Soviet Misfit: The Life and Music of BB Gabor

A Hungarian-born refugee haunted by a host of personal demons, BB Gabor made a startling impression in Toronto's punk scene of the early '80s, producing arresting works of pop music which have left an indelible mark in Canada's rock music history.

Frantically wild, moody and absurdly jocular, BB Gabor’s music observed the normally undisclosed hinterlands of young men’s psyches. In an urban scene that was reaching the boiling point of emerging musical styles, Gabor’s insular, Torontonian world was a tiny pocket filled to bursting with the ideas of a man whose imagination produced visionary concepts faster than he could come up with chords to express them. At the tail end of the ‘70s, Toronto had just experienced its first and only wave of punk culture. Somewhere in that cresting wave, Gabor made a remarkable, if brief, impression that has slowly faded since his untimely death in 1990.

Born in Hungary, 1948, Gabor Hegedus spent his early childhood years in the tumultuous swirl of the Hungarian revolt against Soviet rule. According to Hegedus in speaking to the Globe and Mail, his family was just “one step ahead of the Russian tanks” when they fled Hungary in 1956. Hegedus hadn’t yet immersed himself in the world of music; surviving poverty in England (the country of which he and his family took refuge in upon leaving Hungary) was a challenge that tasked the youngster for many years to come. And it was also be some time before Hegedus rebranded himself as BB Gabor, a name stylized after B.B. King (for the musicianship) and Zsa Zsa Gabor (for the glamour and in nod to his Hungarian roots).

“Gabor left Hungary when he was eight years old,” says Gabor’s brother, Istvan Hegedus. “I don’t recall that his interest in music at the time was out of the ordinary. We did have a grand-piano in Budapest, but I was the one that had to practice on it, not always enthusiastically! He attended St.Benedict’s School in Ealing, London, UK from 1957-1964, which was a very good English Private Catholic School where he was a boy-soloist during mass. It was there that his musical talent was first discovered and given an avenue for expression. Unfortunately, I rarely saw him as I studied away from home, in Scotland. His interest in pop-music grew when the Beatles began to make their mark in Britain. He then never looked back! He had a Spanish-style guitar and he would strum it endlessly. Our father tried to encourage him to study music formally, but he would not hear of it. By the late 1960s, not only the Beatles but the Rolling Stones began to make it “big”, and all the musicians were self-trained, so Gabor did not see a point in going to study music formally. He was self-taught as a guitarist, as well as a composer.”

Gabor along with his brother would eventually leave England for Canada. At a time when the Canadian music scene in Toronto was just finding its feet, Gabor had managed to situate himself in a sphere of people who would later engage with the city’s emerging punk culture, which had started to take shape in Toronto’s then-infamous and seedy Queen Street West district. Experimenting with chord structures and a number of musical styles, Gabor eventually fell in with a crowd of musicians looking to explore and expand upon what the city had to offer in terms of musical influences. The rough beginnings of these exploratory designs would ultimately end up on Gabor’s first single “Nyet Nyet Soviet (Soviet Jewelry)”.

“He arrived in Toronto in 1972 at the age of 24 and, after living briefly with me, he lived in the Bay and Bloor area,” Hegedus recalls. “It’s at this point that his musical contacts began to blossom. So by early 1973, he was playing with several bands and at some point he formed his own. The names “Instaband” and “Misfits” were some of the bands in which he was the lead singer and guitarist.”

After signing with Anthem Records in 1979, BB Gabor would work steadily on material for a full-length album. His self-titled debut, produced by Terry Brown and Gabor himself, was released in 1980. The album’s startling single was the nervy, twitchy “Nyet Nyet Soviet (Soviet Jewelry)”. Filled with the carry-over influences of his punk-rock beginnings, the number was a cutting and fearless middle finger to the KGB that expressed humour and feelings of terror in equal measure. In the antsy, punkishly scratched-raw groove, Gabor bellows out a warning to all persecuted men on the run: “You’re better dead than Red!” Themes of Soviet oppression extend on “Moscow Drug Club”, a comically-ersatz Russian waltz whose darkly cinematic properties evoke the films of Georgiy Daneliya.

Other numbers on the album explore socio-economic issues, such as on “Consumer”, a catchy new wave pop ditty that catalogues middle class greed with cool nonchalance. On “Metropolitan Life”, Gabor details the hardships of living life in an urban city. “Give me half a minute and I’ll tell you what I’m thinking,” he sings, pleading with a street thug. “I get so excited when you’re waving that knife.” Clearly, there was much weighing on the young Gabor’s life. His debut reads like a wide-eyed immigrant surveying his new surroundings with wonder, fright and the emerging desire to connect with everything around him. It also reads like the collective musings of a typical Torontonian, resigned to the routines of his home city. It’s this contradiction of emotional proclivities which seems to have defined much of Toronto living among migrants during the early ‘80s.

