Underground rock scenes tend to start in basements, and Libya’s has proved no exception. Most folks gathered here tonight in the cavernous cellar of a British diplomat’s residence can’t quite decipher the words to “Rock the Casbah,” but perhaps that’s because the smoldering PA (which by evening’s end will be destroyed) is extraordinarily loud, or because pretty much everyone is fantastically drunk, or because Ted Nesseth, frontman for Oakland’s Heavenly States, is by this point more or less screaming.
Shareef he don’t like it! Rock the Casbah! Rock the Casbah! Ted howls, feet planted, face contorted, stabbing his knife-wounded Telecaster. To his left is an enormous banner proclaiming “The Heavenly States: The First American Rock Band to Hit Tripoli, Libya. 4th February 2005.”
“Shareef” in this usage translates roughly to “The Man.” And due to a combination of disorganization, misunderstanding, and vague totalitarian menace, it is Shareef to whom Ted finds himself playing tonight. Oil-industry big shots. Well-heeled diplomats with African servants. Bright-faced dudes with model-caliber wives who describe their development companies by saying “You know Halliburton, right?” They live and work here in Tripoli, but in gated, guarded, isolated communities not technically on Libyan soil and largely unpopulated by Libyans. Their disdain for the natives is, in fact, sometimes alarmingly overt: Fuck the Casbah! Fuck the Casbah! one expat chants merrily to States drummer Jeremy Gagon after the show.
The proudly leftist Heavenly States make a point of despising these sorts of people.
But tonight, at least, the band’s admirably concealed feeling of disdain is not mutual; Shareef appears to like “Rock the Casbah” very, very much. The crowd of two hundred or so pogos vigorously, outstretched hands grasping for the high ceiling, cups of locally brewed beer sloshing about — a wedding reception scene at its rowdiest. When the song ends, and Ted climactically chucks his Telecaster into the drum kit, the audience lustily cheers and claps and cajoles the band into three separate encores, including an impromptu version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and an encore presentation of “Casbah” as vitriolic as the first.
Thanks to Joe Strummer’s pulverized accent, you can adore “Rock the Casbah” and the Clash in general all your life and have no idea what he’s going on about. Ted Nesseth will gladly tell you. “It’s about playin’ music when you’re not supposed to,” he’d explained back in Egypt. “Rock ‘n’ roll.”
By order of the prophet
We ban that boogie sound
Degenerate the faithful
With that crazy Casbah sound
But the Bedouin they brought out the electric camel drum
The local guitar picker got his guitar-pickin’ thumb
As soon as the Shareef had cleared the square
They began to wail
Early last month, as he (finally) boarded a flight from Cairo to Tripoli, Ted’s outgoing voice-mail message consisted of the gregarious frontman strumming his guitar and singing “Casbah” in its near-entirety. Nesseth and his mates — Jeremy on drums, and Jeremy’s sister (and Ted’s girlfriend) Genevieve Gagon on keyboards and violin — set out to invade Libya on a mission of diplomacy and degeneracy: As their banner implied, the Heavenly States were the first American rock band to attempt a tour of the North African dictatorship. Following an arduous year of wheeling, dealing, and cluster-bomb faxing — not to mention $80,000 of their record label’s money — the States’ quest has ended here, in a British diplomat’s basement, on sovereign British soil, for a primarily Western crowd that soothes the band with its enthusiasm, but only to a point. This experiment in cultural exchange and high-wire public relations, after all, has not gone particularly well. The Shareef, it appears, cannot be easily beaten — only temporarily joined.
Libya lacks a sterling international reputation for three principal reasons:
1. The 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, killing all 259 passengers aboard in addition to eleven victims at the crash site in Lockerbie, Scotland. Long considered an act of Libyan terrorism, outcry over the incident finally compelled the Libyan government to pay $10 million in victim compensation and hand over two suspects to international courts in early 2000; one was later convicted.
2. “The government” in this case means Muammar Gadhafi, who as a 27-year-old engineered a military coup of the Libyan monarchy in 1969, and remains one of the more eccentric dictators in the international pantheon. Though Libya is technically known as the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,” the rule of the man known only as Leader is absolute: The portraits of Gadhafi adorning buildings, shops, and hotel lobbies occasionally show him reclining or even laughing, but most make no attempt to disguise his air of omniscience and cruelty.
3. On a lighter but perhaps equally damaging note, in the 1985 Hollywood pre-Blockbuster blockbuster Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd are chased around a suburban mall parking lot by crazed Libyan terrorists piled into a micro bus, complete with the sheik-lookin’ dude poking out of the roof with a machine gun.
But that was ’85. Twenty years later, Libya, quite simply, is the Bush administration’s most clear-cut foreign policy success — a rogue nation scared straight. Flush from the diplomatic victory of the Pan Am suspect negotiations, Gadhafi voluntarily gave up his nuclear weapons program in December 2003, offering to dismantle it completely under the supervision of US and UN inspectors. His motives, of course, weren’t entirely philanthropic. His concessions ensured Libya would not become the next Iraq, and also set the country on the path to become the next Italy: a lush trade and tourist destination enriched by billions of dollars in oil reserves. Reagan-era embargos were lifted and, as of February 2004, Libya took its first steps toward opening itself up to human and commercial traffic.
