Rocking Toward a Free World

When the Stratocaster Beat the Kalashnikov


By András Simonyi

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From renowned diplomat and musician András Simonyi — whom Stephen Colbert calls “the only ambassador I know who can shred a mean guitar!” — comes a timely and revealing memoir about growing up behind the Iron Curtain and longing for freedom while chasing the great power of rock and roll.

In ROCKING TOWARD A FREE WORLD, Simonyi charts the struggle of growing up in 1960s Hungary, a world in which listening to his favorite music was a powerful but furtive endeavor: records were black-market bootlegs; concerts were held under strict control, even banned; protests were folded into song lyrics. Get caught listening to Western radio could mean punishment, maybe prison. That didn’t matter to Simonyi, who from an early age felt the tremendous pull of rock and roll, the lure of American popular culture, and a burning desire to buck the system. Inspired by the protest music coming out of the West, he formed a band and became part of Hungary’s burgeoning rock scene. Then came the setbacks: tightening of control by the state, the seemingly inescapable weight of an authoritarian system, and the collapse of Simonyi’s own dreams of stardom.

A story of youth, rebellion, and hope, ROCKING TOWARD A FREE WORLD sheds new light on two of the most powerful forces of the modern age: global democracy and rock and roll. Deeply vital and compelling, Simonyi’s memoir chronicles how one man’s tremendous connection to American and British popular music inspired him to make a difference in his country and, eventually, the world. It tells the story of a generation, as played out in song lyrics and guitar riffs.


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Note to the Reader

It has been seventy-plus years since the Cold War ripped the world apart, fifty-plus years since the events in this book took place. The divide between the liberal West and the authoritarian East was absolute. It seemed nothing could bring these two sides together. Certainly not politics or diplomacy. And yet, an unseen force was emerging, propelled by youth, optimism, and a burning desire to buck the status quo. This great power was rock and roll, and it swept through the world, breaking down barriers and infiltrating the Soviet bloc, of which my country, Hungary, was part. I was among the few who had experienced the communist East and the democratic West, having spent my formative years in both Hungary and the Kingdom of Denmark. It was in Denmark that I learned the meaning of freedom and democracy. And it was in Denmark that I was introduced to rock and roll.

When my family returned to Hungary, my most prized possessions were my electric guitar and a deep attachment to rock music. It’s that connection I’m writing about here. I’m not attempting to provide a history of rock and roll or a treatise on the political might of the Soviet Union, but to explain the hard-hitting impact of this incredible musical and cultural phenomenon. I’m writing as an individual, as part of a generation who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, a generation that, against stern repercussions and strict limitations, appropriated this force and made it our own.

This book is a testament to the formidable power of rock and roll. It chronicles the longing for freedom of thought and expression to show how we, the youth of the Eastern bloc, used rock and roll to connect with our peers in the West. Listening to our favorite bands gave us precious moments of autonomy. Performing rock and roll—despite the many barriers presented by the authorities—gave us the ultimate freedom.

I’ve done my best to represent the events of my life as faithfully as memory allows. In addition to relying on my own recall, I have reviewed diaries, notes, and letters made at the time and have asked family and friends to help fill in the gaps. Where available, I have consulted original sources such as books, newspapers, and magazines. In some instances, I have taken creative liberty to construct scenes and dialogues out of my own true stories. I have used real names in most cases, occasionally protecting a person behind a pseudonym. However, all the characters are real people, and some of them, sadly, are gone. I have tried my best to give them the justice they deserve.


Growing up in Hungary in the second half of the twentieth century meant growing up in a strange gray zone of isolation. An Iron Curtain had descended between us and the free world. After fighting on the wrong side in World War II, Hungarians had lived through a few hopeful years in which they could almost believe in the possibility of a democracy. But in 1948 the country was thrust mercilessly into the Soviet orbit. It would take forty years to pry loose the oppressive hand that was the Russian occupation; forty years in which the Hungarian people were forced to contend with a ruthless and oppressive Soviet system, in which liberty was denied and individuality threatened. Advances toward democracy were quashed, and Hungary was forced to pull back from the democratic ideology it had been leaning toward. Still, for all that we were separated from the free world, we were never totally disconnected from the West and the breadth of opportunity it represented.

