A 61-year-old bloke is tormenting two German journalists in a Berlin café. He’s bombarding them with psychedelic explanations of his music, which swings between the baroque and the satanic: Juliet is being lashed with an anchor chain and the angels are weeping. The two look like trendy detectives, paralyzed in a desperate attempt to smile their way through the interview. It’s an overdose.
They came here for a simple story: a musical genius has the misfortune of being born in communist Romania. He reinvents electronic music, but is defeated by the system and ends up sharing a house with his chickens in a small village. He is rediscovered in the age of the Internet and turned into an underground star. Happy end.
But Rodion has built his life like a castle, a monumental fortified structure. To penetrate it without being crushed, you need to start with the foundation and go through it brick by brick.
Sometimes when I’m alone I ask myself: how is it possible for me to make music and for people to say it’s the best music?
Sometimes I fear I’m going to wake up and see that all of this was just a dream.
When he was 5 years old, Rodion Ladislau Rosca went to the seaside with his mother and in the train station he saw a train looming up with steam and big wheels banging djj djj, an intense noise, and then the engine breaks djjt tsss… these sounds blended into his mind and came out as a song.
Later he went to a Labour Day parade and the rhythm mesmerized him, with its powerful bass drum beat. I could feel the air pressure and that felt very good… I wanted to do that.[one_half]
In school, he would often look at the blackboard, he would see jungle vines in the soggy traces left behind by the sponge. He hardly understood anything, as he was hastily moved from classes taught in Hungarian to Romanian ones.
To cope, he designed a secret alphabet and a personal emblem depicting a character who was appalled by people’s wickedness and wanted to set things right – his guardian angel. Sketched as a couple of lines and two circles, his guardian angel looked a bit like a tape recorder. Later on, he used it as a logo for his company. He still relates to it.
Teachers would interrupt his daydreaming and punish him.Filthy people.
He was restless. He would shake his legs while eating and bang around with his hands, with spoons and plates. They sent him to the psychologist and he suggested going to musical school. Before I started to play guitar everyone said I was deranged.
In sixth grade, one of his classmates had a band who fooled around in someone’s basement with a toy drum, a guitar and a tape recorder. Fascinated by this, he convinced his mother to buy him a guitar, borrowed the tape recorder and locked himself in his room with the instruments.
A song is like a story. You can experience it from beginning to end, as if you were walking on a rope. Or you can separate it into threads – each one representing a different story – that by some sort of magic remain connected and in tune.
The tape recorder taught Rodion to weave each thread together until they were all strong as a rope. To compose. I can feel certain sounds, it’s as if they are coming from heavens.
The magnetic tape has two tracks which you can record separately and then play together. He would record the guitar on one track and the vocals on the other and struggled on until they were in sync. Using another recorder, he would then copy the resulting combined sound onto a single track. He used the remaining track for the drums. He couldn’t do a guitar solo so he would record it note by note, over and over again, as if he were knitting a song.
He learned how to produce sound effects from accidental noises or rustles. “Everyone thought I was using synthesizers but I didn’t have any, I only said I had, but that was only one of my wishes.”
His songs have words, but the voice is just another instrument used for its tone – the message is not in the words. When he uses words to express himself, he seems to be translating from an alien language. These lyrics, written when he was 16, are the closest he got to human expression:
For some life is when the feet are on the ground,
my life’s a dream in which I only want to make a sound.
He started composing around 15 and altogether made hundreds of tunes, enough for a lifetime of recording, albums and concerts. At 24 he was already a legend in Cluj, his hometown. He was the king of vinyl records (the records were being supplied by one of his friends in Norway) and he was setting up a flourishing trade with sound equipment. He became the go to person for any wedding or gig as he could supply the best PA systems.
Simultaneously he was working at the Heavy Machinery Manufacturing Plant as an industrial radiologic defectoscopy specialist. Two of his work colleagues listened to his tapes and suggested forming a band. Rodion wanted to call it “Fort” as it was in tune with his monumental vision but another band with the same name emerged so they called it “Rodion G.A.”. Lots of people were wondering what the mysterious “GA” stood for – perhaps the Andromeda Galaxy? It was only the initials of Gicu Fărcaș and Adrian Căpraru, his band mates.
They were playing the songs written by young Rodion, but in the live concerts they couldn’t reproduce the exact sound he’d achieved on the tapes. Some of them were extremely complicated and would have required a whole orchestra or computers. Without them, the band only achieved a flagging 80’s rock sound.
The psychedelic side of their music would shine on the radio. The band never recorded an album (they didn’t have any connections in Bucharest) but Rodion would send his tapes to the radio station and they would take the airwaves by storm, most of them ending up on the top of the charts.
“My friends listened to the radio so I started a notebook for them to write their opinions in. Some said I was nuts, some that I was a genius but I remember one of them wrote «Rodi, mate, you’re making music 30 years ahead of its time». The funny thing is the 30 years are just up now.”
