“My Motto is: No one can choose their parents, time and place of birth, religion, appearance, skin color, and language from a catalog. But later on we have a choice: be a human or a beast.” Ivan Glišić, Yugoslavian punk, poet, and friend of Satan Panonski
“Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we not die of starvation entails to the risk of dying of boredom?” -Raoul Vaneigem
It was Autumn of 1980 in Vinkovci, a Slavonian town of about 30,000 that locals jokingly called the Chicago of Yugoslavia, when Pogreb X, likely the region’s first punk band, played their now legendarily short set at the Communist Party-sponsored “Youth Conference,” where rock n’ roll performances would mix with discussions of teenage delinquency, (mainly “drinking and Kung Fu movies”) and its danger to the socialist ideal. While Rolling Stones and Ramones records were contraband behind the Iron-Curtain, Yugoslavia’s “Velvet Curtain” allowed the contagious anthems of disaffected youth in through the thrift shops of Trieste, making Yugoslavia the likely high water-mark for the 77’ punk wave. And while punks would be suspected of neo-Nazism in Ljubljana and monitored as a potential agents of chaos in Novi Sad, Vinkovci’s bureaucrats, who had likely seen one of Pogreb X’s first gigs as a Sex Pistols cover band, apparently saw some potential in the vaguely leftist and iconoclastic songs that poked-fun at monarchy and pondered the benefits of the other side of the Berlin Wall.
These organizers may have been surprised to see Pogreb X had a new singer, a beer-swilling, deranged-looking street-kid with a shaved head and ragged outfit. Power chords blasted, the singer growled, and the scheme of punkers and aparatchiks walking hand-in-hand towards the socialist horizon were demolished with the smashing of the vocalist’s bottle against his skull. Blood poured down his face, and he hawked globs it off the stage as he yelled, “You came to cheat and deceive, not help!” Horrified, the party members, Young Pioneers, and most of the audience ran in terror from the hall. One imagines them continuing to play their set to the empty room, the portrait of the recently-deceased beloved dictator Josip Broz Tito hung behind them as the last audience member.
The performance made headlines around the Federation–a media frenzy akin to appalled network news updates on the 1978 Sex Pistols’ US Tour. The arrival of punk seemed to start a countdown to Yugoslavia’s inevitable collapse, and the band, especially its deranged frontman, were variously described as anarchists, fascists, homosexuals, psychopaths, and devil worshippers—four bored horseman of the apocalypse who didn’t know what they wanted, but knew how to get it.
“As in most cities,” Satan Panonski wrote, describing his early impresion of Vinkovci, “mediocrity condemns every form of greater freedom,
freedom that the ‘people’ never see or are not used to, freedom in whose name they press charges and bring verdicts, lie, and invent dogmatic principles.” From a young age, when he was known as Ivica Culjak, attacking these false conceptions of freedom was his life’s mission. He grew up in the village of Cerić, where he was middle class, a model student with an interest in poetry and illustration, and utterly bored. His father sent him to a boarding school in Hamburg, hoping it would be more stimulating than the local schools. The school was apparently no better, and he quickly dropped out, but in the process he discovered punk, what he called a punk “communion,” and returned home with albums of the Sex Pistols, Sham 69, the Clash, Ramones, and the UK Subs, and the outfit to match.
Angered by the new look, his father beat and kicked him out. The JNA, the Yugoslav National Army, drafted him. Ivica ignored the orders and did a brief stint for draft-dodging. Afterwards he surfed through various flophouses and squats of Vinkovci, loitering at the train station, binging on pills and booze for weeks in what he called “bizarre competitions” to out-intoxicate his fellow derelicts who knew him as “Kečer” or wrestler. The nickname was a gift from his older brother Vlatko, a Judo instructor and car salesman, for his physical strength and assertive will. In the context of his new lifestyle it became a reference to his constant struggle against what he saw as the hypocrisy of society, with punk, he later wrote, being “The name you give your walk through this naughty reality.”
