Today Jacek Kaczmarski, the bard of Solidarity, would have celebrated his 60th birthday

Born March 22, 1957 in Warsaw as the son of Janusz Kaczmarski, a painter and art reviewer who for many years was the president of the Main Board of the Association of Polish Artists and Designers, and Anna Trojanowska-Kaczmarska, a painter, educator and art historian. With an unfailing sense of the irony of history, the bard himself says the following about his conception:

"As far as I know, it was about love. It was like this. Grandpa wanted or could have arranged for mom to study in Paris, but mom followed dad first to Leningrad, then to Kiev. And because it was the end of Stalinism, 1955, 1956, they saw with their own eyes what this dream system looks like, how it functions. And - as they say - the scales fell from their eyes. That's where I was begotten, to be precise, during a storm on the Black Sea, during my parents' trip on the ship 'Rossiya' - formerly the 'Adolf Hitler'."

The future singer attended Warsaw's renowned Narcyza Zmichowska High School No. XV. Then in 1980 he graduated from Polish Studies at Warsaw University, writing his master's thesis on the literature of the Enlightenment under Professor Zdzislaw Libera. It was titled "The figure of Stanislaw August Poniatowski in the occasional poetry of his era." It can be said that this intellectual formation clearly influenced Kaczmarski's work. His songs often use the figure of allegory (a sign or story that, on a literal level, speaks about something, but their real, "hidden" meaning is different), which was a favorite in the Enlightenment. The masterpiece in this regard is the Ballad of Katyn - a series of contradicted comparisons telling what the grave in the Smolensk forest is not. The Enlightenment pedigree (though not only, as one can reach back to even earlier eras) is also present in the telling of the present by means of historical, mostly ancient allusions. Finally, the singer himself said that the collapse of the First Republic, which took place in this era, is for him a basic historiosophical reference. And as a curiosity, it can be added that, according to family tradition, the poet's distant relative was Jakub Jasinski, an Enlightenment literary man, soldier and revolutionary.


Simultaneously with his studies, Kaczmarski began his musical career. His debut took place in 1976 (during the Warsaw Song Fair), although the lyrics of some songs were written much earlier. The author of Walls was associated with Jan Pietrzak's Pod Egidą cabaret - the Ballada o przedszkolu / The Ballad about a Kindergarten, for example, is maintained in the cabaret style, though closer to that of Wojciech Młynarski. The 1970s also saw the beginning of a long-lasting and fruitful collaboration between Kaczmarski, Przemysław Gintrowski and Zbigniew Łapiński. Their first joint program, Mury / Walls, was written in 1979, followed by Muzeum / Museum and Raj / Paradise.

In 1979 Kaczmarski won an award at the Student Song Festival in Krakow for his song Obława / Manhunt, and in 1981 he won the journalists' award at the Opole Festival for Epitafium dla Włodzimierz Wysockiego / Epitaph for Włodzimierz Wysocki, still one of his most acclaimed songs. The Russian was a figure held in high esteem by Kaczmarski. The author of Obława / Manhunt, written at the age of 17 and based on Wysocki's Polowanie na wolki / Wolf Hunt, even used the master's idea in writing the song Czołg / Tank and translated several of his songs. The concert of Wysocki, who came to Poland in 1974, has always been an important and frequently recalled memory for Kaczmarski.

At the time martial law was imposed in Poland - December 13, 1981 - Kaczmarski was in France on a concert tour. He did not decide to return to the country at that time. After that, he lived mainly from his performances, donating part of his profits to support the underground Solidarity movement. In 1984 he began working in Munich for Radio Free Europe. He became a member of the editorial board of this radio station's Polish Broadcasting Service, hosted the program "Quadrangle with Kaczmarski" and wrote political commentaries for the main news service "Facts. Events. Opinions." He worked there until 1994, when the Polish section of the radio was abolished (the main mission of the radio is to broadcast to non-democratic countries, and Poland was no longer one of them for a few years).

Since 1990 Kaczmarski often toured and performed in Poland. His first tour in nine years with Zbigniew Łapiński resulted in the album Live, which in 2001 achieved Gold Record status, selling over 50,000 copies at the time. The Kaczmarski-Gintrowski-Lapiński trio also collaborated on the albums Wojna postu z karnawałem / Post and Carnival War (1993) and Sarmatia (1994).

In 1995 Kaczmarski, together with his second wife Ewa (who had helped him in Munich to overcome his alcohol addiction) and his nine-year-old daughter Patrycja settled in Australia, near Perth. As a reference to this decision can be considered the song 1789 and the album Two Rocks, whose title refers to a geological formation located near his place of residence. This time, however, emigration, despite a considerable geographical distance, did not close the way to performances in Poland.