That’s where the Heavenly States decided to drop in. The relatively unknown trio of East Bay thirtysomethings — a quartet if you count their perennially exploding bassists — combine alt.country instrumentation (violins, melodies) with reckless punk rock abandon. While driving around Australia on tour, news radio blaring, they caught wind of Libya’s transformation, whereupon Ted and the gang, along with Eugene Bari, their Brit-in-Australia label head, made a “Wouldn’t it be cool?” snap decision.
A hectic year of planning ensued, with Eugene navigating a disorienting sea of diplomats, ambassadors, government spooks, tour companies, and expat oil interests in an attempt to book a week’s worth of rock shows in a country where a week’s worth of rock shows has never been booked before. The prospective shows would vacillate in number and location almost daily — sometimes there’d be three, sometimes seven, sometimes intimate restaurant gigs, sometimes big-deal gala benefits for tsunami relief at some diplomat’s palatial estate. But with the latter charity effort as a source of goodwill, Eugene finally has his battle plan hammered out. Now, on a Saturday afternoon in late January, the Heavenly States are hurtling over the Bay Bridge bound for SFO, then London, then Cairo, where they plan to meet “Euge,” before skipping immediately on to Tripoli.
All to their parents’ trepidation.
“It’ll make some dynamite footage if we make it in a beheading video,” Jeremy cracks into a cell phone. His mother’s response is inaudible.
Ted grabs another phone and adopts a stern, professional voice: “Mrs. Nesseth? This is Tony Montgomery from the US State Department … aw, Mom, I’m just kidding.”
Genevieve takes a characteristically softer tack: She admits her open-minded family members — even those with exotic travel stories of their own to relate — are scared. (Perhaps they’ve seen Back to the Future.) Symbolically, it doesn’t help that the Heavenly States’ official show-opening number, “The Story Of,” features the band’s most infectious chorus: Hey! Hey! Everybody’s gonna die today!
“The advice I was given was, ‘Just don’t say anything to anyone,'” frontman Ted admits. “And the advice Jeremy and Genevieve got was, ‘Just make sure Ted doesn’t say anything to anyone.'”
Calamity strikes immediately. Specifically, at the British Airways ticket counter, where we stand for more than two hours.
From afar, Eugene has orchestrated a complicated flight plan with no room for error: SFO to London to Cairo to Tripoli, with tight connections. Any delay breaks the whole chain, and lo, BA’s earlier SFO-to-London flight was canceled, and the airline responded by tossing all of those people on our flight, displacing anyone who checked in less than two hours before departure. Like everyone, for example. Like us.
It’s an ugly airport scene. The furious Scotsman next to us in line openly hypothesizes that his mother will die before he arrives. Ted, meanwhile, deploys his secret weapon. He’s a tall, lanky, darkly tousle-haired dude, endearingly awkward and armed with a constant barrage of jokes, impressions, and song fragments he delivers with an infectious laugh. He likes calling airline ticket clerks by their first names, and he does so now as he explains that if his band doesn’t get on this flight, a tsunami relief benefit — not to mention a tour of tremendous sociopolitical and cultural significance — will be scrapped thanks to a hapless airline. “It would just be unfortunate for this world news event to be canceled because British Airways overbooked a flight,” he notes, deadpan.
“That wouldn’t be a very good press release for us,” the clerk agrees with a nervous laugh.
Ted is flush with media attention. A local TV crew had showed up at the Oakland house — well, actually, the garage behind his friend’s house — where he and Genevieve live, just before the band left for the airport. Outposts from NPR to Newsweek have picked up on the story, and a writer from Britain’s Daily Telegraph will meet the group in Tripoli to write a more extensive piece. The Heavenly States are international unknowns, but the greater unknown of Libya makes this jaunt newsworthy. Ted, understandably, is eager to discuss it. With anyone. He uses the line “First Rock Band to Play Libya” on at least three different complete strangers before we board our first plane.
We win a partial victory. We’re diverted to another airline, with a new flight plan: SFO to Munich to Istanbul to Cairo. A little luck and we’ll still make it. Maybe.
Jeremy — with buzzed hair, long sideburns, and a quietly friendly air splitting the difference between Ted’s vivacity and Genevieve’s soft-spokenness — settles into his seat with a complimentary Chronicle. “More Bush scandals, and nobody cares,” he mutters. Before long, W appears on the in-flight TV monitor during a news program. “Dipshit,” Jeremy mutters.
