Fame is a strange phenomenon. We fête the rich and powerful to the extent that they become elevated to superhuman status, qualitatively different to the rest of us, their lifestyles are transformed into the stuff of our dreams of avarice, they are not bound by petty conventions and cares but are somehow exempt from the trials and tribulations besetting ordinary folk.
They become immortal, untouchable, beyond the reach even of fate, yet when they are struck down in tragic circumstances our cherished illusions crumble to dust before our very eyes, forcing us to confront the fragile transitoriness of every object, every idol we adore. When we mourn these strangers upon whom we have lavished endless quantities of unconditional affection, we are, in reality, mourning ourselves.
On 2 January, one of the undisputed icons of Hungarian popular music, Imre Zámbó, better known to all of us by his nickname Jimmy (which, as the story goes, was the epithet bestowed upon the singer by a hapless American girl unable to pronounce the diminutive form Imi) shot himself in the head as part of a joke that went badly wrong.
The news had a remarkably similar effect as that of the death of Princess Di: greeted with a mixture of anguish and disbelief, it stopped everyone in their tracks and has triggered a collective catharsis of grief amongst fans, silencing many of the artist's detractors. In an uncannily similar display of public mourning, grieving lovers of Jimmy's music have heaped the railings around his home in Csepel with floral tributes and candles flicker piously in numbers seldom seen before even the holiest of altars.
Perhaps the question: What were you doing on the day Jimmy shot himself? will become as embedded in our popular culture as the events unfolding around the infamous grassy knoll.
Jimmy's phenomenal rise from rags to riches bears all the indispensable hallmarks of a pop legend in the making. At 43 years, he was cut off in his prime, too young to have thought of drawing up a will, and although his career had reached its zenith around 1994. Then he indulged in a brief flirtation with politics (standing as a candidate for the National Democratic Alliance as 31st on the national list appearing in public alongside Imre Pozsgay, reform Communist and erstwhile President of the Patriotic People's Front, perhaps best known for declaring that 1956 did not constitute a counter-revolution but a popular uprising.
He was making plans for the release of a new album, and his contract with the commercial TV channel RTL Klub for a new series of music shows—which would also have accommodated his ambitions to show a more serious side of himself as a reporter—was about to be renewed.
His image was as glitzy and kitschy as the musical style he preferred: heart-rending, sickly sweet syrupy ballads worthy of the hammiest of crooners (or bájgúnárok, literally charm ganders, as we sarcastically label them) putting Tom Jones that other famous medallion-touter to shame with the sheer weight of gold he flaunted as his trademark.
Born in 1958 in the 7th District of Budapest, a notoriously poor slum quarter, he never completely betrayed his working class roots, moving to Csepel, a large island located to the south of the city, the sticks in other words, and far removed from the luxurious surroundings his bank balance could have afforded. Through the grubby windows of the suburban trains, passengers may gaze upon the industrial wasteland of the Csepel Iron and Metal Works, the largest local employer and in its heyday Hungary's biggest factory. Drab and unusual surroundings for a millionaire, but Jimmy was no run of the mill, media-hyped mediocrity.
Although I must confess that not a single one of his many albums graces my collection, I recognise and respect his talent: his unrivalled range of four and a half octaves quickly latched on to by the advertising moguls allowed his voice to soar with ease to goose bump-inducing heights. I have been a Jon Anderson worshipper since the early 70s, but Jimmy was blessed with a more beautiful voice and admitting this is not a measure of my patriotism. Had Jimmy been around in Mozart's day, the composer would probably have written some scores especially for him.
Jimmy's career began with plinking out tunes on the family Bösendorfer before his mother persuaded him to audition for the Hungarian Radio's Children Chorus. Stefi Ákos, 50s chanteuse, initiated him into the world of solo song and in 1985 he sat the exam entitling him to perform in public (under Communism this exam was the preserve of the national—party—office, which supervised all concerts and musical events), although his first real experience had already been gained in the US, where he worked for four years in various night clubs as a bar pianist.
On his return home, he sang in the Fórum Hotel (now the Intercontinental) before first attracting attention with his song Smokey Night Blues in 1987. One year later, he took part in the Interpop Fesztivál in Siófok, yet a breakthrough continued to elude him. In 1993, his version of Only You appeared on a compilation of Hungarian translations of popular Hollywood film melodies released in conjunction with a tour of the artists involved in the project. This finally brought him fame, if not critical acclaim.
