THE BEATLES AND THE DANUBE REGATTA

It was toward the end of the sixties when a yellow submarine emerged from the murky waters of the Danube at Novi Sad. Before long, a round hatch on its back snapped open and a bearded head appeared. The man scanned the surroundings with binoculars, then instructed the crew in the belly of the vessel to pull up by the quay. The manoeuvre completed, the man disappeared, and for a while no one knew what would happen next. By then, a small but steadily swelling crowd of onlookers had gathered on the bank, attracted by the bizarre spectacle. They stared like fools on the hill, trying to guess what it was all about. Some suspected a Russian military vessel, but others were quick to deduce that in that case the miraculous machine would have been painted red or at least flown a small water-proof ensign to indicate its provenance. The dispute had almost gotten out of hand when a small commotion suddenly broke out down there. To the amazement of all present, the Beatles crawled out of the submarine one by one, to a collective gasp from the gathered gawkers. The Beatles proceeded to line up in a disciplined fashion, waving to the crowd with one hand and holding a guitar case in the other. The drummer, quite naturally, did not have his full kit with him, just a pair of somewhat battered sticks, with which he proceeded to beat around the air with such virtuosity that the crowd took him to its bosom right away. The schoolmistress Militsa Dobrovoiev, probably a coltish teenager at the time, who was about to see her dentist about a troublesome brace on that precise day, still recalls being overtaken by a violent impulse to shriek, while her best friend, who had happened to accompany her on her way, literally fainted from the sight of the Fab Four. At this point, a convoy of police cars with blasting sirens emerged out of the blue. The throng parted to give way to none other than Mayor Veselin Vukota. He immediately launched into a welcome address, which went down rather well. Those standing closer to him could spot that he had not even had time to shave that morning, yet he showed a firm command of the situation, rising to the challenge without betraying a single sign of stage fright, neither trembling hand nor quavering voice. He churned out his lines in the most eloquent Serbo-Croat idiom, while the Beatles pretended to understand his every word, occasionally nodding their heads in appreciation – Oh, yeah, yeah! When Vukota finished, the celebrated mushroom-heads stepped ashore over a plank courteously helping one another, got into the mayor’s voluminous, silently gliding black limo, and vanished into thin air. None of the still dazed spectators could see exactly which way they had disappeared, surmising they probably went down Mihajlo Pupin Street, partially hidden from sight by some boxwood trees.

 
(Best known for the eponymous loading coils he patented, Michael or Mihajlo Pupin was a Serbian-American engineer and inventor who, already at the tender age of…)


The news of the Beatles’ arriving spread like wildfire around town, although where they were staying was a carefully kept secret. As was who exactly invited them, or what was the purpose of their visit. The idea of them playing a gig in Novi Sad was too remote a possibility for any sane person to seriously entertain. None of this stopped the young people of Novi Sad camping out around the city’s hotels to lie in wait. Despite desperate entreaties from their parents, most refused to abandon their posts even to return home for dinner. But all their efforts were in vain, for it seemed the Beatles had vanished without a trace.


