Psychedelic Ballers: How a Baltic Minnow Took it to the Soviet Empire

The only combination better than music and politics is music and politics and sport.  So: what do the fall of the Soviet Union, Olympic basketball and the Grateful Dead have in common?

At the 1988 Seoul Olympics the United States failed to win gold in the men’s basketball for only the second time in Olympic history.  Appropriately, given the times and even the location, on the peninsula that saw one of The Cold War’s most tangible manifestations, the shock defeat was delivered at the hands of the Soviet Union.

The magnitude of the upset would have been more apparent though had it been known that four of the Soviets’ five starting players were from Lithuania.  From an empire with 285 million inhabitants, covering what is today 15 countries and over a fifth of the planet’s land mass, 80 per cent of those on court were from a country less than half a per cent the physical size of Russia and with a population smaller than that of Seattle, Cape Town or Melbourne.

Thus opens The Other Dream Team, a documentary on Lithuanian basketball I recently enjoyed, thanks to a (Lithuanian) friend’s recommendation.

Lithuania was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 and was the first former Soviet country to declare independence in 1990.  The half century of Soviet rule in Lithuania was harsh with “mass murder, deportations, collectivisation, forced atheism and unrelenting propaganda”.  Basketball was an unlikely locus for national identity and pride.  For that reason the win over the USA in Seoul was bittersweet, mostly bitter, achieved as it was in Soviet colours.

Separation from the Soviet Union was messy and painful.  As the first state to secede, Lithuania was subject to aggressive retribution from Moscow that saw 14 people killed.  Lithuania eventually triumphed in this David and Goliath battle and the Soviets finally recognised its independence in August 1991.   Just in time for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Which is where The Grateful Dead come in.

Like other post-Soviet states, in the short term independence came with drastic state restructuring and economic difficulties for Lithuania.  The degree of these difficulties is a matter for debate I’m not qualified to weigh in to, but needless to say sport funding was not a priority.  Jerry Garcia and co. got wind of the Lithuanian team’s troubles, saw the synergies with their own philosophy of freedom (political and otherwise) and decided to help.  They provided the team with some funds and a to-be-infamous tie-dyed uniform.  I won’t ruin the ending of the film except to say that the last game the Lithuanians played at those Olympics was for a medal, against Russia and had a final margin of four points.

Lithuania’s 1992 Olympic basketball team, resplendent in tie-dye

The Grateful Dead are mostly thought of as a psychedelic band – as reflected by the tie-dye that marked their Lithuanian venture – but I personally prefer their folk-rock side.  My unoriginal favourite is ‘Box of Rain’, written and sung by bassist Phil Lesh for his dying Father.

The Grateful Dead ended with the heart-attack death of front man Garcia in 1995.  Today Lithuania is a parliamentary democracy and EU member with one of the fastest growing economies on that continent (despite being hit heavily by the global financial crisis).  Its men’s basketball team has qualified for every Olympics since Barcelona, three times to win a medal.  Their fans still wear tie-dye.


Fortnightly(ish) Review: Punk Using Its Power for Good and Evil


Iranian nuclear facilities were recently attacked by malware.  The malicious software, of unknown origin, pumped AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ through the infected computers’ speakers.

It’s probably fair to say that the annual United Nations General Assembly is generally considered to be a bit of a yawn-fest.  This year though a concert called ‘Global Festival‘ is being held concurrently with the UNGA.  Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Foo Fighters, Band of Horses and the Black Keys are playing, with the aim of raising funds for various causes including polio eradication, which is facing a $500 million shortfall.  The concert doesn’t raise funds through ticket prices: there are none.  Instead, patrons must earn their ticket by completing actions recommended by various global organisations, such as signing petitions and writing letters.

Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan decided to let the world know that he takes his cues from Springsteen this week.  His speech was widely panned for being dorky and embarrassing, but nonetheless praised for being tactically clever.  It both effectively conveyed a message (Swan and the Labor Party are pro-worker and, like Catwoman and Bane in the latest Batman flick, anti-billionaire) and managed to garner significant coverage despite the stiff, Olympic, competition.