In 2001 Jacek Kaczmarski celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his creative work, which he commemorated with the album Dwadzieścia (5) lat później / Twenty (5) Years Later, with the title referring to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Solidarity. A year later, in March 2002, he was diagnosed with advanced stage esophageal cancer. Kaczmarski decided to undergo expensive and complicated therapy in Austria, hoping to avoid surgery that would permanently damage his vocal cords. Numerous concerts and fund-raisers were organized at the time. Unfortunately it was to no avail - despite the promising initial results, after two years of fighting the disease Kaczmarski died in a hospital in Gdansk on April 10, 2004.

Kaczmarski was self-taught in guitar playing, which led him to develop an unusual technique. It resulted from holding the guitar inverted - despite the fact that the author himself was not left-handed. Such guitarists usually reverse the position of the strings on the neck, so that the same strings are at the bottom of the neck as in the case of a right-handed guitarist holding the instrument normally. Kaczmarski did not do this, which necessitated the necessity of performing grips differently than is generally accepted. The musician himself claimed that with time he noticed that it helped him to give a specific sound to the bass chords.

Another musical curiosity is admitting to being influenced by... piano techniques in the case of the song Obława:

"Here I wanted to convey the impression of a chase, chaos, and hence the rhythm. As for the level of difficulty of this technique, I was undoubtedly helped in mastering it by playing the piano, where the basis is a loose wrist. This rhythm cannot be played for too long with a stiffened hand."

Not counting these technical peculiarities, in the field of music Kaczmarski remained a traditionalist. He used to say:

"I try to be faithful to one principle: when composing music, I rely on classical patterns. I don't use jazz, blues, rock or pop standards. Unless it is to serve something. But that rarely happens."

He did not, however, shy away from musical quotations and stylizations - for example, Z pasa słuckiego pożytek uses the melody of a polonaise.

Two things immediately catch the eye in Kaczmarski's song lyrics: sophisticated irony and the ability to re-tell cultural texts in such a way that they continue to arouse the listener's interest or even express new content unknown to the original. A summary of Boleslaw Prus' novel, for example, is the song Lalka - in which the simple refrain ("Rzecki dreams of Bonaparte / Wokulski loves Isabella") comments on the same stanzas slightly differently each time. However, Kaczmarski achieved true mastery in writing about paintings. Descriptions of works of art (or so-called ekphrases) were the subject of an entire program entitled Museum, prepared jointly with Przemyslaw Gintrowski and Zbigniew Lapinski.

References to painting appear very often in Kaczmarski's work. Suffice it to recall The Poisoned Well, referring to a series of paintings by Jacek Malczewski; the ironic The Impostors, based on Caravaggio's The Card Players, in which the swindler and the cheated swap places unexpectedly; The Ambassadors, faithfully reflecting the idea of Hans Holbein, whose painting deals with transience; or the entire program of the Museum. Less widely known - apart from Rublev - are songs based on Andrei Tarkovsky's films: Stalker and Sacrifice.

Another distinctive feature of this work is the incredible skill of stylization. It is evidenced by works such as Bruno Jasieński's Epitaph, the text of which imitates not only the poet's characteristic rhythm (a fourteen-line 7+7 interspersed with a thirteen-line masculine accented clause), but also the surprising avant-garde metaphors and neologisms of the pre-war Futurist: "And I inhale London's flu-generating fumes / And taste Paris' moldy roquefort." In general, a frequent writing strategy of the author of The Scream was the so-called role lyricism, that is, speaking on behalf of someone else, for example, in the songs Luther, Jan Kochanowski or the bravura Catherine's Dream - but also in texts modeled on heard stories of ordinary people. This method was perfectly summarized by Joanna Boss:

"The author often [...] within his songs gives voice to animals, characters from paintings, literary heroes, simple people who, while describing themselves or the situation in which they find themselves, draw at the same time, in a way that is not necessarily conscious, a picture and color of the reality of which they are a part."

Kaczmarski's stylization skills made it very easy for him to refer to cultural history, to speak about the past in a voice as close to it as possible, and at the same time contemporary. However, perfect imitation did not mean full acceptance - on the contrary, texts of this kind expressed as much affirmation as doubt. An excellent example of this is With the 16th Century Coffin Portrait Conversation, at first giving the impression of a manifesto of a conservative, but over time presenting an increasingly nuanced vision of our historical baggage. Still in other cases, the conversation about the past becomes a reminder of the nightmare and our complicity in it. Prof. Jerzy Jedlicki called this strategy writing "to the horror of hearts," which applies particularly well to the song cycle alluding to Henryk Sienkiewicz's Trilogy and expressing doubts about the attitudes of its characters.

