Ash above Krakow’s sky
We were young, innocent, and of pure hearts. We worshipped Satan and gazed into the night.
We were young, innocent, and of pure hearts. We worshipped Satan and gazed into the night.
A quarter of a century ago a lightning cut across the northern sky. Records with black covers emerged, where unreal shadows of musicians loomed like ghouls rising from catafalques. Their sounds presaged the glare of churches on fire and the grate of a knife entering a human skull. The names of these demigods, the architects of the Nordic darkness bore ineffable terror: Euronymous. Count Grishnackh. Fenriz. Then the gate of the prison clashed shut, the judge’s hammer slammed down. Dawn was near.
News of these events reached Poland only in scraps, like looted load. To create a whole picture we put together stories, interviews in underground magazines, crumpled leaflets, rare letters – still handwritten but rich in pentagrams, and short recordings on snowy VHS cassettes. We tried to find out what really had happened in Norway. A lightning cut across the northern sky. Only a white glow reached us.
At first – as a lad of fourteen, in a tight jeans jacket, skinny as hunger itself, in the worst stage of growing my hair – I would only see them. Curly hair covered my face, which refused to appear threatening, perhaps owing to the spots and enormous glasses. The only leather thing I possessed was a small backpack containing my books and copybooks. Thus I wandered about Krakow with headphones covering my ears. I looked for them. The menacing men in black.
At first there were only a few of them. The metalheads of the time dressed a little like me, only with more connoisseurship. They wore light blue jeans, white shoes, military shirts and T-shirts with garish gory prints.
Those other ones were different, somehow strong, sinewy, stuck in blackness, with dark straight hair. Sometimes they grew moustaches.
They exchanged high-fives, smoke cigarettes, never smiled and spoke very slowly, as if weighing every single word. Refugees from the graphics by Kubin, Giger, the Czech Panuška, from the drawings by Schulz and Félicien Rops, black angels wandering among Krakowians dressed in quilted jackets and coats with padded shoulders.
They gathered in two clubs: Pod Przewiązką (Under the Sash) and Pod Jaszczurami (Under the Saurians), at an electronics market by the Elbud building, and each Sunday I met them at the flea market by Hala Targowa (Market Hall), where Black, the most important one among them all, set up a stall with his cassettes. That’s why I went there, I even dared to start conversations. Once, one of them, called Aryman, stepped away from his group and started following me among the stalls. He remained a few steps behind me and changed his pace as I did. And in this way we wandered around stacks of books, comic books and pornographic magazines. At last I plucked up courage to ask him what he wanted from me. He said that he intended to take away the pentagram suspended on a silver chain, visible against my T-shirt. Aryman said that he would let me keep the chain. In his view I had no right to wear the pentagram. I felt like Sorry-oo, the dog from Moominland Midwinter. I have found my beloved wolves and now I was to be eaten by them.
In the end, Aryman did not take my pentagram, but he never grew to like me, either. I know because we have drank vodka together many, many times.
Black’s poky flat was located between the Wawel Castle and the Kazimierz District, right next to two old churches. The building itself also played a religious role in the past. But the Austrians turned it into barracks. Now it was falling into ruin. The flaky walls of the staircase were covered with half-legible inscriptions; in the stench of urine and vomit quarrels of drunken tramps were audible.
Black’s lodgings occupied a space of precisely twelve and a half square metres. The front door, bearing multiple knife punctures, was adorned with a huge The Empire Strikes Back poster, and hanging from the lintel was a chicken’s foot. Whenever I entered the flat I found it necessary to tap it. Only recently has Black told me that this dried peace of poultry defended his home from misfortune and anyone who touched it would bring a curse upon himself.
Inside, on the right, was a small sink; however, there was no shower. Towels and T-shirts were suspended on lines stretched out between the walls. A bowl for washing up was propped against a huge tiled stove. Heavy rails ran across the ceiling preventing it from collapsing. Many years later it was revealed how much needed they were. In another flat in the building, not buttressed in this way, a neighbour fell through the ceiling together with his bathtub filled with water. I wonder if he ever visited Black and maybe touched his chicken’s foot one time too many.
