the start was so explosive, the fact that the next song was Underground (which usually closes their shows) blew my mind even further. Being so distraught, I was only taken over and carried away by the title song coming up. And I somehow made my way through that too, only to be flattened by what was next: Alan’s bass line for Through and Through and the sonic eruption of joint attack by guitar, rhythm and vocal.

You’ve got that look in your eye again, it’s working overtime
Worried about where I’m gonna spend my life
But it’s much too late, it’s much too late
Oh, it’s much too late to start picking fights

So no, I knew who and what I was, I knew how I felt, I remembered everything, and what you were telling me meant nothing to me. I knew what I needed.

I need some air to breathe
I need some space, just leave, ’cause I’m
Colder than ever, colder than ever
I said I’m colder than ever
I’m empty
Empty through and through

It’s not like I was threatening anyone, my raised fist and the index finger coming out of it were there because I truly believed in each word I was singing:

Someday they’ll see, someday I’ll be
Unwanting of somewhere to hide
But for now, I’ll take shelter
Deep in the back of my mind
Can it wait? Can’t you wait?
‘Cause I ain’t ready to lay it on the line
I still shake, I still shake, I still shake
From this chill in my spine.

That’s not how I felt then. I just remembered the times when I did feel that way. That’s why I was so proud of the fact that I was there.

Find a way, I found a way
I found a way
To cope with the everyday now
Raise your hands if you understand

…And never have there been more raised hands in one place than before that last verse. With that “Smiling’s just a phase, and nothing can phase me” part out of the way, I pushed myself against the rail, strained myself and attacked the space in front of me not from my neck, but by bending my whole back.

And suicide, in general… There’s that part in My Eyes that goes “Just give me one good reason to live, I’ll give you three to die”, that always puts that “how else?” expression on my face. With the exception of the first time ever that I’ve heard the song (when I probably froze from what I’ve had just heard), I think that my reaction to the song each time it was playing somewhere was the same: well, isn’t it clear to every freethinking human being that this is how things stand? What surely dominates our lives is the impulse to survive, but I’ve always felt that the force working in the opposite direction is equally natural, the one that makes you realize you can’t take it anymore, that you can’t start from zero again, that you’ve got no strength left, that all is over and that you should cut your losses. I guess this notion was so firmly embedded in my mind that somehow I was under the impression that everyone else felt the same way, but let me tell you, there were a few times I was in for a nasty surprise. It would feel off to say how many times I thought about suicide, because that would imply that the number is finite and that it won’t grow.

The Stain Remains, as the conclusion of what the album is about, is a song I haven’t heard live before. Let’s not go into details on how many times I’ve blasted it on purpose using all those different headphones throughout the years, having it screaming directly to my head. It’s all good. It all served a purpose. You can hear it clearly amidst all the noise: it’s OK, you’re not alone. The sadness is OK too. Anger as well. It’s OK to care, even if it’s tearing you to pieces.

We had to endure Friday from the PA system, so that we could get to the party at encore: Other Side of the River, Love to Let You Down, Weeds, and Lost at 22 with that dude who got carried away by emotions enough to jump on the stage and start carrying Joey on his shoulders, who was still playing and was a bit puzzled at first, but who then proceeded to go crazy for the remainder of the song. Alan went down in front of the stage after the show and gave me a high five.

I stumbled down to the hotel I was staying the night (most other guests were youth team members of some English football club) and took the opportunity to think about things. Hey, look at me. Can you see where I am, in life? Yes, looks can be deceiving, especially when you compare tings with previous experience. That’s why it all seems so easy when you’re at a better place than before, but in opposite case one should simply remember that each fall has its absolute and relative dimension. This is great.

I ended up finding myself on a few shots from the DVD. There I am, at the start of Method of Groove, for instance.

The Sound of Scars came out a month ago, and I’ve been listening to it pretty much each day ever since. Maybe not the whole record, but I’ve been taking good care to give at least a part of it a spin. That’s how deep it got under my skin. When they announced it, I was a bit worried. The previous album, well, it didn’t sit that well with me. And what’s more, I was concerned that this might be an attempt to have some sort of a forced comeback, especially when the story behind it got explained. What would have happened if the guy from River Runs Red survived? Where would he have found himself at, some 25 years later? When you try to go back to what made you and try to do something creative with it, you gotta be really careful not to mess up your legacy. There’s a lot of people out there who, for instance, never forgave Coppola for The Godfather 3.