Russian female punk group Pussy Riot have been making many a headline over the past couple of weeks because the trial of three of its members has started.  They even have Anthony Kiedis getting political.  If you’re wondering, they have officially been charged with ‘hooliganism’.  Foreign Policy gets a bit overexcited and claims Pussy Riot (who seem to be singularly lacking in musical talent, even for a punk band, just by the way) has “perhaps given punk rock a future as a global force for justice and freedom”.  They reckon that – until Pussy Riot – the “high-water mark of punk’s geopolitical relevance” was Crass’s 1982 song critical of the Falklands War, ‘How Does it Feel to be the Mother of 1000 Dead?’ and subsequent production of a hoax tape, widely believed at the time to be a conversation between Thatcher and Reagan.

The shooting of six American Sikhs in Wisconsin earlier this month is a reminder that punk can also be a vehicle for those with less progressive views.  The shooter was a “frustrated neo-nazi” and leader of a racist punk band.  The same is of course true of any genre.  I always associate hip-hop with progressive, leftist politics because that was its major theme when Australian hip-hop got good in Sydney and Melbourne in the early 2000s.  Here in Mongolia though, the country’s most prominent rapper is proudly xenophobic, frequently rhyming against China and the Chinese.


Inside Story has a brief article on politically and religiously motivated repression of music.  The author draws a distinction between musicians victimised for the content of their music (Pinochet’s exeuction of musician Victor Jara) and for the form of their music.  Apparently the Nazis could not abide twelve-tone music – the form devised by Austrian Arnold Schoenberg.

Embattled Leaders via The Drones

Soundtrack for this post:

Another Rousing Chorus You Idiots !!!! ‘Another Rousing Chorus You Idiots!!!’ by The Drones.

Disclaimer: The Drones are my all time favourite band and I don’t know that I can write about them without gushing pathetically.  To try and focus myself, I’m going to concentrate on just one song for this post (their songs are long and dense, so one is enough for the purposes for post accompaniment anyway).  Given this admirable restraint, I reserve the right to post about them again.

My good, bad and ugly of world politics this weeks concerns leaders in trouble: two are recently unemployed and one is facing the fact of his political mortality for the first time (even if the inevitable death is still a while away).  ‘Another Rousing Chorus You Idiots!!!‘ has the desperate melancholy of a powerful man losing his grip.  The worldiness and world-weariness of the lyric brings to mind Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer’s character in Blade Runner) and the anguish of memories’ extinction he represents.  Some illustrative lyrics below, and also see THE GOOD.

I have seen mountains stop short of the sky

I’ve seen continents reach the oceans and shy

I have had beauties and charred fire breathers

I have drunk whiskey and your methylated spirits

I have seen harder men shrivel and flake

A common theme in Drones’ songs is how hard it is to make rent.  In this song financial indiscretions are more dire and dramatic: “I have spent thousands, most of it loaned”.  In these economically depressed times this brings to mind structural rather than individual difficulties: ie. the sub-prime crisis and, by extension, Europe’s current economic travails.  See THE BAD below.

I particularly like the line “We were shat from a wormhole, to revere your face” and the refrain, “you were not easy to break”.  Without wanting to over-analyse, to me, the subject in this song is unstable.  Sometimes the subject and object seem to coincide, sometimes they don’t.  The idea fits well with the final line of the chorus “admit you were only two inches away from zero control, again”.  See THE UGLY below.

The title of the song is, as anything that seems so directly aimed at its audience, provocative.  Who is he calling idiot???  And what chorus is he even talking about?  Is he being ironic and referencing that anemic wailing?  (Incidentally, the counterpoint that wailing makes with the hard-man bravado of the verses is another instance of the instability of the song’s subject).  Or is this straight-forward self-deprecation; a reference to the easy emotiveness of exaggerated dynamics The Drones use a lot, particularly on this album?