30 years later, Rodion is on stage in the coolest club in Berlin and he is playing the songs just as he had imagined them when it was just him alone with his tape recorder.
He’s confused and he lost his glasses, he keeps looking for them in a coat. He’s wearing a beige shirt with a pocket full of pens. He pulls out a little notebook. He inspects it for a few seconds and puts it on a little table, next to a wooden box with a lot of buttons and two winding tapes – a Tesla tape recorder from the 70’s. He steps to the microphone and informs the audience: “This song is called Bau-bau.” Play.
The room is full of stylish hipsters. They’re mesmerized by the recorder. “Tapes forever!” yells one of them. Others come closer to the stage and take pictures on their phones just as you would with a museum exhibit, while Rodion pulls out a screwdriver and tinkers with the recorder in the act – as he tightens a screw, the sound sharpens.
Four youngsters come on the stage, they’re the band Steaua de Mare from Bucharest. They’ll be playing the songs that Rodion wrote 30 years ago, when he was a young man in a communist Romania that wasn’t ready for him. Boom djjjt, the room pulses to a psychedelic blast. People are starting to dance. It smells of hashish.
Rodion spent the day of the gig backstage in Kantine am Berghain (one of the halls of the most famous club in Berlin – where the orgies happen and you wait for hours to get in).
During sound testing, he chows done on sandwiches and bananas and empties free bottles of coke. Next to him, shy little old man sits on a small chair. He introduces himself as Alexander Robotnik, none other than the inventor of house music in ’83.
– I’m not normal, Rodion heralds himself.
– Nobody is normal in this place…
Somebody plays one of Robotnik’s songs on a mobile. Rodion listens carefully for about 5 seconds in which he remembers his hate for DJs. These people slither around the buttons like snakes!
– It sounds… ordinary.
– I heard many songs like this.
– Yeah, but I was the first!
Then he plays his song The Citadel, now that’s a genuine song – he drums on his knees to the rhythm, conducts the orchestra inside the iPhone, explaining each section.
– Wow, zice Robotnik, this has something gipsy…
-Noo, it’s monumental, like Roman Empire, zice Rodion, replies Rodion, insulted that his Citadel was compared to a tent…
Rodion had gigs in Control (a hip club in Bucharest), in Moscow and Berlin. He’s signed by Strut Record in the UK and his original songs can be bought on iTunes. The international relaunch was engineered by his new band mates from Steaua de Mare through the Future Nuggets label – a posse of musicians with a passion for lost specimens and eclectic combinations. They play with gypsy musicians or with convicts in prisons, pouring oriental sounds in a cool fusion rock genre.
“We started off on the idea of creating a psychedelic scene in Bucharest” says the bass player Ion Dumitrescu. “So Rodion fitted in perfectly, we had at last a psychedelic tradition!”
The transition from old to new psychedelics isn’t always smooth. The band prefers funky improvisation while Rodion wants it all to be heavy and cold, precisely like the original recordings.
While on the microphone, he quarrels with band mates, yells with reverb, it sound like a battle of the gods. “I can sing better than all of you on my own!” he decides and exits the room dancing like a big goose.
The leader of the band, Andrei Dinescu, stays behind huffing and puffing, his guitar hanging. “Do we want it to be for old men or do we want today’s sound?!” He has long hair and he wears a sheepskin out instead of a regular coat, people stop him on the street to take pictures.
The first time they met, Rodion told him about a fetish for girls who eat live goldfish. The man replaces the fish, wanting to be eaten. “Just so we don’t make the wrong impression of him… It was really cool, we laughed like we were 14 again. Here comes mister 60 year old to teach us how to laugh again like in the 90’s, wildly, perversely.”
The drummer Piti (Eugen Imecs) is also frowning. Rodion tells him off, he thinks he’s too jazzy and doesn’t strike hard enough, like a hammer. “I love him like my own family, but don’t understand him and wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.” When they first met they went straight to rehearsals, playing the same song 39 times. Anywhere there was a slight imperfection, Rodion would say STOP and everyone had to start again. R-rewind-reverse-rodion.
Horatiu Serbanescu is the youngest in the band, at 24. He often locks eyes with Rodion and they both smile like children. He must have looked just like him in his youth. It’s for his sake that Rodion puts his ego to the side and carries on.
While he was away in Berlin, two of Rodion’s hens and two roosters died and his cat disappeared without a trace. He returned to his home in Așchileu Mare (a village in Transilvania) to find his bed soiled by chicks. He lets them live in the middle of his steampunk bedroom so they don’t freeze to death.
Instead of a mat, he has a toolbox at the door. The single bed is surrounded by shelves going up to the ceiling, full of little boxes labelled in a secret alphabet, papers, leads, original porn DVDs, artists’ credentials. One of the shelves homes the tapes he recorded in his youth, bearing the label “GOLD!”.