Well, what LOA did with their return to the roots and continuation of their original story was a good enough reason for me to reshuffle everything and find a way to fly to Stuttgart for one night. I wouldn’t really like to waste too many words on how powerful, brave, and deep that record is, and in what kind of a state it leaves your head.

I’m resting my legs in the hotel following the gift shopping tour including a brief stopover at an Asian takeout place, and in a few minutes I’ll get dressed and catch a tram.

KLAGENFURT 2010

Summer of 2010 saw LOA booking another European tour, and what made that fact especially interesting to me was that the last stop on the tour was supposed to be Ljubljana, Slovenia. I did a quick analysis and realized that all I needed was to get on a bus and get there, as I could spend the night at Saša’s.

Now, it came to be that the Ljubljana gig got canceled, but that a show was scheduled in its place in Klagenfurt. I already had a bus ticket to Ljubljana. I could refund it, but Klagenfurt is conspicuously close to Ljubljana. Saša even said he’d lend me his car for the night. It turned out that it was a good thing he missplaced his registration papers and I ended up renting a car instead, as he drives an automatic, and when I finally had my first encounter with such a car I nearly got into three serious car crashes in the vicinity of Herceg Novi (out of which my favorite one almost took place on the ferry to Lepetane) during the month of February, when there’s hardly any traffic; it’s messed up when you intend to use your left foot to step on the clutch, but the pedal isn’t clutch after all. What I’m especially proud of is that the expedition to Celovec[3] included a preindustrial version of me, who as his literally only means of navigation used a set of instructions he personally wrote on a piece of paper earlier that day, with points such as: “Go straight, keep straight, take the second exit, when you enter the so-and-so strasse, take the third right turn, etc.” Not only did I found the place in my first attempt, but I also managed to park right next to the venue.

It was a pretty small club, with a total brotherly atmosphere inside. Quite a few of other attendees spoke a language I understood, but I also saw a crew in blue BBB T-shirts, so I decided to keep to myself[4]. To myself and the front rail, of course. It was a total mayhem, that hour and some change. It was so hot and humid inside that the stage got very slippery. Everything was just great that night, but later I realized a few things, which were quite important in light of how the situation evolved around the band. Keith was being somehow passive aggressive, I also remember him trying to deliberately slip and fall on the stage, I guess to show how lousy the conditions were. But what did I know, it was the last night of the tour, they were probably just tired and were looking forward to going home. As I said, I had a blast.

As I was getting out of the club, all happy and with a huge smile on my face – two months prior to that Iva and I got married, hence I’ve never been at a better spot in life – I saw the tour bus parked right in front. I paused, and there was Joey. I said hello, we started talking, I told him everything about how I felt, we even got to chatting about Stereomud and who knows what else. And he told me everything, how they are like a family, and that it’s both the most beautiful thing and sometimes the most difficult thing to be around your family, and that he didn’t know their future plans, but that he loved music and would definitely continue making music. It was getting cold already and he only had a towel or something like that around his drenched shirt, with his backpack on the back. I told him I didn’t want to keep him from going somewhere warmer, to which he smiled and said he was anyway waiting for the promoter to take him somewhere nearby where he could have a shower. All the time he was wonderful, warm, attentive. I’ve spent my entire childhood and everything afterwards spending pretty much each free moment thinking about bands and musicians I admired, daydreaming that I was to meet one of them somewhere in real life and maybe exchange a few words with them, if I was to keep my composure and be able to scramble a few non-nonsensical words together. And there I was, talking to Joey, about the thigs we talked about the previous time, and the things that took place in the meantime. What a wonderful, wonderful human being. Who told me that it was the people like me, who understood what’s it all about and understood the message the band is carrying, that we were the reason behind why he and they continued on in what they did, despite all the obstacles and challenges.

That was the last time I saw Keith on a stage with the band. It was soon after that Mina shared her news with the world.