His albums topped the charts in 1994, 1995 and 1996. A selection of the honours piled on him include the awards for best record of the year, which he won in 1992 and 1995; best vocalist of the year in 1993; best album of the year also in 1993 and two Golden Giraffes. Six of his albums went diamond, three platinum and one double platinum. His most recent album, Christmas with Jimmy, went gold in the week of its release.
He was capable of packing the biggest venues in the country such as the Budapest Sports Hall. As if these accolades were not sufficient proofs of his popularity and fame, a boarding house has been named after him in Miskolctapolca and a restaurant serves a menu of his favourite dishes.
The King is dead
On the fateful morning in question, one of Jimmy's passions became his downfall. A lover of bodybuilding, hunting and shooting, his home was decorated with trophies. In a continuation of New Year celebrations with his wife, youngest son and a couple of friends he fired a shot from the nine millimetre Beretta semi-automatic pistol for which he had a license, keeping it for purposes of self-defence (in his application to the police he cited fear of his fans as his justification), in response to an undefined disturbance outside.
Having removed the magazine, he put the gun to his head in the belief that it was empty and pulled the trigger. In a moment of absent-mindedness, he had forgotten that automatics immediately load the next bullet into the barrel.
Paramedics fought for over an hour to get him in a fit state to be taken to the hospital. Although on arrival at the Military Hospital (where the best facilities for dealing with gunshot wounds exist) surgeons began operating immediately, he died of his injuries. At the time of the incident he had been tipsy, though not falling down drunk and no trace of drugs was detected in his body. These are the established facts.
Rumours and speculations have abounded that it was not an accident but suicide or even a revenge killing by his jealous wife, but these have been dismissed as tasteless and ruled out by the police. The cartridge fired prior to the bullet that killed him was found by experts in the garden, although it is not clear whether he fired it in the courtyard or through the window. His neighbours are convinced that the by now notorious outside disturbance was a rooster, which has plagued him before with its loud crowing in the early hours. His first shot was probably fired in an effort to silence it.
Not everyone in Hungary loved Jimmy; he was ridiculed by as many as idolised him. Never renowned for his physical attractiveness, he was the butt of countless jokes. The elite looked down on him, never embracing him into their ranks, in their jaded eyes he lacked taste and distinction and in their snobbery they neither forgave nor forgot his humble origins. Glossy style magazines devoted spreads to his bodyguard patrolled premises, showing up his home as a slightly more expensive take on Kádár chic with crucifixes thrown in for good measure.
Critics did not give him the time of day either. For them, he squandered his gift on populist trash. He never succeeded in carving out a distinct niche for himself stylistically, buffeted by the clamouring whims of fashion. The media only grudgingly acknowledged his appeal: he enjoyed being called the King, but there was no power behind his throne, he was a good old-fashioned self-made man. His stardom was not the result of a carefully orchestrated campaign and the media resented him for it. In many ways he was a lost boy amongst the industry sharks.
Chat show hosts could run rings around him with their cue-card sarcasm and frequently did so. Ironically, although the media could not make him in life, they can make him in death. The unprecedented wave of interest shown in every aspect of his life is already being cynically exploited. Radio stations, which would never have dreamed of playing any of his material, broadcast him in their request shows round the clock.
Doubtless his distraught fans will soon be able to assuage their grief by purchasing relics in the form of books, freshly printed photos and the like for which they are already besieging the shops. His funeral, scheduled for 20 January, will be a highly public and publicised event. One of his friends, former police chief of Pest county and amateur musician, István Komáromi, has recorded a single to commemorate his death (shades of Elton John).
Inevitably, parallels have been drawn with the other pop idol who rejoiced in the title of the King and the question as to whether our home-grown icon will ever achieve the quasi-religious cult status of that shining star has also arisen. When I look at some of the images of Jimmy benevolently smiling down from posters with his long, tousled, 80s throwback locks, he reminds me of a medieval saint, so who knows?
The jury is still out on whether posterity will ultimately remember him as a prodigiously gifted vocal entertainer or a vulgar, gun-toting prole with a weakness for the ladies. I know which of the two I prefer and console myself with the knowledge that Elvis is not worshipped as an overstuffed oaf stumbling over the words of his most famous hits in public displays of monumental grotesqueness. The ignominious truth is perhaps too painful to bear and the only comfort we can derive in the face of our mortality blowing raspberries at us is to cling to the pristine, untainted albeit distorted image of those public figures we have loved.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 12 January 2001
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