The next day however jaws dropped with a resounding thud when the Fab Four from Liverpool climbed on that memorable stage – built from beech wood from the Fruskagora – in the centre of the cable factory’s soccer field, two hours behind schedule but waving a hand to the hastily assembled journalists just as amiably and enthusiastically as when they emerged from the yellow submarine. However, to the great dismay of the workers ushered from the factory floors to the field, once again they refrained from playing any music. All they did was listen to yet more speeches – blah-blah, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da –, uttered a few words in the local lingo as befits a decorous guest, then quickly made themselves scarce. (The chauffeur of Mayor Veselin Vukota made light work of losing the miserable Zastava of the perpetually jovial caretaker of the field, a Macedonian by the nickname of Risto, who, driven by a curiosity inflated to painful dimensions, had dashed in pursuit of the limo.) Come to think of it, the only other thing of note that happened was that a slightly plump Ringo Starr was seen downing two glasses of champagne, while the others only asked for soft drinks. Not that this was an unremarkable spectacle; indeed, many recounted the event when they got home. One of them was István Hamarják, a highly qualified master cable winder, who had worked in a shipyard but felt out of place there as someone who had been dreaming about fabulously meandering cables ever since he was a child, and had only taken up his job in the shipyard under sustained pressure from his father. He thought the Beatles looked pretty good even if they played not a single note of music. It was very nice of them to pay a visit to the cable people, and send a message that they had no trace of contempt for the working man and were far from averse to engagement with them. How could they be, when everybody knows they were from decent proletarian families themselves? Despite their undoubtedly tight schedule, they found the time to make sincere conversation in the factory about the recent upswing in production. Hard work may be in store for them around the world satisfying the universal hunger for a quality song, but they still make the time to drop by to see what we have to give that very same world. They may be the Beatles a hundred times over – so much so that Mr Grízer, our barber, waved an involuntary hand upon setting eyes on them – they have not lost an iota of their wits and know full well that we all live and work for one another in reciprocal dependency, forming a grand scheme in which everyone goes about his own business as best as he can. Each in his own place and his own way – isn’t this what it’s all about? At any given point on earth, everyone according to his capabilities. No matter what appearances may tell you, we are all human, after all, and humans of the first order at that – simple, industrious people who earn their living by manual work. I am quite satisfied they gave us no cause for disappointment. For people this famous could always be forgiven for acting quite the asshole every once in a while. Of yore as today.


István Hamarják’s next-door neighbour in the panel housing blocks, an electrician by the name of Alfréd Méder, Jr, voiced his scepticism about the conjecture that the Beatles had emerged at Novi Sad solely on account of a major electric short afflicting their vessel. If this were the case, he argued, they would have worn a far less sincere smile and felt much more out of place, in spite of the warm welcome they received. And if this were the case, surely they would have glanced at their watches and shuffled their feet far more than they did. But they didn’t, even a fool could see that. But then, why did they not play any music, one might ask? Well, for all the evidence of the cable factory’s success story, the same fool would hardly have failed to notice a certain shortage of funds, except for the flood of bank notes printed in the cellar and dumped into the works by an invisible hand. Why would anybody do that? Due to some twisted form of self-interest, no doubt. The wife of Alfréd Méder, Jr was desperate to find out what that individual’s secret best interest could consist of, but she failed miserably to do that, as Alfréd Méder, Jr, careworn electrician and genuine Beatles fan that he was, simply fell off his chair after a heavy dinner consumed on top of copious amounts of spirits. All he was able to utter was the wisdom that there can be no music where there is a lack of funds. And that his lady should leave him alone, for he has spent a lifetime chiselling thousands of miles of ducts into walls for laying cable, all this without the assurance that his name will live on. And that those whose name did had only themselves to blame. “What a bizarre train of thought”, his wife noted to herself as she undressed his better half and dragged him to bed.


Without thinking of Hard Day’s Night for a moment. Or if she did, she didn’t show it.

But back to the cable factory. On the third day after the podium had been dismantled, a friendly soccer game took place between the Kabel team and Jugopetrol. Held on the full-size pitch in clement weather conditions – the scattering of sand carried by a mild wind from the Danube did not really bother the players – the game ended with a victory for Kabel with a score of 2 to 0. One of the goals was scored by a one-armed worker named Milan Agbaba; the other by John Lennon. Agbaba slotted home a penalty awarded by referee Jan Kišgeci, a public prosecutor by trade, following an egregious foul perpetrated within the eighteen-yard line, while the lanky Lennon etched his name in the memory of those present with a superb header. Truth be told, the feat did not call for uncommon powers on the part of Lennon who stood a head taller than the defenders around him. Not that it was his fault that the taller guys in those days tended to go for basketball instead. The only mishap was that his hallmark round-rimmed glasses broke as he rose up in the air for the header, and had to be provisionally mended by the aforementioned caretaker of the field using a few Band-Aids. Later, as Lennon clearly could not go unbespectacled or ill-bespectacled for long, a qualified tradesman was quickly procured in the person of the goldsmith and fine jeweller Josip Šiket, who ran a shop in the old Danube Street, and proceeded to set the famous lenses in a new frame while pocketing the broken one for himself as a keepsake.


