Rockers of the world unite
By Sergey Chernov
The St. Petersburg Times
June 27, 2012
Soviet punk rock becomes relevant again when human rights are challenged, according to New York promoter Bryan Swirsky, who is currently working on a compilation of Soviet and Eastern European punk. Last week, he promoted a Pussy Riot benefit in Brooklyn to support the three imprisoned members of the Russian feminist punk group, whose pretrial detention was last week prolonged until July 27 in Moscow.
The women — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 19 — were arrested in March and charged with “hooliganism motivated by hatred toward a religious group” for performing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow church. The offense is punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Held at The Knitting Factory on Saturday, the benefit featured diverse music from klezmer, as performed by Frank London & Di Shikere Kapelye (The Inebriated Orchestra) featuring Michael Alpert, to alt-rock from artists such as singer-songwriter Alina Simone.
“I was raised in an era when punk rock was a viable form of protest, when political theater and satire and making bold statements to protest against the government was considered a normal thing to do,” Swirsky said by phone Sunday.
“It all comes out of free expression movements like the beatniks and the early hippies, and the punks were an extension of that. So when I caught wind of what Pussy Riot were doing, I got to thinking about how it relates to what was happening in America and England in the 1970s and the 1980s.
“And it also reminded me of what was happening in Russia and the Soviet Union when rock bands were first starting to germinate in the 1970s, especially bands like The Plastic People of the Universe from the Czech Republic, who were notoriously thrown in jail repeatedly and considered enemies of the state during the ‘normalization’ [period in Czechoslovakia between 1969 and 1987].”
The Soviet punk artists that Swirsky referred to and included in his compilation were Siberian musicians Yegor Letov and Yanka.
Letov, who gained underground fame in the 1980s as a singer-songwriter and the frontman of his band Grazhdanskaya Oborona, was persecuted by the authorities to the extent of being sent to a mental hospital — a notorious Soviet practice for treating dissidents — where he spent four months and was injected with neuroleptic drugs.
“Anyway, when I heard that these women were being persecuted by the authorities, I thought that something needed to be done,” Swirsky said.
“The idea to organize a concert actually came from a friend of mine, a client of mine in the Czech Republic who works with Plastic People and Uz jsme doma. Plastic People and Uz jsme doma organized a benefit for Pussy Riot [in Lucerna Music Bar in Prague in May], and the leader of Uz jsme doma called me up and said, ‘You need to do something because it’s a very serious issue; you need to get the Americans on board.’ That’s how the idea started.”
Some big names in rock were duly approached, but were unable to participate at such short notice, according to Swirsky.
“We reached out to a lot of famous musicians in America like Patti Smith and Lou Reed to Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Wayne Kramer of MC5. [If these artists had been able to participate] we would have organized a big concert that would have made the situation probably more global,” he said.
“Unfortunately, all those artists had to turn us down because of previous commitments on their tour schedules, so we ended up having to reinvent the concert to a pretty intense degree. I ended up contacting a Russian rock promoter here in Brooklyn by the name of David Gross, and David basically knew any decent talent in the Brooklyn area and hired them to put the concert together. So if anything, this is my idea, but David really added immeasurably to the situation. He had a lot of talent as a promoter and drew quite a lot of people in as the result of his efforts.”
According to Swirsky, the show did well in terms of the quality of music and expression of solidarity, but it did not break through to the general New York music-going public as he’d hoped it would.
“Musically, the show was outstanding, every musician that performed yesterday was an amazing talent and they all deserve a lot of credit for donating their talents to the cause,” Swirsky said.
“Attendance-wise, we didn’t do as well as we’d thought we would because we didn’t have an attraction for the American side of the community. The people who showed up were basically Russian Americans who were aware of the situation. But on the positive side, the Russian media was there in full force. There were a lot of people there writing about the situation — I gave probably four or five interviews in two hours — and there was general understanding in the room that these women need support, even if it’s coming from 8,000 miles away. So in this sense I consider the show a success, even if we didn’t have a slam dunk attendance.”