Because of the public image of Kaczmarski as a bard, the humorous aspect of his songs is often forgotten. Yet he did, for example, perform bravely the songs of Stanisław Staszewski (the same ones that later appeared on the album Tata Kazika / Kazik's Dad), parody Bob Dylan's voice in an otherwise profound ballad about the artist's alienation, or write his own lyrics with a heavy comic load. Of these, the ballad Czaty śmiełowskie should be singled out, as should several other songs also included on the album Pochwała łotrostwa.

Despite this sense of humor and irony, Kaczmarski was fundamentally opposed to an optimistic reading of his songs. Mury / Walls (1978), sung to the melody of L'estaca by the Catalan Lluís Llach (a song which, by the way, was treated as an expression of protest against General Franco's dictatorship), was recognized as the unofficial anthem of Solidarity, but the author himself consistently held to a different interpretation.

"I 'Walls' was written in 1978 as a piece about distrust of any mass movement. I heard a recording of Lluís Llach and a crowd of thousands of people singing, and I imagined a situation - as an egotist and a person who values individualism in life - that someone creates something very beautiful, because it is beautiful music, a beautiful song, and then he is deprived of his work because people capture it. The work simply ceases to be the property of the artist, and that's what 'Walls' is about. ' And the ballad has outgrown itself, because the same thing happened to it."

In the face of the colloquial, optimistic understanding of the ballad, its author made two important polemical gestures. The first was a melancholy song known as Mury'87 or Backyard. It began with the words: "How do you pull the teeth of the bars of the walls, / When rust streaks the brick and mortar? / How to bury the old world with rotting rubble, / When the new one has nothing and - on what to build?", in the refrain graves appeared instead of walls. At concerts, the artist often provoked the audience by playing the dynamic introduction to Walls only to perform Backyard afterwards. The second was the change in the last verses after the overthrow of communism in Poland, when Kaczmarski began singing in the present tense instead of the past: "And the walls grow, grow, grow / the chain swings at your feet." As a testament to the broader, more general understanding of such song-songs-songs like Mury or Obława, let us in turn give such a statement:

"These are not really anti-communist songs. Like most of Vysotsky's songs, they are songs insisting on the freedom and dignity of the individual. Communism as a system that uniquely persecutes the individual is not a monopoly."

One area of Kaczmarski's work that remains underappreciated is his novels. At least the first of them, Self-Portrait with a Scoundrel, caused quite a public uproar in its time. It portrays Polish opposition circles in a distorting mirror. The titular scumbag is student Daniel Błowski, Kaczmar's friend, who is in love with the same girl as he is and who collaborates with the Security Service and the communist authorities. Kaczmar himself is far from perfect, too - for example, there is the theme of alcoholism (based on the author's own experiences). The author himself sees in the unpleasant, turpid nature of the world presented in the novel an attempt to restore a balance that most stories about those times lack:

"I was just trying to even out this image, which was mythologized in the books written after'89: We heroes of the underground, we emigrants organized help for Poland, we influenced Western public opinion, and so on. All this is true, only that in human terms it looked a little different."

As a rule, Kaczmarski's novels made extensive use of autobiographical themes: Plaża dla psów (Beach for Dogs) is the aftermath of his stay in Australia, O anioły (On Angels) returns to the subject of addiction, this time set against the backdrop of the changes in Poland in 1989, and Napój Ananków (The Drink of the Ananaks) is... a combination of memories from his time working for Radio Free Europe with a fantasy novel about a legendary man living somewhere beyond the Urals. Additionally, there is a homosexual theme in this book.

The work of the author of Manhunt often found a response in other artists. I will limit myself here to just a few examples. Kaczmarski's music played an important role in the film The Last Bell, directed by Magdalena Łazarkiewicz, based on the screenplay by Włodzimierz Bolecki (1989). In 2007 the reggae band Habakuk with special guests (including Muniek Staszczyk and Patrycja Kaczmarska) recorded the album A ty siej..., on which 13 Kaczmarski songs were performed. The same band has also recorded Mury sung to the tune of Get up, stand up by Bob Marley.

The effects of Kaczmarski's fame as a singer were often ambiguous when it came to the literary reception of his works. As Krzysztof Gajda, who is also the author of a doctoral dissertation on the artist, writes

"Jacek Kaczmarski came to prominence in Polish postwar culture as a lyricist and songwriter. This choice of genre meant that despite the immense popularity enjoyed by his work (...), it has not yet become the object of more extensive literary studies."

The situation has fortunately changed in recent years, as evidenced by the numerous master's theses listed on the author's Wikipedia page. It is to be hoped, therefore, that Kaczmarski's place in literature will finally be properly recognized.

Photo: TVP/PAP - Ireneusz Sobieszczuk




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