Lock the Casbah 

Oakland's Heavenly States set out to be the first American band ever to rock Libya. But making history is never that easy.

Page 3 of 8

"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!"


The Mastermind

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.

Failure, again.

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."

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