The sink, the chicken’s foot and the rails constituted the only constant elements in this flat. For some time the ceiling was papered with posters, but then they disappeared. Furniture would dilapidate and end up in the rubbish dump. At times we sat among walls – naked, but black, with a huge Baphomet painted in white in an honorary place. Its hoofs and breasts were covered with wax.
Furniture appeared and disappeared. The same happened to the audio equipment, TV sets and VCRs, which Black bought and sold, depending on his solvency and needs. But records were always there. Unimaginable amounts of records, vinyl and CDs, piled up like the towers of Mordor. Black would sleep on a carrimat, but would always have his music. In those days, without recorders, the Internet and Spotify, access to sounds testified to a social status and largely formed Black’s authority. Black would sleep on a carrimat. But he had his records.
Opposite the door with the chicken’s foot lived Granny Yaga. The corridor turned left and led to the Abyss.
Granny Yaga was a wizened old woman who lived in a tiny flat opposite Black’s own. Presumably, she spent every morning at church; at any rate she was terrified of us, which she tried not to show. Often, together with other men in black, we stood in the corridor, smoking cigarettes, whose smell Black did not tolerate. Granny Yaga shuffled along the corridor, with a scarf on her head, slouched with her age and the weight of her shopping bags. We greeted her politely saying “Good afternoon” – big blokes with minacious mugs, with upturned crosses on our T-shirts – and she nodded back, however, without looking in our direction. She reached her door and with shaking hands tried to insert her key into the keyhole.
The Abyss was how we called the toilet in the corridor, shared by Black and two other families who occupier part of his floor. However, one of these families did not use the Abyss. For their needs they used a bucket whose contents were spilt out to the yard, directly in front of the windows of the estimable restaurant U Jędrusia (At Andrew’s).
The Abyss, just like Black’s flat, underwent various phases, all of them fetid. It was a small room with a lavatory in the middle and a little window. To switch on the light we pressed the switch with a key not to get our hands dirty. In the lavatory’s most decadent phase it became reduced to a pipe surrounded by a jagged ring of white porcelain. This bit of information I must supply because it was not visible. The toilet’s ruins were covered with a mound of shit with pieces of newspapers and cigarette butts stuck in it. Above, under the window, pigeons had their nest and the grey clods of their own excrements steamed on the mound on hot summer days. Shit upon shit. Never before or after have I seen anything like it.
Everyone gazes into an abyss made to their measure. Everyone has a chasm that is going to consume them.
Black believed himself to be a devotee of the Devil, although, by analogy to his flat and the Abyss, he went through various phases in his beliefs. There is no reason to delineate them here. When I met him, he was a well-built man with a shock of blond hair and exceptionally bushy eyebrows. These eyebrows, I now think, were his only truly devilish element. By degrees he lost his hair, but instead covered his body with tattoos and soon hid almost his entire skin underneath them, at least those parts of it that normal people expose to sunlight. On his shoulders, torso and back skulls and faces of rock musicians started to appear, demons danced there and Satan himself, inked on his biceps, raised the scales of Justice in his bony fingers. For some time Black’s forehead bore the sign of a triangle, but later it disappeared thanks to multiple applications of citric acid.
In those days an enormous transformation was taking place, a transgression of the known into the unknown. The flat changed, and so did the Abyss, and also the man who administered it all. Even the tattoos appeared and disappeared.
Black, dressed in leather trousers, in cosmically expensive sweatshirts imported from the West and T-shirts printed with images of his favourite bands, with the devils on his arms, under the Baphomet, turned out to be the friendliest of all people – he was highly cultured and had impeccable manners to boot. Delivered from the corset of his image, which he assumed for the purposes of general contact with the metalhead public, he suddenly became a cheerful guy, who would shun neither a drink nor nice company. But there is more. Years would go by and yet a phone call was all that it took for his help to arrive. After ten minutes Black would step out of a taxi right where he was meant to be.