On top of his wardrobe sits a golden trophy which he won in a 1987 seaside festival. It’s covered in spider webs, like a phantom ship. His old computer is whirring like a bumble bee, underneath it onions laying out to dry.
The room is heated by a stove he carefully built himself with special bricks, but nonetheless it’s leaking smoke. He has to keep the door open with a dried corn cob to let the smoke out and the cold in to take the place of the heat he’d originally built the stove for. It all starts logically but ends up in a vicious cycle.
The house is big, with lots of rooms and two attics – all of them filled with objects Rodion has hoarded over the years – speakers, computers, mixers, sausage makers, huge plush elephant, piles of clothes used as carpeting.
It’s a slimy chaos, covered in dust.
At a closer look, though, you can start to see draconic organization. Labels and inscriptions. Hundreds of drawers and corners with precise purpose. The empty bottle in the hallway is not rubbish, it’s “WOOD SHAVINGS 2013 09 25”. Each object has a history and a clear role in Rodion’s hyper-detailed plan.
It’s all in his computer. Everything’s in the computer. Hundreds of folders with text files in which he writes every single detail of his life, laid out in tables drawn manually in Notepad. From the meaning of life to the day when his dog chewed the lead, got away and bit a chicken. His whole life is planned minutely.
FAMILY # ASSHOLES # MEMORIES # MY MISTAKES
The only problem is that in order to finish everything he started he would need a couple hundred years. He’s 61 and has liver cancer.
Rodion doesn’t kill anything, he rears his chicken and lets them die of old age. He thinks Earth is a sort of hell for animals and doesn’t want to take part in it. It’s hell for the victim, heaven for the killer. You can only live if you kill. There is no living being who doesn’t suffer.
Sometimes he feels he’s in animal’s hell. It’s like a bad dream.
The musical adventure of his youth finished in 1989 when his mother died of cancer. She was all he had, he hadn’t met his father. It was for her he made music, for her he put up with the whims of communists, so she could be happy when she heard him on the radio. Without her, it didn’t have any purpose.
So he started to repair speakers. “When I work on them I have time to think of the microcosm, the macrocosm, of the fact that our universe could be a cell in another universe…” He has worked abroad as a day laborer but in the end he bought a house in the countryside. Only in the country he couldn’t trade speakers on the black market and nobody needed repairs so he almost starved for a few years.
In 2012 he was €7000 in debt and he was about to go to Hungary and get a job in a phone factory, when he got a call from Bucharest. He said «mister Rodion, don’t go, I’ll give you this money, come to Bucharest and let’s play music together». The man paid his debt and paid for his trip and accommodation, so he went to Bucharest.
The man was Ion, the bass player of Steaua de Mare. This is how Rodion ended up commuting between rural Aschileu and central Bucharest, between chickens and hipsters.
This sudden turnaround seems to have made him more worried than happy. He has begun a lot of projects and he’s run out of time, he has to make music, there’s no time…
Rodion has a big belly from the liver cancer which he hasn’t started treating yet. He’s on the waiting list for medication, he barely managed to pay for his medical insurance. He explains with a kind of sick pride that the disease is making him tired and forgetful: “The liver ceased to separate the ammonia in my body, which is killing my brain cells”.
Sources from inside the band claim he is rather tired from staying up until 6 am to watch porn movies, snuff or accident footage. Either way, tough times are ahead as the interferons give side effects like hallucinations, suicidal tendencies and deviant behaviour.
PThe person who has come to know him the best in the past years is Sorin Luca, a documentary film maker who lived with Rodion for a year to make a movie about him. His description of Rodion is: “He’s an exaggeration of the way our society works. We hoard everything, we throw our lives away for petty things, trying to safeguard tomorrow’s security with objects we don’t need… He mirrors our anxieties to an extreme level. You have no clue where to run next, who to love… you would do it all, but have limited time.”
Rodion says he would like just what a kid would want: a little car, a house with basement and loft, a blonde with blue eyes and straight hair who would take care of me like my own mother.
He’s still far from all this. He is back on stage, he played in Berlin, the capital of culture, but he still doesn’t have enough money for firewood, so he heats the house with some corn cobs his neighbour gives him for free.
He has spent his whole life classifying things only to end up in chaos. The house is a chaos. He doesn’t even have real speakers for his own computer. He’s got hundreds of sound systems in the attic but still listens to Albanian music on some cheap Genius speakers.
“There is a psychology of the craftsman” he says. “I’m, just like the tailor who hasn’t got time to make himself a proper pair of trousers.”
Only Rodion is a jack of all trades, so he hasn’t got time for anything at all.
Text by Vlad Ursulean
Photos by George Popescu, Vlad (fisheye) & Rodion’s archive.
With help from Ștefan Mako and Radu Ciorniciuc.
The story was advised by the documentarist Sorin Luca
and financed by Esquire Magazine.
English translation by Sabina Pasaniuc.