At a time when The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were beginning to experiment with all sorts of sounds and styles in the West, two ageing Polish gents entertained millions on the other side of the Iron Curtain with a TV show harking back to some imaginary version of ‘the good old days’. But why did they split up so suddenly? And why does everyone in Poland still know their songs, more than 50 years after they retired their signature top hats?
Before World War II, cabaret in Poland was a popular art form, combining elegant stage song with delightful humour. Under communism, it used music and verse to ridicule and undermine the Soviet regime. In recent decades it has proven less popular, but its influence lingers on in the legacy of the TV show Kabaret Starszych Panów, otherwise known as the Old Timers' Cabaret.
It's the Old Timers', we're the Old Timers', the Old Timers' Cabaret! Fearing Alzheimer’s, our health in decline, yet we feel as fresh as May!
With such cheery, if somewhat troubling words, two gentlemen dressed in frocks began each episode of their groundbreaking show in the black & white days of Polish television. The Old Timers' Cabaret (Kabaret Starszych Panów), the brainchild of lyricist Jeremi Przybora (Mr B) and composer Jerzy Wasowski (Mr A), enjoyed a mere eight-year run, yet in a recent survey conducted by the weekly magazine Polityka, its creators were voted the second most influential television personalities of the 20th century.
Between 1958 and 1966, those two ‘elderly gents’ managed to write and record 144 songs remarkable enough to warrant a collected five-album compilation Piosenki Kabaretu Starszych Panów (Songs from the Old Timers' Cabaret), released by Polish Radio in the year 2000. Come to think of it, The Beatles also lasted a mere eight years (1962-1970)... and just like John and Paul, or the Rolling Stones' Keith and Mick, the Old Timers drew in some of the most talented musicians of the time, yet were at heart basically a genius double act. Then, just like The Beatles, they broke up at the peak of their careers, leaving us forever wanting more.
World War II & its artistic aftermath
Just like John and Paul, Jeremi and Jerzy were also great at putting on an act. The Beatles pretended to be a happy ‘mop top’ family, using fake US accents to sing inanities such as Love Love Me Do and All You Need Is Love, before going on to experiment with psychedelic drugs and musical styles on radically countercultural albums like Rubber Soul and Yellow Submarine. The Old Timers were not really all that old – at the time of their meeting, Jeremi was 43 and Jerzy 45 – but they had both lived through the horrors of the Second World War and watched as ‘victorious’ Poland, having defeated Hitler's Third Reich, became oppressed by Stalin's Soviet superpower. Their elegantly-staged TV shows, watched by millions all over Poland, became a very suave, and yet equally radical form of protest against the status quo.
In pre-war Poland, live cabaret was what chat shows are to TV audiences today – cheery dialogues and popular songs, with some political jokes thrown in. The Old Timers' Cabaret was driven by a longing for those elegant, more innocent times, before Warsaw was razed to the ground, before Poland's airwaves were censored by the Kremlin, before what remained of its Home Army was hunted down and exterminated by the Soviet secret service.
Some saucy songs
Jeremi Prybora said: ‘I was essentially interested jollying things up, in entertaining ourselves and our audiences by evading the grey, boring, ugly reality around us, the vulgarity and coarseness taking over the world beyond our stage door. I wasn't actually raging against it. Even back then, I thought it was a natural turn of events, the product of social progress. That in time Poland would again become more interesting and more attractive. But I did long for the days of elegance, of something other than ordinary reality. Writing for our Cabaret, I allowed myself to give voice to that longing.’
Wasowski added: ‘All our efforts were underpinned by the simple idea: What is everyone so upset about? After all, we're not going to be here forever!’
Singing is Good for All Ills
Singing is good for all ills!
Singing is better than pills!
Singing for when it all feels like
singing's not helping at all.
Singing will help you along,
Will silence a song which is wrong,
Will charm the sweetheart that you want:
Singing – the song, la chanson!
Songs alone can make you strong
When someone who's bad does you wrong,
When all you were wanting is gone.
Get rhythm to be lifting your feet!
Singing will ace every test,
On weekdays and Sunday best,
For getting bad things off your chest:
Singing – canzona, das Lied!