For some time I feared that someone would kill Black. That is, I imagined that some restless youth would emerge from among Krakow’s metalheads and would try to recreate the murder committed by Vikernes. Black, who in the Krakow’s metal circles played the role of a local Euronymous, was the only obvious candidate for the murder victim. It is only now that I see how preposterous this fear was. There was one time when the chaps cut one another, but it was only part of a drunken joke. Later that day I took a bus, spattered with somebody else’s blood, with a bloodied carrimat on my lap.
We yearned to be Norwegian. We wanted to burn down churches and we honestly believed that each and every metal record was the next nail in Christ’s tortured body.
There was fury in us. Lots of fury, which happened to be channelled at the Catholic Church. At least no one innocent was harmed.
We did not talk about religion much, nor – to put things broadly – about man’s relation to beliefs. Not counting Black’s spiritual journey, most of us believed in more or less the same things, and our chats, if they took place at all, were limited to grumbling about the clergy and the Catholic sexual morality. With time, pagan motifs began to appear, having to do with the Church’s annihilation of the culture that used to be natural in our region. Again, we replicated the Norwegian models. In other words, conversations about religion consisted in mutual nodding in agreement and listing example after example to support the theses accepted by everyone present. I suppose that if there was anyone who really had something interesting to say, he kept his cards close to his chest.
Nonetheless, evenings chez Black were interesting, if only because of the cross-section of the company. Perhaps it is similar in other subcultures, but I have never and nowhere else met such a human melting pot, such a diverse medley. Aryman – who was rather aloof and rarely stopped by at Black’s – worked in Nowa Huta, in a foundry. He never smiled and his handshake almost crushed your bones. More frequent guests were two chums – Dioscoruses in black, one of them anorexic-looking and with rotting teeth; the other healthily husky, with a complicated tattoo entwining his entire forearm. He quickly got interested in old Slavic culture and, under his new pagan name, became involved in reconstructionism. He sewed his own shoes and intensely searched for beaver fur to make himself a hat.
Also among us was a chief bouncer at a large disco in Krakow, a man as big as a mountain, who developed an interest in black metal for reasons unknown to me. As one of very few exceptions he did not follow the established dress code, he rejected blackness. Instead, he wore polo shirts and corduroy trousers wide enough to contain his mighty thighs. His neck was encircled by a thick silver chain with an upturned cross suspended on it. Sometimes he invited us to his club, where we sat in a lounge and drank whisky, gazing at the girls dancing to Coco Jambo and Barbie Girl. None of them knew who Vikernes was, but we didn’t mind.
For some time one more guy would show up in Black’s flat. I was a little afraid of him: sinewy, sturdy, he would hang around Poselska Street and the Main Square, and with the help of a knife would persuade passers-by to give him a couple of zlotys. He wore short cargo trousers on top of his jeans, plaited his hair, and considered himself a reincarnation of Christ and Himmler; finally, he made himself a scar on his jaw, precisely where Varg Vikernes has his own. Forever jobless, on sunny days he would sit on a bench in front of the Faculty of Psychology at the Jagiellonian University in Gołębia Street. He rested his palms on his thighs, with his elbows pointing outside, and sat like this for hours on end, contemplating northern darkness and the glory of the Aryan race. People said that he took regular baths in the Vistula River and smashed tram stops with his own head only to shock the bystanders. Later he had his hair cut, and had bones tattooed on his arm; finally he turned to criminal activities and became a regular guest at the penitentiary in Montelupich Street. Today, accidentally met in the street, he pulls out his mobile phone from a pocket of a cheap tracksuit and shows me that he is listening to A Blaze on Northen Sky in an MP3 format. This music is still important to him, it still counts.
