They're Not Gonna Live Forever
Selo i Ludy: Live And Unconquered
Sometime in mid-March, a few weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine and well before I stopped reading war dispatches first thing, I came across the term “compassion fatigue,” which stuck with me. On March 7 I’d published a report on two circa-2015 Ukraine-vs.-Russia documentaries and one 2020 Ukraine-vs.-Russia novel set circa 2014 and was still marveling at the resilience of the Ukrainian military and the courage of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. And inspired by an MSNBC brief in which a Ukrainian band called Selo i Ludy performed A-ha’s 1985 “Take on Me,” I was surprised to discover that in 2019 the same band had released a whole album of catchy ‘80s and ‘90s rock hits I’d lived without called Bunch One and almost instantly fell for it. Selo i Ludy, which one site designates a “folk rock cover band” and self-bills more evocatively as “funny folk punk polka,” put a lot of music up on Facebook, a utility I avoid on religious grounds, but I did locate a hefty video on YouTube. Their drummer as well as the nonmusical bunkermates I’d glimpsed on MSNBC were conspicuous by their absence, but the barbs of Anglophone front man Alexander Goncharov more than compensated. Shy of the Paypal and Patreon options the band made available, I determined that Kharkiv had teamed up with the hometown of another band I like a lot, and mailed a moderately hefty check to the Cincinnati-Kharkiv Sister City Partnership, 441 Vine Street, Suite 3620, Cincinnati OH 45202. You can do that too.
Bunch One got a full A in the April Consumer Guide and I played it a lot as I kept up with doings in Ukraine. But all too soon I was also busy cursing Samuel Alito, following the news in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and other imperiled bastions of American democracy, contracting a mild case of Covid shortly after an 80th birthday replete with more pleasurable distractions, and worrying about the frailer health of several contemporaries. Et cetera. This wasn’t compassion fatigue so much as the comprehension overload that ensues when credentialed experts and self-regarding pundits weigh in with their own distillations of fact and theory to tell the world how this awful war is going. So although I kept reminding myself to check up on Selo i Ludy, I didn’t get around to it until well into June. Nor did I register that the music world had been doing what it could to pay its own varying respects to the embattled nation. Early on the Times’s Jon Caramanica enlisted Vogue’s Liana Satenstein, whose Ukrainian heritage long ago inspired her to start covering Eastern Europe in general and Kyiv in particular, on a podcast surveying the region’s electronic dance music. NPR had long given airtime to DakhaBrakha, a self-designated “ethno-chaos” band spawned by the Kyiv Center of Contemporary Art whose Bedouin Reworks and Yahudky explore different strands of quasi-hypnotic folk rhythm. And the Eurovision Song Contest was won by Western Ukraine’s “folk-rap” Kalush Orchestra’s “Stefania,” the third Ukrainian entry and first rap record to do so.
Then finally I returned to YouTube and found a video more current than the one I’d referenced in my Consumer Guide review. One drawback of being an 80-year-old rock critic is tech deficiency, which means that although I took detailed notes on the new one, I could no longer find it when I tried to recheck them. Where the first video went on for about an hour, this one clocked in at more like 90 minutes, with the drawback that most of those minutes depicted naught but an empty bunker housing a few instruments. But I’d been reading enough about the brutal Russian bombardment of Kharkiv to know that Goncharov’s account of Russia’s military ineptitude was no longer so imperturbable. He seemed less sanguine about the band’s absent drummer, even irritated perhaps. He reported that the PayPal account via which the band had collected donations had somehow been frozen, probably by Russia one way or another, and asked that donors use Patreon instead. He announced that their set would comprise only three songs. He explained that he believed that he delivered “Seven Nation Army” “with more anger than Jack White had ever put into it,” and that Selo i Ludy their old standard “It’s Raining Men” was now dedicated to all the Russian pilots who’d fallen from the sky and died “before they reached the ground.”
And mostly Goncharov just railed against Russia. Of mixed Russian and Ukrainian heritage though he is, his loyalties go one way only. Having once observed planes taking off from Ukraine to bomb the nation of Georgia 700 miles to the southeast, he’d still never dreamed he’d see “the Russian civilization degraded this far” and now believes, simply and absolutely, that “they must be destroyed as a civilization”: “They shoot the civilians, they shell civil buildings, they squoosh civilian cars with tanks. It’s not Russia or Ukraine it’s Russia or all the rest of the civilized world. This is like a final battle of civilization and anticivilization.”
Selo i Ludy’s Bunch One is launched by the same schlock-rock masterpiece that capped off the three-song set on the stream I found: Bon Jovi’s 2000 “It’s My Life,” where Max Martin doctored the music a little but the lyric was all well-meaning Democrat-as-everyman Jon Bon Jovi, its crucial couplet “I ain’t gonna live forever/I just wanna live while I’m alive.” As with Bon Jovi’s other undeniable classic, “Livin’ on a Prayer” with its “Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear,” “It’s My Life” is an everyman anthem, only without the earlier song’s operatic flourishes. Contextualized by Goncharov’s lead accordion, his gruff, gritty, dramatic, rolled-R delivery universalizes and grounds it simultaneously. I doubt there was ever a time when it wasn’t Selo i Ludy’s de facto theme song. But the all too palpable truth that forever is well beyond their reach right now means that time definitely ain’t now. Above all they want to live while they’re alive.
On YouTube you can several different video versions of Selo i Ludys “It’s My Life.” The official band video dates to 2011, well before not just the Russian invasion but the relatively peaceful 2014 “Maidan Revolution” after which Ukraine managed to oust its Russia-imposed president. As someone who’d spent hours listening not just to 2019’s Bunch One but to Goncharov singing roughly a little and lecturing gruffly a lot on two 2022 YouTube streams, I found the relative lightness and clarity and indeed youth of his voice striking. But as someone who doesn’t watch many videos, I was also struck by how silly and colorful and technically proficient the visuals were, situating a sizable and rakish live cast in gaily painted backdrops that looked like the work of talented high school art students with helpful teachers. Sure the plot, which involves a pregnant bride’s wedding, is kind of sexist, but in a playful rather than demeaning way. The whole thing is impressively irrepressible.
The one I love, however, is much newer: a dance-chocked fan video with Spanish subtitles by someone named Cesar Hidalgo. Beyond an eight-year-old boy in sunglasses and a schoolgirl or two, all but a few of the dancers are male adults, the preponderance over 40: cops in uniform, a guy flourishing two wine bottles, a guy draining one vodka bottle and eyeing another, an acoustic guitarist and his buddy, a shirtless drifter, several near street people, and numerous others. I assume none of them are actually dancing to Selo i Ludy—Hidalgo just makes it look that way, and skillfully too. But every one of these guys is getting it on in his own way, grabbing moments of fun from a life we can now only hope will be once again available in a rebuilt Ukraine where the patina of age that’s all over this representation is a rare thing—if they and also we are lucky enough, for better as well as worse. It’s their life. They’re not gonna live forever. But they want to live while they’re alive. Resist compassion fatigue. They need us to care.