The drummer works for an architectural firm specializing in low-income housing, a gig flexible enough to allow for the band’s frequent international tours: Australia, the UK, Old Europe, Scandinavia later this year, Eastern Europe looming on the horizon. They’ve also discussed Iran or North Korea, those other Axes of Evil, if Euge can swing it. Ted and Genevieve fill in with temp work when they can, and at home the States function largely as a plum opener for indie-rock big-shots: Sebadoh, Mike Watt, the Pernice Brothers, the Arcade Fire. Recording-wise, there’s one self-titled album, a bit more ballad-heavy than the manic live show, first released on the respected indie label Future Farmer in 2003 before Eugene snatched it up for his own Baria Records and rereleased it in February. But the band is best known thus far for “Monument,” less a song than a political statement protesting the Iraq war: It consists of native Arabic speakers reading off the names of confirmed Iraqi civilian dead, spiraling together into a terrifying Tower of Babel monolith.
Ted’s lyrics lean toward the arty and convoluted, but somehow the States’ politics resonate with perfect clarity.
We land in Munich, wait around. We land in Istanbul, and sprint through the airport, barely making our Cairo connection. Genevieve, red hair still nearly glowing in the cabin’s pre-takeoff darkness, stares out her window, pensive. Ted asks what she’s thinking.
“I was having an imaginary conversation with someone about how much I hate Bush,” she replies. Ted softly admonishes her for talking politics — he’s read that most Libyans dislike the subject.
We make it to Cairo, but miss our scheduled Tripoli flight by thirty minutes. Armed with a T-Mobile Sidekick (although he forgot the charger), Ted is frantically trying to reach Eugene in Cairo to set backup plans in motion. But he can’t get through. Eugene’s silence is uncharacteristic.
As is Cairo’s airport.
We’re thrust into a dusty, chaotic, unnerving pipeline dead-ending in a large crowd funneling through passport control, with high booths nearly surrounded by black-tinted glass, fitted with tiny round holes to discourse with the passport agent. We’re turned away once to go buy $15 Egypt visa stamps. We reconvene and are waved through, except for Jeremy, who is detained for an hour and a half.
They asked him where he was coming from, and instead of “America,” he said “Istanbul.” This triggered a red flag somehow. They take his passport and point to a bench. He sits, they disappear.
From beyond the black-tinted booths, in the midst of a chaotic baggage claim scene, Ted and Genevieve look back at him in alarm.
An official-looking guy in a tweed suit scrambles about, first approaching Ted and saying “five minutes, five minutes.” He then entreats various passport officials — somber, black-clad guys — in Arabic, ostensibly on our behalf. They appear to ignore him.
“Five minutes, five minutes,” he tells us. After 45 minutes we stop listening.
Ted is still on the phone, trying to reach Eugene, who should’ve met us here at the airport. No answer.
Genevieve is starting to freak out. “I’m just afraid something terrible is going to happen,” she says. “We can’t get ahold of Eugene, and that’s not like him at all. I’m just worried they’ve got Eugene, and they’re waiting for us.”
Ninety minutes later, they hand Jeremy his passport and wave him through. No explanation. We collect several carts full of luggage — clothes, camera equipment, Genevieve’s keyboard, Ted’s guitar — and plow through a pack of nosy Egyptian customs officers. Eventually we pour into a van and head toward Eugene’s hotel, the Grand Hyatt Cairo.
“You ever meet Eugene?” Ted asks. “I’m gonna strangle him.”
We arrive at 3:30 a.m. local time, after roughly 24 hours of transit. The hotel sits next to a vast river. “That’s the Nile,” Genevieve says. “I’m gonna cry.” Quietly, she does.
A short time later, Eugene yanks open his hotel room door. “You cunts!” he cries. “I can’t believe you’re alive!”
Eugene Bari is the kind of guy who quotes Shakespeare — Many a slip twixt cup and lip, he reasons, assessing the band’s travel difficulties — in a British accent so blunt and thick he is asked to repeat himself five times. His profane speech is littered with top blokes getting knackered at piss-ups and entreating total bastard wankers to fuck off, then. His thick glasses and thick paunch afford him a certain authority. He worked as a photojournalist in England before some harrowing moments in Cambodia compelled him to try the construction business instead. It went well. He now resides in Australia with his everything-but-official wife (they can’t find the time for the ceremony) and their two infant daughters. His label, Baria, is in its mere infancy, but signed popular Oakland electro-sleaze crew the Lovemakers before they jumped to a major. He has five or so acts now, including the Heavenly States, whom he warmly compares to the Clash.
Bari mortgaged his house and spent eight months of his life orchestrating this next week’s Libyan adventure. He prices it at $50,000, though he’ll add $30,000 to the estimate before long. He’ll give you the blow-by-blow of his preparations if you’ve got about 45 minutes. Every possible embassy. Every possible government. The UN trade reps, Ministers of Culture. International businesses. Expat oil guys milling about Tripoli. All plied with the same message: I’ve got a band, American. Wants to tour Libya. No funny stuff, just cultural exchange. Someone help us.
Some people did help, but not one American was willing to lift a finger.
