By J.V. McDonough
Not being an avid student of geography or current world events, I admit I never spent much time wondering about Estonia. Not being an avid television watcher, it was unusual that of the two programs I followed on a regular basis, one happened to be the modern vampire soap opera called True Blood. (The other was RuPaul’s Drag Race but that’s a different column.) It would be fair to say that the only time in my personal history that I ever gave a thought to the land in question was during a True Blood sex scene between an aggressive lady vampire named Pam and a winsome Eastern European cocktail waitress, in which the overwhelmed young mortal is advised, “Lie back, sweetheart, and think of Estonia.”
Perhaps this is arrogant, but I would wager that this experience puts me well ahead of the game in the “intellectually lazy middle-aged American punk rocker’s awareness of Estonia” department, unless you, Dear Reader, were watching a lot of HBO in 2010. In that case, I will consider you my peer and a veritable doctor of Baltic culture. We should discuss this over snifters of brandy sometime.
So, when M.O.T.O.’s European label Blast Of Silence asked us to do a tour that started with a date in Tallinn, the Estonian capital city, I had absolutely no idea of what to expect. Although Paul had brought M.O.T.O. to Finland several times before 2014, this would also be a first for him.
After arriving in Helsinki only a couple of days before, we found ourselves on a Saturday morning ferry heading to Tallinn.
Many people think that touring is all about late nights, beer-based-breakfast-in-bed, and not getting up until sound check. It is not. There have been many times on tour when I have had to get up much earlier than any day job has required of me, usually without the promise of any legitimate resting until after the gig. Knowing that this day’s comatose fire drill was going to find us on board a ship and headed toward a mysterious land didn’t help me regain my sense of ease.
Then I saw the ferry. While I hadn’t exactly been picturing a cobbled-together barge filled with senior citizens and farm animals, I definitely didn’t expect to be boarding what appeared to be a massive luxury liner, eight decks tall and filled with restaurants, bars, and a shopping mall. Our friends in Helsinki told us that Finns enjoy going to Estonia to shop: the exorbitant taxes on alcohol in Finland not only fail to keep the legendarily hard-drinking natives away from the sauce, they also inspire those citizens to board ships to a whole different country just to stock up.
I live in New Hampshire and have witnessed this on a much smaller scale when the Massachusettsians descend upon our “state” stores to fill their cars with mass quantities of tax-free liquor. Of course, it’s not all about the booze. Everything tends to be less expensive in Estonia, so shopping spree trips are common. And whereas one might hop a Peter Pan bus to the outlet stores in Maine to do the same thing in my neck of the woods, taking a veritable Love Boat for the two hour commute and spending your travel time hoisting beers, buying luxury items, and listening to the earnest young men with acoustic guitars on the stage in the Bar Nosturi makes the time pass even more pleasantly. Unless you’re not into hearing “Fire and Rain” sung in Finnglish by guys who look like they might wear deathpaint and roar about burning churches as soon as their day shift is over. In that case, you might want to do what I did and spend most of your journey up on the deck, soothing yourself with the white noise of the ship’s engines as she carves her way through the Baltic Sea.
The venue we were scheduled to play was called Kultuuriklubi Kelm. Don’t try to pronounce it; you’ll totally hurt your tongue. Just call it “Culture Club” like I did. And to erase any traumatic memories of Boy George, think of it as “Kulture Klub.”
Finnish and Estonian are linguistically very close and share a tendency to use many more vowels than necessary. It’s as if every word is trying to win a bizarre Scrabble game in which “a” and “u” are worth eight points each.
The club itself is was a gem of punk rock perfection. To enter, patrons and band members alike had to descend a narrow set of unevenly spaced stairs into a subterranean bar. Ancient stone walls were hung with a truly random collection of art and little alcoves here and there, one of which became our merch area. The performance space itself was a beautiful domed cave of a place, narrow and creepy, even with the lights on and the presence of a genial soundman.
During the inevitable hurry-up-and-wait of sound check, I found my over-stimulated, still jet-lagged mind drifting into an imagined past. What was this building before? I mean way before. How old is it, exactly? I never found out. Anyone die here? Probably. I mean, a lot happens over several hundred years. Half asleep on a pile of cushions in the dim catacomb, I got lost in the imagined patterns on the grey stone walls and wondered who had done the same before me, before it was the Kulture Klub, before there was rock’n’roll or electricity. Who cowered in this same spot, hiding from soldiers? Who met her lover here in the cool, hidden world beneath the cobblestone street? And who the hell am I, Ugly American, to loll in comparative luxury in a place where others may have suffered or died or had terrible sex?
This is one thing that I learned as a late-blooming global traveler: pretty much everywhere else in the world is chock full of ancient history. People at home are impressed that I live in a 235 year old house, but that doesn’t hold a candle to the historical weight of a building across the world that may have been constructed before the Northern Crusades.
As I dozed in and out of my private reverie, friends returned from their run to the local convenience store and presented me with the bottle of water I had requested. Unfortunately, it was the sparkling variety, which has never worked as anything but a dyspeptic for me but which seemed to be one of the non-alcoholic beverages of choice among our European colleagues. I tried to be gracious and took a polite sip, knowing that if I were to drink the entire bottle my backing vocals would be sung in the key of belch.
