Arts
Arts

Pussy Riot Hates Me

On Friday morning, my wife told me Pussy Riot was in town filming “House of Cards.” She said she’d bumped into a friend who worked on the set the day before and forgot to mention it. When I brought it up at City Paper’s morning meeting, people sort of gasped. It was newsworthy that the Russian punk/protest/performance-art group was in town to shoot an appearance on Kevin Spacey’s somewhat Putinesque political thriller. 

The appearance of Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, the two members of the collective who are on the show, was interesting in other ways too. They had been denounced for becoming public figures in an open letter which claimed to be written by the “true” Pussy Riot. It was a respectful distancing, saying the world had gained great leaders, but that Pussy Riot had lost comrades: You can’t talk at Amnesty International, play formal shows, or presumably be on “House of Cards,” and still be Pussy Riot. 

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina repudiated the letter and, I mean, really it seemed awful petty— they were imprisoned for two years for playing punk music, mocking the state and its use of religion, in a cathedral. Bad-fucking-ass. And then, they get whipped by fucking Cossack thugs for bringing attention to prison conditions! They were goddamn heroes, bringing to mind everyone from Dostoevsky to Solzhenitsyn. Like all alt-weekly writers, I am pretty attentive to the concept of selling out—it’s our bread and butter, man—but, come on, talking at an Amnesty International event is hardly selling out, even if Madonna is there. 

So, I wrote the post noting that they were in town and went on with my day, much of which involved trying to track down confirmation on a story about the Copycat gallery AmEx (where CP contributor Lexie Mountain currently has a show). Or, now formerly AmEx, now Terrault Contemporary. Brooks Kossover, the gallerist, posted on Facebook that the credit-card giant American Express had contacted him insisting that he change the name of the gallery. I wrote him and asked for the letter. We talked, and he said, “We chose the name because it was really just trying to take this idea of a corporate title that has—not necessarily a stigma—but pull and weight and claim. It’s so simple, how can you trademark four letters? But you can.” But the letter didn’t look quite legit enough, so I called and wrote to AmEx, the credit card company, trying to confirm that the letter was real. After all, if Kossover was trying to taunt American Express, might he also be trying to hoax the City Paper?

After work, I got super stoned and started walking up to the Hour Haus for band practice. As I crossed over the bridge from Penn Station, I was looking at the LED sign and there was a portrait by Kossover. And then an ad for Miller Beer’s throwback Lite cans. I still don’t know what to think about that juxtaposition. It is odd and jarring. I know you are reading this column in the close vicinity of an ad. But, the thing is, those advertisers pay us, or rather pay the City Paper (or BMSG) which then pays me a salary. But on LEDBaltimore, the art which brings the eyes to Coors is not compensated. And, weirdly, the artists and supporters of the project talk about it the other way. Coors is providing this platform for the artists. If one of our advertisers told me they were providing a platform for my writing and I should work for free, I would laugh. 

I was thinking about this when I saw a friend on the street and she told me that Pussy Riot was in Club Charles. I really didn’t want to deal with them, but a reporter is never off-duty and I figured I’d regret it, even as stoned as I was, if I didn’t stop in for a beer. As I walked in, there was a woman in a yellow wig crouched out front smoking. Inside, it was mostly empty but I spied CP contributor Michael Farley and his partner Ryan Mitchell,  in drag as Ellen Degenerate and Whitney Biennial, along with perpetual contender for Best Baltimorean Kevin Blackistone.  Michael did not have his wig on, which, it turned out, was on the woman out front of the club, who, it turned out, was Nadia from Pussy Riot, as I discovered when three women walked up to the table where I had joined Michael and Ryan. 

“This is Baynard,” Michael said. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina greeted me almost warmly. 

“He’s a writer at . . .”

“You are a writer?” one of them asked. 

“And what is your name again?” asked the woman right beside me, who said her name was Anya. She was much older than the members of Pussy Riot and was also Russian and seemed to be some kind of manager or handler or something. A flack. The worst sort of person (except, of course, for Putinist Cossacks and ISIS murderers and bankers and shit).

I told her. She asked my last name.

“So you’re the one,” she said so accusatorily that  I thought she might push me in front of a subway train. 

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina had been talking Russian to each other in the chairs across from us, but now they looked up at me and Anya.