Slowly he built an itinerary. Libya was long ago inhabited by Romans, and now has several beautiful swaths of imperial ruins, whole cities preserved under sand and only recently unearthed and rehabilitated. Within those cities are breathtaking stone amphitheaters, about the size of Berkeley’s own Greek Theater, complete with stages Ambassador So-and-So now tells Eugene the band will have access to, with local musicians opening, and thousands of locals cheering in the audience. The grandeur far outweighs the potential for delusion.
Each show — a restaurant gig masterminded by an eager Libyan teenager who has been e-mailing Ted for months, a string of tsunami benefits plotted by the expat oil community, the amphitheater blowouts — is individually volatile, but Eugene is trying like hell to hold it all together. The only trouble: The band is supposed to be there now, and he can’t get another flight from Cairo to Tripoli. Period.
He returns to the airport the next morning as the band sleeps, but EgyptAir, who sold him the original tickets, blows him off. Suddenly everything is in jeopardy, and Eugene has two journalists sitting in his hotel room — one an affable Australian who paid his own airfare and accommodations, in hopes of selling the piece to Rolling Stone or the like — with the Telegraph guy already waiting in Tripoli, and a shooter from Magnum Photos, paid for by the band to document this adventure, due to arrive there tomorrow.
“It would be a real tragedy if we don’t play Libya,” Ted notes somberly, before suggesting his solution: Forget flying. We go by bus, two-and-a-half-day’s journey over god-knows-what, with Libya’s border patrol in between, no guarantee they’ll let us in. Someone asks how safe the roads are, and Eugene laughs maniacally. Ted is stoked on the idea. It sounds absolutely horrific.
We dejectedly order chicken shawarmas at the hotel food court as Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” video plays on a plasma TV above our heads.
Suddenly Eugene bursts in: We’ve got a flight, it leaves in forty minutes. It’s a half-hour to the airport. We sprint through the hotel, frantically pack, load into two cabs, and rumble through rush-hour Cairo traffic, where lane dividers are completely ignored, pedestrians dart in and out like cats, and drivers honk like enraged geese. We stumble into the airport, where Eugene’s point man at the airlines disappears to confirm our visas. We wait around for two hours, and then get turned away.
Eugene already has catchphrases for such eventualities: “It’s not the worst,” and “It’s not easy making history.”
That evening, Ted gets the chance to brood in another Cairo hotel. “What I think we need to do,” he says, “is put our foot across the border and play a couple chords, so we don’t look like fuckin’ morons.”
The next morning Eugene gets us a flight — with EgyptAir, whose employees just yesterday suggested he go back to Australia. It leaves tonight at 1 a.m. Two days late. We’ll have three days in Libya. Not ideal, but salvageable.
The mood is jovial as we wait for a cab outside our hotel. Our hotel bellhop ascertains that we’re American. “Why you go Iraq?” he demands.
“We didn’t go,” Ted replies, gesturing to the band.
Before long Genevieve is sitting in the airport gate lobby, our tickets safely confirmed, quietly explaining why we’re doing all this in the first place. For one thing, she’d like to prove her parents’ fears unwarranted. The American view of Africa is “an insane delirium,” she says. “We don’t think this place is inhabited by humans.”
She’s midway through a Ph.D in literature, but doesn’t know if she’ll finish. Self-satisfied academia feels irrelevant in the presence of a trailblazing rock band. “This is my philosophical choice,” Genevieve says. “This is my education.”
Her aim in Libya is relatively humble. “I hope I get to talk to people who aren’t wealthy,” she says. “That’s a priority. and I hope that it just opens up some kind of channel for people to talk, over the Internet, whatever. Just to de-demonize this place. And I hope to pick up some great tapes.”
She has no idea what Libya will feel like, or how Libyans will react. “I’m just curious what they’ll think. I’m sure — I hope — we’ll have a lot of curious encounters. When they hear this music, what are they gonna say? Whatever it is, it’s okay.”
Five hours later, we’re in Tripoli’s airport. The passport control booths are far less intimidating — open-faced, no tinted glass. Abdu, our official guide, meets us, collects our passports, and gets us shuffled through security without incident. As we wait, though, Eugene informs me that if asked, I’m not a journalist — I write children’s books. I mentally sketch out a couple plots.
No one asks. We pile into another bus at 5:30 a.m. local time, Libyan pop star Mohamed Hassan blaring in the tour bus. Everyone looks exhausted and elated, absorbing the shock of a place that looks and feels truly foreign. The landscape is rugged, barren, eerily deserted, strangely beautiful. Occasionally we pass official portraits of Gadhafi. Sometimes he resembles Lou Reed, at other times Tommy Lee Jones.
“Welcome home,” our tour guide keeps saying. Abdu smiles easily, with a neat gray beard and a deadpan demeanor. He studied aviation in Texas, Mississippi, and Sacramento, where he met with Ronald Reagan at an exchange student meet-and-greet, back when Ronnie was governor.
Jamal, the driver, gets multiple cell-phone calls. His ringtone is “The Entertainer.”
