Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Laululava Dreams

Last Thursday morning, the Hard Rock Cafe hosted a 9:30 press conference to announce a free three-day stadium festival headlined by the Cure, Johnny Clegg & Savuka, Michael Penn, and Loverboy. Breakfast was included, but with draws like that, you'd think the promoters could have put a Ben Franklin under each napkin to goose coverage a little.

Unfortunately, they didn't have the convertible currency; as of now, in fact, almost all behind-the-scenes participants are donating their services. Also, there was an angle. The Tallinn Laululava isn't really a stadium: it's a natural amphitheater designed for music, and it's in Estonia. Fifty-some miles across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, Tallinn was a magnet for Soviet hippiedom in the '60s, and Estonia's official culture has long been the most rock-friendly in the USSR. In the past, the small city of Viljandi and the university town of Tartu have staged annual festivals celebrated in the mythology of Soviet rock. And since 1987 Estonian impresario Juri Makarov has put on his "Rock Summer" event at the Laululava. In '88 the subtitle was "Heavy," in '89 "Glasnost." This year it's "Freedom Fest."

Makarov, a 31-year-old musician-turned-organizer whose grandfather fled Russia as a young man, is by every account a charismatic dynamo. U.S. visa problems forced him to miss the press conference, but even over an unclear phone hookup during which the word "money" was uttered sadly and more than once, you could hear the fire in his eyes. Makarov wants 1990 to be a breakthrough year for the festival as it has been for the Baltic states--Estonia is proceeding more cautiously than Lithuania but clearly intends to wind up in the same place. But though the Cure and Clegg are as commercially viable as the previous two years' headliners, Robert Cray and Public Image Ltd., a breakthrough they ain't. The current lineup is avowedly international, with Australian and Canadian bands sponsored by their governments and Epic/Sony backing Japan's Bogombos and Izumija; Finland, Sweden, and the U.K. (as well as Russia and Estonia) will also be represented. But corporate sponsorships are limited so far to Carter-Wallace, a pharmaceuticals company that plans to hand out 100,000 free condoms as well as some capital.

As usual when Western music people venture into the U.S.S.R., this project is beset by rhetorical slippage; phrases like "singing revolution" and "celebration of freedom" are forever mutating into "media rights" and "vast untapped market." Makarov's American coproducer Juta Ristsoo is in it because she's Estonian, born in a refugee camp in 1947, but his U.S. music-biz associate David Wunsch, whose credits include videos with Billy Joel, Whitney Houston, and Julio Iglesias, has grander dreams. Wunsch is disappointed by artist skepticism so far; he says more than one U.S. manager has refused the gig as yet another "benefit." He won't say who's turned him down, because he's still fishing for big names and the syndication rights attendant thereupon, and he doesn't want to offend anybody. Or maybe anybody else--one story has Wunsch bandying Neil Young's name about before getting confirmation, an excellent way to assure that confirmation will never arrive.

Artists do love this gig. John Lydon, who's never impressed by anything, is a big Makarov booster. Robert Cray hated the food, loved the sound and equipment, balanced the books on a money-losing Scandinavian tour with his modest fee, and did three encores instead of his customary one--in a brief promotional video, he looks like he's just seen God in the form of 200,000 Soviet rock fans. So when Wunsch pumps the "emotional and spiritual gains" of playing Rock Summer, he's not just bullshitting. The belief that rock and roll can change your life is always something of an illusion, but it's an illusion that can change your life, and coming from such an enormous audience it's got to generate one hell of a vibe. Neil should reconsider.

Village Voice, 1990