Admittedly, I had a privileged childhood. My family had a comfortable home with hot and cold running water. We had food on the table and books on our shelves. A working record player with American records. My brother, sister, and I were loved and cherished. My parents made sure that we received a good education and gave us everything they possibly could. They even gave us a taste of freedom.

If you’ve always lived in freedom, it might be hard to imagine how potent a concept it is. Let me put it into context. Imagine New York after a devastating war. Imagine that people with blue eyes and red hair, good people who have long since proved their allegiance to the country, are rounded up, herded into cattle cars, and transported to concentration camps where they will be executed. Men with curly hair are next, followed by women with brown eyes.

After that comes occupation by a foreign power. All banks and privately owned businesses are nationalized, and their owners, pushed to the fringes of society, are transported to a camp on Staten Island. Times Square, once spectacular, is now dimly lit and covered in drab ads—approved, of course, by the Party. When not hawking inferior products manufactured by state-owned factories, the ads proclaim the great deeds of the Party, of which there is only one. Picture the once grand apartments on Fifth Avenue now confiscated by the city council, sliced up into small flats, the marble cracked, the furniture broken. The concierge of each building watches everyone who goes in and everything that goes on; he reports all activity to the secret police.

Imagine that most of the theaters on Broadway have been shut down and the few that remain open are told which acts can perform. Imagine that blue jeans can only be obtained on the black market; that rock and roll is broadcast by pirate radio stations operating offshore, and by Radio Free New York in Connecticut. The First Amendment is suspended “in the name of the people,” and New Yorkers require a permit to visit New Jersey. The wait for a passport is two, possibly three years.

Now imagine that even in the face of such tyranny, the people of New York never really surrender. With resilience and resourcefulness they form friendships, find love and passion, create and nurture families. Even under the harsh restraints of a callous dictatorship, they find ways to live as best they can. And if they happen to be a boy like me, they join the rock-and-roll revolution that is taking over the world. Because a boy who dreams of freedom from a crude regime understands the power in guitar riffs and drum solos; in the raw vocals that refute the status quo. He knows instinctively that rock and roll means power. And he never loses hope that one day, things will be different.

Chapter One

Even at the worst of times, we always had chocolate. Dutch Droste cocoa powder, to be exact. This sweet pleasure was anything but a staple in Hungarian households, but we were lucky. We had relatives in Holland and Belgium who would send us brown paper packages from the West, where all nice things came from. My older brother Gyuri, my younger sister Zsuzsi, and I would sit around the dining table when the packages arrived and watch in awe as our parents held up each item in turn: blue jeans for Gyuri and me; a tartan skirt for Zsuzsi; Chanel No. 5 for my mother. And the small metal box of Dutch Droste cocoa.

There was something beautiful about that box: a nurse standing with a tray of steaming hot chocolate on one side, and gleaming gold medals on the other, proof of the quality cocoa tucked inside. It was so different from the dull packaging found in Budapest stores, colorless packets that told of the poor quality of the goods inside. Maybe that’s why our breakfast ritual of kakao felt so bourgeois. Every morning my mother would get up and prepare it in exactly the same way: pour five teacups of water into a bowl, add a mix of granulated sugar and cocoa powder, bring it to a boil on the gas stove. When the liquid started to bubble, turning that beautiful shade of brownish blue, she’d pour fresh milk in the bowl. And there it was. The most comforting drink in all the world. The ritual that started the day.