Our Tripoli hotel resembles Grandma’s house: green, pastoral, tiny, frigid. We arrive around 6 a.m., sleep for four hours, then get back on the bus.
We exchange dollars for dinar — one Libyan dinar is worth roughly 75 cents — and mill around the city a bit. It’s oddly Oaklandish, dusty and gritty and occasionally muddy, but somehow still vibrant. A demolished station wagon is raised on a pedestal at a crowded street corner, evidently to deter reckless driving. No dice.
We visit the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, a 2nd-century monument. The cafe adjacent is piping in “Hotel California.”
We wander into the souk, an open-air market spread over a labyrinthine series of side roads and alleyways, peddling everything from Gadhafi watches to wedding dresses to kitsch jewelry to purses to socks. After a brief cafe lunch (chicken or lamb, nothing exotic), the band mills about, and encounters a man selling drums, authentic-looking handmade jobs you sling over your shoulder and stroll around with, hands free. Jeremy pounds on a few, chats up the guy, asks him to tighten one drum in particular, and eventually buys it for 57 dinar. So now he’s wandering through the souk with a drum, sticks in hand. Curious people pass by and bat at the drum good-naturedly. They ask his name, where he’s from. “California dreams!” one exclaims.
Eventually, a group of about ten dudes corners Jeremy and asks him to play it. So he does, briefly, for twenty seconds or so. More folks gather, and suddenly we’ve got a minor hootenanny, 25 guys laughing and pointing. Jeremy hands the drum off to someone, who gives it a few tentative whacks, then tries to force it on his friend, who smiles and refuses. They wrestle a bit. More people gather, along with a few more instruments. For about 45 seconds they jokingly flail about, shaking tambourines, pounding out a boozy rhythm, as the crowd — including the beyond-elated band — claps along.
There’s a policeman in the street, on a motorbike, regarding this scene with interest. But he just putts away.
Eventually the hootenanny dissipates. Every drum save Jeremy’s disappears — the local guys all smile and walk slowly on. The band stands there for a minute, dazed, before rushing back to the tour van as high as kites.
“God, that was so cool,” Ted cries. “It was like people in the West crowded around a fight. There were that many people crowded around the music.”
The Heavenly States makes frenzied plans to return, maybe tonight. With Ted’s guitar, Genevieve’s violin, and Jeremy’s new drum, if not a few others. Perhaps that drum salesman knows a place in the souk they can plug in. This is the interaction Genevieve dreamed about.
The overjoyed band is whisked off to get gear and work out equipment issues for the more formal tsunami benefit show, while Eugene arranges to pick up Chris, the photographer whose arrival was delayed a day by passport woes.
From there, Eugene is summoned to the five-star Corinthian Hotel, where diplomatic officials inform him that if the Heavenly States attempt to do anything — or play anywhere — in Libya during the remainder of their stay, everyone involved will be in a shitload of trouble.
The Fear Factory
“I’ve been around a bit,” Eugene Bari says. “I’ve never been that scared. Not for me, but for everybody else.”
Two official-sounding guys — one Libyan, one Australian — had read him the riot act. “‘What you’ve got left, you’re not allowed to do — if you do this, people will get in big, big trouble,'” he says, recalling the conversation. “They mentioned prison, they mentioned ramifications, families. It was real big bloody stuff. They put the fear of God into me. They said basically, everyone that you associate with, if you go ahead and do these shows and rock the boat … your visas, the ones that we thought were entertainment or official visas, are actually tourist visas, and if you break the rules on that you’ll be deported, and other people will get in big trouble.”
In eight months of back-and-forth with anyone who’d talk to him, this was the first Eugene had heard of a tourist-versus-entertainment-visa issue. But the band has landed in Tripoli with the former, the party’s over, and Eugene is absolutely reeling. “When you go to see some people you think have been helping you the entire time, that have enabled you to get to the other side of the world to a closed country, to achieve all this stuff, to get there and then, not even the eleventh hour — later than that — they suddenly turn around and turn into the nastiest bastards you could possibly imagine,” he muses. “It’s just beyond comprehension.”
At first he suspected the souk incident triggered something. Did the cop file a report? Someone in the crowd? The band ecstatically relayed the whole story to Abdu back in the bus — is our tour guide actually a spy?
We were more likely betrayed by a well-intentioned local paper: The Tripoli Post, a biweekly official government organ, had run a tiny piece buried on page seven, sharing space with “Folic Acid Said to Cut Blood Pressure.” Enthusiastically described as “a Californian music band,” the Heavenly States were said to have four shows, including a free gig at the Roman amphitheater in nearby Sabratha. The Post also ran the States’ official PR photo, a shot of the band posing below a Shell gas station sign with the S blotted out. This publicity was perhaps not warmly received.
Nor was Eugene’s news, when the band reconvened. “A lot of people are railing into Eugene today, including us,” Ted says. “He’s made a lot of promises to a lot of people, and they’re all just — evaporating.”
“But on the lighter side …” Genevieve begins.