Jugendhaus Hallschlag. That’s what it says on the ticket. Should be at the next stop. And it is, all the people from the tram that appear as if they could be into LOA are getting ready to exit. During the day the venue serves as a youth center, its bulleting board is dotted with flyers for various programs for this population, more concretely the portion of it that could more easily get in trouble if there weren’t for places like this to get them off the streets. The bar and the wardrobe counter are taking their time, but it’s OK, the kids working these two places are all volunteers and users of center services during daytime. It’s nice to see a structure in place and somebody making an effort. I’m not gonna even start getting into comparisons with Serbia and the dependency the very few places like this still open (and their clients) from donations and mere luck and coincidence.

There’s gonna be one local support act, followed by Doyle from Misfits with his band. Opening acts rarely draw crowds. But man, is Doyle huge or what? I felt kind of weird even looking at him from that short distance. Dude, you’re too big. Regardless, as soon as he was done, whoops, here I am up front. Ready for my portion of weekend terrorism.

BERLIN 2016

In early 2016 I was about to see Life of Agony again after a five-and-a-half-year break, and I was a little concerned about what exactly I was to experience at that time. The band went through quite a significant change in the meantime. Groups go through various lineup alterations, stylistic or conceptual course corrections take place from time to time, people as people change over the course of time, but there’s not too many bands around whose frontman decides to become a frontwoman. Keith Caputo struggled with himself for quite some time, while the world and to a great extent the people around him too didn’t know what the core of the problem of that tormented soul was. All the way to the summer of 2011 when Keith announced that Keith no longer existed, that he never should have existed, and that his place is now filled by Mina Caputo. A transsexual. Trans person. Or whatever the correct term is. A woman, in essence.

Not that where I stand on that issue matters, but to understand it better it is probably key to remember that the first thing that struck me as I was reading the news article about Mina coming out was: “Oh no, now the band is going to call it quits again!” That was my first thought. And the fact that there was now officially a Mina Caputo, and that a person born a man decided that she no longer wanted to be a man? Why on earth would that constitute a problem for anyone? As long as their actions don’t hurt anyone, people have the full right to do whatever makes them happy, or at least what they believe will give them a chance to be happy.

The band didn’t fall apart. Soon they were to start playing again and I was to get a new chance to see them. But what was I to see exactly? I felt happy for Mina, but how will LOA sound going forward? I mean, hormones, voice range… I really needed to know that it would still kick ass.

Berlin. An intriguing place. My head works funny when I’m there. So much history, and for the most part it ain’t pretty, and what you know about it keeps pushing you to think about it some more. This was my first time in town during wintertime. The Spree and the canals were largely covered with ice. The air was cold and damp, but it was nice and cozy inside the place of the dear people who were hosting me. The concert was on at Huxley’s, and I had never been there. I arrived on time: front rail was to be conquered. The room was not small by any means, and it was getting crowded fast.

The band hit the stage. Mina was proudly pointing towards Bowie on her T-shirt. River Runs Red kicked in.

And it sounded fucking brilliant! It didn’t sound for a single unit different to what LOA have been all these years. How easy it was to get lost in such a sincere emotion that was right there in front of me. How natural it was to lose the brakes and see all the pores open up, without any sense of shame. It was only then that I discovered how much I had been missing this. Nowhere else on this planet and in life have I found myself in such a condition as during their shows. I cannot describe what kind of vulnerability it is and how much it soothes, how it liberates.

Actually, that notion of LOA not sounding any different than before is only partially true. It’s not all about the sound. The space which used to be filled by a reserved, or a frontman who somehow inexplicably seemed as an interloper on that stage, was now home to a 100% present person, giving her whole self to what was unfolding in front of my eyes. Who is completely engaging and interacting with the music, people around and in front of her, the whole world, for as long as that world wants to be a part of it. Mina came out, in all meanings of the term.

Oh man, everything hurts.

God only knows who these people are, Turks, Kurds, or something else. The last open kebab place in downtown Stuttgart. The reason why I won’t go to bed hungry tonight, for which I shall forever be grateful to them and the most avid sympathizer of their national question. I try explaining to them that I don’t speak German, but then I think to myself they probably don’t either. I order kebab and take an ice tea from the fridge – the packaging says it’s half liter and that it was made somewhere in the Orient.

