Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thin White Rope and the Georgian dinner party

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, January 28, 2007)

Thin White Rope and the Georgian dinner party

The guys in Thin White Rope were a heavy drinking bunch. I was not as much, but I did reserve the right to tie one at least once a month or so. I have lots of stories of drinking and drunkenness, but this is possibly the worst I've ever been involved in.

When the band was offered a tour of the Soviet Union in 1988, we were all pretty excited. Guy had reservations at first for a number of reasons, but even he fell in line with the rest of us and had to admit he was looking forward to going where few American bands had gone before. In fact, we were the first American independent band to be allowed on tour in the country. We were originally told that the trip would include Moscow, St. Petersburg, and one or two other cities in the western part of the country. We would be touring with two Italian bands and one Russian heavy metal band and we would be in the country for about a week. We planned to do the tour and then fly back to Italy, where we would catch a flight home in time for a good rest before Christmas.

When we arrived in Russia, in December of that year, we immediately had our passports taken away from us. We were told that this was for our own protection, because American passports sold for a small fortune on the black market and there were many people who wouldn't hesitate to cut our throats for ours if we had them on us. We were then told that the tour would cover four cities in total. Those were Moscow, Tbilisi (in Georgia), Vilnius and Kaunas (both in Lithuania). There was one show in Moscow and that would be broadcast on television throughout the whole of the Eastern Bloc. But to our surprise, we found we had 7 nights in Tbilisi, 5 in Vilnius and 3 in Kaunas. And there were two shows each and every night in those places. To say the least, we were a bit taken back by this announcement, but when I complained, I was told that we were contracted to these shows and if we didn't do them, we wouldn't be getting our passports back. Our Italian booking agent, who put these shows together, and in fact, put all of European tours together up to that point, was with us on this tour and he told us not to worry. He would take care of everything and make sure we had flights back to the States. But that's another story for another day…

This story is about one particular evening in Tbilisi. The day after our show in Moscow, we boarded a train to the Soviet country of Georgia. I was pretty excited about this as Tbilisi was technically in Asia, so it would be my first time in that continent. The train trip was three days long and lots happened along it. One day I'll tell you about the car matron and her attempts to get me married, one of our Russian tech roadies and his deadly brush with Chernobyl, and the separation of our car from the train, forcing us to careen down the Caucasian Mountains.

That final incident made us have to cancel the first night of our sold out engagement while we waited for a new train to arrive to pick us up. But we finally arrived in the city and checked into our hotel, giving us some time to look around the city. This was not only the first time I had ever been in Asia, but it was the closest I'd ever been to the Middle East as well, and while Georgia is a predominantly Christian nation, it is close enough to the Muslim nations I had heard so much about that it seemed very foreign and exotic to me. It was also very beautiful.

There will be more stories about our time in Tbilisi at a later date, but for now I'm going to concentrate on our first and second night of shows. When we arrived at our first date, we found we were playing in a huge theatre complex and it was sold out for every show. No one there really had any idea who we were, but the lure of an American band playing in their city was enough to get the population curious and excited. We were led to our dressing room, where we found a spare cell with several folding chairs and little else. I found the promoter of the shows and asked them about food and drink. I was told that there would be some food later, but that drink couldn't be provided. But after a short urgent exchange, he agreeed to find us some water.

As I said before, Thin White Rope were heavy drinkers and for them to attempt to play a show without some help from alcohol was next to impossible. But we made due that first evening of shows. Mostly because the audience was so enthusiastic, screaming and dancing in the aisles. After the show, I told the organizers that we would not play any more shows if we didn't have some water, some sodas, some beer and some vodka in the dressing room. They reminded me of our passports and our contracts and I told them I didn't care. No drinks. No show. And that was that. I was told later that our insistance on alcohol was extremely troubling for the promoters and the government (who was sponsering the shows) as the Soviet Union had quite a drinking problem and asking the government to give someone alcohol was just unheard of and scandulous. But I didn't care. If they wanted to deal with Americans, they had to deal with our needs as well.

