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Interpretation of “Trench coat” by Vasilis Papakonstantinou

Vasilis Papakonstantinou is a legend among Greek singers. Most of his songs are in the rock genre. I first listened to his work as a teenager circa 2006, when I bought two CDs out of curiosity. One of them was from the live concert at the Herodion theatre in Athens. I have enjoyed listening to Papakonstantinou ever since.

For this publication, I decided to translate and then comment on Καμπαρντίνα (Kabardina, Trench coat). This is the version of song from the aforementioned live concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsD11nrkAjI. Though this link has the video of the performance, which is a thing of beauty in its own right: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjYrFw63vDM.

Here are the original lyrics, followed by my translation and commentary:

Καμπαρντίνα

Ερμηνεία:  Βασίλης Παπακωνσταντίνου
Στίχοι:    Λευτέρης Παπαδόπουλος
Μουσική:   Χριστόφορος Κροκίδης


Φορούσε άσπρη καμπαρντίνα
και βάδιζε στον κόσμο του,
κομμάτια έγινε η βιτρίνα,
που βρέθηκε στο δρόμο του.

Κόβει τη νύχτα η σειρήνα,
τα μπλόκα μπαίνουν στη σκηνή,
τον τύλιξαν στην καμπαρντίνα
και τον αδειάσαν στο κελί.

Μόνο η βροχή ξέρει
και λέει τραγούδι βουβό.
Μόνο η βροχή κλαίει
μ' ένα τραγούδι μισό.

Τη φυλακή δεν την μπορούσε,
θα φύγω είπε κι από δω,
η σήραγγα τον οδηγούσε
απ' έξω στο άπιαστο κενό.

Αέρας μπαίνει στο κελί του,
ξυπνάει όλη η φρουρά,
στοίχημα βάλαν τη ζωή του,
μην τους ξεφύγει άλλη φορά.

Γαλόνια χάσαν την τιμή τους,
κυκλώσαν όλη την Αθήνα,
με τη χαμένη υπόληψη τους
να κυνηγάει μια άσπρη καμπαρντίνα.

Μόνο η βροχή ξέρει
και λέει τραγούδι βουβό.
Μόνο η βροχή κλαίει
μ' ένα τραγούδι μισό.

Φορούσε άσπρη καμπαρντίνα
και βάδιζε το δρόμο του,
οι σφαίρες βγήκαν απ' τα σκίνα
και χώθηκαν στον ώμο του.

Έμεινε λίγο σαστισμένος
μπερδεύτηκε το βήμα του,
σκέφτηκε, είμαι σκοτωμένος
και μπήκε μες στο μνήμα του.

Ύστερα βγήκε ο δολοφόνος
κρατώντας ένα δίκανο,
δήλωσε, τι ωραίος φόνος
και μ' έλεγαν ανίκανο.

Μόνο η βροχή ξέρει
και λέει τραγούδι βουβό.
Μόνο η βροχή κλαίει
μ' ένα τραγούδι μισό.
Trench coat

Singer:  Vasilis Papakonstantinou
Lyrics:  Lefteris Papadopoulos
Music:   Christophoros Krokidis


He was wearing a white trench coat
and walked in his own world,
shattered into pieces was the facade,
that stood in his way.

The siren cuts through the night,
the blockades enter the scene,
they wrapped him in the trench coat
and threw him in the prison cell.

Only the rain knows
and sings a muted song.
Only the rain cries
with half a song.

He could not stand the prison,
I'll leave from here as well he said,
the tunnel was taking him
outside to the uncatchable void.

Wind enters his cell,
the whole guard awakens,
they bet on his life,
never to lose him again.

[Military] ranks lost their value,
circled all of Athens,
with their lost pride
hunting down a white trench coat.

Only the rain knows
and sings a muted song.
Only the rain cries
with half a song.

He was wearing a white trench coat,
and was walking along his path,
the bullets came out of the bushes
and penetrated his shoulder.

He stood a bit confounded
he lost his step,
he thought, I have been killed
and entered his tomb.

Then came the murderer
holding a double-barrelled rifle,
declared, what a beautiful murder
and they called me incompetent.

Only the rain knows
and sings a muted song.
Only the rain cries
with half a song.

I think the salient point of this song is a critique against the vanity of authority. How the establishment will go to great lengths to ensure that everyone conforms with its demands. Sometimes the powers that be take the form of security forces: the police and the military. At others, it is an imperialistic apparatus that will employ all means necessary to wage war against—or otherwise undermine—countries that do not fit in its vision of a world order. At others still, the establishment is a cobweb of unwritten rules, social norms, and institutions that govern how people behave in their interpersonal affairs and how they treat misfits.