My neck hurts the most. I can’t turn my head to the right.

I’m swallowing down chunks of meat with some condiments, it’s idyllic. They just locked the door a minute ago, but it doesn’t appear as if they are up to something no good. I’m gesticulating to explain that I’ll hurry up eating, they answer by showing there’s no need for that, as they have a few more things to finish around the shop. Each bite is heavenly.

They let me out, happy and well fed. I’m bringing my ice tea with me, what’s left of it. Here and there I see a lone passerby.

My ears are ringing loudly. My voice is probably out of stock, but good thing I don’t have any reason left to use it.

A warm hotel room and a warm shower. I write a message to Alan and profess my love for what he and his band are doing. I tell him I’m sorry I haven’t been more articulate when we took that picture after the show, but had I been able to, I would have told him what I’ve just written to him.

He’s thanking me back. He gathers who I am.

I’m just full of life and I love everyone and everything. I feel like this again, and again after experiencing their music.

AUGSBURG 2016

What does it mean to make it in life? “What’s real and what’s for sale?”, as one of the many important dead and previously tormented poets put it. To make it is to be happy over something you’ve done. And there’s no laurels there, it’s not like life’s a movie that goes “Ta-dah, you did it!” in the end. Nope, you gotta constantly work for your happiness, so that some rare day you get the sense that you’ve accomplished something.

Well, I had accomplished something the summer before. I published a book. It’s gotta be a book, it looks like one, it feels like that while you’re turning its pages, and it’s also long. Or rather, voluminous, as a writer would probably put it. Something I’ve spent 10 years making, writing, imagining, and realizing, turned into and got published as a book. The promotion was amazing. A bunch of people showed up. Every now and then I would go back to the photos from that night, and I couldn’t get it together that it wasn’t some sort of a collage, but that all those dear people were actually all there, and what’s more they were there because of something I’ve done (spoiler alert: it wasn’t a funeral, nor a party for getting out of jail).

When Pera Marinković read the book, he wrote me a wonderful message. And then later he wrote me that he started checking out Life of Agony, that he really dug them, and that he was inviting me over to go see them together in a month from then in Augsburg. Pera had been living with his family for a while in Munich. I had no idea that Augsburg was that close to Munich. Say no more. I got myself a cheap ticket to Munich, I was on my way.

But then. I could’ve been on my way as much as I wanted, but to no avail. LOA announced that Sal had broken his collarbone (which is quite a handicap for a drummer), and the whole summer tour was to be postponed for the end of the year. My cheap ticket to Munich wouldn’t have been that cheap had it been refundable or allowing for a rebooking. Pera said I should come nevertheless; it was his birthday anyway. It was great, Munich is beautiful in summertime. We reached an agreement to try the whole thing again in December. With any luck they won’t cancel that show too.

Take 2. Munich is cold in December. But it’s the time of sales in Munich in December too. I bought myself an awesome jacket. Regardless, we made it to Augsburg on a local train. A small town. We walked to the club. We got in. I explained to Pera that it is of utmost importance to me to be as close to the stage as possible. He didn’t have objections. The show started.

Wow. What was that? It’s always like that, Pera. Every single time. Is that normal or not, it doesn’t really matter. It’s good. It’s lively and full of life.

I didn’t know it yet, but Iva and I were starting to expect a baby that December.

It’s a sunny fall morning in Stuttgart. I had my breakfast, and I’m off to… somewhere. Don’t know where, I’m going out for a walk. It’s a Sunday, all the shops are closed. It doesn’t matter, let’s see what is there to see if I go straight and then right.

A small park at the end of the street. I made it up to a vista point, the view is really nice: the treetops are a combination of green, yellow and brown. Sun is making its way through the greenery. Everything is somehow right as it should be.

Back, and to the other side. The town is hilly. What happens if I climb that hill over there? The view’s gotta be great.

