Ukraine in the Membrane | General News & Politics | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Ukraine in the Membrane 

Arts Editor Peter Aaron Recalls His Band The Chrome Cranks's Trip to Post-Soviet Ukraine

click to enlarge We’re the Pepsi generation: a ticket for the Kiev concert.
  • We’re the Pepsi generation: a ticket for the Kiev concert.

It's December 1996, I'm in a dark building, and my ass is freezing.

The brutalist structure I'm in is the main terminal at Boryspil International Airport in Kiev, Ukraine. It's been 10 years since the nuclear accident 60 miles away at Chernobyl, and the region's power grid has yet to fully recover. Which is why, I'm told, the grim, dimly lit terminal is without heat in the dead of winter.

My New York-based band, the Chrome Cranks, is about to become only the third Western indie act, after our American friends Sonic Youth and Dead Moon, to perform in Ukraine since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. We've flown in from London, and the mood in the Cranks camp is not what you'd call upbeat. The group—guitarist William Weber, drummer Bob Bert, bassist Jerry Teel, and me on vocals and guitar—has been on the road, in the cold, for four weeks, and we have two more ahead of us on this tour, promoting our third album, Love in Exile. We haven't slept, everyone's been sick at some point, and we're all getting on each other's nerves.

The guy who organized the show, a Duane Allman doppelganger from Minneapolis whose name escapes me—let's call him Duane—arrives to collect us. Duane's a freelance journalist who's been living in Kiev for the past year or so, writing a series of articles for Hustler about life in Ukraine a decade after Chernobyl. At one point during our stay he will tell us that so many people here are getting radiation cancer that the doctors have simply stopped telling them when they've been diagnosed with the disease, because most are quickly committing suicide after learning the news.

Duane has some other worrisome news for us as we make our way out into the frigid night. Our show, which had been booked at a club called, amusingly, the Cowboy Bar, has been moved to another venue, with barely any time to get the word out about the change. Why? The Chechen mafia faction that's been "protecting" the bar, a successful Western-themed establishment in the middle of the city opened by an expatriate American, has decided they want the place for themselves. The original owner has been told that the club is no longer his, and that it would be very good for his health if he made plans to leave the country—immediately. After a series of fruitless queries to the new owners, Duane has sensed that they aren't all that interested in honoring any of the club's prior bookings. So with less than a week to go, he's secured a new site for the gig, which is two nights from now.

Picking us up in the parking lot is not a taxi or rental van, much less a limo. Instead there are two older men Duane has hired to transport us. Both of them are driving the exact same make of car: an East German compact called a Trabant, which has a plastic body and runs on a mixture of gas and oil via a tank and fuel pump that sit directly under the hood, almost right on top of the engine (what could go wrong?). Their tiny trunks have just enough room for our luggage but not the hard-shell flight cases of our guitars, which are longer than the width of the cars. With the windows down to accommodate them and the heavy cases crushing our laps, our party of five—Ruud, our Dutch tour manager/sound man is with us—squeezes into these death traps, along with Duane and the drivers, and sets out.

But with the weight of their extra passengers and cargo, the toy motors of these glorified lawn mowers are simply not powerful enough to get us up the first hill we come to. An alternate route is chosen and we continue. Duane and a couple of the other guys are in the lead car, and I'm among those in the one following. We get a few miles farther into the pitch black (no streetlights) before a green-and-white police car pulls the first vehicle over. Our unspeaking driver follows to the shoulder, where we sit, shiver, and try not to freak out at the thought of being stuck in some Stasi-style cell for who knows how long. The cop leans into the open window of the other car, talking to the driver. After a couple of minutes, he gets back in his car, makes a U turn, and goes on his way. Later I find out that Duane had to give the officer money before he'd let us proceed. "Yeah, that's just what they do here," he says.

We arrive at the house where Duane is renting a room from an elderly lady in a wrinkled washerwoman dress. She's the perfect babushka, nodding and warmly smiling—the first native smile we've seen since we landed. She gives us all handknitted Afghan blankets and towels that feel like burlap. It turns out we're not staying here, but, rather, at an apartment a few blocks away. Walking along a main street, we come upon a surreal sight. On the illuminated side panels of every one of the bus shelters lining the straight thoroughfare are the exact same Marlboro and Pepsi advertising posters, in alternating order: Marlboro/Pepsi, Marlboro/Pepsi, Marlboro/Pepsi, for as far as the eye can see. In fact, Pepsi is underwriting our gig, not something that would ever happen back in the States. With the USSR gone, capitalism, it seems, has come to Ukraine.

The building we're crashing at is a very old tenement with wide, plaster-dust-covered stair landings. We trudge up a few flights, and Duane lets us into our quarters. Inside, there's no furniture and most of the walls have holes punched in them. There's running water, in two temperatures: cold and sub-zero. Our chaperone says goodnight and we bed down on the bare floor with the babushka blankets, still wearing our winter coats and using dirty laundry plucked from our bags as pillows.

