Post war generations tend to figure that a proletarian with hashish coming out of his ears and a stringed instrument is sure to be a lefty - probably a Communist. But this is to forget the puritanical flavour of Communism in Athens at the end of the Occupation and the start of the civil war. If history is divided between cavaliers and roundheads, the Communists were roundheads and the rebetes were cavaliers. Libertinism and Opium for the people was decidedly not on the Communist program of reform. Here’s how Markos remembers the Communists at the end of 1944 when he was working at a dive called the Kare tou Assou:
'There were communists who came there too and they were always on the look out for their enemies the Chites (the infamous security battalions) so once again we had some ugly bust-ups, pretty much every night. The communists used to come to me and say "Hey you’ve got to stop singing these songs about hashish." Chaos, death and destruction all around us and these guys wanted me to stop singing my hashish songs! They were dead set against them. "We’ll send you into exile, we’ll drive you out. Don’t sing these songs!" They were squeezing me on both sides. The Chites would come along: ‘Go on Markos, sing them. Don’t you mind anybody, we’ll protect you.’ The Chites and the communists, boy, that was one hell of a business. No picnic. The antartes (communist partisans) wanted me to play my stuff but not the hashish songs. The people mustn’t get to know about this kind of thing. These guys were serious. They wanted me to be serious too and sing serious. But the chites used to say "Play whatever you like. Nobody can stop you."
They were hunting each other down, killing each other. They had battles in the street, right outside our joint. It was a savage struggle. I had to try and keep on terms with everyone. Of course I wasn’t going to show whose side I was on. And I wasn’t on anybody’s side either. Neither the antartes nor the Chites. I was a Greek through and through. I loved my country and I was just waiting for the time when we’d be set free from this anguish, from these guys on the one hand and those guys on the other. I minded my own business. I worked day and night at the Kare tou Assou, I got paid, I did my job.
Like I said, the Germans had left and Greece was on the brink of falling into the hands of these communist guys. The others, the Chites I mean, did at least help to stop that from happening. There I was in the middle of it all, keeping my cards close to my chest because I didn’t want either side to kill me. So many times they beat people up, even at our joint, and I’d get in there:
"Hey guys, it won’t do. It’s a sin. We’re all brothers!"
"Keep out of it Markos!" they’d say to me - whether they were Chites or antartes, "Don’t you get mixed up in these things." So I sat tight because there was nothing else I could do. I had to do what they said. That’s how things were at that time, until we got shot of this misery and the whole damn lot of them went away.'
There’s something ever so faintly reproachful in the way Clapp points out that Markos, had a ‘studiously detached’ existence, ‘had little time for politics and never identified with the Left, even during the Occupation’. Mark Mazower’s brilliant book: ‘Inside Hitler’s Greece’ makes it easy to understand why people like Markos were not over enthused by politics. Athens was a battle zone. Markos exhibited the dogged pragmatism of the kosmakis, the poor man on the street, a man with a family depending on him, at a time when people dropped dead from hunger and there were daily blockades and mass executions. If you didn’t keep history out of your hair you were likely to end up swinging from a lamppost.
As for being anti-Establishment’, it would be truer to say the rebetiko world was simply a parallel universe with its own language conventions and codes. It was anarchic and there was no way a free-spirited mangas was ever going to tow anybody’s party line. Disobedience, yes but opposition, no, not really. Relations with figures of authority were rather more subtle than that of underdog and oppressor. Just as Robin Hood needs his Sheriff of Nottingham, so, in the self-mythologizing world of the mangas a fearsome scourge of a police chief was a respected enemy someone you could write a song about. What’s more, rebetiko had passionate enthusiasts even among the so-called ‘Establishment’. When Markos was doing his military service in 1925 the regimental Adjutant used to summon him to his office, give him coffee and hashish in return for baglama and songs. In Thessalonica in the thirties, Markos, Papaioannou and Stratos became very fond of the police chief Mouschountis who was, needless to say, a ‘ferocious scourge of criminals’ but he couldn’t get enough bouzouki - inviting Markos and the boys to play for him in discreet spots around the city. He kept hashish in his drawer to pay them with.