A Swedish Star's Rock-and-Rile Words

By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Aparty at the Swedish Embassy took an undiplomatic turn Sunday when visiting rock star Ola Salo's edgy political banter crossed the line. Salo was performing on the embassy's front lawn when he looked up at a plane approaching Reagan National Airport and told the crowd: "In this country, you don't know where those planes are headed." Then, according to witnesses, he said it should go "into the White House."

Salo, 29, is lead singer of the Ark, a glam rock band ("Queen meets Abba" according to hipster critics) that is wildly popular in Sweden and Italy. The group kicked off its U.S. tour with a free public concert at the embassy's gorgeous new home on the Potomac, as part of the week-long inauguration celebration.

Media producer Steve Skemp told us he joined the crowd of about 150 people (many fans of the band) while the band was in the middle of a song ridiculing President Bush. When the plane flew just above them, Salo made his crack. "I was stunned," said Skemp. "I was more stunned at the reaction of the crowd, because they laughed and clapped."

An offended Skemp, who describes himself as a moderate Republican, sought out Ambassador Gunnar Lund and asked him to take the stage to publicly apologize for the insult to Americans. He said Lund responded dismissively that both Sweden and the United States had a tradition of free speech, and he would not censor political comments.

Yesterday there were plenty of apologies. Ambassador Lund said he arrived at the tail end of the festival and did not hear Salo's remark or fully understand what had offended Skemp and another man who complained. He speculated Salo may have been misunderstood, but if not, "it's completely irresponsible and unacceptable. I can understand why people are offended by it. I'm offended by it."

Salo, reached in New York, said he did not intend to make a political statement and is "very, very sorry" if anything he said offended. "It would be very tasteless to joke about such a thing," he said. "The events of 9/11 were a great tragedy not just for Americans but for people all over the world." Salo said he doesn't remember his exact words, but did mention the plane -- and the fact it was headed in the direction of the White House. "Sometimes when I'm onstage, it's my mouth moving and not connected to my brain."

The flap came at the worst possible time: Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia arrived in Washington on Sunday and presided at a gala embassy dinner for U.S. dignitaries last night. Yesterday the royals had lunch with President Bush and the first lady at -- you guessed it -- the White House.

Rare Strings Take Wing With Johnson

Sheila Johnson
University of Illinois alumna Sheila Johnson will escort four rare Stradivarius string instruments to her alma mater aboard her private jet.(Darren Santos)
The University of Illinois had a problem: The Smithsonian agreed to lend it four exquisitely rare Stradivarius string instruments for its American Music Month Celebration -- but how to transport them? The 17th-century fiddles were too fragile for cargo, and the museum insisted on a flight without layovers, which is generally impossible from D.C. to Urbana-Champaign.

Fortunately, the Illini have an alumna who is not only a billionairewith her own jet but a devoted student of the violin. This morning, BET co-founder Sheila Johnson will play courier, setting off from Dulles along with two curators and her former violin teacher Susan Starrett . "This is very special," said Johnson. "I'm doing this for my alma mater." She said the matching, decoratively carved viola, cello and two violins, by Antonio Stradivari , will occupy four of her jet's 11 seats. She's also promised to provide the return trip in December.

U of I will also import members of the Smithsonian Chamber Players from D.C. for a couple of concerts next month. Alas, they'll have to fly coach . . .

HEY, ISN'T THAT . . . ?

· Good Charlotte frontman Benji Madden , making an unbilled guest-DJ appearance at Love nightclub Friday. The pop-punker from Waldorf, clad all in black with an O's ball cap, surprised with a hip-hop set that mixed vintage NWA and Prince with of-the-moment tracks from E-40 . His blond girlfriend, Aussie starlet Sophie Monk , showed up, too, wearing a skirt that our male tipster could only describe as "short."

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