I nearly collapsed: I took some stairs to cut the ascent short, not knowing how ambitious that was. Once I was up on top, the view was genuinely stunning. The neighborhood reminds me of Senjak[5]. It’s a beautiful day. Not a soul in the streets. At one point I had to do an ad hoc analysis to remember where exactly I was, in which city. Isn’t it wonderful when all the ugly and unnecessary thoughts magically disappear from your head? Maybe that process is a bit unselective, enabling all sorts of thoughts and information to elope, but if there ever was a time and a place for something like that, it would have to be on a sunny Sunday morning at a hilltop like this. Anything goes after a night like the last one. Batteries are fully charged.

I recognize that central part of the city with the square and the big lawn. I don’t drink coffee, but I could pretend I do. Let’s go down. I found a new set of stairs for the descent, through a park. Every now and then there’s a bench to the side, pausing the stairway. All I hear are forest sounds. And some sort of persistent knocking. I didn’t pay attention to it in the beginning, but now I can’t block it out. What’s that sound? I can’t see a single person. And it doesn’t really sound like anything any piece of tool would make. Then I finally see it: a woodpecker.

It’s so good to relocate yourself from your own head, from time to time. Everything somehow fits together. You realize that there’s so much stuff out there; that in life there are also woodpeckers.

I had a cup of tee in the garden of a museum near that main square. It felt wonderful just sitting in the sun.

I went to the hotel to get my backpack, and then off to the airport.

BUDAPEST 2018

By fall of 2018 two important things took place. First, in 2017 A Place Where There’s No More Pain came out, an album that had its moments, but that failed to leave that strong of an impression on me as all previous records did. Still, it was the first new music the band had put out since 2005, which now seems quite odd, but that was simply the case. If it weren’t for that album, even though LOA have been actively touring for most part of that timespan, they would have been running the risk of entering the nostalgia act zone. It’s important to move on and work on yourself, and if there ever was a band that tried to convey that message, it had to be LOA. The other major event was when some seven months following the release of the album Sal Abruscato and the band went their separate ways. Now, did he leave or was he pushed out, I guess that depends on who you ask. Be that as it may, Sal was out of the band for the second time in its history. A change which was at hand among other things resulted in the band establishing a level of gender equality, with Veronica Bellino joining as the new drummer.

Fall of 2018 saw LOA schedule another European tour. The tour itinerary stated Budapest and Zagreb, which to me seemed like a perfect opportunity for a road trip and catch them two nights in a row. Unfortunately, Zagreb show got canceled a bit later, but I already had a deal in place with Mile to go to Budapest and there was to be no messing around with that.

I had diddly-squat to do regarding the trip, I just had to show up at the parking lot near Dom omladine[6] on time. We picked up Mile’s old buddy Zoki in New Belgrade, who was our logistical mastermind, as it turned out to be. Finally, passing by Novi Sad we picked up Sladjana, that is Mrs. Mile. We were pushing up the highway, due north towards the border. If we were to leave out the comments about the place where we picked Sladjana up, which is a place where typically hookers get picked up (and not the most expensive ones, to put it that way), there was complete harmony inside the car. We were even equipped with a small camping stove. The drive went quickly.

We found the flat we were renting in Budapest for the night real quickly, and we managed to find parking there too. A short walk, a kebab, another kebab, and the light trek across the bridge towards Buda. The show was on again at A38, the same boat where they played in the summer of 2008. Man, it’s gonna be great!

Among the support acts was BillyBio, a new project from Billy Graziadei formerly of Biohazard, with quite an uninventive name, but who cares, as long as we were getting a slice of HC punk from his latest record, followed with a chunk of Biohazard standards in alternation. How It Is, A Lot to Learn and Shades of Grey (the latter tune with Joey Z as a special guest star) brought me back all giggly to April 1997 and that chaos of a show Biohazard put on in Belgrade. It wasn’t the same band, the insanity level was not quite there, but man, do I love that show and that period…

