I have walked down two flights of stairs under Kiev’s city center and past a giant bouncer into what used to be a Soviet-era nuclear fallout bunker. The air is thick with smoke, both from designer cigarettes (is it better when Pierre Cardin kills you?) and bizarre hookahs, some adorned with Celtic ornamentation, that are being snorkeled by patrons in dark and mysterious corners of the pub. I seat myself front and center at the base of a stage at one end of the room-length bar and order up a vodka.
I don’t have to wait long before the band shows up. Though they’re all white, I challenge you to find a more diverse crew outside of a Brazilian Carnivale Parade. The teenage drummer is sporting a Leonard Skynyrd T shirt, the middle aged lead guitarist has spiked orange hair, and the stoner bass player is casually dressed with sandals and a plain white tank top. But the twenty-something lead singer is a trip. He’s wearing a German cross on a black button-up sleeveless shirt and has serpentine tattoos liberally stenciled all over his arms. His head is adorned with a cheap old straw hat rolled up at the side brims, and he is chain-smoking Marlboros as he gets ready. His wide-spaced eyes seem to be staring in perpetual wonderment at the world around him like George Bush reading to third graders, but when he starts to sing without so much as a brief warm up, you know it’s really 1968 again, because he is the living reincarnation of Johnny Cash.
Hard to believe that you’d find the soul of Country music way down under the pavement in Ukraine’s city center, but what I’m experiencing is a deep, rich, powerful voice, full of pain and poignancy, that’s yearning to break the confines of the thousand tons of concrete that enshrines it and return to its roots in the Appalachians 6,000 miles west of here. The music reaches right down into your chest, grabs your heart, and won’t let go. The timeless theme of triumph and tragedy is a palpable and soulful sensation: if you closed your eyes for just a minute, you’d think you were in Nashville.
Now the lead guitarist is starting to jam a new tune, and it’s pure Rock n’ Roll. I’ve forgotten which song because my mind’s a haze, but he’s belting it out like he’s some kind of latter day Johnny B. Goode, and I’m sure he must be, since the other band members are just standing back and watching him like he’s some kind of musical prodigy, which he actually is, since I never see him even slightly miscue, and that is after consuming what was certainly one tenth of his weight in beer and vodka, which I personally witnessed.
As they reach a crescendo, the Man in Black is leaping high enough to threaten the ceiling, and the bass is thumping like a jackhammer on steroids. An incongruous parade of shaded super models marches by in 10-centimeter stilettos, seemingly oblivious to it all, the Germans at the bar are laughing and toasting another round, or the girls, I’m not sure which, the dance floor is full of gyrating, sweating bodies, and the bar rocks in sound waves like a message from another planet, which it might as well be, since the music is 100% American, and it’s a gift to the world circa 1960, thank you very much.
If you ever wonder what our country’s legacy will be as we enter the twenty-first century and you look for cues it’s easy to be cynical, because God knows we’re hell bent on suicide, and maybe all the people we’ve conquered won’t remember us too kindly when all of the smoke clears and the history is written…and maybe not by us. But I’d like to think of a younger, more innocent America, a country that showed a shattered war-torn world a better way. It was a nation where even the average Joe could buy a home in the ‘burbs or, with a little guts and ambition, build an empire from scratch. It could take on the Commies with its left hand while sending a man to the moon with its right and build Mustangs and GTOs just for fun in its spare time. It constructed a ribbon of superhighways across a continent and led the world in everything from telecommunications to Tupperware and sold those wares to every corner of the planet. It fed the world and led the world in everything…the best, the fastest, the most, the tallest…name a superlative, and you could be sure it was “Made in the USA”. And the popular attitude born of that magnificent excess was simple. We were having “Fun, fun, fun” while striding the world like a Colossus, and we made no apology for it. And in what venue did that exuberance, that swagger, that heartbeat, that pure joie de vivre find its outlet better than in our music, which transcends all cultural boundaries and still has resonance and meaning fifty years later, even in a dingy basement nightclub on the other side of the world in what used to be Communist Russia? I don’t think you can find one. And I’d like to think that a century from now they’ll still be playing our songs and dancing to that beat and remembering an America that was once good and strong and generous and wild and free…maybe even noble, and will think of us kindly. That wouldn’t be so bad, after all, because that music was and is sweet indeed.