We arrived at the concert hall the next day wondering if they had provided for us or if we would have to stage our own mini-revolution. And what we found was typical Russian overkill. We had quickly realized on this trip that the Russians never did things small. It could be like pulling teeth to get them to do anything, but once they did it was on a grand scale. There in our dressing room was a whole case of water, a whole case of coke, a whole case of beer and a whole case of vodka! It had been several days since any of us had had a drink, so we dived right in, getting buzzed right away, but being careful not to get too drunk to play, something the band was very good at gauging.

The shows that evening were better than the first ones. The audience was just as enthusiastic, but the band was also well lubed and enthusiastic themselves. A great time was had by all. We retired to the dressing room to celebrate and now that the shows were over, there was no reason to hold back. But after a short time, there was a knock on the door and the local promoter came in with an older, very well dressed man at his side. He was introduced as one of the city's most prosperous and well-known businessmen. He didn't speak any English, but through our interpreter, we were invited to his house to have a drink and meet his family. We were very reluctant to take him up on this as we were already well on the way to being very drunk, but our interpreter told us that he was a very important person and it would be very rude to turn him down. Besides, it was only one drink and then we would be on our way back to the hotel.

So we all packed up and loaded into several waiting cabs for the short trip to his house. And surprise, surprise! We arrived to find the makings of a party being set up. There was a long table in the middle of the room piled with food and drink. And women were bringing more food out of the kitchen. Again we expressed our hesitance and again we were told that we were there now and if we left, it would be considered very rude. So we took our places around the table and settled in. There were members of both Italian bands there as well as some friends of the host. The women were his wife and daughters and they were not allowed at the table. Their job was to provide entertainment, singing and strumming on guitars, and to serve the guests. One Italian was a woman and there was a big show of making an exception to the no-women-at-the-table policy for her.

There was all sorts of food on the table. On one side of each setting was a glass of wine and on the other side was a glass of vodka. If we drank any of either glass, one of the women would fill it immediately. I was sitting about half way down the table from the man of the house, who was seated at the head of the table. He announced that we would eat soon, but first he wanted to make some toasts. He produced a huge, glass horn and proceeded to fill it with white wine. We were told that the horn would make its way around the table. When it got to us, we were to make a toast and then drink the contents of the horn in one swallow. I estimated that the horn could hold about a liter of wine. I was immediately filled with dread. I had been avoiding any drink since I had arrived at the party since I was still feeling the effects of the vodka from the earlier shows. But now I was going to be forced to drink a large amount of alcohol or be forever scorned as a rude American. I watched with growing trepidation as the horn advanced towards me. But it finally reached me and I stood, gave my simple toast and drank the contents. I definitely felt a buzz in my brain, but the world didn't end and it seemed that I would survive the experience. I could see the look of worry in other people's eyes as the horn reached them. But it made it around the table without serious incident and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

And that was when the man announced that he loved the toasts and wanted to do another round!

It was also about this time that the first liter of wine really began to take its effect on me. The horn made it to me again and this time I stood and gave an impassioned speech about Soviet/American friendship. I drank the wine and blurrily looked at the man of the house. He had tears steaming down his face. He stood up and announced that he would no longer be sitting at the head of the table. That honor would now belong to me. As I moved to take the seat from him, he handed me the horn again and asked for one more toast.

That's the last thing I remember.

There were bits of things that still creep into my memory. I remember trying to get into a cab and complaining that I didn't have my scarf. I remember being woken up by a mysterious noise. I got up, opened the door to my room, and saw Roger and Guy running around naked, except for a coating of white cream. I remember one of our Italian booking agents trying to ask me if I was okay. But that's about it. I woke up nude the next morning in my single bed next to one of the very straight Italian band members, who was also missing his clothes. "What are you doing here", I asked. He had no idea. There was almost immediately a knock on my door. The Italian booking agent was there and he exclaimed to me, "The elevator is full of shaving cream." I decided to go back to bed and kicking the Italian out, I did just that.

Several hours later, I awoke once again, this time with a hideous headache. I took a shower and decided to face the world. The elevators were now clean, but the hotel was not too pleased about what happened. There were very few people from our party around, since everyone was either still asleep or incapacitated with terrible hangovers. But I talked with the hotel and got them to calm down, promising that things like that would never happen again. (Fortunately, they didn't catch us several days later gliding paper airplanes off the roof of the building and scaring the hell out of pedestrians below.)