Our first meal in Ukraine is at a recently opened establishment: Kentucky Beirut Chicken. The moniker, we discover, derives from the fact that the place serves falafel and chicken. Independent retail businesses of any kind are still a novel concept here, and the ambitious entrepreneur behind this one is hoping to go global. His prospects don't look—or taste—very good. The house-signature chicken sandwiches turn out to be flavorless breaded microwave hockey pucks on bread, served with a side of plain white rice. After we've eaten, it's off to the offices of the student organization that's helping Duane organize and promote the show. En route to the Metro, we schlep through Independence Square, which, eight years later, will be the site of enormous protests during the Orange Revolution. On the sidewalk, weathered old women in wool coats offer root vegetables for sale, arranged on torn sheets of cardboard. The architecture is a combination of the Stalinist styles built upon what the retreating Red Army destroyed during World War II and the surviving ornate-but-crumbling 19th-century brick buildings that hint at Kiev's pre-Russian Revolution epoch as a major center of commerce. The overcast sky and the monochromatic mixture of soot, exhaust, and steam from the breaths of passerby makes me feel like I'm in a charcoal drawing.

click to enlarge Kentucky Beirut Chicken: Apparently, it never caught on. - PHOTO: BOB BERT
  • Photo: Bob Bert
  • Kentucky Beirut Chicken: Apparently, it never caught on.

Meeting the small group of smiling kids at the office is a bright spot, though. They're all super-friendly and speak English very well, making me feel bad for not taking the time to have at least asked Duane beforehand how to say hello in Ukrainian. Despite the headache of the show being moved, their enthusiasm for putting on a concert by a real, live American rock band remains undaunted. The guys and I sign some posters and press photos for them, and we make plans to meet up again later at the infamous Cowboy Bar, where a local band is playing.

Wary of the mafia situation, we try not to attract too much attention that night as we enter the club, but it's hopeless. The word is out, and everyone knows who we are. People at neighboring tables glance over at us and whisper to each other. The band, a teenage quartet whose name is the Forrest Gump Orchestra, is on stage, and they're too intimidated to look in our direction. Actually, they seem intimidated by the very act of what they're doing, sheepishly playing U2 and R.E.M. covers at such low volume that the music barely exists. It's a universe away from the kind of deafening, unfriendly, feedback-ridden noise that our band specializes in, and I wonder how we'll be received when we play the following night.

Late the next afternoon, a van pulls up to shuttle us to the place we're playing and the amusing irony of the joint's name is not lost on us: the New York Night Club. A giant, hangar-like shed in a Kiev suburb, it's primarily used for wedding parties, one of which is finishing up when we arrive. We shuffle in to the sight of garish, multicolored neon light sculptures and disco balls spinning and pulsating overhead and soused sexagenarians and their descendants getting down to canned dance music on the roller-rink-sized floor. Touring bands sometimes get stuck with weird openers, but I'm guessing not many of them can say they've followed a Ukrainian wedding party. We can't soundcheck until after the event ends, so we're directed to a side room to be interviewed for a TV newsmagazine show. The host, a slick dude in a brown leather jacket who fancies himself the local David Hasselhoff, holds his cigarette in an affected manner, as if cupping a chalice, and clearly knows nothing about us or our music. "Why is it that you dye your hair?" he asks, among other useless questions. After 15 embarrassing minutes, it's time to set up.

When we see the backline, we assume there's been a mistake. We're playing a room whose capacity is roughly 400 people and they've given us practice amps. Shoeboxes with a single 10-inch speaker in each. The built-in speakers in your laptop would probably be louder. But, no, this is what there is.

Unfortunately, the confusion with the venue change and the fact that the Metro stops running for the night before we are to play means the turnout is minimal: Once the wedding revelers have filtered out, there's maybe about 20 kids scattered among the cavernous room's tables. We decide to forgo a full soundcheck and just get this over with, so we go on stage, quickly check our instrument levels, and start the set. Someone with the club takes this as a cue to switch on the disco balls and dry ice, and suddenly the dancefloor looks like the set of "Ukraine's Got Talent." Because our music contains the odd, impressionistic touch of 1960s garage rock, sometimes people who've read about us but haven't actually heard us assume we're a retro act, which is far from the case. But during the first number, a throbbing thumper called "Way-Out Lover," a young, mod-looking couple desperate to dance darts onto the floor and begins to frug and twist—a cute departure from the roiling slam pits we normally play to. It dawns on me that even though we're performing at a talk-over volume level, perhaps to some of these kids the sound is actually rockin', simply because they haven't experienced many live bands at all. After 10 or so songs, one right into the next, we're forced to quit because I've broken two guitar strings (I play too hard when I can't hear myself). The last, shrill note rings out. After that...stunned silence. But then, thankfully, an audience-proportionate smattering of whoops and applause. Victory.

While we're packing up, a very excited—and very drunk—young guy climbs on stage and produces a pen and a red, passport-sized booklet embossed with a hammer and sickle. During the Cold War military service was compulsory for most Eastern Bloc males, and this is his old army ID, which he's refashioned into an autograph book. Clipped from magazines and pasted inside are photos of his faves, Metallica, which are signed by the band. "Look, James Hetfield!" he shouts, pointing to the singer's signature. Our new friend flips ahead to a blank page and passes the booklet around for all of us to sign, even Ruud and Duane, and grills us about rock 'n' roll right up to the very moment we're getting back in the van. As ridiculous as the set itself was to us, I like to think we planted some seeds there that night.

In the morning, we cram into the Trabants once again and run the gauntlet back to the airport, where we say goodbye and thanks to our handler before getting on the plane to resume the tour. During the flight, I recall a moment from two nights before, when we'd met our sweet, adopted Ukrainian grandma. She didn't speak any English, but Duane had taught her a few words. After much buildup and with a cue from him, she smiled and said them, loudly and proudly:

"I love rock and roll!"

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