Taking a political slant, the song’s title could be read as a reference to the group-think that props up music idols and fascists alike.  At a Soundgarden concert I attended in Melbourne in 1997 Chris Cornell yelled something like “you’re all fucking idiots”, provoking cheers of adulation.  While I was bemused, Cornell was amused: he clearly knew he would get such a reaction.  He’s now mellowed, but The Drones’ Gareth Liddiard has been known to utter similarly misanthropic asides on stage.  I could imagine our mindless devotion could be scary when seen from the other side.  Or mildly embarrassing, anyway.

For the first time ever Vladimir Putin is looking slightly less than inviolable.  He is a long way from staring down any kind of barrel, but for a man who officially received 72 per cent of the vote last time he ran for president in 2004, developments since mass street protests were first seen after last December’s parliamentary elections are surely cause for reflection.

There’s always been opposition in Putin’s Russia (bets are any Russian journalist who died in mysterious circumstances over the last decade was a voice for such forces).  This sort of mass mobilisation is however new.  The most recent protest was reportedly attended by around 100,000 frozen Muscovites.

Despite these refreshing digs at Putin’s entitlement to rule Russia indefinitely, his victory in the March 4 presidential election is all but assured due to a lack of a credible opposition figure.  At best, he may be forced to contest a run-off election (required should he receive less than 50 per cent of the vote).  A very optimistic view is that all bets would be off should a run off indeed be necessary.  In that scenario, given a plausible shot at the top job, presumed second placed candidate, billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov – regardless of whether or not he is a Kremlin puppet (no one is entirely sure) – would take off the gloves,  throw caution to the wind and have a real tilt.

Emil Boc resigned as Prime Minister of Romania this week.  He is being depicted as the latest casulty of Europe’s economic woes.  Romania is a member of the European Union, but not the Eurozone (it does not use the euro currency).

Boc increased taxes and cut government wages in line with requirements accompanying an IMF bailout package agreed in 2009 after the country fell into a deep recession.  These moves appear to have set Romania on a positive fiscal track but, as is pretty much always the case with austerity measures, they are deeply unpopular.  Along with now-shelved health sector reforms, they led to mass demonstrations in Bucharest and other cities calling for Boc’s resignation.

Analysts say Romanians are in a deep malaise about all politicians, not just Boc or the current government.  President Traian Basescu is at least as unpopular as Boc.  The role of President in Romania is substantive, sharing executive functions with the government.  The country’s chief spy Mihai Razvan Ungureanu took over the Prime Ministership yesterday.  Elections are due later this year.

Mohamed Nasheed stepped down from his post as President of the Maldives on Tuesday.  In a televised resignation address, Nasheed stated he was removing himself in response to sustained protests.  He said to remain in power he would have to use force; something he did not wish to do.  Nasheed has since said he did not go willingly but was actually forced at gunpoint to relinquish his democratically elected position.  He claims a military-backed coup is what actually occurred.  An army spokesman denies a coup took place.

The current crisis has its origins in Nasheed’s call for the country’s chief justice to be arrested for favouring previous ruler and opposition leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.  Gayoom is strongly allied with Islamist groups who oppose Nasheed’s liberalism.  No matter the reason though, the military detention of a judicial figure is never a good look and the justice was released pretty quickly.

Nasheed came to power in 2008 following the Maldive’s first democratic elections.  His ascension marked the end of Gayoom’s thirty-year reign.  Nasheed, then a pro-democracy activist, was repeatedly imprisoned during Gayoom’s rule.

Fellow former activist and Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan has stepped into the Presidential role and maintains Nasheed’s resignation was voluntary.  An arrest warrant for Nasheed was issued yesterday.  It is not clear what charge he faces – it has been speculated it may be alcohol consumption – and he is yet to be arrested.  One of the key groups involved in the protests that led to Nasheed’s ouster was the police.

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