Thursday, February 22, 2007

Why? Cuz Roman...

Growing up Roman Hrab was my hero.

Let me ‘splain.

My dad has an older brother named Roman. That’s my Uncle. (Duh.) Uncle Roman has a son named… Roman. (My Dad’s name is George by the way, so if you ever meet a Hrab, just call ‘em George or Roman- you have a 50% chance of being right… anyway…) Younger Roman was (and interestingly enough STILL is) eight years older than me.

OK. I have to stray for a second and not only set up the playing roster of my childhood by relaying the cousin/sibling birthing order, but because the American/English names can lead to confusion, I have to explain the uniquely obfuscating Ukrainian Hrab clan given-name/nick-name dilemma and corollary.

Just about all of the immediate family members had their given name, their Ukrainian equivalent, and their Family Nickname. NO ONE was EVER called by their GIVEN Ukrainian name. IF you were called by your GIVEN Ukrainian name you were in so much fucking trouble that the TERROR you’d be feeling wouldn’t allow you to hear properly ANYWAY.

Here goes: (and these are going to be spelt and sound weird because remember I’m transliterating Ukrainian sounding names…)

See? Simple. You have the four cousins Mondzio, Nana, Lesia and Uki; and their American counterparts Roman, Adrienne, Sandy and George. There were also the Kowals, who while not “official” first cousins, they still seemed like that. They were the son and daughter of Ernie Kowal, the guy that my Dad formed a band and played with, but for some reason they had no nicknames and were called by their given names Andrij and Tanya.

All six of grew up together and spanned in age from Mondzio, the oldest to ME the youngest. (I think the correct ascending order is Mondzio, Andrij, Lesia, Nana, Tanya, and me.)

So let me restart.

Growing up Modzio was my hero.

Mondzio always existed as this older, cooler, more experienced, hip presence in my life. As a kid, I could always rely on this (in my eyes) ADULT to have all of the SECRET insights into the world and the universe. He had been AROUND ya know…I mean just as an example he was FOURTEEN when I was SIX. Old dude, right?

While I was busy listening to Hall and Oates, Mondzio turned me on to Talking Heads. I can remember him giving me a mix tape where one side was Speaking In Tongues, and the other had a bunch of songs from a band called FEAR. (An insanely innocent 8th grader hearing “Let’s Have a War” and “Beef Baloney” in one sitting is really a sphincter opening experience.)

Mondzio had that detached coolness that I could only aspire to. He always seemed to be so far ahead of what was happening… While I was just starting to dig The Police and thought Zenyatta Mondata was the shit- Mondzio told me about this incredible American rockabilly band that was cutting its teeth in England. That band was (don’t laugh) The Stray Cats, and somehow Mondz knew about them two years before they showed up on MTV. By the time I was loving THEM Mondz was giving me copies of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Shit WAY too freakin' cool for a sheltered kid like me.

I knew that Mondz smoked and drank, but in all of the times he would try and guide me towards “hipness” I can’t recall a SINGLE time he offered me a drink or a smoke or a drug of ANY kind. I’ve wondered if this was a conscious decision, or if my Dad or Uncle had perhaps spoken to him and said “this kid worships you, BE CAREFUL what you suggest.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that had happened, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Mondzio just decided on his own to keep THOSE influences away from his little cousin.

Mondzio also had an incredible affinity for art. I remember him painting one ENTIRE wall of his room to look like the cover of Joe Jackson’s Night and Day album. He was also always making cool posters and art project for high school. I remember him winning awards for his work, and his pride really coming through whenever he talked about painting and art.

The entire North wall of Mondzio's room was painted to look like this.
He did it entirely by hmself and it
was scarily accurate.This was 1983.
I had essentially just stopped pooping in my pants and still thought Bert and Ernie were straight.

As we all got older and older, Mondzio went off to college, and apparently tried to keep his Mom and Dad happy by studying business or some thing like that. This surprised most of us seeing as how his artistic talents were pretty undeniable. Reports from school were that he was miserable, and there was a brief time where he disappeared for a few months and needed to figure out what he really wanted from his life. I don’t remember or know ALL of the details, but from what I can recall, he confronted his folks and said that he wanted to go to art school. I think his “disappearance” convinced his parents that he was serious about doing what he wanted to, and they agreed to help him find a school where he could study his passion.

After getting his degree, he started traipsing around Europe, and became the continental traveler dude. By this time I was seriously considering studying music, mostly because he had paved the way. I probably would have studied music regardless, and my parents were ALWAYS completely supportive, but having a cousin doing the “non-traditional” education thang made my choices that much simpler to justify and follow.

