Letter from Uzbekistan

By now, the musicians' path out of Houston to what many see as the greener pastures of Austin, Nashville, New York and Los Angeles is well worn. To say that Houston-bred Wil Wuerdig -- the singer-guitarist of the alternative Southern rock band Raindance -- is not on that path is an epic understatement. You see, Wuerdig is basing his career in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Racket and Wuerdig recently fired a few e-mails back and forth about life as a working musician in one of the world's sleepiest and most unfashionable capitals.

And life is, in a word, difficult. Where many American musicians are somewhat spoiled for choice as to which clubs to play, Wuerdig has no such abundance. Nothing in the country is allowed to stay open past midnight. Well, there is one exception…"Of course there's one club open after hours," he writes, "and that just happens to be owned by one of the president's daughters."

Uzbek President Islam Karimov often sounds less like a statesman than like Soprano family lieutenant Paulie Walnuts. In 1999, after alleged religious extremists hijacked a bus, Karimov went ballistic. Agence France-Presse reported this gem: "I'm prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic…If my child chose such a path, I myself would rip off his head." (As his daughter's head remains firmly attached to her body, it's apparent he doesn't view operating a speakeasy as harshly as busnapping. And while we're on the subject of boozy presidential daughters, perhaps Dubya would have more success with Jenna if he threatened her so imaginatively.)

So why is a Houston musician living in a country run by an apparent human guillotine like Karimov? Love and diplomacy. Wuerdig's wife, whose surname he now bears instead of his birth name of Van Winkle, is a German diplomat whom he met at the Last Concert Cafe's annual Watermelon Festival. When Ms. Wuerdig's term was up at the Houston consulate, the German foreign service offered her a choice of reassignment in Karachi, Pakistan, or Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. Since neither of these is considered a plum posting, the Wuerdigs fought to wangle a move to the relative garden spot of Tashkent. After playing a farewell show at Houston's Chameleon Club, Wuerdig shipped out for Uzbekistan on Thanksgiving Day, 2000.

Wuerdig spent the first few months getting acclimated to Uzbekistan. He writes that there are water and power shortages every day. And then there's the phone system…"Last August somebody climbed the telephone pole and stole the cable from our house that connects us to the phone system," Wuerdig writes. "After bribing them about $40 they finally hooked us back up. A month ago the line caught on fire and after a week of arguing they re-connected us but reversed the lines. We had a hooker's number and she had ours."

Uzbek food and drink also took some getting used to. Tony Avitia of I-45 told Racket that his first mission after moving to California was hunting down places to buy Tony Chachere's seasoning salt and Shiner Bock beer. Wuerdig had it a little rougher. In addition to a vodka Wuerdig likens to paint thinner, Uzbeks enjoy tippling on fermented mare's milk. "They milk a horse and put the milk in a bag to help it sour faster," Wuerdig explains. "It ferments and they drink it as if it were champagne. It's elegant and only for special occasions…Got milk?"

Wuerdig credits his wife's vegetarianism with saving him from several bouts of food poisoning. A typical Uzbek grocery is stocked with rotten, dried meat and funky, melted cheese, but also plenty of carrots, onions and potatoes -- staples that made up virtually all of their diet for the first four months of their stay. "When we leave I will never look at those three vegetables again," he vows. "Whenever I'm in the U.S. or Germany I eat as much junk food as humanly possible without having a heart attack."

After getting over the culture shock, Wuerdig set about relaunching Raindance in Tashkent. Prospective bandmates saw him as the rich American. After all, didn't he already have a CD -- the locally produced, independently released Shake It Baby -- on shelves in America? "I was asked for cash to practice, to record, to play live, to learn their music, everything," he writes. "It took me a while to find good musicians that would do it for the love of music."

Eventually, Wuerdig got the band up and running. Their gigs have been almost exclusively at hotels and embassies. Raindance narrowly missed out on a truly historic gig as the first rock band to play in bordering Afghanistan. "We offered to do a free concert for the troops during the war but due to security concerns they declined at the last minute," he writes. "We were literally packing our gear to drive out to the base when new fighting erupted and they called us to cancel. I'm still kind of sad about that…Of course I'm also happy not to have had my head blown off and a bassist with two arms."

At the gigs that aren't canceled because of warfare, audiences are often somewhat lacking in hipness quotient. "Keep in mind most of these people think Britney Spears is the best thing that happened to rock music since the Beatles. We get a lot of requests for 'Smoke on the Water' and 'Hotel California.' " (Wait a minute, is this Lufkin or Tashkent he's talking about?) "I've heard every possible way to do 'Yesterday': jazz, pop, techno, in Russian, in German. The other day I heard somebody playing it on glass jars…I used to think it was a pretty good song."

Though Raindance likes to concentrate on originals, the band does indulge in a few covers. But even the most familiar tunes stateside might as well be originals for all the man-in-the-Tashkent-street knows. "The covers that we do play they've never heard of. We sometimes do Pearl Jam, CCR, Rolling Stones, even 'Play That Funky Music' by Wild Cherry, and they don't know any of it."

Still, Wuerdig believes he's left his mark on the Tashkent scene. His band now commands the princely sum of $40 a gig -- or about ten times more than most other bands get. Wuerdig donates his share of the money to his bandmates -- "I'm a poor boy, but they're destitute," he explains -- but he says that doesn't stop his competitors from talking enviously behind his back. He also organized what he claims was the first ever open-mike night in the former USSR and even produced a few tracks for a local band.

In a couple of weeks, Wuerdig will be back in town to reunite with the Houston version of Raindance. After a few rehearsals, they'll play a gig at the Sidecar Pub on March 14. He had hoped to fly in his Uzbek bandmates, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service wasn't having it. "The visas were denied," he explains. "As good as the boys are, I just don't want to marry them. Their legs are too hairy, and I prefer my wife."

In the month he's home, Wuerdig hopes his life will be an orgy of Wal-Marts, fajitas, Dr Pepper, friends, family, grungy nightclubs and Houston humidity. Because shortly after the Sidecar gig, he's headed back to Uzbekistan for another mountain of carrots, potatoes and onions, and day-to-day life under a president who sounds as psycho as Mike Tyson.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Townes Van Zandt's first recorded songs have emerged after being lost in a Nashville studio for 37 years, and Houston's own Compadre Records will be releasing them on April 22. Mind you, these aren't unreleased versions we're talking about, but songs. Of the ten tunes that will be on In the Beginning, only one has ever been released in any fashion, though Compadre spokeswoman Leslie T. Travis says that Van Zandt fashioned snippets of the material into his later work. Six hours after getting that news, Racket received an e-mail from Tomato Records announcing that the New York label will be rereleasing all of the studio work Van Zandt did for them in his early- and mid-1970s prime…If you've taken in a Rockets game at Compaq Center or on the tube, you know all about Big Bang. That's the name of the four mad drummers who bang away on the toms when Yao, Stevie and the rest of the gang trot out on the court before the tip-off. The NBA was so taken with the skin-pounders -- Giovanni Capello, Frank Bullington, Gonzo Moreno and John Guzman -- that the association is flying them to Atlanta for the 2003 All-Star Game on February 9. Listen up for the Houstonians' big beat in the NBA's next marketing campaign.

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