There was also a PhD student of history, diabolically intelligent, although a tad pretentious. His professional interest was the Shoah. Another one was a muscular lawyer who would drink himself into a stupor and was always eager to pick a fight. His girlfriend attempted to commit suicide by cutting her forearm somewhere in the dungeon in Black’s tenement house. Yet another guest was a tall fan of Mercyful Fate, who in no time at all had a lot of children and a lot of debts, and because of these debts he died; in turn his wife developed a relationship with a guitarist in the abovementioned band and now lives in Sweden with her new family. I want to believe that she is happy. Finally, there was I, a skinny little intellectual from a good house, whom everyone, including Black, treated with a little bit of distrust.
In addition to the Krakow group, Black gladly received guests from other parts of Poland. Thanks to his band and the magazine he edited and published he developed a network of contacts in the whole country. People came from Poznań, Warsaw, Sanok, Dukla and Częstochowa. One of the guests was Pilot, from a band called Bundeswehra. Bundeswehra contributed to the Polish black metal their record entitled King’s Return, but they never earned full respect. Previously the band made a different kind of music, which was not tolerated in some circles, and Pilot himself was suspected of conformism. However, in our small group he was accepted. Not entirely rightly.
We were all flawed in some way.
Black had Brezhnev’s eyebrows, I had diastema, the young lawyer’s head was as small as an onion, etcetera. Pilot stood out on account of his peculiar thinness – he made an impression of someone made of bones alone on which grey skin was stretched. King’s Return was released by Baron Records from Piekary Śląskie. Pilot went there to sign the agreement. When Mr. Janusz Baron saw this emaciated poor fellow he immediately decided to help him. Understanding very well that the only ones to financially benefit from metal were the record companies, and not the musicians, he decided to wangle him were real dough was made, namely in the disco polo business.
Thus Pilot began to lead a double life. At nights he praised Satan, death and evil under Bundeswehra’s banner. During the day he changed into colourful togs, put on a baseball cap back to front and rushed to sing in a group called Cin Cin. For obvious reasons he tried to keep this fact a secret, which in those pre-Internet days was remotely feasible. Unfortunately, Cin Cin’s song Czarne oczy (Black eyes) was broadcast in a TV programme Disco Relax. Pilot, anathema upon him, ceased to appear in Krakow and soon Bundeswehra’s activity was suspended.
Most of the faces present in Black’s flat have become blurred. Today only trails remain, without names and aliases, human shadows similar to one another like monozygotic twins. Perhaps it’s because everyone wore the same T-shirts? I have no idea what the notoriously drinking lawyer is doing, and what has happened to the historian interested in the Holocaust. I thought it would be the same with Pilot – that he would fall off the radar, since we found it justified to chase him away. About two years ago I saw him on television. He had short hair and had put on weight.
Very pleased with himself he was trying to persuade some woman journalist that the film Kac Wawa – to which he wrote the script – was very good.
Pilot’s banishment was symptomatic both for our milieu and for other groups connected with black metal. Performing disco polo music was for us betrayal of ideals. But in fact it took less to get into trouble.
The mid-1990s was a time of wars and conflicts consuming Polish black metal bands, as well as the owners of underground record companies, zine publishers and other underground activists. The key term was “truthfulness” understood as an honesty of creative motives, and freedom from conformism. Bands that now played black metal, but earlier made different kinds of music were stigmatised. The same applied to authors of zines, if they suddenly decided to change their profile. There were lists of enemies of black metal in circulation (how I envied those friends of mine whose names were on them), and death sentences issued by variegated secret organisations, and even by Baron de Belem himself. Our group also had its enemies, mainly on account of Black, who was suspected of lack of truthfulness. Before his conversion to darkness he had been an ordinary metalhead, and a devoted fan of Kiss and Iron Maiden. His name would be mentioned in death sentences and was sometimes placed high on the list of enemies of Black Art. Black readily addressed the accusations levelled against him, always using the same unchanging argument that made him an excellent interlocutor. This argument was, of course, his fist.
