August 2, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Franz Nicolay's new book The Humorless Ladies of Border Control is a fascinating look at punk music in the former communist countries of Europe.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"A pleasing romp: punk in attitude but literary in execution and a fine work of armchair travel for those unwilling to strap on an accordion on the streets of Rostov for themselves."
The Humorless Ladies of Border Control is a travelogue about the DIY and punk underground of the formerly Communist world. One of the premises of the book that the idea of punk rock, even within its limitations as fundamentally a white, middle-class enterprise, has a value as an aspirational marker for progressive liberal ideals in countries in which those are not a notable part of the local politics. The DIY enterprise, even for people who claim to be apolitical, serves as an example of the kind of self-organizing civil society that you constantly hear is a necessity for developing countries. While the narrative ranges from Eastern Europe and the Balkans to Mongolia, let's zoom in on Russia and Ukraine, which in the book offer a salutary contrast: the Russian punks cynical and apathetic in the face of an apparently invulnerable mafia state; the Ukrainians with a new sense of national identity and, after two popular revolutions in ten years, a sense of their collective power.
An important early native punk rock scene in Russia was a small group of Siberian nihilists sometimes referred to as the "suicide punks"—the band Grazhdanskaya Oborona (Civil Defense) and its singer Yegor Letov (the band's "Everything Is Going According To Plan" is a classic of anti-Soviet irony), and the singer-songwriters Yanka Dyaghileva and Alexander Bashlachev (the latter two of whom might these days fall under the description "folk-punk"). They shared a raw and brutal sound—Grazhdanskaya Oborona tapes, said one listener, were like "a raw, moldy cellar, like the ones they still have in the villages. You climb down into the cellar and there is this dank, black soil, this mould, this damp smell." Some of their recordings were circulated on "rock on bones" (bootleg LPs "pressed" on recycled X-rays) and their touring circuit heavily featured what we might now call "house shows." Neither Yanka nor Bashlachev survived their twenties: Bashlachev fell from a ninth-floor window in 1988, and Yanka drowned in 1991, both officially suicides. Letov, whose obituary called him "the father of Russian punk," dabbled in right-wing politics later in life—one of the subplots in The Humorless Ladies is the number of aging rebels in the formerly Communist world who took a turn toward reactionary nationalism in the 1990s and 2000s. (Also recommended: Alina Simone's album of Yanka covers Everyone Is Crying Out To Me, Beware)
My host in Tomsk fronted this band. We had a frank exchange of views about the appropriateness of the band name. He said it expressed how they felt, as Russians, as Russian punks, as outcasts, embattled at home and stereotyped overseas. Like the Patti Smith song—she used the word, why couldn't he? He pointed out that punk bands casually reference Hitler and the Nazis all the time. We left the matter unresolved. The vocabularies of provocation resist translation.
We spent many hours in a car with Misha, the singer of the Wild Rover, driving between Ufa and Perm. When he picked us up, I asked how his night had gone. "We had an alcohol fight"—a drinking contest, he said. He sighed. "I was the winner."
VV was arguably the first Ukrainian punk—or at least new wave—bands. While they, and singer Oleh Skrypka, took a latter-day turn toward more mainstream music, this video remains a poker-faced classic about dancing at the workers' club.
Not punk, but just as able to get a sweaty house concert started: this is Hutsul folk music, from the Carpathian mountains near the Romanian border, a frantic, four-on-the-floor fiddle and flute stomp.
Dakh Daughters and DakhaBrakha are a pair of acts that emerged from the Dakh Theatre in Kyiv. The former's Dresden Dolls–esque "freak cabaret" made them viral video sensations and then a "house band" for the Euromaidan protest stage. (Their art director called them "Pussy Riot with good music.") DakhaBrakha, meanwhile, took a similar aesthetic to the festival and theater stages of the international "world music" circuit. (For more on the politicization of the Dakh Daughters, see my wife Maria Sonevytsky's upcoming article in the Journal of Popular Music Studies)
Sasha is a folksinger, a purveyor of a kind of Americana, from Chernivtsi, near the Romanian border. "Everyone thinks he looks just like you," said a promoter in Kalush who put us on a bill together. "We made up a myth that you were brothers, that you fell in love with a girl but she chose Sasha, and so you went to America." He has strong opinions about politics.
Three bands from the Kyiv punk scene: Maloi anthemic in the Gaslight Anthem vein, Phooey noisy 90s revivalists, Ai Laika hooky pop-punk. Odessa, they agree, has the best punk and hardcore scene in Ukraine, but Kyiv holds its own. The singer from Phooey thought I was some kind of stuck-up poser for asking for separate inputs for each of my instruments.
Franz Nicolay and The Humorless Ladies of Border Control links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
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weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)