Want to see the seamy side of a country? Go on tour as a rock musician.
Nicolay, a multi-instrumentalist and founder of a Brooklyn collective called Anti-Social Music, combines a number of interests and skills, all serving him well in his effort to épater la bourgeoisie and see the unusual parts of little-visited nations: he is not only a master of such things as the electric banjo and the accordion, but also a self-described Slavophile and “enthusiast of Balkan music since an encounter with a bootleg cassette of the Bulgarian clarinetist Ivo Papasov.” A knowing reader of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), his copy of which was stolen in comparatively safe France, Nicolay conjures up all manner of scruffy types: the promoter who swears he’s getting out of the business after trying to rob his moneymakers (“Can I PayPal you the money?” he pleads on getting caught in the act); a “stocky, ham-fisted, forty-five-year-old veterinarian” with a bent for weird conspiracy theories; a Romanian soundman who “played cajón, of all things, with the opening act, alongside an acoustic guitarist and a singer in a Wasted Youth T-shirt.” Such figures lend themselves to lampooning and rough stereotyping, but Nicolay is mostly sympathetic and gentle; he likes the DIY spirit of the post-communist frontier, clearly, and doesn’t mind a little bad food. In the end, the book would be much like what Paul Theroux might write if he played the musical saw, lived on beer and borscht, and had a sense of humor—more humor than the KGB officials, at any rate, who classified Kiss and AC/DC as punk rock and therefore suspect of aiding and comforting young Soviets of a “contrarian bent.”
A pleasing romp: punk in attitude but literary in execution and a fine work of armchair travel for those unwilling to strap on an accordion on the streets of Rostov for themselves.