We gather in Eugene and Jeremy’s hotel room. The facts: Everyone is being watched. If anyone plays, the band will be deported, and everyone who engineered this, from ambassadors on down, will be fired, deported. Etc.
“If we play, it’s serious,” Eugene says.
“If we don’t play, it’s serious,” Ted replies.
“Not critical serious. Not prison serious.”
“That’s just the fear factory.”
Ted wants to “roll the dice.” The phrase hangs in the air for a second. Everyone tries to imagine what it really entails.
“I’m just so used to battering the fucking ram at everything in my life until the door goes down,” Ted says quietly. “And this door’s not going down. We’ve done everything to dumb down our own lives and cheapen our own lives to do this. Not just this, but this band. That’s why Gen and I live in a garage behind my friend’s house.”
Eugene tries to calm him down. He’s been working the phones, and the tsunami benefit gig has been salvaged. But it’s in a British diplomatic community, gated, not legally on Libyan soil. Tickets are fifty dinar, far beyond the reach of the average citizen, and those who pay have to supply a great deal of personal information for clearance.
As for everything else, we don’t have a choice. “We’re on their turf,” Eugene says. “This is a totalitarian state. It’s not just, ‘No, please don’t do this.’ It’s, ‘No, you will get in the deepest shit you can fucking imagine.'”
Furthermore, it’s not just us. “Getting deported from Libya, that’s the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll thing,” Eugene says. “That’s better than the TV set out the window by a million fucking miles. I’m worried about the B-side, the guy tryin’ to make it on fifty dinar a month who gets put in jail for the rest of his life.”
“It’s like comin’ down from a fuckin’ drug,” Ted says. “I was so high this afternoon, and now there’s no more crack.”
“Let’s be tourists,” Eugene says. “Let’s be good tourists. Tomorrow, we’re tourists.”
The band wanted to know what it was like to live in Libya. Libya, evidently, was all too eager to show them.
Tom, an editor and writer for the Telegraph, has an even better idea what Libya is really like. Unlike the band’s, his entry into Tripoli was seamless, so he spent two days here prior to our arrival. Alone. In surprisingly wintry conditions. With not much to do, beyond a museum or two. In a dry country, no booze, anywhere. This, in particular, rankles him.
Tom is not amused. Earlier that evening, between the elation of the souk and the devastation of the hotel room, the journos had gathered for dinner, alone. Word of Eugene’s ambassadorial meeting had gotten around. It’s a disaster. Chris the photographer has nothing to shoot. Mike the on-spec freelancer has nothing to sell. Tom has nothing to drink.
“I can’t work out if Eugene is naive or just inept, or possibly both,” he says. The waiter offers him an appetizer of Libyan soup, a spicy broth served before nearly every meal we eat. Tom recoils in horror. “This band, it’s not Abba. It’s not U2. How can this possibly be making money?”
He feels duped. “It’s alright to do as your own pet project, with all the right reasons. But to involve other people, it feels like false pretense. It’s a week of my life. A complete and utter waste of time.”
The charity gig? “It’s on British soil. It’s meaningless.” Instead of “Rock the Casbah,” he suggests changing the title to “Rock the British Consulate.”
The theme to The Godfather plays softly in the background.
But the following morning, everyone piles in the bus and tries to be good tourists as we motor toward Leptis Magna, a nearby Roman historical site. Abdu, the guide, tries to cheer us up — he suddenly starts talking about a friend of a friend with a connection to Gadhafi’s daughter, who has some sort of humanitarian organization federation, and maybe she’ll sponsor the band, letting them tour the country and play charity shows as official friends of the state. Maybe even in a couple weeks. The band brightens; the journos turn ashen.
We wander around Leptis. Though the site is nearly deserted, the band briefly considers playing a bit in the amphitheater: Gen brings her violin, Jeremy his drum. Abdu slips into a gift shop and hands Ted a small, oud-like stringed instrument, candy-striped, that can handle simple melodies. We wander about, soak in the sights. But when we hit the amphitheater itself, there’s no one around, and the slight drizzle has Genevieve worried for her violin. Eugene grabs the drum, strolls around banging it a bit, and announces that he alone played Leptis Magna.
Eugene is quietly clinging to the hope of a sneak-attack restaurant show. Perhaps the band and the teenager Ted’s been e-mailing could do something covert — we just show up, have dinner, notice instruments, and decide to spontaneously play a tune. It’s an interesting idea the band bats around all afternoon, but by dinner, it’s clear no one will back Eugene up on it. Instead, we enter another deserted restaurant, Libyan soup at the ready, with awful Muzak pumping on the stereo system.
Tom has had it.
“You’ve got journalists from three continents here,” he snaps at Eugene. “You’ve got a guy from Magnum Photography, not some pussy with a Polaroid. Why are we here? For your ego?”
(“Bridge Over Troubled Water.”)
“We’re driving around looking at tourist sites. Like we’re on holiday. Quite possibly the worst holiday I’ve ever been on. I cannot stand to sit in another empty restaurant eating Libyan soup.”