We gazed in the direction of the North again. Metalheads in Norwey were divided into the supporters of either Vikernes or Euronymous, the murderer and his victim. Just like them we fought for the purity and truthfulness of black metal. I’m very nostalgic about these lists followed by new lists, badly scribbled and full of spelling errors, adorned with upturned crosses, pentagrams and Svetovids. They testified to a conviction that honesty was all-important in life. We did not understand yet who human beings really were. We did not know about the existence of the strip of no man’s land between honesty and conformism.
Darkness was only an entourage. If we had been squeezed, light-gray goo would have come out; really, nothing more. In reality, just like Faust in Robert Nye’s novel, we liked the sun.
Most of us had nowhere to go. We were – in fact correctly – regarded as weirdos, deserters from the “real” world and irresponsible dreamers.
In Black’s flat we met those who were alike, absorbing a new powerful experience – being accepted. Instinctively – how else? – we rejected the patterns offered by the slowly solidifying capitalism. We didn’t want to work in a store or in a corporation. The point of reference was Black, the most independent and internally free man I have ever known. School and studies were a bothersome necessity. Some, in fact, abandoned their education and later bore the painful consequences.
There were few girls and if I remember correctly none of us revealed any tendencies of a sexual libertine, which, reputedly, Satanists are famous for. If at all, erotic needs were realised outside the group. Some, including myself, brought their consecutive women along. Their reactions varied greatly. Some were delighted, others dismayed, others still were a little afraid. All of them appeared because of their men and quickly disappeared beyond the horizon of events. Very few tried to become independent, but – here again I rely on my unreliable memory – none of them managed to earn serious treatment from us. We were a male group. We listened to masculine music and we felt good in our own company.
fun was what it was about. Love of ominous sounds, sharing a Satanist or pagan worldview was a gateway to spending a few pleasant moments in friendly company.
Someone had problems at home, so he came to complain. Someone else dropped in with a bottle, so we drank till we dropped, shouting favourite lyrics. When we were hard pressed, we heated Jabol (cheap fruit wine) in a large pot, adding clove and cinnamon, and on alcohol-free days Black made everyone tea in an Ikea mug. We were long-haired, but deep down normal, with the exception of a few freaks, like the one with a scar on his jaw. We loved the Devil, and longed for love, friendship and a little bit of understanding.
We declared Satanism, but our true religion was music, which at least I felt in my very bones, as keenly as it was only possible. In retrospect, few of these sounds have passed the test of time, but who cares? High prices of records and difficult access to them created an atmosphere of mystery, additionally stoked by the sombre covers and the unclear photographs of the artists. What is more, Black jealously guarded his secrets, sitting on his pile of vinyl just like Smaug laid upon a bed of gold. We listened to the records together, in deep concentration. The word that comes to mind here – “piety” – does not entirely suit the context. Some of us got carried away: shook their heads, pressed against their temples with their palms, or shivered with fear, either real or faked. After a listening session a spontaneous discussion ensued. We compared songs and ranked performers in accordance with metal tradition and the present times. We gave names to our own entangled emotions. Time disappeared.
I don’t know to what extent secret services were interested in us. Information on us was gathered by a special cell on sects and new religious movements that operated by the Dominican order. They certainly had their sources and a lot of influence. After the matura exam I started to write short texts for the Krakow section of the daily Gazeta Wyborcza. These texts were mainly reviews of records and reports from concerts. That was all I knew how to do then. From the editorial office in Szewska Street I was taken straight to the Polish Senate. The MP Krystyna Czuba in a separate speech outlined for the senators the scale of threat connected with the escalation of Satanism and the presence of the representatives of this religious group in the media. As she said, Wyborcza “provides a platform for people associated with Satanist groups (…) an example of which is Łukasz Orbitowski.” Next, she demanded that I be delegalised. As a result, I immediately lost my job, which did nothing to diminish the pride that filled my black heart. I was discussed in the Senate! I was persecuted! Moreover, the MP’s speech, purely for the heck of it, was then reprinted by Jerzy Urban. A cutting saved from this edition of the weekly Nie (No) and a reprint of the speech itself I kept in a folder as tangible proof of my impending glory.