As a child I was curious about the place where our cocoa came from—the forbidden West where people suffered under the yoke of capitalism, where the fat, cigar-smoking banker squeezed blood out of the poor, miserable worker. Not at all like Hungary, which of course was a workers’ paradise. That was the Party line, but it wasn’t what most Hungarians thought. Hungarians had an almost mythical view of the West, especially America, which we regarded as a world of abundance where people dressed in beautiful clothes, drove around in nice cars, and had the freedom to travel wherever and whenever they wanted.

Hungarians fantasized about the West, and would pass around contraband glossy magazines some wily person had managed to procure, a Sears or Quelle catalog, just to look at a world that was closed to us. What must life be like in that suit, with that radio or that bike. The West was where we exercised our imaginations and let our dreams roam free. In private we talked about the West with longing. It was a different matter in public, where everyone would suggest that they were content with their life and lot, where, with a straight face, they’d criticize the West and praise communism. My parents and their friends never said anything bad about the West. They expressed only fondness when talking about Antwerp and London, Paris and Rome—and always with a note of desire. They’d go to great lengths to find an Italian silk tie or a Western publication, both of which were considered tremendous social assets. The people who lived in the countryside weren’t as sophisticated as their comrades in the city. They didn’t have access to the goods or the information that we did. Consequently, they were more accepting of what the Party told them, and more antagonistic to the West.

The Party turned a blind eye to small infractions: a little contraband in the form of American cigarettes, nylon stockings, Chiclets chewing gum. Occasionally, however, just to make a point, officials would harass someone for making a public statement that deviated too far from the official line. It could be as innocuous as saying “Oh, to be suffering in Vienna,” or “I wonder if they have to line up to get into the stores in London?” Any comparison in which the East was made to look inferior was met with retaliation. When Stalin was alive, such a transgression could mean death. Later, when the Party softened, a public humiliation or demotion would do. Still later, as the Party felt secure in its grip on power—and perhaps to ward off popular discontent—there was a deal in place: pretend to accept Party rule and the authorities will pretend you’re devoted to the system. They even went so far as to amend the Party slogan from the infamous “Those who are not with us are against us” to “Those who are not against us are with us.” That was fine with my father and his colleagues in foreign trade. They knew how to make this system work for themselves and their families.

Foreign trade was Hungary’s lifeline to the outside world. Our factories produced a large quantity of goods, many of which were intended for consumption at home and by other communist countries. But these products were mostly shabby and of poor quality—a missing part here, a broken knob there. Then there were the products intended for the West. “For export” items were made of the best materials by the best craftsmen—wool suits, a racing bike, a handwoven rug—and were used to secure dollars, pounds, kroner, guldens, and deutsche marks, the hard currency the government depended on.

My father’s profession was a blessing. A textile engineer who grew up in Vienna and spoke German like a native—not to mention a number of other languages—he was given advantages others didn’t have. The regime needed him. It was that simple. The Ministry of Foreign Trade assembled skilled professionals for jobs related to the export market. Men like my father who spoke German, French, or English were in high demand, dispatched to what was referred to cynically as the damned world of the West to deal with the dirty capitalists. Which was how I got my first taste of freedom.

When my father told us he was to head the Hungarian commercial office in Copenhagen, I didn’t know what to make of it. My experience of the outside world was limited to the colorful maps in my geography textbook and the postcards Father would send from his trips. And of course those brown paper packages. My brother, sister, and I had a lot of questions:

“Where is Denmark?”

“What do you call the people who live there?”

“Do they speak English?”

“Do they drive Mercedeses and Jaguars?”

In the months before our departure, we prepared. Diligently. Father showed us Copenhagen on the map.

“Here,” he said. “This is where we are, in Hungary. What countries are next to us?”

I listed them. “The Soviet Union, Romania, and Yugoslavia. Here is Austria, where you grew up, Father. Here is Czechoslovakia, where Mari Blaskovics’s family comes from. The capital is Prague.”