The concert at The Knitting Factory was New York’s third Pussy Riot benefit. Last Thursday, Shondes, Making Friendz, Ritz Riot, Bachslider and DJ Maura Johnston performed to support the imprisoned women at 285 Kent Ave in a series of concerts curated by Permanent Wave, a network of feminist artists and activists founded by Amy Klein of the feminist alt-rock duo Hilly Eye.
The first Pussy Riot benefit — which Permanent Wave was also behind — was at Death by Audio with Heliotropes and the Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock who performed a DJ set, making his first public appearance since bandmate Adam Yauch’s death in May.
Last week, support for the band expanded when Anti-Flag, a veteran punk rock band from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, covered the song that so enraged the Kremlin (the one performed in the Moscow church) and released it on the Internet under the English title “Virgin Mary, redeem us of Putin.”
“Pussy Riot embody the spirit of punk rock which speaks truth to power that inspired the members of Anti-Flag to start our band and dedicate ourselves to the punk rock community and the planet,” the band wrote in a statement.
“The Russian authority’s [sic] actions against Pussy Riot are clearly an attack on freedom of thought, opinion and artistic expression which must be protected for any society to be free. Anti-Flag calls for the immediate release of Pussy Riot and all prisoners of conscience. Whether it be trumped up charges levied by police against Occupy protesters, or the trumped up charges levied by the Russian authorities against the members of Pussy Riot, there is no difference in the police-state tactics that those in power will stoop to in order to oppress those who are willing fight [sic] for equality and justice for all, not just the wealthy few.”
According to Swirsky, awareness about the Pussy Riot situation is growing in the U.S.
“I think consciousness is growing, I think people’s attitudes — especially among young American people who really care about free speech and human rights — I think they are very concerned on a very positive level,” he said.
“The other folks that were doing the other Pussy Riot benefit in Brooklyn, they organized things very quickly and, to their credit, they did a very good job. I think the timing between our concerts was a little weird because we both had concerts the same week, and I think this was a bit of a bad move on everybody’s part; we should have combined efforts. But this is what happens at the stage of communication — sometimes people don’t communicate. Everybody’s got an idea, everybody’s got to run with it. Unfortunately sometimes points don’t connect.
“I think what would make the most sense is if there was one unified effort in New York as opposed to having all these small events that compete against each other — to make a strong show of the movement by organizing in a collective manner, as opposed to lots of little things going on simultaneously.”
Swirsky hopes that another, bigger Pussy Riot benefit will be held in New York in the near future.
“I would like to stay involved in this cause; I think it’s very important as a free speech issue, as a human rights issue,” Swirsky said.
“Our efforts are not to condemn Putin’s government or the church, but basically to make it clear that having church and state collude and suppress dissenting opinion is a very dangerous precedent that harkens back to the darkest Soviet era.”
Swirsky is a 46-year-old native New Yorker with Soviet roots, having being born to a Lithuanian father and a Ukrainian mother.
“I grew up in the punk era, that’s when I came of age,” he said.
“I grew up just after the Vietnam War had started to decline, so I was witness to a lot of protest at a young age and I always understood that being an activist is a very important part of one’s life and that one has to stand up against injustice as the result of government action as one sees fit. One has to respond and react and hopefully cause a change — even if it’s on a small level.”
Swirsky partly attributed the Soviet and Eastern Bloc punk compilation that he is working on to his Soviet roots. Even though the music dates back to 25 years ago and many of the artists presented on it, including Letov, Yanka and Automatic Satisfiers’ Andrei “Svin” Panov, have since passed away, the recent events both in Russia and the U.S. have made what could otherwise be an archive effort relevant, he said.
“How artists were treated in the 1970s and 1980s and the Pussy Riot situation have a very strong parallel,” he said.
“There are also some interesting parallels between Russia and the United States, because of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has been pretty suppressed politically and legally. They are making it very hard for people to assemble en masse like that. There’s a crackdown happening. The people don’t want to see dissent in the streets like that, it makes them uncomfortable, it makes people scared. And people who are scared are going to react in violent ways and they will hire politicians to basically express their will.”
The compilation album, which does not yet have an official title, is due out on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label within the next 12 months.