From Iceland — Megas: Iceland's Greatest Living Wordsmith

Megas: Iceland’s Greatest Living Wordsmith

Published July 25, 2003

Megas: Iceland’s Greatest Living Wordsmith

Grapevine does not know what to expect as the phone is picked up. Will Master answer in verse or prose, quoting pearls of oriental wisdom, the Sagas or the Bible, or will he answer cryptically, leaving Grapevine to discover the meaning itself?

“Yes?” says the voice. “Megas?” asks Grapevine somewhat stupidly, as the voice is very distinctive and well known from hundreds of songs. “Yes?” the voice repeats. “I’m calling from Reykjavík Grapevine,” I manage to blurt out, before becoming silent with awe at the moment. Here I am, holding an old Nokia cellphone, and at the other end of the line is Master Megas himself.

Megas is almost as old as the Republic, born in 1945, and the country has grown up with him. His 1990 semi-autobiography, Sól í Norðurmýri, is a wonderful prose poem about growing up in Reykjavík in the post war years. Through Megas´ works you can witness the transformation of Reykjavík from the small town of his childhood to the gritty urban area portrayed on his 1987 masterpiece, Loftmynd (Airview), released in honour of Reykjavik’s 201st anniversary. The album (which features Björk on very apparent backing vocals), is full of tales of innocence lured to the big city, as generation after generation of Icelanders moved to Reykjavík, leaving entire towns abandoned. Once there, however, instead of the realisation of their dreams, they find drunkenness, murder, prostitution and heartbreak. But the album is also an extended love letter to his city (it’s his, we might as well admit it), filled with adventures among the abandoned bunkers in Öskjuhlíðin and the fair in Vatnsmýri (defunct since 1963).

His first album, released in 1972, is an iconoclastic tour de force of Icelandic history. Among the cast is first settler Ingólfur Arnarson, lamented for his unfortunate discovery of the island, last Catholic bishop and national hero Jón Arason, who loved young girls as much as God and the pope, and national poet Jónas Hallgrímsson, the syphilitic drunk whom it is not safe to let into your house.

Megas made a string of brilliant albums in the 70´s and did a lot of drugs before retiring after having released a final album, Drög að sjálfsmorði (First Steps to Suicide), recorded live in 1978. He disappeared from public view, stopped doing drugs, became a dockworker and finally went to art school from where he got a degree. He was finally cajoled into making a comeback in 1986, with the brilliant album Í góðri trú (In Good Faith), and has been recording and performing frequently ever since, also writing a novel, a play and even translating the stage version of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.

He has spent time in Thailand, and made his first trip to the United States in 1990, playing “Got a Lot of Living to Do” along with the Sugarcubes and Mexican Elvis impersonator El Ves at an animal rights benefit in New York.

Profoundity or a pint?

Megas agrees to meet me on one condition. “I am broke”, he says, “so you buy the beer.” Grapevine is not in the habit of buying girls drinks, even though it knows that this sometimes entails the tiniest possibility of leading to sex, but this time, it seems like a sound investment. Still, it is ironic that the greatest artist in the country cannot afford a drink. A Soviet propaganda poster shows on one side a wretched troubadour playing on the streets, and on the other a well dressed violinist playing in a concert hall. The poster is supposed to reflect the difference between how capitalist and communist societies treat their artists. These days, the strip clubs of Russia are filled with trained ballet dancers unable to find employment elsewhere after the state stopped sponsoring them, whereas in the West, teenagers are auditioned, placed into pop groups, taught a few dance moves, stripped of most of their clothes, videoed and made rich beyond their wildest dreams before being abandoned to their drug addictions once the money stops rolling in.

In Iceland, as in most civilised countries, we are outraged by our greatest artists on occasion, but mostly we just ignore them until they die, after which we worship them like Gods. Megas´ works have rarely stormed up the charts, and he has sometimes had difficulty releasing his albums due to lack of financial backing, but lately he seems to have been vindicated to some extent, as in 2000 he was voted by the nation to be the second greatest wordsmith in its history, second only to Halldór Laxness and beating Snorri Sturluson. His entire catalogue was rereleased in 2002, remastered and with bonus tracks, the most ambitious rerelease series undertaken in this country so far.