During the college years, the cousins grew apart, and we would hang out less and less. Mondzio was out of the country, most of us were either finishing or starting college, and the opportunity to hang and do family stuff just seemed to fade away.

That all changed when Mondzio invited EVERYONE to Hungary for his wedding. He had been teaching English in a school in Hungary when a friend of his from the States (Jenny) came over to Europe and ended up staying out there with him. The two of them announced the engagement and decided to have their celebration in Pecs, a beautiful small town about 3 hours outside of Budapest. I was lucky enough to be able to not only go, but Mondz asked me to be his best man.

Very cool.

After this trip, there seemed to be a renaissance in the cousins’ relationships. We all started hanging out more and more, Mondzio and Jenny moved back to the States, and eventually Andrij joined a still gestating Funk Authority and helped to make the band the behemoth it is today. (I hadn’t spoken to Andrij for YEARS at that point, and it STILL blows my mind that we were out of touch for so long. Now, with the funk band and Geologic, we probably talk almost every day. Nice. He just had a baby girl by the way!)

The cousins were now grouped off into romantic pairings, so that after a lifetime of being used to refering to siblings as MondzioNana... or LesiaUki... we had to create new neural pathways and get used to saying MondzioJenny and NanaBret and LesiaVictor and UkiDonna and... Most everyone got married and started pumping out children, all of who hang out with each other and are now growing up together the same way we all did. They're all WAY closer in age however... so it will be fascinating to watch the personalities develop. Anyway...

[backtracking] While I was working on my second record (back in '99) , I asked if Mondzio would be willing to paint an album cover for me. He unhesitatingly agreed, (yes!) and created the insanely beautiful Minutiae. I can remember driving to his (then) Jersey City studio, and expecting to pick up a small 12” x 12” canvas, and being greeted by a one and a half by eight foot masterwork. He told me I could have it.

“Keep it Ukes- it’s yours.”

That painting hangs with reverence in my living room, and is more valuable to me than owning the original artwork of “Relayer.”

The reason I tell you all this is because you need to go to Mondzio’s site and check out his work. He teaches up at Bard college, and has recently been creating what I humbly think is some of his best work. He has an amazing series called “Road Squiggles” that’s based on (get this!) street skid marks and tar drippings. It’s this amazing juxtaposition of images that make these road squiggles look like ancient calligraphic treasures. Insanely cool stuff.

Check out his newly re-vamped site here.

I’ll always be grateful to Mondz for nurturing the artist in me, not laughing at how square I am- and for revealing the value of everything from Pollock to The Pistols.

1 comment:

roman said...

Oh Uki, I am so not worthy of such praise and graditude! I've been following your blog since January yet happened upon this post quite by accident. It made for a very enjoyable take on our relationship, and I like your family name chart (how is it that Andrij and Tanya didn't have nicknames?!). BTW, a few comments, in no uncertain order: 1) I followed Jenny to Europe after she had been gone for about 6 months, not vice versa. I ski bummed at Windham and Hunter for a season, saved some $$$, and went to visit her for a few months, as well as meet up with a writer friend from NYC for a trip around Ukraine. Afterwards, ended up with some English teaching work with Jen at the University in Pecs, Hungary, began graduate studies in painting there, and the rest was history (Cliff Notes version). 2) My "disappearance" was basically me being fed up taking microeconomics and marketing classes at Fairleigh Dickinson University, getting high one day on the way to class, and instead driving down to Miami, FLA for a week long party w/some friends from Suzy-Q (have you explained that place to your readers?). I came back to NJ, left FDU, worked in a gallery/frame shop for half a year, applied to SVA, and felt extremely validated when I got accepted. Of course, that was really just the beginning...3) I was never told by any parental figure to be careful of exerting any influence upon you. I just figured that since you hadn't followed your sister's footsteps in listening to Wham!, I could share with you what I thought was cool in music and art and literature and film, and that eventually you'd figure out how and why it could all be so mind blowing. Of course you did it all in your own way, in spades...

Which brings us to the crux of this cosmic debris: could you imagine doing anything else with your life? Aside from being paid beaucoup bucks to ski anywhere in the world (that would be a pretty cool gig, too). I've always admired your integrity, and your relentless discipline in pursuing your art and honing your craft. That is pure inspiration and I thank you for it. For in the end it all boils down to the work. And anything that get my ass in the studio is worthy of the highest praise.