Abaddon magazine

Music magazine

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Review: Zlatomir Gajić – Rok pesnik Branimir Džoni Štulić

Publisher: Službeni glasnik

Year: 2019.

Writing this in English is both a blessing and a curse. A curse because you can’t get much more Yugoslav than Mr. Branimir Štulić. The man almost personifies an era in domestic music, like very few others. However, as much as has been told about the historic, geographic, demographic, social, economic and other aspects of former Yugoslavia, there’s so little in writing about the music produced within the country. In English, I mean, because it is all well documented in local languages. The reasons behind this lack of outside presentation are many and would likely deserve a book of their own. It’s not just about the obvious things like being behind the Iron Curtain or the language barrier. It goes much deeper but I’ll leave it for another writing session.

Right now, I’m here to discuss a book that focuses on a particular presence on Yugoslav rock scene. And even further, it doesn’t attempt to be a biography of a famed musician. Many had a go at Mr. Štulić’s biography and, according to the man himself, failed miserably. Though one must admit that Mr. Štulić is a rather controversial figure. His denial of himself and his own achievements, coupled with abject refusal to discuss it, stemming over two decades now, make him an incredibly difficult person to try and disclose. Instead of doing that, Mr. Gajić goes for a scientific approach to his work, almost completely side-lining the facts of Džoni’s life.

The book basically tries to connect a rock musician, or rather the side of him that is responsible for lyrics, with the high, sophisticated art of literature. The author stubbornly claims, and within these pages tries to scientifically prove that lyrics of a song can and should be thought of as poetry. Now, it seems logical to you, right? Why is there a need for an entire book on the subject when it is so obvious? Well, there’s a need for a book like this simply because the mentioned fact is not always accepted in literary circles.

In that regard, one can almost understand why. Not all lyrics are of enough substance or quality to be considered more than a gibberish, quickly lined for mass consumption, without much need for activating brain cells. However, as the author quickly asserts, Bob Dylan recently received a Nobel Prize in literature, thus granting an ultimate proof that rock poetry could be just as good as the “regular” one.

Now, again, we all know that, right? There are a myriad of outstanding poets among musicians. There are lyrics out there that transcend music and are more than capable of standing on their own. Hell, there are lyrics which are better known than the music accompanying them. And for good reason. So, is Mr. Gajić “captain obvious”?

No, he is not! Mostly because, while Dylan may have proven something to the global audience, not to mention that he is a household name on a worldwide scale, Mr. Branimir Džoni Štulić is misunderstood way too often. Well, misunderstood might not be the correct word. Those who want to understand him and his work, like the author of this book, should have no problem with it. More often than not, Mr. Štulić was fairly direct in his words. But there’s a serious deficiency in attempts to understand him.

In other words, his music and lyrics became sort of a folklore in this region of the world. They are frequenting the radio waves, television, there are myriads of tribute or pub rock bands covering his songs. Most of them are using the easiest, most convenient tracks, making the loud spoken messages of social injustice, anxiety or love lost, meaningless due to constant repetition without proper feeling, motivation or impulse.

Mr. Gajić aims to correct this. Basing the book on his doctorate on the subject, the author offers a rounded tale of rock poets, starting from the very beginning of black slaves’ blues or white owner’s folk. He explores the origins, explaining as he goes along the trajectory and development or rock poetry, along with its literary influences. Starting from such a vast subject, Mr. Gajić wastes little space to delve on it deeper than necessary. After all, the subject of international, mostly western civilization’s rock and its adjoining poetry has been documented much better than our own, Yugoslav one. That being said, one can hardly blame the author here for not dwelling too much on it. There are many notes on possible further reading, so should anybody be interested in more knowledge, it’s very much out there.

Narrowing down to the local scene, the book goes on to present the evolution of popular music and rock ‘n’ roll in Yugoslavia, only to centre its focus to the expected talk of home-based rock poetry. Not being as brief as the first third of the book, this section properly introduces the reader to the circumstances that lead to the necessity of a figurehead such as Branimir Džoni Štulić. Here too, as in the segment about the international scene, the author depicts the bigger picture. A wider context, if you will. Social, political and historical aspects are tightly knit into the story, as they must be when there’s talk of art that’s well-aware of its surrounding. In particular, we’re talking about a socialist dictatorship of Eastern Europe at the summit of Cold war. Pros and cons included. And interesting read, though I would’ve liked it to be expanded. A book of its own? Why not!?

Still, it’s just an introduction (and a good enough one) into what is supposed to be the main subject of the book. The work of Branimir Džoni Štulić. Namely, his poetry. This part of the book is the one that seriously disappoints. It’s quite short and presents only the most generalized view into the topic at hand. While this generalization has its excuse in the first two parts of the book, here it just ruins what is supposed to be highlighted. The author simply points to three differing topics used by the poet, giving brief explanations with a couple of examples, ending it with (brief again) insight into the connection of Mr. Štulić’s poetry with the theory of literature.

In plain numbers, this chapter goes on for about seventy pages in a three hundred page book. And it’s supposed to be the focal point and the main reason this book exists. Considering Mr. Branimir Štulić is among the top three most influential musicians in the history of Yugoslav rock, and his lyrics being, as Mr. Gajić explained, on such a high level that they deserve a book, this one falls real short on achieving its goal. The goal being to definitely, without a shred of doubt, cement Mr. Štulić’s place in the pantheon of Yugoslav culture.

This way, what could’ve been a capital work on art history in Yugoslavia, ended up as sort of an introduction into the history of rock poetry, with a slight turn into this one particular personality. I mean, it’s still a worthy piece of literature, both for rock fans and students of literature, but even though it could’ve, it doesn’t transcend that level.

To end this review right where I started, it could be a very good idea to push this writing for an English version. It is high time the world gets introduced properly into rock scene of former Yugoslavia. In that regard, this book, or just the last two thirds of it, especially if decently extended, could be massive.