Mussolini, Ciccolina and the Gay Birds

Meanwhile, our artists can always find expression on the second floor of Grand Rokk. The room, seating some 200 persons after the tables are taken out, is cramped and very, very smoky. Opening act Súkkat is a duet comprised of two cooks, as renowned for their subdued stage appearance as for their witty lyrics. The crowd is noisy, drunk and impatient, but Súkkat show their mettle and, defying convention as well as logic, before the set is over the crowd is singing along They then announce the next band, Geirfuglarnir (a penguin like bird hunted into extinction on these shores in the mid-1800´s, yes, we did it to them and we’ll do it to the whales), as the Gay Birds. The Gay Birds back them up on the last two songs, and by now the crowd is wholly on their side. Súkkat leave the stage and the Gay Birds do a few numbers of their own, including one song in Italian, a language of which they seemingly know where little, but they manage to name check Mussolini, Ciccolina and various culinary delights, before somewhat ingeniously rhyming Don Corleone with Silvio Berlusconi.

But no one has forgotten what we are here for, and finally comes the anticipated moment when the Master takes the stage (sadly, at this time Grapevine is in the bathroom, so the following description is entirely fictional). The lights go out, and the room becomes deadly quiet. A low chanting of childlike voices is heard, ever escalating, then suddenly stopping. A terrible thunder is heard as the heavens part, angels and demons flutter about, each playing a different instrument, laughing and shrieking and dancing about on tables and above peoples heads. Then a flash of light blinds everyone, and as we slowly regain our senses an aging man with protruding ears and a guitar slung about him has appears on stage. He begins to sing. It is as senseless to try to explain in words the joy of listening to music as it is to describe the taste of wine (“oak and earthy nose, barnyard dusty palate, good length,” anyone?), so I won’t.

Campness from Elvis to Batman

The minutes seem to pass satanically slowly as I stand waiting outside Hotel Borg, feeling that combination of dread and anticipation usually associated with first dates. Finally Master arrives, apologizes for his lateness and courteously motions me inside. He explains he had something he had to finish, and Grapevine hopes its intrusion hasn’t smothered some masterpiece in infancy.

Finally, the moment has come. Able to ask anything I want, I am bereft of inspiration. “Why do you write songs?” I find myself saying.

“Presley was one of my two saviours, but unlike him I didn’t have access to material, so I had to write it myself.”

“And the other one was?”

“Laxness. I listened to him read Gerpla on the radio as a child, and I was glued to the set with the book in front of me, feeling a sense of thrill whenever he made any changes to the text. At the very same time, Elvis was just beginning. He was anarchist in behaviour, he was every taboo rolled into one. He had a homosexual haircut, he dressed like a homosexual, he moved like a stripper and every song resembled rape in the way he used the microphonestand as a partner. There aren’t any colour pictures of him, the ones that we have are in black and white, or counterfeited colours. We don’t get to see him as he was, dressed in a red jacket and green trousers. If we had, styles would have changed a lot earlier. He sang white trash in a negroid manner, but it worked both ways, the white man began to sing black and the black man began to sing white. This is the reason why ideals about equality managed to brake through and why events did not turn out that much worse when schools were integrated. When white people played black songs, the teeth were pulled out of the music. But Elvis still had bite, and brought unadulterated black music to the masses, and hence recognition of blacks. So when schools were integrated, it was because of Elvis.”

Master has spoken, and his incisive intelligence has begun to illuminate things. “One of your other loves is comic books,” says Grapevine, attempting to drag the conversation down to its level. “How do you like Spider-Man?”

“Spider-Man always annoyed me. It’s that damn aunt of his. She is portrayed in such a manner, probably reflecting tension within the writer, that it irritates the reader so you want to punch her face in. She is a very good portrait of someone who pretends to need help, but is a master of instilling guilt if everyone doesn’t sit and stand as she wants. This type exists. But Batman is a much better venue for philosophical thought, and ever changing, yet still using all the elements of the Batman myth created by Bob Kane, just as the theatre of the middle ages tended to use the same characters over and over.

Grapevine does not know much about medieval theatre, but Batman is something it understands. “Have you read the Dark Knight series?”