The “misfit” is the operative term. We can interpret the story in the song as the typical cops versus criminals scenario, though I hold that the notion of a white trench coat is a metaphor for an irregular presence, as seen from the perspective of any given establishment. How often do you see white trench coats, anyway? I have never encountered one. They tend to be dark in colour. If, then, people expect to see us dressed in a dark coat and we wear a white one instead, they will consider us weird. Fashion choices are not the issue here, but only the core idea of being different and challenging expectations.

The misfit in the song is wondering in their own world. The broken facade is a poetic construct that captures pretences; appearances to intellectuality and sophistication; appearances to tolerance and open-mindedness; appearances about lofty values and ethical standards. Every society, every establishment, thinks of itself as great and righteous. Americans bring “democracy” to parts of the world. Europeans safeguard “European values”. Russians engage in “special operations” for the de-nazification of countries… Everyone is righteous.

The white trench coat will have none of that humbuggery. It shatters all forms of hypocrisy that stand in its path. Power, however, does not take kindly to those who do not fall in line. It will tolerate them only for as long as they are not a threat to it. Otherwise it will utilise everything at its disposal to turn that white trench coat into a straitjacket or, ultimately, a cloth to wrap a dead body with.

Casting misfits into a mould is the kind of ordinary procedure that goes unnoticed. This is why only the rain knows about it. When people take something for granted, they do not question it and will not see how preposterous it is. What is the problem with wearing a white trench coat, contrary to the prevailing fashions? Nothing whatsoever. The metaphor shows us how an otherwise small thing can become a big deal. Us being ourselves rubs others the wrong way. Combined with phobia, this phenomenon has the potential to trigger their most repressive, authoritarian reflexes. That is the moment when authority appeals to its power to enforce its ways. The “beautiful murder” of a misfit is how the one-size-fits-all is applied.

The establishment does not always need to resort to brutality. It can apply the softer touch of indoctrinating us. We internalise its value judgements as our own. We uncritically echo what we have been told and blithely join the rest in becoming the establishment and in committing the hubris of self-righteousness. Why? To not be bullied and harassed. To fit in with the lads. To be cool like everybody else. To be happy.

[ Read/watch: Expectations, rules, and role-playing ]

Indoctrination does not happen only in a formal setting, such as at school. It is a daily affair. The culture’s norms are embedded in patterns of collective action and eventually inform each person’s subjectivity. Forget about guns and violence. Consider those seemingly innocuous exhortations about something as trivial as hair:

  • “Men cannot have long hair.”
  • “Ladies must not have hair on their forearms.”

You get the idea. Maybe you agree with those views. It is okay to have an opinion. The problem starts when this opinion elevates itself to the status of authority and now serves as justification for every “beautiful murder” imaginable. Cutting one’s long hair while they are asleep—a beautiful murder of personality. Pressuring one to remove the hair from their arms—a beautiful murder of the potential for self-expression. And so on.

Social-cultural institutions will always exist. Just as individual organisms, so do societies reproduce their kind. Expectations develop interpersonally as an emergent mechanism of cultural propagation. This is not to say that we are doomed into a state of perpetual tyranny or that everything we have been taught is wrong and we must abolish it outright. No. Just that we should evaluate our own culture on the basis of reasonableness, remain sceptical of what we have, and do not participate in inflating our collective ego. That some notion found currency among our ancestors does not mean, ipso facto, that we too ought to keep it around forever.

I already mentioned the concept of internalising prevailing beliefs. We learn to judge ourselves from the third person view of society. All those standards about how we look, how we feel, what we ought to do in order to count as worthy, are all part of our social conditioning: we think in those terms. It is how we develop false wants and set misguided goals in our life. When we inevitably fail to meet the target, we blame ourselves for it: we hate who we are, we loath the failure we have become. In doing so, we do not recognise the key distinction between our underlying actuality and the idols we make out of our self; idols which operate within the domain of any given role-playing expectation, such as that of having a successful career, being a manly man, behaving and looking like a lady, et cetera.

Internalisation of this sort clouds our judgement. It prevents us from being honest. We take the righteousness of our milieu as a given and inevitably rationalise our condition as one of self-induced agony. This is prejudice writ large, as we now assume the role of the murderer who finds fulfilment in assassinating our character. Honesty is about wearing our white trench coat and walking in our own world. We do not fear to explore who we are by understanding what the world is. This is not done for the sake of being contrarian or to merely upset others. We simply want to know what the truth is, not what passes as acceptable. Our very nature predisposes us thus.

By being true to ourselves, we indirectly help others realise that there is another way. The authoritative view is not the single source of truth it purports to be. Of course, we can always try to fit in and be “normal”. Sometimes it is possible to mask our actuality and be who others want to see. Though it is unsustainable over the long-term. One cannot pretend forever. There will be a reckoning. It then is a matter of becoming the change we want to enact. And who knows? Courage is contagious—others might join us in placing a check on the authority’s vanity and in working towards a more tolerant and genuinely open-minded culture. Enough with the “you should be”. Focus on the “you are” and learn to appreciate the value in what you have.