Our composers and those others marry words and tunes together,
So dear sisters and dear brothers, you can always beat the weather!
And when life just serves up troubles, singing brings things back on song.
Fate will often prick your bubble, yet we keep on singing on all the day long!
While stand-up comedians and drug-fuelled rockers thrilled audiences in the West, the Old Timers Cabaret eschewed the conventional model of a show hosted by a grinning ‘personality’ surrounded by equally famous guests uttering scripted nothings to camera. Just like America's Saturday Night Live today, the show was streamed live, but the format was wildly original – each episode was set in a ramshackle hotel, ran by our titular gentlemen, visited by a host of colourful characters.
These guests, played by some of the best actors and singers of the last century, mimed along to songs on ‘playback’, but the rest of the show was often improvised, a truly risky high-wire act considering literally half the country was watching. The same shows would then be broadcast on the radio for those who could not afford a television, or had been hard at work rebuilding their war-damaged homeland – ensuring all of Poland fell in love with Przybora and Wasowski's timeless (and often hilariously bizarre) songs:
Adios Me Tomotoes
August gone, and so's September,
now October, I remember
oh the softest, reddish skin I'd love to kiss.
I don't regret the summer days,
the roses, berries, larks and jays.
Still, those shiny, crimson bulbs I'm going to miss:
Tomatoes, my adored!
My round and reddish heart
weeps now you are done.
Here comes a winter story
Of pickles, oh so boring,
My heart is torn apart
Now our romance is canned.
Them soups or sauces are not for me,
I want to gulp
your freshest pulp
rich in vitamins all the way from A to Z...
Adios me sweet tomatoes,
Farewell my Eldorado,
Through all these long, dark months, your flesh is but a dream.
There was a certain lady,
who would turn out real shady,
though I did spend some pleasant nights in her lair.
Then that witch, I kid you not,
executes a devious plot
to steal the last tomatoes I'd tried to hide from her.
Walery Namiotkiewicz, personal secretary to Communist Party leader Władysław Gomułka, said that ‘the mere sight of that Cabaret made [the boss] throw his slippers at the television set.’ They simply did not fit the proletarian vision of deathly dull uniformity the party had intended for the Soviet Bloc. Przybora said of Wasowski:
My friend and I were born to completely different parents. That's probably why we're not siblings. And yet, from word go we were united by the shared experience of having been born too early... by about three decades and two World Wars.
The Old Timers were anything but conservative in their approach to entertaining audiences. Songs such as Jeżeli Kochać To Nie Individualnie (If You Should Love, Never Do It Alone) or Już Kąpiesz Się Nie Dla Mnie (You No Longer Bathe for Me) were suggestive enough as it was for the time, but other infamous ditties did not so much allude to sexuality as flaunt it right in the faces of communist era censors:
For in Me There's Sex
For in me there's sex,
your hot little misfit.
For in me there's sex,
who'd hope to resist it?
It burns in my chest, twisting my hips,
Heat licking my lips!
For in me burns sex,
That truest of tinders.
Forget your last ex –
He's singed to a cinder.
Those erotic fires keep burning too deep
To let lovers keep
Their cool little sleep.
Yet when my prey is burnt like clay - I suffer so!
Prey my cute curves have thus enslaved
Though apart from flesh I too have a soul!
Though I'm full of sex
There's depth to my spirit,
Yet nobody sees
the soul deep within it.
And so I keep dreaming of one who can dive
deep down inside
this cool soul of mine.
This fighter of fires then gets
My soul and my sex!
My soul and my sex!
In 1964, Antoni Słonimski (author and president of the Union of Polish Writers) quipped: ‘The Old Timers' Cabaret is the only truly non-profit firm today providing customers with a top class product. This small, private enterprise is dwarfed by the collective might of the rest of radio and TV, yet it specialises in charm, which is bloody essential when it comes to things such as songs, without which life makes ever so little sense.’