“It was a return to the roots, cutting out the campy humour that had characterised him for so long. Batman had become very gay, but once he had become more evil, lurking in the night, he seemed less so. Everyone is insane, both he and the criminals, although he is on the opposing side, two sides of the same coin. He is always playing a form of Russian roulette. It’s not self contempt so much as a general contempt for mankind. Comics often escape the censor, because they are considered too irrelevant. So they often get away with biting social critism. In Hollywood, the studios tend to censor themselves, but ways are found to get through. In the Eisenhower era, gays could have a laugh because authorities were that deaf and dumb. Some Like It Hot is extremely gay, and a film worshipped by gays, but no one else seemed to realise its implications.”

The similarity between Caligula and Icelanders

From Jack Lemmon in drag the conversation turns to social critism.

“Poverty is increasing. People are fooled with the carrot “good times are coming,” so they invest heavily and unsoundly. Everyone becomes heavily in debt, and have no choice but to continue being where they are, doing the jobs they do. It was the same in the old farming society when people where literally banned from moving about.

Nero and Caligula were both men who were reasonably sane before they came to power, but then suddenly become raving mad. A bit like Icelanders. In most countries, it takes absolute power to corrupt absolutely, but here a little power is enough. People like Jónas frá Hriflu (mid-20th century Progressive Party politician, parodied in a Megas take on Dylan’s John Wesley Harding) espoused Nazi-ish art, even after the war, and he was also responsible for putting the girls who had associated with American soldiers into concentration camps. Of course, it was men who ran the corrupt government, and women tended to be victims. One of the reasons Icelandic men took second place to the soldiers was Icelanders complete lack of courtesy. Gentlemanly behaviour must have been known here at some point, but had been forgotten and replaced by rudeness. It’s amazing that they actually wrote predesigned reports. These claim that it wasn’t corruption, only a few tarts selling themselves, or worse, doing it for free. But these men would sell their own grandmother, and not even hand her over once they had gotten the money, and then sell her over again.”

Prozac or sex?

Grapevine has learnt a lot that afternoon, but still is no closer to discovering the road to eternal happiness. So far, it can imagine but two possibilities. Loads and loads of sex, or, failing this, a lot of Prozac.

“Oh Master, lies the road to eternal bliss in taking enough prescription drugs so that you are rid of this endless craving for sex?”

“Prozac and sex are mutually exclusive. If you’re getting rid of your sexual urges, you’re going contrary to the point of it all. You have peace, but you have no purpose anymore. In the end, reproduction is our goal here on earth. There isn’t any other.” It is as I suspected.
“And so it will be until our old stepmother Earth, who has killed almost all life on earth several times, gets tired of being raped and brings an end to this experiment too.”

“But is there anyone directing the experiment?”

“It is up to ourselves what we do, but there is no thought, no bald Matrix scientist behind it all.”

So, there is no God. It all boils down to sex, then, if reproduction is the only way we can reach immortality. How should this be conducted? Should we get married or should we sleep around? Some claim that marriage kills creativity.

“This was always obvious,” says Master. Relationships can bring you some beautiful moments, but those games should always be ended when they reach their climax.”

“Is this why you’ve never gotten married?”

“No, that’s just because I’m impossible to have about the house. The creative person is dedicated to his work and doesn’t care about anything else. He cannot sit still on a couch with a beer in his hand and watch TV. He’s just not interested in that, so he’s not made for relationships. And sensitive men can just forget about it. Women have shown time and again that they’re not interested in that sort of thing. You can be that for yourself, it relieves a lot of stress, but out amongst people you must put up a front. If you can’t be cool you get beaten up. But if you have a menacing look in your eye, you can avoid conflict.”

Why revolutions are hopeless

Icelanders, it is true, are very much in the habit of beating each other up, especially when drunk, and the Sagas speak of people who were killed just because they could be. But yet attempts have never been made at revolution, despite this seeming propensity for violence,

Master speaks: “There have been two uprisings in Icelandic history. One was when the label of the Brennivín bottles was changed, and people protested and refused to buy it.”

“And the other one?”

“It was when the nation sat at home on the 1000 year celebration of Christianity in 2000. Not very active rebellions, perhaps, but nonetheless…”

“It is very much like Icelanders to protest against the small things and ignore the big.”