(“Theme from Love Story.”)
“And I’ve been here 48 hours longer than any of you, waiting for you to get here, for you to get a flight from Cairo to Tripoli. It’s not exactly rocket science.”
(“From a Distance.”)
“You’re all such pussies. Go to the restaurant and play some fucking songs for some people.”
Silence. The food arrives. Some folks have ordered mixed grill, but nearly everyone is served fish. So Tom and Chris start arguing with the waiter. In French.
This frees up the band, largely silent until this point, to reassess the tsunami benefit, which is losing luster by the minute — the crowd they imagine will greet them has devolved from “oil guys” to “cocksuckers.”
The waiter is not sympathetic on the mixed-grill issue.
“The music has been perfect counterpoint,” Tom suddenly says, laughing. The tension breaks, and we sit around trying to guess the next awful tune to issue forth. No one eats much. We flee the premises. But not before the waiter hands Genevieve a bouquet. “Congratulations on being a woman,” she mutters as we board the bus.
Aware of our troubles, Abdu gives a little speech. “Eugene didn’t lie to you — excuse me to tell you — these people, they lie to Eugene,” he says. “They put him in big hole, he cannot get out of it.”
He goes on to describe this friend, a government official, who maybe can do things, maybe even get us another show, a local show, tomorrow night. He can’t guarantee anything, but he’s 150 percent positive he can do something.
“If anything goes bad for you, I will be hanged,” Abdu adds.
He suggests we relax, pretend it’s a vacation, and soak in the atmosphere of the Libyan people. So upon reaching the hotel, band and journos alike retreat to an outdoor cafe, where we smoke hookahs of apple-juice-flavored tobacco and talk about Ali G.
Abdu’s friend is never mentioned again, to no one’s great surprise. A touristy trip to Sabratha — once a hypothetical gig site — is planned for the morning, but almost everyone blows it off. Ted and a few journos wander the streets, nearly deserted as it’s Friday, a day of rest. He gets a straight-razor shave (the most vulnerable you can make yourself in a foreign country, he figures) and kicks a soccer ball around with some kids.
Genevieve, meanwhile, mostly stays in bed with stress-induced hives.
In the evening, it’s time for the mythic tsunami benefit, an anticipated event on many fronts, including the possibility, given that we’re on diplomatic turf here, for alcohol consumption. We pull up to the house, which inspires considerable awe — an impressive multilayered affair with multiple chandeliers, a Ghanaian servant named Thomas, and an enormous basement suitable for a makeshift rock show. We meet Trevor, the diplomatic type who lives here (alone, pending the arrival of his family), who notes proudly that everyone told him he was crazy when he wanted to throw this little shindig, but he’s glad he did.
We also meet Michelle, another business community player primarily responsible for setting up the benefit. Things get off to a rocky start.
“I’m a journalist,” Mike says by way of introduction. “Can I have a drink?”
“We’re going to talk about this alcohol thing,” Michelle replies. “It’s not a big issue. Everyone seems to be like [she waves her arms] wooooo. There are more important things.”
“I’m of Irish blood,” Mike adds, to no avail.
“Softies,” though, are available for a dinar apiece downstairs, in addition to raffle tickets (prizes include hats, model planes, fancy watches, and a Seabiscuit DVD) and a buffet of rather unappetizing finger food. Everyone is extremely friendly and, as the evening progresses and alcohol emerges from somewhere, extremely drunk.
The band meets Salem, the alleged teenager Ted has been e-mailing about the restaurant show. Salem looks to be in his forties, a professional type, also in the commercial/diplomatic sphere. Married with two kids. A permanent resident. Regarding the failed gig, he takes the long view. “It’s too early for something like that to happen,” he says. “You have to wait, you have to wait. Small steps, you know. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Eugene will later declare Salem “absolutely full of shit.”
Indeed, there are many Libyans present, though of the big-shot, “You know Halliburton, right?” variety. The band chats with Trevor, who briefly considers opening his front gates, setting up the band outside on the chilly patio, and inviting a few folks beyond the gates out in the street to come listen. But his security detail — several ominous dudes loom around the house’s perimeter — quashes the idea. “You will be thrown in jail,” they note. “P&G.” There is some discussion about what that stands for.
So, the basement show, then. The States have two opening acts: First, a blues guy with a guitar, a drummer, and a headset, murmuring I just wanna make love to you. Then a whole gang of expats, rocking out to covers of “Brown Sugar” and the like.
Milling in the crowd, a soused, ebullient English dude with a development-industry gig starts talking about the expat Britpop band he’s putting together. Libyans are not his target demographic. “I wanna get to a party where I can have a drink,” he explains, having a look around. “This is a fantastic venue.” He defends Libya as far safer than Back to the Future‘s audience would believe, but a Heavenly States-style cultural invasion is still far off. “They make a big deal, the embargo’s lifted,” he says. “But change is gonna come really really slowly. Decades. Here, we’re on British soil. We’re in a safe place, and nobody’s gonna fuck with it.”