It wasn’t long until a fucked-up young Kečer stumbled into Pogreb X. “Ivica wore little jackets, was funny, socialist, and listened to [Serbian rock station] Radio Sabac,” band founder Vladimir “Adolf” Soldo recalls. “He would come to the youth hostel where we would play and make some calamity.” Perhaps seeing the spirit of punk was strong in the troubled teen, Soldo kicked out their original singer and asked Ivica to join in 1980.
“I don’t know if i can sing,” he remembers telling Soldo, “but if you need it, and I want it, I can learn… When I have a thought, I have to get it, to make it happen.”
He was a quick learner, remembering, “In 1980/81, I learned that when I write lyrics I know how to sing them right away. So I sang, Soldo played a tune on bass, and there it was.”
Kečer’s depraved sensibilities turned Pogreb X from Pistols worship into something wholly unique. His love of folk added a Balkan rhythm to the songs, and his likely homosexuality spun the lyrics towards new levels obscenity. Soldo recalls, “One day Kečer came to practice and wanted to make a populist punk version [of Serbian folk singer] Vera Matovic’s Handsome Mario, and I was appalled. I told him that was not an option!” He convinced Kečer to work with him to change the lyrics by perverting one verse each. Soldo’s went: “You’re biting clitoris/Handsome Mario/You have syphilis/Handsome Maria.” Kečer’s is harder to translate, but seems to be a story about getting a blowjob on a handball court, something Soldo claims to describe a true incident that occurred between Kečer and another local punk boy.
Although some claim he was merely a depraved asexual, most recall Panonski was gay, and his cross-dressing and homoerotic lyrics became fodder for the tabloids that first learned of him through the legendary Youth Hall performance where he sent the authorities running. Afterwards Pogreb X was officially banned in Vinkovci, journalists were pressured not to publish their photos, and the local militia kept an eye on the members’ movements. But now with a taste for blood, Kečer
vowed that Pogreb X would play guerilla shows in neighboring villages, or even the woods if necessary. At these subsequent performances unsuspecting concert goers continued to flee in terror, or to the bathroom to vomit, after watching Kečer slice his skin, light himself on fire, smash himself into the wall, and commit other acts of self-mutilating “body art” that he would later describe as “Hard Blood Shock.”
For these performances he’s now considered “Yugoslavia’s GG Allin,” another frontman whose musical merit is often lost behind the fury of self-mutilation and coprophagia (a hurdle Satan never crossed). But even if Kečer did not adapt the Hard Blood Shock routine, as a bombastic and raw crooner drawn to chaos and controversy he could have been Yugoslavia’s Darby Crash or Jello Biafra, or his poetry and ubermensch aura could have approached Rollins territory. Unlike Crash, he kicked his addictions and survived his first band, and unlike Biafra and Rollins he didn’t make it to middle age and liberal talking-head-with-punk-cred status. His
path was murder, a mental hospital, and war.
A second incident that launched Kečer into infamy came late into 1981 when he, along with Vlatko and members of Pogreb X were drinking in the lobby of Hotel Slavonia. A group of “gamblers and smugglers,” as Kečer described them, came in seeking payment for a debt Vlatko allegedly owed them. A fight ensued. He recalled in a radio interview, “There were like, ten of them there… they all started to kick me and in one moment, I just transformed into a kamikaze and what happened, happened.” He claims not to remember, but in court he admitted to grabbing a knife from his pocket, one he claimed to have used to self-mutilate on an apparently daily basis, and stabbed the gangster 15 times.
In court, Satan claimed the murder was both self defense and a moral obligation, perhaps demanded by voices in his head. With the help of his father, who worked for the State health ministry, he was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and sentenced a mental hospital in nearby Popovača. With greater freedom as a patient he was able to leave the hospital on weekends to play shows, and his celebrity grew.
Often boasting to be a “Punk by nationality, friend by profession,” he wrote letters to punks around Yugoslavia and Europe, and entertained guests. Doctors and visitors alike described him as calm and well collected in the hospital. He read editions of Freud, Jung, and Adler that were available in the hospital library, and continued to work on poetry and illustration. His views on the drug abuse and wanton mischief of his early years reformed. “It was not because I hated the system, or those megalomaniacs who run it,” he wrote of his substance abuse, “but because I started despising my own being, and wanted to make myself suffer.”