But let’s get back to why I was there and why I was hugging the rail. Give me my stuff, so I could go nuts in peace. People have all sorts of secrets, mine is that I turn into a completely different person at LOA shows. Sometimes I even surprise myself. I know of no brakes then, there are no calculations with emotions and ways of showing them. All the stuff I hesitate to show during those other 364 days in the year when I attempt to appear composed and not too expressive, was now completely off the scales in red. I sometimes wonder if the fact that I’m a long way from home, meaning away from normal circumstances and people who might recognize me, all reasons for me to play it safe because of some sort of eternal fear and insecurity, plays a part in that too. And maybe it doesn’t, maybe it’s simply down to the music and how much it means to me. I’ll probably never know what is and what isn’t, although I was probably the closest to it then: when the Zagreb show got canceled, Mile briefly danced with the idea of sending the band’s booking agent a last-minute offer to throw in Belgrade instead and cut some costs. Maybe he could have got a bargain of a deal, but he managed to shrug off any such thoughts. He knew what kind of a nightmare he would have had to endure at his job/venue for that, and why would anyone want that type of stress? But I must admit that after all these years and road experiences, the most bizarre thing I could think of would be to be seeing LOA in Belgrade.

Intro was blasting through PA, I think it was from Warriors, and my heartrate was spiking again. From where I was positioned, I could see band members stage left and right, they were ready too. Well, let’s blow the roof off, then. What else was there to be done, especially with first bass notes from Through and Through?

There was a healthy dynamic going on between the four of them on the stage, that was plain to see. Veronica fit in just great. Mina was there 100% and was happy to show that she was happy to be there. Everything I was seeing kept pulling me in deeper and deeper. Not that I needed a special invitation, or anything like that. The setlist was quite fresh too, although I only came to realize that with the opening bars of Unstable, a song that keeps on making you feel like there’s a lump in your throat. Nobody deserves to go through something like that, and we all know someone who had to. They pulled Damned If I Do (of man, how that song rivets you through), Hope and My Mind Is Dangerous out of the archives as well. Then they went into a block of songs from the latest album. That actually worked quite well, too. People were going nuts from side to side. I caught a glimpse of Mile who charged with emotions rushed the stage and dove right back, right over my head. Ouch. I even heard the sound of his body hitting the floor, despite all the noise around. Bummer, they didn’t catch him on time. He stood up, still alive. It would hurt a lot the next day, that was for sure.

We got something extra special: there’s plenty of history between Biohazard and them and the fact that Billy was on tour with them opened the door for some more fun. They introduced him as their guest and on they went into Punishment. Party on! He returned the favor on Method of Groove, which sounded even greasier thanks to Billy’s presence, meaning guitar and scratchy voice.

The end came with the combination of Underground and River Runs Red. I love that type of tiredness, I love the marks on my forearms from pushing against the front rail, marks that were to become bruises in the days that came. I learned to love all those tiny wounds. It meant so much to me to see how much I care.

A lot had happened during the 10 years that passed since the first time I saw them on that same boat. I liked the progress, precisely because it wasn’t linear. Iva and I, first and foremost. Ten years before we moved in together. Then came the wedding and a new breed of togetherness. And then came everything we couldn’t have and the way we picked ourselves up after it nearly destroyed us. And then came Filip… And then came Filip.

Either way you look at it, Life of Agony always remained the best marker on how good I have it in life. At the same time, they are the fastest highway out of the bad times.

The ride home the next day was just fine. Sladjana made me a sandwich for breakfast. It’s not like I aim to sound all softened for no apparent reason, but I was really touched to see how Mile and the good people around him took care of me. There are all sorts of people out there, that’s why it means so much to find the good ones, who for some reason think you’re worthy of their kindness.

I’ll be home soon. The tiger cub toy as a souvenir from the airport in Stuttgart and as the last part of the gift for Fipi makes me feel that much happier to be coming back. Ok, it wasn’t the last part. At the airport in Zurich, I found slippers with plush cows that were his size.

Nobody and no other force in nature disarms me so quickly and elegantly as his gaze. It’s a strange feeling, strange and somehow grandiose, when you realize that the rules had changed right during the game, and that the center of gravity of your world had shifted. Those are the types of things that you can’t plan for nor imagine, just like you can’t, for instance, imagine or plan to fall in love and know up front what the feeling’s gonna be like. I did not know how much my world would change with his arrival, what’s more, what I did imagine was even based on the fear that I wasn’t going to change. And then one morning you wake up, and you realize: I’ve done all I was to do for myself. From now till the final whistle, all that I’m doing should help him have the chance to be happy. A lot of what’s to come will be on him, but it’s on me to make sure that one day when we’ll be saying our goodbyes, he could honestly assess that he doesn’t hold anything against me. It’s gonna be a long road, and the focus could easily get lost. We’ll get to sustainable development easily, what I need is a sustainable reason.

