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It is Midsummer Eve in Finland. The chill air is ringing with the music of Bad Religion, and I am standing on a lovely hillside some 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, surrounded by thousands of Finnish kids in alcoholic stupors.
Today--eighteen years, six months, and seven days after they busted up on a rainy night in San Francisco--the Sex Pistols are about to take the stage on the first stop of their "Filthy Lucre Tour." The Funpark, a densely wooded lakeside snowboarding park, is the site of the three-day Messila Festival, featuring Moby, the Shamen, the Prodigy, Sepultura, and--back from the dead!--the Sex Pistols, playing for about 20,000 young people who have traveled from Finland, Norway, and nearby Russia.
"It is a terrible day," a nice woman named Raija says on the train heading north from Helsinki. "It is as if they compete to see who can be the most sickening."
She could easily be talking about the fact that the Pistols--along with such '70s acts as Kiss, Kansas, Deep Purple, and the Who--are about to reunite and hit the road again, looking for the wallets and coke vials they lost in your couch on their last go 'round. Actually, she is referring to the traditional drinking binge that marks Midsummer Eve here.
Johannussaattu, as it is called, is Finland's national drinking holiday, and its effects are already apparent in the glazed eyes and fucked-up faces throughout the train. At the Lahti station, special coaches have been arranged to take people from the train to the festival; travelers board the bus carrying extra-large green trash bags full of their belongings: socks, a bedroll, and an huge stock of beer bottles. Every time the bus halts, there is an enormous clatter of glass on glass.
Approaching the park, however, the place feels deserted, the result of the European tradition that finds kids camping and gathering peacefully all over the continent at a series of summer rock festivals like these. For some reason, Finland is a mecca for such expositions. A heavy-metal festival is being held this same weekend somewhere up near Lapland, featuring Iron Maiden and a re-formed version of Deep Purple. (Sepultura is heading up there to play as soon as the band finishes opening for the Pistols at Messila--oh, the irony.)
Messila is particularly notorious because it takes place on Johannusaattu. Drawing some of its audience from northern Russia and Estonia--countries that rival Finland in the scope of their insobriety--the festival is downright bizarre. Here there is no traffic, no pushing, no filing through gates like cattle, only a long hike up dirt paths lined with used condoms, pools of vomit, comatose kids resting by the side of the road, and hundreds of plastic tents. Temporary beer halls abound, each one bearing the name of a U.S. town: Memphis, El Paso, Nashville. The whole place is reeling, hilarious, and night will never, ever fall: When 10 p.m. rolls around, it looks like 4 in the afternoon, and it is not going to get much darker.
At that moment, I thank the Lord for Sepultura, the kindly Brazilian death-metal group that left a backstage pass at my hotel in Helsinki. The Sex Pistols had refused me access; Sepultura was delighted to oblige. Some might think that death-metal bands like Sepultura and a punk act like the Pistols are a bizarre coupling, but the Seps' Max Cavalera is, in fact, a big Pistols fan. Roots even contains a song called "Cut Throat" that is modeled after the Pistols' "E.M.I.," containing a chorus of, "Enslavement/Pathetic/Ignor-ant/Corporations."
"I got the Sex Pistols' record [Never Mind the Bollocks] when I was 13 or 14, and it was one of the only punk albums you could get in Brazil because it was released on a major label," Cavalera says from backstage. "The funny thing about us was we were little metal kids. We listened to Motsrhead, GBH, Discharge. My friends were all, 'Oh, that's stupid punk stuff with stupid hair,' but I hadn't seen pictures of them--there isn't one on the album--and I thought it was fucking great. I didn't understand English then, but I loved the music, the attitude. So while people in Europe and America thought of the Pistols as this punk thing, to me they were like the logical next step after Iron Maiden, who were all played out."
Cavalera says he saw Johnny Rotten at the Helsinki Airport. They nodded pleasantly to one another, but Cavalera is not going to get a chance to talk to Rotten here since Sepultura has to take off for the Lapland meltalfest before Bad Religion's set even finishes.
As it turns out, Cavalera would not have had a chance to talk to Rotten anyway:The Pistols' arrival precipitates a sudden security lockdown. When the band's bus rolls up--a mere half hour before the Pistols' scheduled performance--a raft of security guards starts pushing everyone away from the driveway. No one is allowed to see the Pistols up close and personal:The band is whisked from bus to trailer to stage in total seclusion. Clearing the path, one guard manhandles Bad Religion's Greg Graffin, shoving him out of the way as if he was some grubby autograph-seeker.
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