- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2004

In the annals of Washington diplomatic society, the party hosted Saturday night by Hungarian Ambassador Andras Simonyi had to have been a first. The dress: as casual as embassy etiquette allows, short of denim and men in hats. The decor: psychedelic. The motto: Give rock a chance.

Foreign policy guru Brent Scowcroft may not have deigned to get jiggy with it on the dance floor, and Nancy Brinker, a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary, may have pronounced “bass” after the fish instead of the guitar, but there was an honest-to-goodness rock concert on Spring of Freedom Street Saturday.

“I hope everybody likes rock ‘n’ roll,” said the ambassador’s wife, Nada, introducing the “CJTF: The Coalition of the Willing,” a band of foreign mission moonlighters named after NATO’s Combined Joint Task Force and President Bush’s name for countries who supported the Iraq war.

She sounded a tad hesitant — it was doubtless the first time she said “I’m your hostess this evening” in front of a drum kit and a pile of Fender amplifiers — but Saturday night clearly wasn’t the first time she’d seen her husband get his ya yas out in public.

“Sometimes I’m called ‘Mrs. Ambassador,’ and sometimes I’m called ‘groupie,’” she said of her relationship to her guitar-slinging hubby.

Mr. Simonyi — economist, diplomat, speaker of a gazillion languages, lead guitarist — was joined by drummer Alexander Vershbow, the top U.S. diplomat in Moscow; Lincoln Bloomfield, a State Department political appointee, singer and bassist; and Dan Poneman, a Clinton administration brainiac and current member of the Scowcroft Group, who sang, played rhythm guitar and blew a mean blues harmonica.

The Coalition band flew in a ringer from Los Angeles to glue their pick-up band together — Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers alum Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who happens also to be an expert on ballistic missile defense. (Mr. Baxter, who advises the Pentagon on homeland security issues, is frequently tapped for events such as this.)

Still, even with a pro like Mr. Baxter in the band, Mr. Simonyi copped to having felt a little nervous.

“Of course I was,” he said after the gig. But after two songs, he was calmly in the groove, and he sensed the audience was, too. “This was a real rock concert. People forgot they were in an embassy.”

The diplo-rockers ran through covers of songs such as the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.”; Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary”; the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”; and the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash.” Occasionally rocky in tempo, they were unfailingly enthusiastic. All the singers had sturdy voices, even Mr. Simonyi, who sang “Wild Thing” — in Hungarian. It’s never a bad thing, either, to hear Mr. Baxter’s classic guitar solo on Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” done in the flesh.

Saturday night’s embassy-turned-garage gig was Act II of a rock-the-tyrants campaign Mr. Simonyi began last November at the rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. In his speech, Mr. Simonyi recalled that the rock music of the Beatles and Mr. Hendrix and Traffic was a sort of secret umbilical cord to the West for Europeans stuck behind the Iron Curtain to culturally nourish themselves.

“rock ‘n’ roll let [Mr. Simonyi] know that there was another world out there — the Western world,” Miss Brinker said.

Mr. Simonyi, who spent formative years in Denmark before his father took a position back in their native Hungary, picked up the guitar at age 13 and started bands of his own. In those days playing rock music, he said Saturday, was in and of itself a thumb in the eye of the communist regime. “It was a way to oppose the system,” he said.

He mentioned finding the 1969 Woodstock festival a curious thing: “If only Hungarians and Czechs and Poles had the same democratic luxuries,” he remembers thinking.

Now, with communism all but crushed and tyrants, for the moment, at least, in jail (Hussein, Milosevic) or quaking discernibly in their boots (Gadhafi), the message Saturday night was that rock music still has plenty of work to do.

“Music is such a powerful force; it breaks down barriers,” said Eddie Kramer, the legendary producer-engineer who has worked with, oh, just about everyone (Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin — need we name more?). “[Mr. Simonyi] believes quite earnestly that rock ‘n’ roll is what cracked the armor of the communist system.”

If it happened in Budapest, Prague, Warsaw and Moscow itself (the Cold War may have ended semi-officially in 1991, but it wasn’t until last year, with Paul McCartney’s concert in Red Square, that it really ended), then why not in Riyadh, Tehran and Pyongyang?

Mr. Baxter recalled asking an ex-Soviet official, “‘What is it about America that scares you the most?’” The official’s reply: “‘We don’t know what you’re gonna do next.’”

Sure, the arms buildup under Ronald Reagan helped, Mr. Baxter said, but don’t forget “jeans, french fries and rock ‘n’ roll — this is what makes us special.” Regime change in Iraq may have sent a message to Iran’s mullahs from without, but Mr. Baxter is counting, too, on young Iranians busy procuring MP3s of Kid Rock from within to affect a regime change of their own.

Western pop culture is what “everyone wants, even when they can’t have it,” Mr. Baxter said.

The operative word here is “everyone.”

“Our message is that music brings us together,” Mr. Simonyi said. “It’s our responsibility to send a strong message that this culture belongs to all of us.”

The U.S. armed forces have been sending that message rather forcefully of late. But there are only so many Marines, who can only do so much. Mr. Simonyi and his bandmates believe there are other weapons at civilization’s disposal. One of those alternatives just happened to have been called “Revolver.”

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