“That’s right, Andris, and look,” my father continued. “Right up here, past Czechoslovakia, is East Germany. Past East Germany, across this blue line that is the sea, that’s Denmark. That’s where we’re going.”

Our mother watched.

“We will fly by airplane. You will have to behave nicely—no quarreling.”

As the day of our departure grew near, Father brought home the View-Master. This 3-D picture viewer—from America, of course—was a little miracle of its own, offering “stereo pictures” of Denmark from its “Nations of the World” collection. Those little white disks were a type of crude and wondrous virtual reality that made you think you really were seeing Hamlet’s castle, a herring smokehouse, the changing of the guard.

Palace guards. Strong young men wearing bearskin headdresses and light-blue jackets with gold buttons, black trousers with white stripes running down the sides. A shiny silver sword hanging from their belts. These guards wore serious expressions as they stood outside the Danish Royal Palace, and yet they still seemed friendly to me. Father explained that they were there to protect King Frederik IX and Queen Ingrid.

“Maybe you’ll even meet them,” he told me.

I held to this thought in the days before we left. We were going to live in a country with a king. A king who would be my king.


Our Soviet-made Ilyushin Il-14 left Budapest on a gray September morning. This was 1961, long before flip-flops and T-shirts were acceptable travel wear. Flying on an airplane was a special occasion for us, and we dressed accordingly: Father in a suit and tie, Mother in her best outfit. I wore blue short pants and a crisp white shirt. My carry-on bag was stuffed with important things: an inflatable fox made of rubber; the Essential English textbook; and my pocketknife. We were on our way to the West. But first we had to refuel in East Berlin.

The Wall had been erected just a few days before, on August 15, and when we touched down at Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport our little plane was surrounded by military. Tanks, jeeps, and soldiers with machine guns made sure we didn’t leave. They needn’t have worried: we were anxious to get to Denmark and wanted nothing more than to wait safely in our seats. We tried hard to close our ears to the angry shouts coming from outside the plane.

“Niemand verlässt dieses Flugzeug. Verstanden?”

“Alle Pässe kontrollieren. Aber schnell!”

“Auch die Kindern!”

We couldn’t ignore the East German officers who boarded the aircraft. They filed down the rows in silence, glaring at us with cold eyes. Hard men secure in their authority, so sure of their ability to intimidate, these soldiers could do anything to anyone and get away with it. They knew it and we knew it. Father sat straight-backed in his seat, his eyes alert and watchful. Mother gripped Zsuzsi’s hand, while Gyuri and I exchanged glances. We didn’t understand the escalating tensions of the East-West confrontation, but we knew enough to be terrified.

Just a few days before, the citizens of Berlin could come and go as they pleased. Families may have been scattered between East and West, but those who lived in the Soviet-controlled part of the city could mix freely with those who lived under Allied jurisdiction. Yet while we were packing for Copenhagen, planning our move to this important country with its own king and queen, East German soldiers were unfurling the barbed wire that would become the Berlin Wall.

I’ve always felt that there was something fateful about our family leaving the Iron Curtain at a time when things were getting worse for those trapped behind it, when other families were being rent in two.

But I was a small boy in the midst of something big in my own life, and I only knew that everything was about to change. I had felt secure in my world, protected by loving parents, comforted by a familiar routine. I had friends with whom I had grown up, and a teacher, Auntie Ancie, whom I loved. I knew all our neighbors and I could tell from the click on the lock who was entering or leaving our building. I was a sheltered child, the perils of the world mostly unknown to me. I understood on one level that things were bad, but it was too much to take in. Besides, I was nine years old and on an airplane with my family. Soon I would see the Round Tower, the red rooftops of Copenhagen, and the brand-new airport terminal at Kastrup. Soon I would arrive in the free world.