The Heavenly States take the stage. Both Ted and Genevieve have mentioned that it’s been literally years since they spent a week without a show, or at least a full practice, so the gig is already cathartic. The makeshift lighting is bright and disco-oriented, and the PA is so fried that midway through someone correctly notes the smell of burning plastic. All three States are clearly in the Zone, eyes closed, jaws set, bringing the Rock, clearly projecting frustration, but falling short of anger or disdain. The crowd, meanwhile, goes apeshit, particularly for “Rock the Casbah,” and there in the eye of the storm is Tom, justifiably disgruntled journo, screaming along to the chorus and leaping higher than anyone. Joyous.
BURN BURN BURN, Ted screams as “Ring of Fire” crescendos, chucking his guitar into Jeremy’s kit once again. Even after three encores, the crowd is still hesitant to disperse. Afterward, the Heavenly States are mobbed like rock stars by people it’s suddenly very hard to dislike.
Eugene has taken a bath on all this. “Financially, it’s an utter fuckin’ disaster,” he says. “If anybody should be upset, it’s me. I’m genuinely not. I don’t care what anybody says, how they throw it. We’re the first band, American band, to land in Libya. And we played a show. Regardless of where it was or how it had to come about, we played a fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll show. That was the first priority, and the only one we were gonna achieve, whatever happened. That’s pretty much how I feel right now. I’ll probably get home and the wife will crucify me.”
“Well, there were some locals there,” Ted says. “And that was cool. So yeah. the goal was to play for a lot of Libyans, and we got to play for a few Libyans. I guess I’m happy in that way. Our only goal was to try to have an exchange with local people, and did we do it on the level we wanted to do it? No. But did we do it on some level? Yes.”
“All this could’ve been facilitated by one person, foreign or otherwise, in Libya, going to the Tourism Ministry in person and saying, ‘I’ll stand up for them, I’m the guy who’s gonna be the one who’s responsible,'” Eugene says. “That’s all it would’ve taken, and not one fucking person would. And after all this time, I think the reason that nobody would is because of all these oil contracts. I really, really genuinely believe that. They’re handing out billions of dollars’ worth of contracts. I guess the sensibility is, Western music’s still illegal over there. If you’re gonna go up and talk to one of these high-powered big-shots and say, ‘Well, hi, I’m from Exxon Oil, but I’d like to bring a rock band over here,’ they might just get pissed off and you lose your billion-dollar contract.”
“I met some people who were really cool, and some people who were completely — I don’t know what planet they were living on,” Genevieve says. “That’s the thing. If you just played to people you liked, people you were on the same page with all the time, it’d be a total waste of time, at least for what we do. The whole point is to play for people on the other side. Of course, it’d be nice if they could hear all the lyrics. But I think they can always sense the aggression, and though it probably isn’t clear to them whether it’s aimed at them or something else, at least it’s there.”
The band slept off the gig, milled about the souk for much of the next day (no hootenannies, thanks), and boarded a plane that night for the Libyan city of Benghazi, once a possible show site, but now just a place to crash for the night before flying out to Cairo the following morning.
After a couple shows in Egypt, the Heavenly States kicked off a two-week UK tour, back on familiar ground and already fighting the Spin Wars. A Reuters reporter who’d actually attended the consulate gig and interviewed the band had then issued a confusingly worded piece that suggested the band had never made it to Libya at all, victimized by bureaucratic disasters. Outlets like Yahoo and The New York Times picked it up. The band, aghast, fired off angry e-mails and scored a follow-up correct-all Reuters interview, held in a London marketplace, with a camel Eugene had rented as a PR goof. The band did on-camera interviews, posed for pictures, and even had Genevieve climb aboard the camel and ride it around the food court.
As for the journos, particularly Tom, “Personally, I think it got a lot better,” Eugene says. “I don’t think we’ll ever be like best mates. It’s that classical British standoff, tacit acceptance, ‘Well, I fucked up, but I’m not gonna say it explicitly.’ We’re gonna meet up in London and have a pint, which is a great way of doing things. I don’t know. For all I know, he thinks I’m a total wanker, but from his point of view I think he’s perfectly entitled, to be honest.”
Ultimately, Ted doesn’t seem too surprised that his good intentions merited such mixed results. “I’ve been not getting out what I put into shit for quite a long time,” he says. “That’s part of being a band. Put out what you have, and get what you get back. You do it because you love playing, because you love music. And more importantly, you hate work.”
So the prognosis, at best, is Noble Failure, a tag the band grudgingly accepts. Meanwhile, the States sound eager to take another crack at Libya — someday. Eugene is not so sure. “Until I see it written down in indelible ink on embossed gold paper, personally hand-delivered by someone from the Libyan Embassy, who’s also given me his name, address, phone number, wife’s inside measurements, names of his children and great-grandchildren — I just don’t believe anybody over there at the moment.”
“Put it this way,” Eugene concludes. “We’re not going to North Korea.”