In 1990, possibly due to petitions from his fans, he was released along with thousands of other “political prisoners.” Despite his progress, he hardly left the hospital a reformed Ivica Culjak. His intellectual research only gave him an open hostility for “civilization and its barricades,” and his writing and illustration, which had improved formalistically, was nonetheless more obscene and violent. Pogreb X was defunct, but more intent than ever to perform his Hard Blood Shock and “spew forth thunderous Truth from within,” he experimented with solo and improvised performances during his free weekends. He renamed himself Satan Panonski, which referred to his ancestry in the Pannonian region of Yugoslavia, and the reaction of an elderly woman who, when she came across the heavily tattooed, scarred, and transvestite punk on the street, wondered out loud if she was falling victim to local superstitions or if she were actually face to face with the devil.
“The self destructor,” Satan wrote, describing the essence of the name change, “has become an aggressor.”
“After eight years of tormenting isolation, I am no more a man, but TIME.”
Not wanting to disappoint the scandal-hungry media and punks who awaited his messianic return, Satan quickly reassembled members of Pogreb X and other bands for the Satan Panonski solo project. In March of 1988, while still in the asylum, they performed their first shows in Vinkovci and Zagreb, and in 1989 they recorded “Ljuljamo Ljubljeni Ljubicast” (Rocking Beloved Purple), featuring stripped down, raw, and strained-vocal versions
of Pogreb X’s Iza Zida, Oci U Magli, and Lepi Marijo. The nearly 40 minute record had the sound quality of a demo, occasionally ripping with a crust- industrial energy, and at times nearly unlistenable.
The next year Panonski released his definitive record “Nuklearne Olimpijske Igre” (Nuclear Olympic Games), featuring many of the same songs redone with more experiments and twists. Lepi Marijo, for example, featured Alvin and the Chipmunks-style sped-up back-up vocals between driving punk interludes that transition into nearly 20 minutes of shrieking, weeping, and spoken word. Survivors of this track are rewarded with the 2 minute Pistols-esque blast Pokolj (Slaughter).
The live performance combined punk songs and improvised percussive droning, theater, poetry, prose, painting, costuming and “Hard Blood Shock,” which had become heavy on needles and razor blades. In the record’s liner notes, Satan wrote: “Satan Panonski is not merely a Rock n’ Roll band, Satan Panonski is a NEW LIFE, without tricks, representing itself in the most ghastly way, without the ‘required fear’, with a Self-Destructive way of pushing my own views of Total Truth.”
The recognition of “Total Truth”, which apparently occurred at some point during his stay in the mental hospital, was the major impetus for the Panonski project. Sounding like a combination of nihilism and absurdism, he writes that this philosophy, a recognition that his civilization, culture, and their ideology are utterly fraudulent, makes him suicidal, “but in playing with it I can forget the Total Truth and stay alive.”
He elaborates that performing punk, which had “penetrated into his bones like a disease,” gave him room to push against the illusions of modern life, God, and socio-psychological barriers. Hard Blood Shock was a semi-acceptable place for ritualistic catharsis, allowing him to reveal the pain sublimated by a society bent on pushing existential agony to the margins. At the same time, the performances are meant to revolt most potential viewers, forcing them to either retreat into their own dogma or join in the destruction. “In Vinkovci to be proud was forbidden,” he wrote in the liner notes to Nuclear Olympic Games, “but if you display it you have to be a KAMIKAZE, you have to be considered smart & crazy, then, only then, you have a chance to be a legend from whom everyone runs away.”
Although an extreme version, his violent displays were essentially consistent with the transgression (usually satirical or performative) built into punk . His calls for his fans to overrun society and destroy government buildings, churches, and museums seemed to never substantiate. Outside the shows Satan was considered a genuine and kind person, hardly the monster he or the media wanted him to be. Also up to this point nowhere in his writing was there any indication of Panonski’s feeling towards the political chaos that was ripping Yugoslavia apart, nor that the bloody catharsis that would soon emerge on a regional level, or that his relegation of violence to performance art would soon end.