Chapter Two

My first impression of Copenhagen was the smell of salt water and the closeness of the sea. As we made our way down the boulevard named after Hans Christian Andersen, past city hall—the very building I had seen on the View-Master—I could feel things opening up before me. I knew I’d be happy here in this wonderful place with fine people and their colorful clothes. Looking out the car window, I was thinking that maybe we would come back to town soon. I wanted Father and Mother to buy us new toys. I wanted a bright-yellow raincoat like the ones I saw Danish children wearing, and a bicycle with hand brakes. I wanted to touch the sea. I wanted this to never end.

Our temporary accommodations were small, but I didn’t care. To me—to us—the apartment was beautiful. Our ground-floor lodgings had unusually large windows that let in a great deal of light. The bedrooms, each with its own balcony, overlooked a big grass field. I’d never seen so much green. As for the kitchen, which I knew from my mother was the most important room in any house, this was not like a Hungarian kitchen. The cabinets were mounted on the walls, the countertop ran from one end of the room to the other, and there was even a stainless-steel sink. Yet for all these modern conveniences, it was the furniture that caught my eye. The sofa, the tables and chairs—everything was light and contemporary, made of a lustrous brown wood I had never seen before.

“Denmark is famous for its furniture,” Father explained. “This,” he said, knocking on a table, “is called teak.”

Teak. A new word. Solid, exotic, and warm, just like the wood.

“I can’t wait to prepare the kakao tomorrow in this pretty kitchen,” Mother added, smiling. She was like all of us, I guess, eager for this new adventure to begin.

I didn’t object to going to bed early. It had been the longest of days and I was tired. Mother sat down by my bedside, tucked the duvet under me. She turned to Gyuri and Zsuzsi, snug in their own little beds.

“Did you notice how nice they were at the airport?” she asked. We weren’t used to such consideration.

Zsuzsi, ever the precocious one, nodded. “Mama,” she said. “This Danish is such a funny language. The words they say…do they make it up as they go along?”

“No, dear, it just sounds funny to you because it’s a new language. Now get some sleep. But first, here is something for each of you.” She handed out the little toys she had found in the boxes of Tide laundry soap. “Jó éjszakát,” she said. Good night.


Gyuri, Zsuzsi, and I woke early the next day. After breakfast we ventured out to explore our new neighborhood, where I took in the smallest discoveries with great enthusiasm. Close by our apartment, a wide bridge spanned the construction of a new highway. I stood there for a while watching the heavy machinery moving up and down, the steamroller smoothing the surface. I had never seen a highway before, and here, just a short walk from our new apartment, a road was being built with lanes so wide two cars could move in each direction. I imagined four streams of colorful cars, gleaming bright in the sunshine. I could hardly believe it.

Crossing the bridge, I saw modern shops with large welcoming windows. I peered inside one and saw orderly shelves full of goods you wouldn’t see in Budapest: stacks of oranges and bananas, dark-brown bread, and odd black sticks, which I later learned were licorice. The man behind the counter was handsome and blond. Everyone here was blond!

An ambulance turned the corner, speeding. It was cherry red and white, with a bright-blue light on top. A Chevrolet, like the ones I’d seen in magazines and occasionally in Budapest with Viennese license plates.

I kept exploring. I was puzzled by a strip of asphalt beside the road, until I saw a man ride by on a bicycle, shortly followed by another, and another. A road just for bicycles. How could this be?

Davs!” a man said as he passed me, which I guessed meant “hello.” A stranger would rarely greet me like that in Hungary.

The houses, too, were so unlike the ones in Budapest. At home the buildings were covered with plaster—mostly gray—and many were stippled with bullet holes. Sometimes the plaster was missing. More often it was damaged, like a chipped tooth. The houses in Copenhagen were beautiful, so colorful and inviting it seemed that there should be a different word to describe them—just plain house felt lacking, somehow. That would become a familiar feeling in those early days in Denmark, the desire for a new vocabulary to express this new experience.

