by Joe Váradi
In the Summer of 2004, Tibi Kiss, the guitarist-frontman for alternative rock band Quimby, came out of rehab after 13 months of treatment for drug addiction and depression and penned the greatest song of his career, spawning a wave of innovative covers around the globe.
The song had a dark secret, hiding in plain sight.
In its first incarnation, the song is a moderately paced rock ballad, with a straightforward G-D-Em-C chord progression and two bridges. The four-measure instrumental intro, played softly in 12/8 time on a Gretsch hollowbody electric guitar accompanied by piano and cymbals, sets the pulsating tone for the rest of the three and a half minute tune.
The standard five-piece rock lineup is complemented by a lone violin during the bridges, and there is a melancholy, sentimental trumpet solo in there as well, the kind you might expect on a Simply Red track.
Tibi Kiss (pronounced teebee kish) performs the song in his characteristic, bluesy lyrical style that drifts between singing and speaking, with echoes of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. And the lyrics — just, wow. Dreamy, allegorical, introspective, and — as we will soon discover — very much open to reinterpretation. The title,
Most múlik pontosan
translates to English as
Now it passes, precisely
If you will indulge me, let’s dive deeper into the song.
The first verse describes a release, a letting go of something or someone. It is emotional, restrained, cathartic, and rather abstract. (All translations are by the author.)
Let it rush forth from inside me,
the only one, I thought
There’s somewhere else you deserve to be,
you don’t belong to me
The second verse is where things get a lot more allegorical.
I see a bird soaring above me,
barbed wire lodged in its heart, in its beak a blade of straw
I lull myself, as she lands on an apple tree,
in God’s garden, inhales the heady cider
Is the bird symbolic of the individual spirit, wounded yet still yearning to be free? Does the blade of straw represent a desire of a rambling soul to build a proverbial nest and settle down?
I suspect that this is the part of the song where for many listeners it stops being an intensely personal, gut-wrenching ballad, and becomes something more. This is where the song begins to rise to a higher plane from which it speaks to a much broader audience, even to a nation as a whole.
Whether or not it was done on purpose, the imagery of barbed wire stirs up the bitter collective memories of a small European nation with a war-ravaged history. Similarly, the symbolism of dry straw and ripened apples resonates with a society with deep agrarian roots stretching back many centuries.
We all choose what we want to hear, I suppose.
Further below, I included the original Quimby music video. But first, let me show you how I, and how millions of people around the world were first introduced to the song: as a 2008 cover by the folk ensemble Csík (pronounced cheek) Orchestra.
The genius of the Csík rendition is that it taps into the patriotic undercurrent of the lyrics, and celebrates it unabashedly, the way American country songs celebrate love of country, whiskey, truck driving and loose women.
Have a listen …
The Csík cover also manages to elevate the music so that it stands alone, radiating a visceral joy, and overshadowing some of the darker passages in the lyrics. This group had been ubiquitous at folk festivals since the late 80s, and they found new success in the 2000s by pushing the boundaries of traditional folk music, foraying into eclectic crossovers, and winning over legions of fans by reinventing classics as well as contemporary hits.
I mean, just look at the pure drunken delight on the face of rhythm section viola-player Tamás Kunos. He knows that they are creating something special.
The Csík cover of Most múlik pontosan was the one that went viral.
The video racked up 20 million YouTube views to date (before it was myseteriously pulled). This is remarkable for such a niche crossover genre, and also considering that it came out of a nation with a population of less than 10 million, and sung in a language spoken by perhaps 15 million people worldwide.
The Csík version is also the one that broke down international barriers for the song. Its influence can be heard in covers such as the one below, by Buyuchek, a band that I can best describe as Mexican rockabilly with a Mariachi soul:
It is a remarkable feat and quite touching how lead singer Jorge Loayzat painstakingly learned the complete lyrics in the original Hungarian. He performs Most múlik pontosan while showing off his mastery of the traditional Mexican twelve-string guitar, the bajo sexto, as he and his bandmates endow the song with fresh new rhythmic patterns, and pay homage to the scale-climbing twin-violin solo introduced by Csík.
With over a half million views on YouTube, this remains Buyuchek’s most listened-to song, beating out by a wide margin original compositions like En Otro Lado, and such equally inspired covers as Toto’s Hold the Line, The Eagles’ Hotel California, and Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode.
Another cover that melted the hearts of many listeners back in the old country is this acoustic take, by homespun Indonesian Internet artist and mom (you can hear her baby cry out right before she begins), Alice:
Alice is now a kind of a big deal in Hungary, having relocated to Budapest and performed this song and others to live concert audiences. She is a prolific singer with dozens of covers, but the recording above endures as her most popular.
Let’s return to the song’s lyrics to see what else they reveal.
The third verse is riddled with metaphor, and it lets the air out of the pastoral bliss, cautious optimism and comforting nostalgia of the preceding lines.
Since then incessantly
I see her everywhere,
stare blankly into the void,
my home is a stone cold hell.
Splintering frail heaven,
liquid warped mirror’s eyes
glimmer in the glow
of a thousand fireflies.
Of course, whenever an artist reaches to such depths and pours his heart into his work, the results will be highly subjective and difficult to pigeonhole.
But I will share with you the dominant theory of the song’s meaning, which has stood the test of time.
Splintering heaven in that last verse is a reference to crystal meth. The liquid warped mirror describes a spoon where heroin powder is blended with water and cooked prior to shooting up. The fireflies are so many marijuana cigarettes.
Tibi Kiss is indeed singing about letting go. He is describing the long tortured process of releasing himself from his addiction. His stone cold hell might be the literal confines of the rehab center, or the figurative shackles of his withdrawal and the flashbacks that haunt him.
I’ve shared this story a number of times now with friends and family, including some who had never heard the Quimby song, and some who had a passing familiarity with it but never pondered over the lyrics. The typical reaction is surprise, incredulity, and always a good deal of amusement, that a tune which traveled the world, became a folk anthem, an unlikely Norteño hit, a regular request for wedding DJs from Transdanubia to Transylvania, and a lullaby for at least one lucky baby in Southeast Asia, is in fact a confessional about hard drugs, hitting rock bottom recovery, and — hopefully — salvation.