You don’t have to delve particularly deeply into musician Franz Nicolay’s solo discography before you start to notice a couple of trends. First, Nicolay likes telling stories, and he’s good at telling them. Second, he has a deep and abiding passion for words. The lyrics of the eponymous track of 2012’s “Do the Struggle” (one of the songs that he references early in The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar) reads more like a Kerouacian beat poem than a folk-punk song. By the same token, the finished product of The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar can hardly be described as predictable.
More of a travel memoir than anything else, Nicolay takes great pains to avoid talking about his own music in the book, even going so far as to proclaim early on: “I’ll describe [the shows] once, then you can mentally copy and paste this into the hole I gloss over toward the end of each day.” Instead, he delivers exactly what the title of the book promises, a tour of the punk underground. There’s so little narcissism in this book that it could have just as easily been written by one of the oft-referenced communist revolutionaries rather than a Brooklyn-based songwriter. Throughout the book, Nicolay’s focus is squarely on the countryside, the cities and the people of Eastern Europe. Just as often as he references himself, he also shares the spotlight with his travelling companions and famous authors — from his ethnomusicologist/wife Maria to Dostoyevsky to the Marquis de Custine, a 19th-century French aristocrat who seems particularly close to Nicolay’s heart.
But amidst the (surprising) conversations with young Russian and Ukrainian punks about underground American punk bands like RVIVR or Bridge and Tunnel, and the monotonous nightly shows in unfinished basements, Nicolay and his wife find themselves passing back through Ukraine only months after Vladimir Putin’s invasion and occupation. What follows are not only some of the most touching first-hand accounts of the effects the occupation had on the people of Ukraine, but also some incredibly moving moments of self-discovery for Nicolay himself. This book doesn’t so much progress slowly as it takes its time getting to its destination, and the reader is never left wishing Nicolay would pick up the pace; he’s too good of a storyteller for that. Like his music, The Humorless Ladies of Border Control ultimately draws its strength from Nicolay’s words and rhythm. Evenstanding on their own merits, the facts of his adventure are almost as epic and expansive as the appendices in the back of the book. As far as travelogues go, I’ve never read better. Nicolay’s music can be found here, RVIVR and Bridge and Tunnel here and here.