In the decades following the barbarity of World War II Europe was reorganized to no longer produce imperialist schemes or utopian insurrections. The East and West united in an embrace of capitalism, merely differing on market vs. command economics. Wars were fought by proxy in the periphery, prison complexes replaced concentration camps, and the modern identity crises of nation and class were replaced by consumerism and boredom.
During the war, Yugoslavia was occupied first by Italian fascists, then the Croatian fascist Ustashe, and finally the Nazis. Each were defeated by the partisans, military bands who conducted guerilla warfare against fascists. These red-flag waving socialists sincerely believed that the Soviet Union was a worker’s paradise and Stalin was the savior of the working class. Their commander, Josip Broz Tito, became the military dictator after the war, and reunited modern day Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Kosovo into Yugoslavia.
Initially he meant the federation to be a Soviet satellite state like neighboring Hungary or Romania, but Stalin and Tito had a falling-out over territory, and the Titoist model of socialism was born out of a supposed rejection of the USSR’s bureaucratic authoritarian model. In reality, Titoism was Yugoslavian Stalinism with a labor bureaucracy that was romanticized as “worker’s self management,” a state capitalist system just like the rest of the Eastern bloc, and revolutionary politics replaced with ideological apparatuses of churches, police, prisons, and asylums to keep the workers, who suffered from stagnating wages and discrimination based on ethnicity and political dissidence, neatly in line.
As a homeless, draft dodging, psychotic punk, Satan Panonski experienced all of these, but his rejection of Titoism began much earlier. In the poem “Little Pioneers” he recalls his experience in Yugoslavia’s indoctrinational youth movement:
When I was seven years old
They tied a Red scarf around my neck,
tightened it much – I could not breathe
so even today I have that fear.
His hatred of the so-called communists that ran society notwithstanding, Panonski was actually a proponent of socialist ideas. In the poem “Satan Panonski” he describes being “born again” when he stopped believing in God: “Only once I ceased to believe/I died in life and was reborn free.”
And in “Yugoslavia,” he compares the socialist federation to a cactus that grew in his backyard and somehow managed to survive cold winters to bloom a few flowers each year. Perhaps regretting that Yugoslav society was never truly revolutionary, he closes the poem “…I was truly very sorry/that such a plant had no thorns.”
Seeing punk as both the flowers and the thorns, Panonski often spoke about creating a utopian “Rock n’ Roll State.” If punks could organize their own shows, release their own records, and develop their own aesthetics based around a shared affinity of music, then perhaps they could run their own truly socialistic society. “There’s nothing like punk and that beautiful moment when two punks recognize each other like gypsies in the street,” he wrote.
His friend Ivan Glišić, a fellow proto-punk artist who was the first to publish Panonski’s work in an anthology of underground Yugoslav writers called “Children of Old Bakunin,” even scouted locations for the Rock n’ Roll State in an area owned by the Culjak family north of Zagreb and bordering Slovenia and Hungary. Glišić envisioned the artistic commune similar to Andy Warhol’s factory in New York, or Crass’ Dial House in England, but on much larger scale, because punks had finally trashed the nationalist baggage that Titoism, with its motto of “Unity and Brotherhood,” could only deny existed.
While sharing the same communal ideas about art, the two were so different from “regular people” that they may as well have been extraterrestrials, and differed on their view of normal citizens. Describing their own attire, Glišić wrote, “[Satan] wore a Russian pilot’s cap, a fez taken from the Moors, a Viking helmet with horns, and shamanic manitu amulets. …[I wore] a black beret with antenna on top to receive cosmic messages. We called ourselves Martians.” Despite his alternativism, Glišić used his art and writing to appeal to everyone to work against Milosevic and Serbian nationalism, but Panonski never had any pretension of sharing the humanity and truth he saw as inherent in his work and punk in general.
