Sunday, 1 April 2012

Lost legend of Rock'n'Roll: Johnny Kolyma

Born Jan Onufry Szwenkier in 1937 in Worochta, in what was then the south-easternmost corner of pre-war Poland, he was deported as a three year-old along with his family to a labour camp north of Magadan in Kolyma in 1940. Miraculously, he survived (although his older sister and father didn't) and in 1947, he was repatriated to communist Poland along with his mother and other Poles from the camp. Together they fled to West Berlin, and then, having made contact with cousins in Kentucky, his mother secured them passage to the USA as Displaced Persons.

While his mother found employment as a garment-maker in Louisville, young Johnny began high school where he found studying a bore; he'd prefer sneaking off and listening to the black musicians rehearsing rhythm'n'blues music in the juke-joints and chitlin' circuit dives in the West End of town. It was here, with several other rebellious school friends, they began to play a highly-accelerated form of the music they heard.

Having picked up the rudiments (but no more) of hot race music, he reinvented himself as Johnny Kolyma, backed by the Gulag Guards.

His music was about anger, 20 years before punk rock exploded onto the scene. Johnny Kolyma's music was three-chord, twelve-bar blues, stripped down and played fast. Angry, shouted lyrics about anything that annoyed him (which was pretty much everything). Right: the only known photo of Johnny Kolyma taken live on stage at The Airway, Louisville, July or August 1956.

Boy, was that cat mad. Mad at Eisenhower for not nuking Moscow. Mad at Washington's pinko liberal establishment for selling eastern Europe down the river. Mad at teenage America for being insufficiently serious. Mad at the cruelty and indifference of the world.

Johnny Kolyma and the Gulag Guards played local gigs to an increasingly fervent crowd; the gigs were soon noted for the fact that his infectious anger would spread to the audiences who would demolish venue after venue. After a while it was hard for the band to find new places to play. Moving to abandoned factories and warehouses, the gigs would end with local riots sweeping through the immediate neighbourhood. Louisville's authorities soon put an end to the live performances (there were reckoned to have been around 20-30 gigs during the summer of 1956).

Uncompromising, raw and unwilling to conform to what the music companies needed to stoke the Rock'n'Roll explosion, Kolyma and his band recorded one eponymously-named long-playing album; all copies were snapped up by local fans. Attempts at playing gigs in neighbouring cities failed; the band split up in 1958 when all the members, including Kolyma, were drafted into the armed forces. What happened to Mr Kolyma after his spell in the military remains a mystery.

Leaving nothing but a legend and a few hundred records, now fetching several thousand dollars at auctions, Johnny Kolyma and the Gulag Guards disappeared from the scene. Their legendary proto-punk, proto-garage sound deserved a wider audience.

4 comments:

DC said...

Holy cow! What a fantastic story. Where did you dig it up?

toyah said...

@Mike
I will tell you this straight from the bridge: This is no to belief!!!

Anonymous said...

April Fool methinks
Marek K

Anonymous said...

The chap in that photograph?
....why he reminds me of soumone that I knoe...




Frater gliffin'snue
live at the Roxy