Michael seemed confused beside me. 

“You know it is not supposed to be like this,” Anya said of my story. 

“I hope I didn’t cause you any problems,” I said. “But you are here in an empty bar, so it seems like it was fine.”

She asked why I wrote it. 

Because it is my job. Because it was interesting. Because it was happening in my city and I feel more loyalty to my city than I do to some people who come into it and feel like they are cooler than everyone here. No one even really paid that much attention to the story anyway, because this is fucking Baltimore and we have our own shit to do. 

I was a bit flustered and not eloquent, because my feelings were mixed. I usually don’t mind being hated, but I did not really want Pussy Riot to hate me. That somehow put me in a class with Putin, which was a horrifying thought. 

But Anya looked at Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina and motioned at me with her head and then gave a big theatrical thumbs down. Seriously, like a visible Siskel-and-Ebert umpire judgment. 

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina cut their eyes at me. They were now as cold as rich high-school cheerleaders to the working-class D&D-loving Juggalo in math class. 

Anya got up and left. 

“What just happened?” Michael asked, confused. 

What did happen? Why did Pussy Riot hate me?

When Anya said “It’s not supposed to be like this,” she sounded like a Greek god talking to a mortal, “You know you really shouldn’t bother us”—us being “House of Cards” Hollywood people, not political activists. It’s not like Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were in town on the lam, hiding from Putin, and I was alerting the authorities to their presence. Or even that I was trying to bother them and shoot paparazzi shots or something. 

Sure, they were still playing on the presence of the radical chic that came with their political persecution, but, at the moment, they were also stars* involved in a professional, capitalist enterprise, for which they would probably be paid as much as I make in a year. They were in the town I live in, hanging in a bar I drink at, and I was supposed to pretend not to notice? Fuck that shit. 

But, Anya had her job to do and Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina did too. Part of that job was talking to fans—to whom they were reportedly very sweet—but it did not include talking to reporters. Even if they were not contractually obligated to avoid me (the show is very strict about leaks), it would be a smart move.  

Today, in a world where there are far more rock stars or wannabe rock stars than there are journalists, someone needs to reverse the advice about rock stars that Lester Bangs gives Cameron Crowe in “Almost Famous.” Journalists are not your friends. We will seduce you and we will get you drunk on talking about yourself. We are a lot like strippers: We make you feel like the most important person in the world—for a minute. 

Pussy Riot understood that. They were right to simply stop acknowledging me. It was not really acrimony—I was just invisible. Had I been less high, more dedicated, and cared more for the world of famous people, I might have used that invisibility and hung around hoping to write something like “Pussy Riot has a Cold” in imitation of Gay Talese’s great piece on Sinatra, who refused to talk to him. But as it was, I was quite uncomfortably stoned. The red-and-black darkness of Club Charles had never seemed so hellish. So, when Michael asked if I wanted to go outside and smoke, I jumped at the chance, even though I’m off the smokes and he was just vaping. 

“They’re really mad,” he said. I didn’t want them to hate him because of me, since he had nothing to do with me being there. So, I figured I would split, but I had left the tote bag with a six of Boh in it under the table. I had to walk back in. They glowered at me. I mumbled “nice to meet you,” or something. They looked away. I walked out onto Charles Street trembling with the vibrancy of the neighborhood. There was some synergy between Pussy Riot and Station North and it felt like something had changed. We were in the global cool underground. And it no longer felt underground at all. 

The next night, at the Sterling Sisters show at Metro Gallery, I met someone else who had been involved in the shoot, which turned out to involve a musical performance. He talked about how surprisingly poppy Pussy Riot’s music now was. “Le Tigre is producing their record,” he said. “That’s how they’re trying to get their message across now, I guess.” 

I have not been able to confirm those details, because who produces what album isn’t really interesting to me. But Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina seem to be stranded in a really interesting place. Like so many before them, they seem to be torn between a truly revolutionary past and the radical chic that simply makes them into another capitalist commodity. I’ve got no business judging them for that and I wish them well, but their flacks don’t really have any business blaming me for writing about it, either.  

*In an earlier version of this story, this word was "starlets," which was not accurate. City Paper regrets the mistake. 

Copyright © 2015, Baltimore City Paper
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