“He hung around with the likes of Peter Gross (City TV’s weather-man),” Hegedus explains. “His social life was with an artistic/musical crowd. His music was broadcast to Hungary via Radio Free Europe, as some of his songs, like “Nyet Nyet Soviet” and “Moscow Drug Club” had definite Cold War dimensions. Apparently he had a following in Hungary, as well as here in Canada. I attended the recording of an album, perhaps not his first one, in 1981. I attended some of his shows, most memorably at the El Mocambo and at Ontario place. Of course, I remember him playing at the 1980 and 1981 Juno Award ceremonies, when he was nominated as one of three finalists as “Canada’s Most Promising Musician”. His show at the El Mocambo was especially energetic.”

Gabor’s debut essentially bridged much of his work in Toronto’s punk communities of the ‘70s with the burgeoning new wave music of the ‘80s that had just taken hold of both North America and Europe, respectively. You can hear the grey, imprecise areas of which the two influences meet, the sound of one era ending as a new one begins. It may be one of the very few Canadian albums of the early ‘80s that documents this change in musical climates.

Those grey areas become more defined on Gabor’s second and final release, produced this time by Eugene Martynec and, once again, Gabor himself. Edging much closer to new wave and electronic pop, 1981’s Girls of the Future pared back the nervous energy of Gabor’s debut for kookier, slightly more experimental fare. The album’s most notable achievement is its title-track, a supreme pop-hook extravaganza which pleasantly strums along with an urgent guitar riff amid the buzz of computer noise. The lyrics are especially telling; Gabor demonstrates the absurdity of irrational fear in a satirical comment on xenophobia. Implicitly drawing parallels between his own experiences as an immigrant in Canada to the exoticizing and “othering” of Asian women, the singer drives home the point of migrants contending with displaced identities and projected fears. Ironic, sly and humorous – much like Gabor himself – “Girls of the Future” adds yet another surreal dimension to a short but multipart body of work. “Othello” plumbs a leisurely groove with the warm, melodic fluid of soft blues-pop. The lyrics intimate the sentiments of alienation and loneliness by cleverly reconstructing the Shakespearean story as a pop song about a modern couple breaking down under the pressures of daily life.

Some songs explore deeper, more disturbing fare that hinted at the young singer’s increasingly troubled life at the time. The eerie, meditative “Outsider” suggests the modus operandi of a serial killer, who makes his moves during the dead of night. There are feelings of deep despair lying just beneath the brooding lyrics, feelings of estrangement made clear in the murder-mystery narrative: “He has no feelings / You have no fear / There is no sound / As he comes near / They’ll be looking in the morning / For a tell-tale trace / They know his work / But they’ve never seen his face / There’s an odd man out / There’s an odd man outside / He’s an odd man inside / He’s an outsider…” On its own, the narrative works purely as an effective pop drama worthy of Nick Cave or Patty Griffin. Upon closer inspection, the lyrics reveal something darker in Gabor’s psyche struggling to get out. Drawing emotional parallels with persecuted criminals may seem like a disturbing stretch of the imagination. But, in fact, these lyrics illustrate the darkly humorous deed of artists dying, perhaps literally, for their art. And in these lines, Gabor is both victim and victimizer.

“There was, at least in my view at the time, nothing unusually somber [about Gabor], as sadness has always found expression in music,” Hegedus reflects. “In hindsight – always 20/20 – perhaps we should have noticed something amiss. He also had bouts of depression (again in hindsight) when he was a teenager. When he refused to come out of his room (so I was told), the doctor told him to get off his rear-end and pull himself together. These were the 1960s when much less was known about depression than today and mental illness was not talked about, let alone understood. To all concerned, Gabor was just a truculent teenager!”

Music artist Carole Pope (of band Rough Trade), herself a prominent figure in Toronto’s punk scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s, often held court at the same popular clubs Gabor played at. While not unusual for Toronto acts to cross paths quite frequently for such a small city, Pope’s interactions with the singer were surprisingly rare. “I really didn’t know BB,” she says. “I think I met him once at the Juno Awards. But I got the impression he was troubled. I thought he was a brilliant, underrated artist…a great lyricist in the style of Elvis Costello.”

According to a number of reports, Gabor’s general demeanor took a noticeable turn; his normally genial behaviour gave way, more and more, to reticence, a change that became increasingly difficult to ignore among colleagues, friends and family. The singer was also at a crossroads with his music, working out his differences with his record company, who demanded saleable material from him. As changes in the musical climate began to dictate much of the songwriting during the mid-‘80s, Gabor struggled to find a harmonious balance between his personal vocation and the industry demands of popular music. Reportedly, music artist and producer Todd Rundgren was impressed with Gabor’s work and Gabor left Toronto for Vancouver to start work on a third album. With Rundgren handling production duties, Gabor would subsequently spend time at Rundgren’s compound in Woodstock, New York, recording new material. What followed concerning work on the third LP is a somewhat contentious moment in Gabor’s history, with a number of inside (and outside) sources contesting what material was actually produced during that period in Vancouver and New York, respectively. To date, it is uncertain if there are any certifiable recordings with Rundgren still in existence (A lone recording of a rough demo found in a small box of possessions by Gabor’s wife has caused some debate as to whether it is an artefact from the Rundgren sessions).