“The underground is art,” Panonski wrote, “Everything that sells 500,000 copies is just transforming Rock n’ Roll into filth. Absolute, original art cannot be commercial (on the level of Michael Jackson), because the people, the mediocre masses, don’t consume art. Some try, and act like they understand it, but they don’t know what it’s really about…” He expands on his misanthropy in the prose poem “Division”: “I divide people into SHEEP, DOGS and PEOPLE! Sheep as sheep: with bowed heads, timid, calm. DOGS shear them as and when they please…” This anti-political nihilism, and the concept that the “mediocre masses” could not truly be considered people, would set the stage for his next reinvention.
As for Yugoslavia, Tito’s death left a power vacuum and huge amounts of IMF debt. His successors attempted to fold Yugoslavia into the international trend of neo-liberal remodelling, but decades of inflated employment and trade deficits supported by borrowed money meant the economy was doomed. As the facade of Yugoslavia’s finances finally caught up with its political and ideological bankruptcy, the most reactionary sectors of society were being steadily armed by psuedo-Socialist politicians and wealthy expatriates, both salivating at the potential opening of state-controlled markets.
“I’ve called my entire life from 1977 to today a war. When I look at the state of my spirit today, there’s nothing new.” -Satan Panonski, interviewed by Globus from the Slavonian front in 1991.
In 1990 Franjo Tudman was elected with a mandate to cut ties to Yugoslavia and establish Croatia as an independent Nation-State. Croatian Serbs were convinced that Tudman’s election heralded the return Ustashe-era anti-Serb rhetoric. Funded and armed by Serbian nationalists who envisioned a “Greater Serbia” that included Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and parts of Croatia emerging from the collapse of Yugoslavia, they created militias. Croatian militias formed as well, and many of these were openly fascist. Autonomy was declared in the Serb-majority areas of Slavonia and Dalmatia, and wars of ethnic cleansing quickly followed.
Some of Panonski’s friends died early in the conflict, and his home village of Cerić was shelled and destroyed by Serb militias. In 1991, he joined the army in Vinkovci, which was the Croatian frontline against the separatist Serb territory in Slavonia. “I was a good and disciplined soldier. I love the discipline… I am a person who needs some kind of excess.” He likened the experience to that “punk communion” in Hamburg in 1978, when he first learned what punk was all about — the lifestyle, the clothes, the ideology.
For the previous decade he was adamant that punk was his only nationality, but now the tune had changed. “If I say I’m a Croat, I admit to being in civilization. My Mom and Dad are Croats, oh well, I am now. I will always fight for Croats because they are my parents, brothers, and friends,” he said. By the end of 1991 he released a tape called How a Punker Defended Croatia. One song from the tape was called “Belgrade Pašaluk”, implying Serbia was the new tyrannical Ottoman Empire. This clash-of-civilizations rhetoric would soon be used to justify Croat genocide against Bosnian Muslims in Mostar.
Only having heard of his recruitment from a newspaper, Ivan Glišić desperately tried to reach Panonski to talk some sense into him. He was already too late, and would never talk to his friend again. “In the chaos of the break-up and wars, those in and around power from all camps certainly knew how to intimidate and abuse people, including celebrities and young role models, to volunteer to fight for the power they would ostensibly gain,” Glišić said, implying that Panonski was actively recruited as a public figure.
A journalist from Globus asked how Panonski could justify defending the churches, museums, history, and customs of Croatia, when these were all things Panonski had in previously promised to destroy. He responded: “I do not fight for Croatia, for Vinkovci, but for your home, your hearth. Not my personal fireplace, but the fireplace of my mother, my brothers. I do not have a fireplace. I’m like a man who is out of civilization, a prehistoric man, who wanders from cave to cave.”
He then describes his participation in the Croatian army’s war-crime killing of Serb prisoners. “If you execute a victim never say ‘You’re going to be shot.’ I always tell them to go change, put on a hood… when we find ourselves in the cornfield or the woods, I fire a shot into his heart. Murder.”