The next day, the famous four – disguised as tourists and tucking their long hair under their caps – visited Danube Street, the pearl of Novi Sad’s old town. This neighbourhood was considered such a treasure that even NATO’s bombers had made an effort to avoid it in the course of the regrettable, nay tragic, events of the not- so-distant past. Once there, the Beatles took a good look around, then had coffee in the Turkish pastry shop. They were a little taken aback by the dregs at first, but ultimately decided that the coffee was alright. Given it was Turkish. George Harrison then eyeballed a piece of Turkish delight known as ratluk, enticing and irresistible in its state of being drenched in caster sugar, until he caved in to the temptation and swallowed it in one fell swoop. Then, having found the taste too cloying, he quickly washed it down with a pitcherful of positively tart lemonade. Paul McCartney opted for boza, a traditional drink fermented from grains. Ringo Starr was grappling meanwhile with an enormous Napoleon with a trembling cream filling, while John Lennon wanted nothing after coffee and contented himself with staring in deep contemplation at the street through the less than perfectly clean shop window. Who knows which global hit he was mulling over in its embryonic form? Imagine, perhaps?


Or was that still far off in the future then?


But no matter. As everybody knows, or can at least be expected to imagine, life is not just about bliss and sweet music, and every instant of goodness or beauty has its downsides. So it happened in the Danube Street neighbourhood, where Paul McCartney realised that his wallet had disappeared. Although it contained no important papers and only a little cash, all of them were put out by the misfortune and wondered what might have happened.


“You must have pulled it out of your pocket accidentally”, George Harrison suggested.


“Come on, you know very well I never lose things just like that”, Paul McCartney snapped back.


“Indeed you do not. Apologies.”


“Didn’t you leave it at the Turk’s?”, John Lennon barged in.


Having caught up with them on this cue, Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey) concurred with the plausibility of this latter explanation, so they all trooped back toward the Turkish (actually Albanian) pastry shop marching in Indian file through a zebra crossing next to a church, where a loitering paparazzo took a snap of the scene. The confectioner spread his chunky arms uneasily, and did his best, as permitted by his poor English, to convince his patrons that the wallet, had it been left behind in the shop, would surely be returned to its rightful owner, down to the last penny. In an attempt to divert his patrons’ attention from the unpleasant stalemate, the confectioner offered the Beatles a round on the house, whatever they wanted, and the Beatles took him up on it. Apart from the lost wallet, they had had quite an enjoyable day, a detailed description of which I may be forgiven to forego on account of this steaming hot bowl of soup in front of me on my desk. Suffice it to say that, in the evening, as they were preparing to put up for the night in their concealed, or at least undisclosed, abode, someone knocked on the door of McCartney who happened to be fidgeting with his toothpaste. Donning a light trench coat and an amiable smile, the unknown man greeted him politely, handed the lost wallet to him, turned on his heels and vanished in the obscure hallway so swiftly that McCartney barely had the time to thank him. Lo and behold, nothing was missing from the wallet, although it did have a little speck of something on one side that could have been blood – a disquieting, even repulsive supposition that McCartney was happy to quickly dismiss.


The following morning, the Mayor had made arrangements for a little trip to the stud farm in Zobnatica, a village renowned not only for its magnificently toned and superbly gifted thoroughbred Arabians but for being home to the one and only two-headed pony in all of Yugoslavia, which had managed to survive birth by dint of sheer miracle, on some mulish two-necks-or-nothing basis… Indeed, all four would have been ready to go, had it not been that George Harrison had learnt the day before that this same Thursday, bursting with sunshine and excitement, would be the day the Danube Regatta would come to Novi Sad via Gombos. The Danube Regatta is, as you may already know, an ancient, rather enthusiastic and densely packed amateur event in which volunteer participants strike out each year from Germany, if not exactly from the river’s origin in the Black Forest, and float all the way downstream to the Black Sea. They make frequent stopovers along the way, invariably receiving a warm welcome as befits distinguished visitors. In some places, they are wined and dined heartily to much music and dancing. An extemporised cultural show is usually followed by boisterous partying and singing around a bonfire, while the smart ones and those with a less voracious appetite jump on the chance to get a bit of a head start on the revellers under favour of the night. Small wonder then that the train of boats often breaks up, although a core tends to form quickly enough which you can keep track of by the minute and figure out roughly how long it will take to get to the next stop. Incidentally, should one wish to subject this trickling, morphing text to terminological scrutiny, one would hardly fail to observe that the phrase train of boats above hardly passes the test of verisimilitude, given that a regatta comprises all sorts of water-borne vessels, some of which do not bear the faintest resemblance to a boat. A recent case in point, duly reported by the tabloid press of Budapest, was a humongous crocodile which drifted into view from behind Margaret Island and made its way relentlessly toward the banks, scaring the living daylights out of a handful of anglers. The apparition soon turned out to be quite real, albeit not a living beast but a rubber contrivance easily mistaken for some sort of a dragon. The dinghy-thingy had a hollow in the middle, cruising along in which were a bunch of regatta-trailing drunks clutching bottles of beer and wine, just as smashed as the anglers on the shore, and just as oblivious of this shitty world of ours outside. The psychedelic suggestiveness of the scene one could say approached that of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Or something to that effect.