I presume that the Dominicans and Krystyna Czuba saw us in the same was as Granny Yaga did – as regular consumers of cats who carried out bloody rituals in cemeteries or even above the Abyss. The truth was completely different, although I understand this sort of concern. In Norway people were really slaughtering one another, and also in Poland blood was spilt. The ritual murder in Ruda Śląska committed by young people who identified themselves with Satanism attracted media attention. Consequently, also our group was scrutinised, especially Black, its most striking representative.
One tabloid – Fakt or Super Ekspress – ran a cover story about Krakow’s Satanists and the local black metal circles. Needless to say, Black was the main character. The reporter, a man of imaginative expression and moderate discernment, described the depressing interior in the well-known tenement house and its demonic host. Groups of young people in a state of permanent inebriation were mentioned. Meanwhile, Black, their master, in the reporter’s view, remained sober, “as if he controlled them all.” I quote from memory.
In those days Black really had given up alcohol. This is not something that could be said about many. Together with my friend, incidentally a devout Catholic, we spent every afternoon drinking cheap wines. In summer we would go to the famous “Jabol Hill” in the Planty, by St. Gertruda Street, where a bench bearing my name now stands. On rainy days, in autumn bad weather and in winter, however, we were in bad luck. So we took our poor wine and headed for Black’s digs, where guests were always welcome. We drank, while Black ate the cake we had brought; we talked nonsense, in order to later emerge, indeed inebriated, and even half-conscious due to the freshly fermented alcohol and all the mysterious chemical compounds which made our favourite beverage so potent. Black would control us only in one sense – he took care than no one vomited outside the perimeter of the Abyss.
What has happened to us? Nothing and a great deal. We’ve grown up; real life, the one we had wanted to avoid so very much, began.
I started to visit Black less often. The others gradually disappeared, too, they lost their interest in the music, went to work, set up families or moved abroad. Black metal became just another accepted cultural trend, records were now available in normal distribution, and soon they could be obtained for free, from the Internet. T-shirts with pentagrams lay forgotten at the bottom of wardrobes. Only Black never changed one jot. However, finally he left the life-threatening tenement house. The building is now empty, sealed and silent.
Out of this weltering long-haired ferment, out of this medley fascinated with darkness, a few friendships have survived and stood the test of time. We still meet – with greying hair, with pouches and pelican-like dewlaps. We drink whisky, not jabol. In lieu of the Abyss we enjoy the blessings of a proper water closet, and only music has remained unchanged. We feel it less intensely, but still with tenderness that is incommensurate with the scary-funny images of the bands. This is the part of our youth that it is the most difficult to part with.
Those times, that atmosphere is something unique for me, something that cannot be repeated. They were made up of the events in Norway, Black’s exceptional personality and the living conditions at his disposal, and finally – that, and not some other, kind of accessibility of music. A few years earlier records were a luxury from the point of view of a teenager; a little later everyone had a hard drive full of MP3 files. Added to this were restless young age, the need to search for one’s own path, fight for acceptance and one’s own place in the world. I sometimes think that in the case of some people the devilish façade was nothing but an armour, with which they covered up their sensitivity and honest hearts. I can’t think about it otherwise. Not any more.
Black metal and the flat by the Abyss was the place from which I set out into adulthood. I became a writer, a friend, a man, and a father, also a madman, a free spirit and a boozer – in other words: everything I’ve always wanted to be. Without those days it would not have been possible.
 All names and pseudonyms of the representatives of Krakow’s black metal circles have been changed.
 In this case I use the actual pseudonym because of the public character of Bundeswehra’s history.
 A character from the British series Robin of Sherwood. Publications signed with this pseudonym were really distributed across Poland in the 1990s.