Thank goodness for English and for Aunt Julia, the lady with the British husband who had taught us English at home in Budapest. Looking back, I wondered how long Father had been planning our relocation. Was his posting here really just “the luck of the draw,” as he had said, or was there something more to it? I knew of no one else who had learned English, which the Party referred to as “the language of the imperialists.” No one else my age could speak English to the milkman. There was so much I didn’t know.

Mother was so impressed with my language skills that she asked me to run an errand. She wanted a big ballpoint pen. She had used a ballpoint before. We all had, of course: the inventor, László Bíró, was Hungarian. But now that she was in the capitalist West, it seemed Mother wanted a big pen. I was happy to oblige.

I walked boldly into the paper store.

God morgen, kan jeg hjælpe dem med noget?” the lady behind the counter asked.

“I speak English,” I said, “and I would like please to buy a big pen.” She reached into a box and pulled out a pen.

“Take this one. It’s the biggest I have,” she responded in a kind of singsong voice, which I would later realize was typical of the Danes.

“Yes, this is good. I would like to be buying it.”

The dark-blue pen had a large barrel chamber and felt heavy in my hand. I had never seen a pen so big. Mission accomplished, I paid and dashed home.

“Here you are, Mother!” I felt good. Self-satisfied. Prouder than Jack with his beanstalk.

“What is this?” she asked.

“It’s what you asked for. A big ballpoint pen,” I boasted. “The biggest.”

“A big pen? Oh, no!” Mother was laughing now, laughing so hard she couldn’t speak. She left the room and returned with a glossy magazine. “This is what I want,” she said, pointing to an ad. “The Bic pen. Look—it will not leak or clog. It can write for over a mile and a quarter. That is the pen for me.”


Authorities in Budapest believed that children of officials posted abroad should attend Soviet embassy schools. How else to avoid the corrosive influence of the dirty capitalists? But Gyuri, Zsuzsi, and I were fortunate. We didn’t have to go to a Soviet school where our every move would be watched, with a curriculum devised to further communist ideology. My parents defied the authorities and enrolled us in the best international school in Copenhagen, named after the Swedish Count Bernadotte. I never did find out how we managed to get away with it. But one thing I did know: when it came to family, my father had his ways.


  • "Around 2004, it came as a great surprise to me that my band, Traffic, was one of the first western rock bands to play in Hungary after the uprising, which took place there in 1956. András was at the show I did in 1968, and although we were kept separated by the audience, András made brief contact with us. Since that time, he has become a friend, a champion, and an ardent believer in music as the universal world language of peace."—Steve Winwood
  • "A fascinating and very personal account of how rock and roll conquered communism. I felt like I was right there as music took the stage, witnessing a man and country change before us."—Stephen Colbert
  • "András Simonyi was a great ambassador from Hungary to the United States. Now, he's a great ambassador for rock n' roll, showing readers how American music penetrated through the Iron Curtain and inspired a generation."—Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
  • "Whether through the skillful practice of diplomacy or guitar, András Simonyi understands better than most how the power of music can unite cultures and countries the world over. This stunningly detailed and inspiring personal account will entertain revolutionaries and rockers alike."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; line-height: 17.0px; font: 14.7px Helvetica; color: #212121; -webkit-text-stroke: #212121}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure and New York Times bestselling author of Promise Me
  • "Simonyi's memoir serves as an urgent reminder that we should not take freedom for granted."—Financial Times

On Sale
Jun 4, 2019
Page Count
336 pages

András Simonyi

About the Author

András Simonyi is a former diplomat, who has served as Hungary’s first Ambassador to NATO and as Ambassador to the United States. An economist by training, he has a PhD in international affairs and is a specialist in multilateral diplomacy, transatlantic security, and the use of “soft-power” in diplomacy and the Nordic countries. He has a lifelong love for rock and roll music and has been playing the electric guitar since age thirteen. Today he plays in his band, The Coalition of the Willing. András Simonyi has two children and four grandchildren, and lives with his wife in Washington, D.C.

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