Such statements, printed in the satirical magazine Szpilki, were a clear (if subtle) dig at Poland's communist regime at a time when dissent, or even slight divergence from the party line, could be punished by being permanently fired from one's profession or by actual firing squad. Our radically alternative Old Timers hinted at the possibility of a different world – a world of subtlety, of creativity, of freedom. Something no oppressive, humourless regime could ever stand for long.
As the USSR and the rest of the Soviet bloc began to suffer more and more economic hardships in the 1970s and 80s (as a result of inefficient planning and even more ineffective practices), cabaret experienced a resurgence in Poland. It became more and more political, as Solidarity ushered in a new air of courage and creative resistance. Many cabarets would follow our Old Timers: Pod Egidą, Koń Polski, Tey, Dudek, Szpak, Kabaret Olgi Lipińskiej, Piwnica pod Baranami and many, many others. Their subtle songs and even subtler jokes at the expense of the regime were like water wearing away at a rock – a slow but unstoppable force, keeping the people of Poland cheered up, while also showing them that state propaganda was a lie and freedom of expression, and eventually of the whole of Central Europe, was possible.
The present is no laughing matter
After the collapse of communism and radical transition to free market economics, cabaret in Poland has been on the wane. Clearly aware that nothing lasts forever, Wasowski said:
I think it’s appropriate and rather sweet to leave the stage once the show is done, or even maybe a little earlier... just as long as we don't overstay our welcome!
However, the legacy of the Old Timers is very much alive and well. Maciej Maleńczuk (one of Poland's biggest rock stars) and Paweł Kukiz (now a famous politician) recorded a covers album of their songs in 2010, with the help of Polish stars such as Kayah, Renata Przemyk and Ewelina Flinta. More recently, Poland's state bank issued a series of commemorative Old Timers' coins, while Google went as far as creating one of its famous ‘doodles’ honouring our two gentle gents:
The legendary Polish crooner Wojciech Młynarski said:
In composing tunes to the words written by Przybora, Wasowski interpreted them musically, wonderfully enhancing and emphasising the humour, amplifying their satirical and lyrical genius. In addition, the melodies themselves are so beautiful, the best jazz musicians around the world still play them today... Had Jerzy Wasowski lived and worked in the USA, he would have been called George Gershwin.
As Europe's population becomes more and more ‘long-lived’, and as young people continue to raid their grandparents' wardrobes for hip old fashions, new generations of listeners in Poland are discovering the wonders of the Old Timers' back catalogue. But the question I ask myself as I translate more and more of their songs – is the world outside of Poland ready to swing with the Old Timers? Can their sense of humour speak to audiences around the globe?
As a new generation of Polish performers, such as Warsaw's Klancyk (wholly improvised theatre) and Michał Sufin's Comedy Club, establish permanent partnerships with the likes of Edinburgh and Chicago, perhaps a musical version of their live performances, in English, could in time also be a global success? After all, less and less people each year remember the bad old days of communism, but many still recall and revisit the songs of the Old Timers' Cabaret, thereby proving they were right all along: their songs truly were good for all ills – good enough even to help Poland survive the Soviet Union.
The Nobel Prize-winning poet Wisława Szymborska said of Jeremi Przybora: ‘He was a master at combining music and comedy... his lyrics could happily be separated from Wasowski's delicious melodies, and still make us laugh and revel in their brilliance.’ And so, in honour of the Old Timers' Cabaret, I leave you with my translation of Wisława Szymborska's wee ode to the joys of growing (disgracefully) old:
An Ode to Old Age
How lame is life when you are YOUNG!
You don't feel your heart... your liver... your lungs...
You sleep like a baby, eat like a horse,
headaches come rarely (with vodka, of course).
It's only when you get to a RIPE OLD AGE
that you finally turn a fabulous page!
When every breath is a real struggle...
Your knees are on fire...
Each step could spell trouble...
Every five minutes you need to “take five”...
Yet each of those minutes you know you're ALIVE!
So stop your whining, restrain your tongue,
For now you know what – while you were young
life kept from thee – you've LIVED TO SEE!
And though sometimes you might hurt a bit,
Enjoy every day!
And don't give a S***!!!
Written by Marek Kazmierski, Sept 2017, with translations by the author