Kourosh Yaghmaei

Persian Heart, Northern Soul

Iran’s father of rock is back (and banned). Joobin Bekhrad reflects on his 1974 classic, Gol-e Yakh

I stepped out of the piss-stained elevator, my hands burning in the pockets of my blue jeans. Beneath my beery breath, I was whistling a piano melody that had been swirling and sparkling about in my mind for days. I looked over my shoulder to make sure no one was around; all I could see from behind the blurred window of the apartment door was a ragtag band of children kicking around a ball in the side-street outside. I tried to remember the words to a bit of the song that Kaveh had been singing minutes earlier to the sound of cracking pistachio shells, but couldn’t. He knew all the words to those Persian love songs, that Kaveh. Far away from home, on the sticky streets of the city, he’d often put his arm around my neck and sing some ditty or other, while I’d try to stifle a massive grin. Ah, autumn! We wondered then about the mess we’d gotten ourselves into, but knew, somehow, that everything would be alright; for there was always the local boozer to slip into, spill the beans, and pour our hearts out, and always the voice of Kourosh.

Walking about on the sooty pavement outside, I realised my shoes didn’t fit. It looked like it was about to rain, but something kept dragging me onwards. I ditched the goddamned bus, full of glassy-eyed hoodlums chewing away on fried ordure, and walked on, my feet shifting about in my kicks. Passing by a Turkish greengrocer’s plastered with advertisements for calling cards, my stomach sank; I felt an inexplicable anxiety, a dull weight, press down upon me like the ‘empty mass’ Kourosh had sung about. I didn’t know why; the worst was behind me. My heart wasn’t in anyone’s hands, and I could once again confide in the sun. It was a new semester and a new year, but it was also April. There was still time left; anything could have happened. It was also a Sunday. What would tomorrow bring? Where would I be? I didn’t know, just as I didn’t know what I was doing then, or where I was going. Making up other words in lieu for the original lyrics, all I could do was sing along to that haunting melody when nobody was looking.

Kourosh Yaghmaei

The cover of Kourosh Yaghmaei’s 1974 single Gol-e Yakh (Ice Flower) with Del Dareh Pir Misheh (This Heart is Getting Old) on the B-side on the Ahang-e Rooz label

The street looked uglier than usual, I thought, as I began to feel the first cool droplets dot my nose. I felt like smoking, although I hadn’t a clue what cigarettes tasted like, and knew that Grandma would give me hell at home. Everything looked different in the daylight, stripped bare of the mystery and romanticism of the night. I longed for those shining lights and neon signs; I didn’t want to see things as they really were. Still feeling those Stellas in the back of my throat, I passed by old haunts and landmarks on Holloway Road: the godawful Coronet, the old Hercules, crumbling in pallid green and gold, the Zagros internet café, Zahra Shoes … Shoes! I was tempted to fling off the oblong appendages on my feet right there and then and throw on a pair of badly glued plimsolls, but I trundled onwards, distracted by the scenery, the song, and the image of Kourosh’s shiny white guitar glimmering before my eyes. That’s what I need, I said to myself, that’s what’ll make things better … a shiny white guitar …

… That April’s afternoon, it was Kourosh’s white Stratocaster I was daydreaming about. I didn’t want to be a Rolling Stone; I wanted to be a Persian rock and roll star.

I was sitting atop my windowsill one evening, all dressed up (in a weathered t-shirt) and ready to go out for dinner with my grandparents. I could hear Grandma in the other room squabbling with Grandpa over his choice of clothing. ‘Leave me alone! I want to go back to Tehran!’, I could hear him moan against the creak of a closet door. I turned up the volume of my record player and looked outside at the lone tree standing on the other side of the street, and the lamp that always glowed an incandescent pink, but for a few seconds, before turning yellow; I wouldn’t have missed those moments for the world that evening. In the neighbouring apartment building, people were cooking dinner and watching football, and outside, the man with the poorboy cap was having his usual eight o’clock smoke. I fixed my gaze on the glowing embers of his cigarette, and, just as Kourosh uttered the first verses of Ice Flower, our eyes met for a second. Sorrow has made a nest between your beautiful eyes. ‘Joobin! Have you gotten dressed yet?’ ‘Baleh, baleh …’