But to retrace one’s steps: Harrison was no more interested in the Arabian horses or the two-headed pony than in the nearby hunting grounds once favoured by Josip Broz, President of the Yugoslav Republic. No, he could not care less about uncle comrade Tito’s pheasants, rabbits, wild boars or, on occasion, gophers and moles. George Harrison only had a mind for the Regatta. After some brainstorming, his hosts found a way to hie him on a brief detour away from the team, disguised with a pair of obligatory dark sunglasses, a T-shirt that said BOB DYLAN, and a few more accessories. He was taken to the Novi Sad public beach, scene of massacres during the cold days of the Second World War, where a makeshift set of bleachers had been erected between the beach and the building of the Danubius rowing club. In an attempt to remain unobtrusive, Harrison was chauffeured here in a small, three-wheeled two-seater car, a model manufactured for the handicapped. Given a colourful sunshade and served a bottle of light and dry local red on a tray, all he had to do was sit back and wait for the regatta to appear. He whiled away the time twisting the knobs on his miraculous, brand new camera; he even took a few test shots. Then, feeling too hot, he took off his T-shirt and kept it in his lap. His “guardian angel” loitering at a distance was surprised. From the pictures he had seen, he would not have guessed Harrison had such well-built muscles, particularly his biceps. But there was no time for such idle thoughts, as the regatta soon came in, raising the onlookers to their feet. Everyone was cheering, applauding and whistling just as rowdily as when the Beatles arrived in Novi Sad, and the guard now had to watch more closely to keep his client out of harm’s way, and especially to prevent anything like another embarrassment with that wallet.


As soon as the regatta passed beneath the bleachers, zigzagging and bobbing up and down in an untidy formation, the viewers followed the contestants – drifters, if you will – on the embankment as far as the oxbow lake of Anglers’ Island. There the crowd was stopped (and reduced to waving off the regatta) by the water level which stood particularly high during that muggy, mosquito-infested summer. Upon the express wish of George Harrison, apparently discontent with the number of pictures he had taken, the two squeezed into the invalid carriage, revved up the engine and, leaving a long trail of dense exhaust, veered around the beach, the Kabel field, the marines’ barracks, and finally the shipyard (where some people claimed the yellow submarine itself had been hauled in for repair) to cut ahead of the gargantuan, motley caravan. When they pulled over, Harrison took another set of shots to his great satisfaction, and all of a sudden felt very thirsty again. They clambered onto a patio that happened to function as the public tourist outlet of the Novi Sad Radio station. Here, Harrison made the acquaintance of Bogdan Dimitrievitch and his big band. (Well, not the whole works, for the guitarist Perica Bahun, just to name one, was away on a certified leave of absence in rehab.)