“Exactly. No one expected any trouble on the 30th of March (the riots that broke out in 1949 when the Icelandic government joined NATO), but yet, just in case, they trained a group of men, the white guard as they were called, and the people found to do the job were Icelanders who had been in the SS and were transported home from Norway at the end of the war. How do they respond then, if they are really threatened?”

“Well, these days people are becoming more radicalised than they have been for a long time,” Grapevine opinions hopefully. But Master has seen it all before.

“But then the same thing will happen over again. CIA diverted money to them, to know where they had them. They then became dependent on CIA financing, which could be stopped at any time. Protesting is a very expensive business.”

We are now reaching the heart of the matter. “What is to be done to make the world a better place? What can we do?”

“There is nothing we can do. There is no us and them. They are us and we are them. People protest against the industrialisation of the highlands, but they won’t mind once it’s taken place. Perhaps we can put up some cardboard cutouts of nature in the summer for the tourists.”

And so it is. In the end, successful revolution is out of the question, because it is our own greed and, frankly, stupidity that we are up against.

How George Bush stole history

Master continues: “The existence of Bin Laden is open to doubt, a CIA spy that pops up when needed, if not in Afghanistan, then in Indonesia, and doesn’t seem to exist otherwise. If you don’t have the enemy you need you must create him. The Nazis said that if they hadn’t had the Jews, they would have had to invent them. Saddam Hussein, however, existed and is probably still alive and protected to some extent by the population.

“The Robin Hood, or John Wesley Harding of Iraq?”

“No, he’s done too much wrong. But the people probably prefer a local dictator over foreign occupation. For instance, the day after US troops entered Baghdad, artefacts from the National Museum popped up on sale in New York and Rome.”

“Stolen by the US?”

“This has been claimed. Who else would be able to put them on sale right away? The Iraqis wouldn’t, even though they might have wanted to. It is an old tradition to plunder a conquered country. This is the cradle of civilisation. It is interesting that Bush was so interested in destroying the birthplace of civilisation, and thus changing the history of ideas, when he’s chopped it into pieces and shipped it out.”

“But aren’t there religious reasons as well, in bombing Babylon?”

“God has already taken care of Babylon. And he’s active elsewhere, too. Building the two Twin Towers in honour of money is a far graver insult than the Tower of Babel. Two planes arrive, and God spits on the ground. The US government, of course, knew what was about to go down, in much the same way as the Nazis knew about the burning of the Reichstag, but did nothing to prevent it. Once they could point their finger at the enemy, they could go about abolishing human rights and getting rid of their enemies. To reach to power you need to be a bastard, and what is good if this is the government?”

The Heart of the Matter

“So what can we do? There’s no one worth voting for and all revolutions seem to accomplish the opposite of what they set out to?”

“The good guys are always by nature weaker than the bad. The victory of good is never more than symbolic, and then only in retrospect. When the Nazis were beaten in World War Two, they were beaten with Nazi tactics, so fascism won, and so completely that almost the entire staff was flown to Washington to continue their work. Then came the Korean War, which was a good dress rehearsal, as was Vietnam, which was carpet bombed into oblivion. To save it they had to destroy it. Everything is so insane that there’s not anything to be said anymore.”

“So the only thing the sensible person can do is to resign himself from everything, and try to ignore it?”

“Well, you can try to express your opinions as clearly as possible, and give those who are still struggling ideological weapons. But everything is just so insane. Bush comes to power through forgery and fake vote counting. Under any other circumstances, other power elites would have protested over the dubiousness of the election. He had done what a politician is not allowed to do, drugs, but he became born again, so that’s alright. Christian fundamentalism is also a good excuse to hate 95% of humanity, although he´s probably not Christian at all.”

“But isn’t sarcasm powerless to fight this? There have never been as many satirists let loose as during the Weimar Republic, but they failed to laugh Hitler of the stage, who was the one man who seemed deadly earnest. What can we do?”

“You can make fun all you want, and some people will laugh, but then evil clenches its fist and punches your teeth out.”

So there you have it. Everything is hopeless. Grapevine leaves genius to do its brooding, somewhat wiser but necessarily happier.

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