At the dinner table, somewhere in the West End, those piercing, echoing licks buzzed about in my ears, and I couldn’t stop thinking about that white guitar. It occurred to me then that the first guitar I’d ever seen was white, too. I don’t remember much of my cousin’s wedding in London as an eleven-year-old, except for the band that kept to itself in the background, performing a set of inoffensive numbers to an oblivious crowd. Despite the all-round banality of the whole affair, and, thinking the guitarist the very antithesis of rock and roll, I still couldn’t take my eyes off of his Telecaster. Norooz had already passed, and my birthday was months away, so I knew it would be a while before I’d be able to get my little hands on such a thing, which I wanted more than anything else in the world. If only they’d get me a white electric guitar, I thought, I’d get Mum and Dad as many A-pluses as they could possibly wish for. Shortly afterwards, I resolved to do away with the piano (just as I’d dropped out of Persian classes) and sling a six-string – and I knew exactly which guitar I’d convince my parents to buy me: Brian Jones’ white Vox teardrop. But that April afternoon, it was Kourosh’s white Stratocaster I was daydreaming about; I didn’t want to be a Rolling Stone. I wanted to be a Persian rock and roll star.

Kourosh Yaghmaei

Passing by Super Persia near Archway Station, I missed Grandma more than ever. I thought about popping in to pick up some sangak bread and tea, but didn’t have the patience to chitchat with Jamshid, the smooth-talking owner who always managed to sell us things we didn’t need. I thought about what Grandma might have been doing then. She was probably watching BBC Persian whilst engrossed in a telephone marathon with her cousin Mehran. I knew that, in an hour or so, Grandpa would bring out his chequered backgammon board, and he and Grandma would go at it for hours. Three and four. Two and two. Koor koor. Look at this luck! Cyrus, Cyrus. My clothes were sopping wet, but I didn’t care; your song was on the tip of my tongue, your guitar ringing in my being. I had left behind sordid Holloway Road, and had stopped thinking about my shoes. Even the sky looked different that day. From behind the slab of grey, engulfing all, shone forth a sheet of light while the rain poured down. High on a hill, I looked in vain for the little fox that usually skulked about in the dead of night, and stopped to regard the glistening creepers on a fence and a swollen branch swaying in the thick, heavy air. Grandpa used to say that his teachers would make sure the cherry branches they’d batter their tiny feet with as schoolchildren were wet, for added effect. In the back of my mind, I heard the rattle and twang of an old dotar, and wished it were Norooz again.

Kourosh Yaghmaei

‘… A northern soul …’ – Kourosh Yaghmaei (far right) and friends at Bandar-e Anzali by the Caspian Sea in Gilan (c. 1960s)

It was then that I realised I was a northern soul, and would always be one. I recalled the first time I saw the Caspian Sea. Having passed through the winding mountains, I awoke in the backseat of an old Paykan taxicab, my head comfortably nestled in my friend’s lap. My back was moist with perspiration, and the air felt strange. I looked at it with incredulity, thinking a thousand thoughts. The Caspian Sea. Hyrcania. The land of my forefathers. Yes, those coruscating shades of grey, that deep green, that blushing pink – I knew them all too well. I saw what Kourosh had seen in the rains he so often sang about, in the bittersweet spring. All of my melancholy and misgivings became tinged with a sort of ashen bliss as I stood there in Whitehall Park, wishing that April would never end, and Monday would never come.

Spotting the honeyed glow of my bedroom lamp in the distance, I smiled at the thought of playing truant the next day and running down to Denmark Street to catch a glimpse of Kourosh’s magical white guitar – after, of course, snagging some sneakers that fit.

Kourosh Yaghmaei’s recently released album, ‘Malek Jamshid’ (‘King Jamshid’) – currently banned in Iran – is available on Now-Again Records via Rappcats.

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About the Author

Joobin Bekhrad
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An award-winning writer, Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the founder and Editor of REORIENT. He has contributed to such publications as The Guardian, The Economist, the BBC, Forbes, i-D/Vice, Frieze, The Columbia Journal (whose Guest Editor he served as in 2016), The British Library's Untold Lives, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Aesthetica, Artsy, and Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, been interviewed by news outlets including Newsweek, The Art Newspaper, and the CBC, and seen his writings republished and translated into a variety of languages. He is the author of a translation of Omar Khayyam’s Robaiyat, a novella (Coming Down Again), a collection of stories (With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes), and a volume of poetry (Lovers of Light).