Dimitrievitch, as everybody knows, was not simply a formidable saxophonist but had long served as the peremptory honcho of the station’s big band. In the circle of his slowly gathering disciples, he was making preparations for his great annual concert, to be held that same evening on the island under the moonlit sky, and he was short of a guitarist. It must have been the hand of fate that guided Harrison’s steps to the scene, who remained unrecognised by Dimitrievitch, if only because the latter could not see anything an inch beyond jazz. It was only after George proved unable to control his interest in the instruments being hauled up for the approaching event, and indeed expressed that interest in eloquent English mumbo jumbo, that Dimitrievitch took notice of the man, walked right up to him, introduced himself and sat down. Having apparently struck up a friendship there and then, the two of them soon sauntered over to a table so far from the hub that the guard could no longer make out what they were chatting about, no matter how hard he strained his ears. The net result of these developments – which, like most things that did not quite go as planned, nearly sent into an apoplectic fit the guardian angel, who would not for a moment take off his leather coat in the most scorching heat – was that Harrison did not wait for the sun to properly set, let alone for the moon to rise, but joined Bogdan Dimitrievitch’s band on stage, still wearing his dark shades but now augmented by a fishing cap pulled low over his ears. He pitched in on tunes he must have not played for a long time, but he seemed to remember all the licks and the sheer pleasure of playing them. The gig turned out a resounding success, except for the suspicion that, by leaning into this pleasurable drive&swing beat, Harrison may have violated a strict ban or breached an agreement of sorts. The others were so offended, so royal mad at him that they barely said a word to him at the luncheon next morning.


For instance, when Harrison asked Lennon to bring him another croissant if he went to get one for himself, Lennon pretended not to hear him. Ringo Starr refused to pass him the salt. A sullen Paul McCartney kept to himself, quietly munching on his scrambled eggs and ham with baked beans, made to order. Finally, they all drank up their strong cup of tea and took their French leave – the kind of leave called English in Hungarian – with the by then well-chastised Harrison bringing up the rear, each with the air of a man not intending to return to this place any time soon. The same guy who had claimed to have glimpsed the yellow submarine in the repair dock built for the largest river vessels soon reported it gone. Another smartass thought he knew that the Beatles simply slipped away on a side trip to dip their toes in the Adriatic – they obviously had the dough to do it, despite the suicide of their producer, Brian Epstein – and would be coming back because they took a liking to this friendly, quaint little town and just had to do a gig in the historic castle district. (What histrionic district? I said historic, idiot.) Who would have thought this lunatic would be proven right? No one, I swear. As it turned out, the Beatles suddenly did materialise, in their own Technicolor, flagrantly eye-catching reality, on billboards announcing a concert in Petrovaradin, the very venue that would one day host the famous EXIT music festival. Concurrently, word began to spread that the event would be graced, glorified and authenticated by the light of the countenance of an illustrious guest none other than the starry- eyed and highly-browed Josip Broz Tito, the celebrated partisan and vanquisher of Fascism of a fame and stature just as incontrovertible as those of the Fab Four. I won’t be disclosing a spoiler by telling you that this rumour, too, turned out to be true in the end.


And truth be told, the Beatles gave a frenetic concert that summer in the castle of Petrovaradin. The cheering crowds had a great time. It was the kind of memorable, even cathartic, experience that happens very rarely, if at all, to anyone, anywhere, during a lifetime. And there he was, Josip Broz Tito, sitting in a VIP box, built just for him right next to the stage, as if perched on a high boar-stand during a night hunt. The cameras took turns aiming at the Beatles and the leader. The archived footage, naturally black and white, from that night, which many remember as vividly as if it were yesterday, shows a Comrade Tito with a visibly content, even joyful smile on his face, positively rejuvenated despite a noticeable and understandable measure of scorn, condescension and weariness under the burden of his years. A few days later, one of our gang, a would-be failure of a DJ by the name of Csaba Majoros – a perennial doubting Thomas and spoilsport – claimed to have personally overheard the Beatles talk in German when they gathered to share a joint behind the scenes during the intermission, but this allegation did not really get him anywhere. In fact, he dropped the story himself after a while. As for the Beatles, they did leave Novi Sad eventually, and no one has seen them around here ever since, today or indeed, yesterday. (With them, may all our troubles seem so far away.) On the other hand, we would soon be inundated by a flood of their LP’s: mint English pressings no less, albeit somewhat inferior to those recorded in American studios. But no worries: The records sold like hot cakes; everyone in town grabbed a copy. Bingo-Ringo! The only exception was Back to the USSR, which never really caught on. For some reason. May it rest in peace.

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