By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007
NEW YORK Here is what we knew about Marko Perkovic before he performed two concerts in Manhattan this weekend:
He's a popular Croatian rock star, accused for years of stoking fascist sentiments among fans in his homeland. Some of these fans show up at concerts wearing T-shirts and symbols that celebrate the Ustase regime, which collaborated with the Nazis during World War II and operated two concentration camps. We know, too, that the Simon Wiesenthal Center denounced Perkovic, who was slated to appear here in a hall attached to a Catholic church, leading to this memorable headline in the New York Daily News: "Jewish Groups Protest Show of Nazi Band at Church Hall."
So what do we know now that the concerts went ahead, as planned?
The man digs British heavy metal, circa 1975.
And he looks good in black.
"Nazi band"? Nuh-uh. Perkovic, 42, did not "sieg heil" nor did he rant against the Serbs, Jews or any other group, according to the many Croatians who were happy to interpret during the show. (Perkovic does not speak English.) Instead, in the community center of the Croatian Church of Sts. Cyril & Methodius in Midtown, he sang a lot of fervently nationalistic, mid-tempo rock songs, most of which sounded like Iron Maiden doing Eastern European folk. And he harped again and again on his favorite themes: love of God, family and Croatia. Especially Croatia, which in his music sounds like a place abused for centuries and still under siege.
"To battle, to battle for your people," he sang at one point -- that's a translation, of course -- and the words briefly turned into a chant for the room of 600 fans. Combat imagery is part of the brand that is Perkovic, a former soldier who fought against Serbian troops in the war that raged between 1991 and 1995 and who sings under the stage name Thompson, which he took from his submachine gun.
But somehow, the show Saturday night felt more like a family get-together than a flag-waving rally. Most of the attendees were in their 30s and 40s -- a younger crowd showed up on Friday night -- and everyone seemed to know one another.
"He's singing about how beautiful Croatia is," said Mary Ann Lakoseljac, who came with her sister and parents. Like a lot of people, she sounded a little offended by the fuss about Perkovic. "Seriously, they don't even call the Germans 'Nazis' anymore. But you hear that about Croatians all the time."
Now, it's quite possible, of course, that Perkovic delivered a bile-free act tailored for this city. You know -- ixnay on the Ascism-fay, or something like that. Certainly, he knew he was under scrutiny. In the lead up to the show, the Wiesenthal Center publicly asked Cardinal Edward Egan to block the event from happening in a church-affiliated venue. "I urge you to take the lead on this issue and to reaffirm the church's commitment against anti-Semitism, intolerance and violence," wrote Mark Weitzman of the center's Task Force Against Hate and Terrorism.
That did it. On Friday, the night of the first show, the controversy had drawn a handful of camera crews from local TV stations, as well as about 10 protesters, who were ushered by cops to the opposite side of the street, where they began chanting slogans like "Nazis out of New York, Nazis out, Nazis out!" You could sense the media and the protesters trying to turn this into a newsworthy spectacle, but it never quite jelled. There weren't quite enough protesters, for one thing, and none of them really had particularly compelling evidence that Perkovic is a Nazi.
"We actually got a call from the Village Voice about this," said Greg Pason, who helped organize the outing. "We got this white supremacist club in Bergen County shut down recently, and so the Voice called us and asked if we were doing anything about the show. We didn't know anything about it till all the papers started covering."
His beef with Perkovic: "We think this is an ultranationalist show and exactly the sort of thing that people should stand up against."
The protesters' chanting, naturally, infuriated the fans who had to wait in line and get jeered at for a good 20 minutes. A few of them offered an obscene gesture or two. Just one -- an immense 20ish guy who would not give his name -- turned up wearing an objectionable shirt, one that had a small "U" on it, under a photo of a former Croatian general who now stands accused of war crimes.
The "U" stands for Ustase.
"You know, this is all overboard, it's all a big hype," he said, with two news cameras filming him. "This guy's no different than Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen. This is about pride. Nothing but pride."
Uh-huh. What's the U stand for?
"I don't know," he said, adding, "We're done."
But he was the exception. Most fans were eager to offer a lesson in a history that stretches back centuries and involves antipathies that seem fantastically complicated and deep-seated. The danger of a Perkovic show, it turns out, is not that there will be hate speech. It's that there will be lectures.
"Croatia is a very peaceful place," said Kathy Jurac. "We've been occupied by the Turks, by the Austrians, by the Hungarians, by the Italians, and we have for years. That's why our independence means so much to us. And that's why it hurts Thompson that generals he fought with are in jail, accused of atrocities."
For the organizers of the show, all the negative attention put them in a defensive crouch.
"No media are allowed in the show," said promoter George Corluka. "It's not my decision. It's up to the church." Perkovic, he added, was devastated by the terrible hubbub that preceded him in the United States and would not speak to any members of the print media in this country because no one would treat him fairly.
This reporter purchased tickets on Craigslist.com on Saturday afternoon.
"Okay, you're the only media in here," Corluka said, a few songs into the concert. "We'll see if you're fair. We'll see."
The attempted journalist blockade might have raised the expectations bar a little high. No offense, Mr. Corluka, but musically Perkovic and his band are kind of mundane; they sound, at moments, like the Gipsy Kings doing "Dust in the Wind." The charm of songs like "Geni Kameni" is perhaps in the lyrics -- and they don't translate all that well:
Genes, genes made of stone
A fire burns within me
Genes, genes made of stone
That's the way we are born
Take it or leave it.
This, of course, sounds different to Croatian ears. There, Perkovic is considered not just an entertainer but a political phenomenon, says Srdjan Dvornik, executive director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, who spoke yesterday as he was heading home to Zagreb.
"After the war with the Serbs, there was never a real confronting with the past," he said. "Nobody ever admitted that Croatia, as part of a defensive war, committed acts of ethnic cleansing. So the myth of the Croatians as collective victims is still alive. But now it's just left to people like Thompson to express that myth publicly."