STUTTGART 2019

When I realized I could make it, I asked Pera if he was up for a drive from Munich for the gig, but he couldn’t make it, he’s got some plans with the family. I asked Mile too, but he was caught up with that jazz festival.

Intro is giving way to the siren sound. Ambulance is on its way. He’s still alive, but staying alive is not the real issue, when you got to live with yourself and you’re in it for the long haul. I’m jumping up and down during the Scars chorus as if no one is behind me. I’m trying to make sure I’m not jumping on top of anyone’s head, but anyway. Mina is singing her heart out. Veronica is killing it on the drums. Joey is again out treating this show as the last one ever on the planet. He’s giving us a few instructions before they launch River Runs Red. Let’s gooo! I’m pushing hard against the barricade trying to resist the surge of people who are themselves pushed forward by the pit that opened behind me. I’m pushing them back, in self-defense. And it’s not like that’s preventing me from screaming the lyrics. Bad Seed is up next. I love the way the song breaks; I love the way the pace changes, the fact that in the space of a few minutes it makes you jump, push, and stumble around as if the legs on which you’re standing are not yours at all, only for it to speed up, and start all that from the top. Every time my glance meets Alan’s or Joey’s while I’m singing the chorus from Love to Let You Down, my heart starts to melt. I see them, they see me, it’s plain to see what a big deal this is for me. How incredibly powerful the start of Black Heart sounds live. And what about that bridge before the chorus? God damn, I’m so sweaty.

To be at a better place does not in itself mean that you won the game. Life is rarely linear, but mostly cyclic. Everything is just great at the moment, but it would be false to present the whole situation as resolved, and we all lived happily ever after. There, between songs Mina seemingly out of the blue states, “Last night I wanted to fuckin’ just put a bullet in my head and fuckin’ quit the business, but tonight I wanna do this forever!” I spend the time during Weeds mostly thinking about the collapses that are yet to come, maybe, or maybe not. And there’s no big conclusion to those thoughts. It helps every time you climb back up. It feeds you with energy, it leaves something in your muscle memory for the next time your turn comes to pick yourself up and carry on. Only for all those thoughts to completely vanish once Damned If I Do starts; what a riff, what a groove. What despair.

Why do I feel so alone in a crowd of people I know?
Is it wrong to feel so insecure and so unappealing?
Why walk around in disguise with a fake grin on my face?
What would it prove?
What would I gain?
I’d still feel so out of place.

I couldn’t wait for that brotherly breakdown after the second verse. I twinged and… I realized my back snapped. There goes the neck. Mother of God, I feel like crying and laughing at the same time.  But it does hurt, too. I managed to get my back busted. It’s not that bad yet, I’m still warm and I’m able to move around a bit, to compensate for the moves I can’t make, but I didn’t remember to pack any of those anti spasm pills from home, did I? We’ll sort that out later. It’s time for Lost at 22, the chorus hits me, I’m pretending nothing’s wrong. It’s hard not to laugh when I remember myself age 22, thinking how some day I’ll be free from the feeling this song was giving me. I’ll be 40 next year, and is anything different? I mean, yeah, plenty of things, but it was pretty naïve to be expecting that with years passing problems would just disappear on their own. It’s you all along, fighting and hoping to beat yourself.

Joey says that the next song is off the latest record. Eliminate. A perfect marriage between old and new LOA. The riff sounds like it was teleported from 1995, while the rhythm is lifted from something greasy and punky and could have easily fitted in on a Spoiler NYC song. And just as you start thinking you know what’s up, the next song turns out to be My Mind Is Dangerous. Such a gentle fall on soft pillows and sweet depression. My attention is grabbed by the stage dynamics. Something had happened, probably the night before. Alan and Mina are noticeably looking at each other’s eyes, smiling, singing to one another. It’s as if Alan’s big eyes are saying, “I know, that’s how it is, and it’s how it’s going to be.” As if they just made peace with one another, almost as if the room is completely empty apart from the two of them, and almost as if they never even had an argument to begin with. I don’t know, I’m just guessing and tripping. Who knows what went on and what goes on with our heads behind closed doors. But something happened and it got me thinking, with an empty stare. All of a sudden Mina approaches me and gives my cheek a sudden but a gentle slap. I look up, in a slight shock as if just woken up, and she’s laughing at me. I’m laughing too.

