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."
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