I found our Russian interpreter and asked her about what happened the night before. "What you did was very rude", she told me. Great! And I couldn't remember a thing about it. But I finally got her to sit down and tell me the evening's events.

It would seem that I did drink that third horn of wine after giving yet another well-received toast. The man of the house was in tears again, but I asked to be excused and walked into the kitchen where I promptly started throwing up all over the food prepared in there. That started a chain reaction and just about everyone started throwing up. One member of the band ran out to the balcony and threw up over the edge, soaking the downstairs neighbors with puke. Mass chaos ensued and it was several minutes before the few sober people were able to calm the rest of us down. Of course, that was the end of the party and cabs where called to take us back to our hotel. She told me that I made quite a scene insisting that I wouldn't leave without my scarf, a scarf I had bought in Venice earlier in the tour. But the scarf was around my neck, a fact that I refused to believe. And once we got back to the hotel, I went straight to my room. But Guy and Roger did get naked and started a shaving cream fight between them. No one seemed to be able to stop them and they all eventually gave up, letting them exhaust themselves. There were several other incidents, but I couldn't take any more and asked her to stop. The mystery of the naked Italian in my bed has never been solved. I asked her if she thought everything would eventually be okay. "It was very rude", was all she could say.

Once we were all able to get together and talk about the night before, we realized how terribly ashamed of ourselves we were. We had two shows that night that were pretty subdued, except for the dancing people in the aisles. And we all went back to the hotel and fell asleep early.

The next day, we did some sightseeing with a guide and then headed to the shows. We were all feeling physically better, although we were still rather horrified by the whole event that had happened. We played the second show and as I was walking to the dressing room to meet up with the band I saw a sight that made my blood run cold. The man whose house and party we trashed was making his way towards us with several huge paper bags. I ran into the room and slammed the door. When I told the band about it, they were all horrified. We didn't know what to do. We just knew we didn't want to face the man again. But the decision was taken out of our hands as the local promoter unlocked the door and led him in to confront us.

And in he walked, with a big smile on his face. We stammered out an apology, but he told us that we didn't owe him one. He should have listened to us when we said we didn't want to drink. He felt bad about the whole thing. But somehow, this made me feel even worse. I held my tongue though. He then proceeded to hand out gifts to each and every one of us. He gave me a large bottle of red wine. He said that he had made it himself and if I drank the whole bottle, I wouldn't have a hangover. It was a nice gesture, but at the time, I was still thinking that I'd never drink alcohol again. (That lasted until about the next day.) We thanked him and he headed home. And we never saw him again.

I look back on this event with lots of mixed feelings. I can laugh about it now due to its absurdity. But I still feel a lot of embarrassment and shame. I realize that we protested about drinking before it happened, but I also realize that I should have put my foot down and refused. It makes me sad because one of the great things about touring was being invited into people's homes and experiencing life they way they lived it. This is something that few tourists get to experience and I savored it each and every time a local would let me into their lives for an hour or a day. This was a one-of-a-kind experience and I blew it. I'll regret that for the rest of my life. And I've never let anything get in the way of experiencing local life again anywhere I've gone.

I also feel bad because shortly after we left Georgia, it all came to an end and the Communist regime fell. Georgia went through a series of upheavals and violent revolutions and I suspect that most of the people we met there, including this man, were killed during those early years of freedom. I know I was writing to several people there and suddenly I never heard from them again after the revolutions broke out. (The same thing happened when Yugoslavia entered into its war.) I would love to go back there some day, but I know I would probably find a country that was much different than the one I visited.

I took the wine he gave me home and put it in my wine rack. It stayed there for over ten years. One day, Skip and I were looking at it and wondering what it would taste like, we went ahead and opened it. We expected vinegar, or at the very least, a bad, cheap wine. What we tasted was a very good red wine that any wine maker would have been proud to call his own. I wish I could tell that man that and apologize to him once more.

There were more fun happenings in Tbilisi. There was a fun experience with local food. There was the Armenian earthquake, which trapped us there for several extra days. And there was the flight out, shared with goats and chickens. But when I think of the Russian tour, a tour that ended with me having a mini-nervous breakdown, this is the memory that is first in my mind.

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