By now, Gabor had drifted considerably from his friends and family. The singer would make public appearances from time to time, most notably at Canada’s CASBY Awards ceremonies (formally called the U-Know Awards) in 1984 and 1985.

“The drifting apart from friends I did not know very much about,” Gabor’s brother admits. “He did break up with his long-term partner, Valerie, at some point. Although, at some point during 1982 he met Sandra. Sometime during the 1980s, my brother began to be suicidal. On one occasion, in March 1982, we had to pick him up from Pembroke, Ontario, after he checked in at the hospital there. We brought him to our home and he stayed with us for a few days, sleeping 23 hours a day, which is a typical sign of depression. He had been diagnosed with manic-depression (bipolar illness) and the final year of his life was especially tragic; he had suffered from an extremely sharp and prolonged manic phase, followed by deep depression whereupon he took his own life.”

On January 17, 1990, at the age of 41, after having moved back to Toronto following his spells in Vancouver and New York, Gabor’s body was found in his Toronto apartment by police. His death was ruled as a suicide. There was, as expected, feelings of devastation throughout Toronto’s music community. However, many of those who knew Gabor personally could not have been too surprised; the signs of his depressions had been noted over the years by a number of friends and fellow musicians. A singular voice in Canadian talent was now lost.

In the years following his death, it would become clear how much of a resonance Gabor’s work had on the Canadian youth, particular ones of Hungarian extraction. The artist’s punk-rock musings were reframed through a samizdat perspective, utterly unique and unheard of in the North American sphere of pop music during the early ‘80s. Rita Bozi, a dancer, playwright and practicing alternative medicine therapist, has documented her experiences growing up in Toronto as a Hungarian-Canadian whose parents had struggled living under Soviet rule in Hungary during the ‘50s, much like Gabor and his own family. Gabor’s death was but one experience in Bozi’s life that left an indelible impression on her. Her autobiographical stage play, The Damage Is Done, weaves together three disparate, though related, threads of her life’s journey: Bozi’s own life growing in Toronto, the work of the renowned Hungarian-born Canadian Dr. Gabor Maté, and BB Gabor’s life and music. Her searching and emotionally-probing drama has been critically lauded, earning plaudits across Canada since its 2014 debut. “BB Gabor was a big part of my early teen years,” Bozi reveals. “Although I never saw him play live, as I was only 15 and studying/living at the National Ballet School when he was rising on the Toronto scene. BB was Hungarian and fled Hungary as a child during the Hungary Revolution — it had a huge impact on his family as it did mine. My father fled during the uprising, leaving my brother and mother behind. BB had an ongoing conflict with his father as did my brother. My brother and I both have dealt with suicidal thoughts and BB carried through with this… sadly. I have turned to becoming a therapist and my brother still deals with ongoing trauma.”

In retrospect, Gabor’s turbulent life in Canada was the product of a wealth of emotionally-devastating experiences; his family strife during Soviet rule and, later, a grueling working life in England which would find him in various sorts of employment would indubitably inform the narratives in his music. For all his life’s trouble, Gabor’s remarkable ability to document and ultimately transform those experiences into a special art that merged pop music with earnest human drama is what marks him as an impressive talent, still to this day. That he could do it with at once a gentleman’s charm and ruffian humour places him in an aperture that continues to reside in the many hearts that knew him. More than 35 years on since his prominence in music (and 25 years since his death), Gabor’s work has somewhat faded from the public’s conscience; he now occupies just a margin in the wide canons of Canadian pop music. But he still haunts the peripheries of Toronto’s musical history like a restless ghost, framing the edges of a lost era with the sounds of a wondrous and complicated life.

“To me, he was my kid brother whom I looked after when we were children in Hungary,” Hegedus says. “I once took Gabor and a friend of his, (both about five or six years old at the time) to a nice spot in the Budapest hills where they played soccer. On one occasion, in the middle of a meadow, we saw none-other than the world-famous Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály with his wife. So I made Gabor and his buddy collect some wild flowers and give them to Mme Kodály, which she graciously accepted from the young boys. Gabor’s music was always melodious, pleasing to listen to — which to me is the ultimate criterion of good music. His illness was a tragedy; his suffering affected primarily him, his family, and all those who were close to him. I mourn his untimely passing to this day.”