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.

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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.'"

The Airports

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.


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