The way I figure it, Gogol Bordello singer Eugene Hütz owes me about $10,000.
Two years ago, I was a working stiff moving at the just-below-comfortable American pace to nowhere. Then I heard Bordello's song "Start Wearing Purple," I bought their album, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, and within four months, I had quit my job and flown away from my wife to New Zealand to learn about organic farming. It didn't pan out.
Obviously, I had the idea before I heard the song. But it was Hütz's lyrics that pushed me over the edge, specifically the line "This is my life, and freedom is my profession" on the track "Undestructable."
"That's an example of making something that was a mistake and turning it into an anthem," says Hütz of the misspelled title. His Eastern European accent is barely thinner than Count von Count's, but his English has improved in the intervening four years since that record. "Undestructable" is so tragically optimistic it would work as the theme for a Fight Club/V for Vendetta—style rally. "It's our show closer," says Hütz.
His language barrier seems only to work for him. Phrases like "Nobody learn no nothing from no history" and "From screen to screen them traveling" disarm the listener, allowing the mangled words to become simple, catchy hooks.
The lyrics work hand in hand with the music. The cacophonous band behind Hütz uses sounds from around the world to create tunes familiar like forgotten cartoon theme songs, most notably Ukrainian gypsy and Jamaican dub pushed through a punk filter, but they also cram in flamenco, rap, traditional Irish songs and Italian folk dance. (The name of Bordello's fourth album, 2007's Super Taranta!, is taken from the traditional Italian tarantella.)
Or maybe these are just the sounds at the bottom of all our music. "We connect with the people of Diaspora," Hütz says of the nomadic people of the world, many of whose grasp of English may be as tenuous as his once was. "Call them primitive cultures, but they remember things we have lost. `Gogol Bordello` is trying to rebuild those connections."
Therein lies the great danger of Gogol Bordello's music. It resonates with rootless Americans, searching for identity and fairly blasé about grammar ourselves. Amidst the good-time atmosphere of their songs, listeners find themselves drawn into a message they might otherwise have dismissed as hippie BS. When Hütz declares in "Illumination" that "you are the only light there is for yourself, my friend," you take it to heart.
"There are some important, worthwhile notions missing from the `Western` culture," says Hütz. "Boredom is spiritual and mental stagnation."
Hütz has seen the mental stagnation of America firsthand. The original incarnation of his band was called Hütz & the Béla Bartóks but, he claims, no one knew who Béla Bartók was. He didn't have any more faith that people would know Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, but he thought the "sound of the name was good enough."
Hütz fled Ukraine as a child in the wake of the Chernobyl meltdown. "It had an effect on everybody," he says. "Something like that doesn't strengthen faith in government. It does help you see what are admirable traits in the human character."
Thus his spirit of adventure, his bucking of authority, his desire for love told in raucous drinking music. Gogol Bordello's effect is similar to that of Bob Marley, whose influence over teenage stoners has become parodic.
That's not a coincidence. Hütz explains that after surveying the gypsy movement in Europe, he thought, "This was what I was going to write about." He says when he sat down to write the songs, he discovered "Bob Marley already wrote them all. What was I gonna do? Sing ‘Get Up, Stand Up' again?"
I tell him about my experience, about what he inspired me to do, without admitting I'm talking about myself. Hütz laughs. "That sounds like a mess, like a fucking midlife crisis." I guess I'm not getting my money back.
"There's nothing hierarchical about true calling," he says. "That's one of the worst myths of the West. At the concert, you're coming to see not me, but the band. I have a band and a crew, and we're all connected to the same show.
"Maybe that man you described has not yet finished his search."email@example.com