Now, Empty HoleEmpty Hole is a brilliant song from the last album, a song that almost feels like its center piece. The song uses an incredibly smart arc to bring together the whole path of the person at the center, beginning and the end of the story, bot on this album and the first one. First comes pain, despair, and the wish for the suffering to end, and then a trace of hope appears:

So many times the worries circle ’round my neck
Until I pray for death, pray for death, you know I prayed for death
And the thoughts consume and bury me alive
Until I fought with my, fought with my, fought with all my might.

Second verse, well nothing, there it only becomes clear that the hope was an illusion and the suffering continued. But then a new hope appears, just this time not from the inside:

So many times I’m twisting, turning in my bed
So many sleepless nights, sleepless nights, sleepless nights ahead
And I walk this road, this lonely path I roam
Until I see your eyes, see your eyes, then I know I’m home.

Then comes the crucial moment, which becomes so important only when it becomes clear to you too. No use hearing it from someone else, you have got to realize it yourself:

No matter what life throws
I ain’t givin’ up.

The last verse is the epilogue. Times will get fucked up again in life, all sorts of things will chew at you and split you apart, but you’ll always have yourself. True, sometimes beat up and in a sorry state, but the only one who will always be there and able to help.

So many times the worries circle ’round my neck
Until I see the light, see the light, you know I’ll make it right
And the thoughts consume, I thought that I was fine
But I can’t sleep at night, sleep at night, waiting for a sign.

My neck is by now in considerable pain, together with a better part of my back. I can’t do much, but what I can is to scream the back vocals to Lay Down with Joey. It soothes the soul.

Encore sees us getting Other Side of the River, with the band being reinforced with Doyle. Fuck me, he’s huge. I really am not at ease with him standing in front of me. And then Underground and Through and Through, just so that no one goes home in one piece and with a voice that hasn’t been shot.

Life of Agony is a band that makes me ask myself plenty of questions, most of which I’d rather avoid. Am I OK? Am I really doing that bad? What would have to happen for things to improve? Sometimes nothing at all, as I don’t need a thing in the world after seeing them live. They are the band that implanted this “If you don’t walk with me, I will walk alone” ethic in me. You don’t need anybody else to get back up, nor is anyone else responsible for the things you do, no one but you. Their shows are where this other me shows up, the things I do there a very few people know about. No other band in the universe possesses the ability to raise me up so high, move me and make me feel I am saved. Grateful to that energy and their message, I’d follow them to ends of the world.

I didn’t go straight home, I went to my mom and dad’s to hide that big Lego box, so it would be a surprise for New year’s. Then I went home. I love home.

And that was that. Soon after, news started drifting in about something earie happening in China. A few months later the world shut down and for a while it functionally wasn’t there. There were a few trips after Stuttgart, but it was the last show, last space walk into the world as it once was.

Once this was all over, I promised myself, I won’t think twice about going to see a show. One day they won’t be there again.

 


[1] Milovan Drecun, a journalist who used to work for the state owned RTS television in the late nineties, most prominently serving as a war correspondent during the Kosovo war, and an avid supporter of Slobodan Milosevic.

[2] Former members of VfB Stuttgart soccer/football team.

[3] Celovec is the Slovenian name for Klagenfurt, Austrian town near the border with Slovenia.

[4] The proximity to the Slovenian border meant that there was a considerable Slavic minority within the population, and that quite a few people made it to the show from the neighboring region, mainly ex-Yugoslav countries who used to share a common language. BBB is short for Bad Blue Boys, fans of Dinamo Zagreb soccer club from Zagreb, Croatia (and by default hardline Croatian nationalists). Croatia and Serbia were engaged in a bloody war during the nineties, on opposite sides. I’m Serbian.

[5] Senjak is an old hilly residential neighborhood in Belgrade.

[6] A concert venue in downtown Belgrade, where Mile works.