He tells another story where he almost felt that it would be wrong to kill one prisoner who had just soiled himself in fear and was pleading for life. “I do not believe in God, but I was wondering if it was a sin… Then I remembered the pictures of slain children in Dalj and around Croatia, and I said to myself, ‘stop thinking this way.’ I fired until [the gun] was empty, as if it were nothing, as if I were shooting some kind of monster.” In another incident, he describes being nearly summarily executed by his own side for making comments seen as questioning Croatian nationalism. With the help of his commanding officers he was able to talk his way out with promises to “kill Chetniks.”
Today many ex-Yu punks deride Panonski as a nationalist sellout who quickly fell for the same anti-Serbian propaganda that would justify massive ethnic cleansing campaigns and genocidal rampages just like the ones that convinced him to enlist, only against Serbs and Bosnian Muslims. If he survived, would he, like so many formerly internationalist Croatians, justify these razing of villages, execution of the elderly too feeble to flee, and death camps for Muslims as well? Or was his turn towards nationalism a temporary fit of rage, not unlike the one that killed the gangster in Vinkovci?
Some called Yugoslavia a “prison of nations,” but now it is a complex of prisons, chaotically segregated by nationalism and far more impoverished than during the Tito era. Scars of the war are healing slowly, and amongst the youth, cynicism of t
he nationalist facades of the politicians are on the rise. They freely travel across borders to the Croatian and Montenegrin coasts during the Summer, to Novi Sad in
Serbia for the massive Exit festival, or to anti-fascist punk festivals in Zagreb, Mostar, and Belgrade. In 2014 riots erupted against Bosnia’s bloated, tri-national political system, whose parties continue to blame ethnic rivals as factories close and benefits are denied. Later that year I visited a squatted social center in the divided city of Mostar, where a multi-ethnic crew of punks and activists were constructing a half-pipe out of the rubble of buildings bombed two decades prior.
The youth remain bored, strong, creative, self-destructive, spiteful, and ignorant. In the thunderclaps of ‘77 punk we heard cries of desire bubbling through bloody larynx, bursts of joy blasting from suburban garages and youth hall rec-rooms, the same blasphemous desires of the radical insurgents before the world wars and the ‘68 rebels. But today in Vinkovci and much of the West’s suburbs, punk no longer concerns the authorities or freaks the squares. Its sharpest slaps to the face of public taste are celebrated in museums and available for sale at most major retailers. Soldiers listen to metal covers of the Misfits as they blast through Arab villages. Anarchism was an aesthetic choice, a statement on art, the original British punks like Lydon or Ignorant claim as they cash-in on a reunion tour boom market.
“Playing with the Truth,” aesthetics, gender, origin stories, and philosophy, were all not enough to prevent Panonski from falling for Tudman’s chauvinism. His affinity with the punks of Serbia could not dissuade him from dehumanizing Croatian Serbs as “Chetniks”, and his dream of a rock n’ roll state were perhaps not incommensurate enough with the liberal democratic order ushered in by Tudman.
“Kečer became an underground myth,” Glišić said. “He surpassed himself… [and like] every myth [he] belongs to everyone. Someone smears him, someone raises him up… And there’s no hard feelings. He has spoken both loud and clear and between the lines. The question is where we are and what we are.”
There are a few legends about how Panonski was shot and killed on a snowy Vinkovci night in December, 1992. One says he was fragged by his own side due to homophobia, his complicated stance on nationalism, or some other bigotry. Another version speculates that there was a Serb sniper hidden in the town. His family’s version of the story is the least fanciful, but most likely to be true. Not knowing how to properly use his weapon, he accidentally fired it against himself.
Translations by A.M. Gittlitz using Google Translate, and from the Hard Blood Shock LP zine accompaniment by Scott Soriano and Igor Mihovilic.
More source material:
Croatian Satan Panonski fansite
Globus interview from Slavonian Front
Yugoslav self-management: Capitalism under the red banner by Juraj Katalena
Compilation of some Poetry and Prose in Serbo-Croatian
Bad Maps bio of Satan Panonski
Bio by Ivan Glisic