Our drummer Niila (you may know him from the excellent Finnish band God Given Ass), somehow already attuned to my delicate constitution, set out to address the crisis by walking behind the bar and getting me a glass of water from the tap. Apparently, this is acceptable bar etiquette back home in Helsinki (or so Niila insisted), but it caused no small consternation among the Kulture Klub employees. An increasingly heated exchange of Estonian and Finnish commenced as Niila and the barkeep worked out exactly how offensive this trespass was. I had to wonder how many thousands of times a fight had broken out in this same room between an Estonian and a Finn over the fussy requirements of some visiting dowager. Meanwhile, I took a sip from the glass and instantly my thoughts turned from the romantic historical mists of time to the more mundane demands of the present. Specifically, the hygienic standards of Tallinn tap water. I comforted myself with the knowledge that this glass of God’s champagne would soon be replaced by the first of many bourbon-and-Cokes, and that in my experience, alcohol always seems to trump bacteria.
The first revelation of our gig was in the performance by the opening band, from Turku, Finland, and fronted by our tour manager and Blast Of Silence chief, Ilari. In everyday life, Ilari is a quiet, super-composed model of efficiency. Throughout the tour, I never heard him lose his cool or raise his voice. So it was quite a surprise to see him morph into a pacing, raging werewolf as he stormed out a space for himself in front of the stage during his band’s very first gig. I found myself pumping my fist as he created a one-man pit, shirtless under a pleather “Warriors” gang vest, demanding “What Part You Don’t Understand?” At that moment, I understood all that I needed to.
By this time, the club had started to fill up with locals: a collection of the most aesthetically gorgeous human beings I have ever seen under one roof, as if some genetic Johnny Appleseed of symmetrical features and impossibly high cheekbones had made an extended visit to Tallinn sometime in the past thirty years. It looked like a photo shoot for $250-an-ounce perfume: “Let’s set it in a ‘punk’ club, dahling. So raw! So immediate!”
The band that followed Lost Chords was a local outfit called St. Cheatersburg. I left my spot at the merch area and followed the music into the other part of the club as soon as they started to play. Something automatically tripped a circuit in my brain and brought me back to my teenage years as I was discovering Gang Of Four, The Buzzcocks, New Order and the rest of my personal Essential Canon. This was St. Cheatersburg. I couldn’t pull myself away, even as I got benevolently crushed by the crowd in the ever-shrinking club.
The music was evocative of an era in my life when I would have sold my soul to be in a crammed basement punk club, breathing in clove smoke and the emissions of a slightly ironic fog machine. That my adolescent dream was being realized this time in a place closer to Russia (The Enemy back when I first started listening to real music) than Roslindale, Mass. made it even more delicious. It was one of those moments when every sense is in sync enough to unstick the observer from her mundane worries and immerse her in a perfect present. This band, in this club, in this city, at this exact time, really was perfect. The ancient city of Tallinn suddenly revealed a strange, visceral pulse, powered by the people playing and listening to this very music.
St. Cheatersburg left me feeling exalted and ready to play. But one more band was scheduled to take the stage: Kurjam, the long-lived local heroes, and obviously the ones the crowd had come out to see. The room was now officially too packed for me to enter. I heard a few big singalong numbers and Paul, Ilari, and I watched from our post as ecstatic drunken Tallinnites emerged from the party to refresh themselves with A le Coq (“Cock Beer”) and more cigarettes before re-entering the chaos in the next room.
Unfortunately, when Kurjam left the stage, they took most of their audience with them and we were left questioning the wisdom of “headlining,” since, in this case, it simply meant “playing last.” However, a sizable group remained for us, and, warmed up by the singalongs of the previous band, enthusiastically joined in as we launched into “2-4-6-8 Rock ‘N’ Roll” and most of the other M.O.T.O. classics. There was broken glass crunching under my boots, the fog machine would fart out a little atmosphere every once in a while, and a couple of insanely gorgeous women were professing their adoration for us as we ripped away on “Magic Words.” It was just right.
When we finally left the stage, I was met by the open arms of the tall blond bass player of St. Cheatersburg, who resembled a much healthier Bryan Gregory.
“Ah, I played like shit,” I said.
“No!” he exclaimed as he hugged me, “I love you!”
Elderly, jaded J.V. responded, “You’re too nice, my friend.”
Deep inside, though, sixteen-year-old J.V. got the vapors, lay back, and thought about Estonia.
J.V. McDonough is old enough to be your favorite aunt. She played bass in some Boston bands you never heard of, then joined The RiverCity Rebels (now defunct) in 2010. She now plays fulltime for M.O.T.O. with her husband Paul Caporino. Between November 2012 and the present they have played dates in China, Hong Kong, Japan (twice), Finland, Estonia, Berlin and dozens of U.S. cities. Click this link to learn more about M.O.T.O. and talk to J.V. via Facebook.