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 8 of 8

"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.

The Aftermath

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."

He sighs.

"Put it this way," Eugene concludes. "We're not going to North Korea."


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