Ring my Belgrade by Ben Blackwell

Dirtbombs’ drummer documents the band’s hubbub in Serbia

live in belgrade
European tours for the Dirtbombs have recently become somewhat draining with more responsibility and paperwork. But our latest trip was an exception. Besides a four-day jag at a Barcelona oceanfront hotel that found us rocking the shit out of a couple thousand Spaniards, we (Mick, Pat, Troy, Ko and myself) were all excited and nervous to finally break through the old Iron Curtain and play in Croatia and Serbia.Our biggest worry upon entering the former Yugoslavia was the border guards. Our promoter Aleksander, a twentysomething Serb who’d become indispensable by the trip’s end, said we should be prepared to bribe them. No such need in Slovenia. The uninterested guards lazily waved us through the checkpoint.

The landscape provided a quick, hilly drive, with only two lanes of traffic snaking across the entire country and into Croatia.

What I saw of the city of Zagreb was wholly unremarkable, full of bland ’70s apartment buildings and lots of American-influenced billboards. It looked like any faceless city that we’d driven through in Italy or Germany.

After a very un-Croat pizza dinner, we arrived at KSET (the club) and were greeted by a packed house of sweaty, anxious freaks of all ages – as many men as women. With no opening band and a strict noise curfew, we hurried through pre-show preparations and jumped onstage. As I watched the crowd sing along and go apeshit, the main thing going through my head was this: ‘How do our records get over here’?

Aleksander explained that there are no independent record distributors in the former Yugoslavia. They get indie records through mail-order from the United States or Europe (very rare) or Internet downloads and CD-R’s (the more popular choices). In post-Communist countries, it’s hard for someone to justify paying 10 Euros (about $13 U.S.) for a CD that they can get for free. If that “illegal” alternative wasn’t an option, there wouldn’t have been 300 people bouncing uncontrollably and begging for encores.

Our hotel was adequate, but the old AC unit did little to combat the oppressive heat. Stuck in the hotel for the rest of the evening (it was too late for anything else), I took interest in the toilet handles designed like the volume knob on a stereo. They could turn to ’10’ and the flush would remain continuous until you moved the knob back to the ‘0’ position. Spent the rest of the night watching Punk’d, The Daily Show and Larry King Live, and wondered if the locals fully grasped Yankee sarcasm and cynicism. The hotel and the club (400 meters away from each other) were all I was able to see in Zagreb.

While leaving Croatia the next day, the exit border guard asked for a CD and we obliged. Aleksander was invaluable in these situations. Each new border or guard was met with a flurry of harsh, consonant-clustered language, and Aleks smoothed it out.

Upon entering Belgrade we got nailed for speeding. After talking to the local cops for a minute or two from the passenger seat, Aleks stepped out of the van and conversed with them beyond our earshot. It wasn’t a good sign. I was expecting gunfire. Moments later, Aleks returned to his seat and said we were good to go. When asked what he said or did, Aleks replied, “Oh, you know, I said, ‘We late for gig, don’t break my balls,’ and give him 15 Euros.”

Man, I thought Aleks was Superman. The idea of a country where bribes actually work is so much easier (in our position) than court dates or fines. I salute you, the hard-working highway patrolmen of Serbia!

I was shocked at how many buildings in downtown Belgrade still showed signs of a war not a decade old. Crumbling with exposed cement and rebar, it was invigorating to see life for these people go on in the face of a battered past.

And the past felt taboo. I mean, we all knew there was a war, but I was clueless as to who fought whom and what for. Scared of offending anyone, I merely avoided the topic and vowed to read up once I returned home. I was the stereotypical, stupid, uninformed American properly representing our country. I’m sorry, I’ll be prepared next time.

The venue, Dom Omladine, was twice the size of KSET, but the crowd was, again, 300 people. Further, the box office showed that our ticket prices were more expensive than those for Kraftwerk! We found this amusing to no end, yet were given no explanation as to why our price was higher.

Because of a soccer match between Serbia and Belgium, our stage time was 11 p.m. (the game set to end around 10 p.m.) giving people ample time to get to the club. Scheduling the show around a sporting event would never happen in America, but in Serbia you sense the audience had already bonded before they even arrived at the club.

After sound check, I explored and took pictures of bombed buildings, wary of nearby guards wielding arm-length guns. Cars sputtered by belching acrid diesel smoke. I found a public park where every bench held couples making out. And I noticed a large percentage of women wearing pink, as if the color had hit last year and they were trying to catch up with the rest of the world.

The people seemed lively: a street fair still vibrant after sundown, an old man at a newsstand courteous enough to change my Euros into local currency (dinars), a fragrant market of plants and flowers in the middle of the city and the strangely familiar bass-y boom pumping from cars.

The show felt even better than the previous night’s, despite the half-full hall. At both shows the crowds were so grateful for us coming to their country that it was impossible to not appreciate the opportunity. And it seemed to elevate the performance too. The throng insisted on encores, so we ended with me singing “Dirt” for the first time in months. We sold more T-shirts in Serbia than anywhere else on the tour.

Next morning, Aleks rode with us up through the Serbian border. Saying goodbye in the dreary, gray rain was all the more sad. Though our trip in Serbia and Croatia was brief, I relished every second. While they may not buy proper Dirtbombs records, the fans there more than make up for it with fervor, passion for music and gratitude. That beats a royalty check any day.


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