This 'Papa Rock' phenomenon happens to anyone only once in their lifetime. It is upon us to make the most of it. Saigal Sa'ab certainly made that part easy for us. The first expression that I noticed on him was a perpetual, smug smile, though we were only beginning to understand that it stemmed not from where he'd gone, or what he'd done, but what he was going to do next.
That is how I got to know him, circa 1992. We met backstage at IIT Kanpur and lit a smoke, talked a lot of rock, drank some fun. It was perhaps the last time that he exposed his six-string to the public. We saw his silky straight hair fly wild again at the Parikrama & Friends gig in 2009. At the jam a few days before, he lost his smile for four beats and said, “So then, I’d rather we jam on this song I wrote,” promptly putting the smug back on. Just like sometime in '93, when he announced he was in Delhi to launch this magazine that he wanted to call 'Rock Street Journal'. It was going to be all about original Indian Music. We lit one up right away to celebrate the sheer stupidity of the idea. How proudly we posed, filled Dictaphones with insults, threw our hair back and took full undue advantage of the free press conditions and some fundamental rights. A few weeks later, he was back, all fired up, carrying crisp fumes of freshly printed dreams. Sitting outside the KM College back gate, and what unfolded was 16 odd cover-free, non-gloss, black on white pages, with 'Rock Machine' on the front. We got our first ever press article on page two, while the Indian Oceans, Shiva's ilk were sprawled over the middle pages, and the rest of the rock scene of the world casually strewn among the classifieds at the back. There! No Indian had ever respected any Indian rock musician in that way ever before. Of course, we lit one up to that there and then.
Letters to the Editor flew in from all corners of the country. Now rotund purely with pleasure, Mr. Editor flitted between Allahabad and Delhi to make some non-proverbial ends meet. Us, we leeringly watched an entire generation’s wall-posters getting replaced with those of long-haired, bikini-less idols of another kind. A single copy of the Rock Street Journal went around a hostel block, got air-mailed to the younger brother back home in Siliguri, or Surat for that matter, was even mailed back to the city of origin with the poster pull-out still in place, such was the reverence. A revolution was brewing. Ram and Shiv's Senas were getting it on totally wrong and the intellectual rocker was busy writing counter-verse. Mr. Editor, by now, was leading the charge of the college festival brigade. The numbers swelled as if on a song. Bound volumes of what is now simply called RSJ, stacked year-wise, carrying poignant pictures of these bloody times still lord over many a battered ego's bookshelves. The back-orders have still not stopped. Nor did Mr. Editor. He probably just wouldn't.
There was always a gig on. There was the pre-gig madness and the post-gig recess before another gig. In between those were the jams where you never knew who to expect. The whole world and their friends landed there when he'd wish. The acoustic always had fresh strings and the red Telecaster stayed plugged-in. When the voices got hoarse, he'd fire up the boombox and play something new he had heard. He'd always surprise you no matter who you were. It was never about anything except the music.
He pretty much gave the live music business its right to be called an industry. We now have photographers, graphic-artists, writers, artist-managers, promoters, festival organizers, international bands, tour agents, venues, sound and light engineers and, mind you, an informed audience. Nobody knew who would do all this stuff till his maverick schemes came along, and he'd pull them off spectacularly, calmly, and magnanimously. A thorough professional, he was a journalist who'd never gossip, a critic who'd never pull an artist down (the magazine staff does all the dirty work, I was told). A leader who worked, loved and lived harder than anyone else I may ever get a chance to know.
Great minds often turn the world around to suit their ideas. Rock music, as we know it, certainly evolved around one. Great Indian Rock became the very reason my band ever entered the studio. A few hundred bands, some from across Asia, sent in demos for GIR last year. European jazz masters are beginning to feel at home in India and we're exporting some precious hard metal back. Any city in India that has a pub has rock bands playing live. Often still for free beer, though that's a choice, not a compulsion. The commercial disaster, that was the inevitability we knew then, is even more evident today, but just look at the damn kids. Just listen to the sheer deluge of original, remixed, hashed up but beautiful music that's filling up our streets. Culture defines society like no economy or politics can. Art sets the soul free.
When we have nothing to lose, we have everything to gain. Papa Rock lived just this once, but he lived like he is going to be here forever. Very true, Saigal Sa'ab. I'd light up to that. What you did will stay done, what isn't, will keep us going another hundred years. A million eyes will still look up and seek your blessings. We know you can take care of that. The last expression we saw on you was the same smug smile again. Though we now understand that it is not about where you've been, or what you've done, but what you are going to make them do next.
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