Open menu Open menu hover pink Close menu Close menu hover pink
O Magazine

“Six degrees of separation” is that game in which you unite very distant concepts, people, animals or things, in six steps that reveal that everything can be connected.
Maybe this pastime originated from a playful reading of chaos theory is nothing new. That’s why, instead of settling for only six degrees, we’re making up a map of connections with… a million degrees of separation!
This is a Universal History of All Things told through the links that united these seemingly unconnected facts. Miqui Otero unconsciously slides down the sledge of free association of ideas in this holistic craziness in instalments.
Each episode of this epopee has six degrees as a sign of respect towards the original reference. But as that famous The Wire claim used to say, “Everything is connected”: the end of each episode of A million degrees of separation will always be the beginning of the next one. And thus, we’ll go on to infinity and beyond..

illustration by
Sergi Padró

A million degrees of separation

by Miqui Otero

Chapter XIII

From the time the Red Army decided to train an army of Superdogs to put an end to the Nazis. Dogs as legendary as Seamus, the German shepherd that for a while became another member of Pink Floyd (probably the most brilliant of the lot), a band which appears in the work of Tom Stoppard, playwright of Czechoslovakian origin who wrote a play about rock and roll as a subversive weapon during his country’s soviet era, with particular emphasis on the acid and avant-garde band The Plastic People of the Universe, who took inspiration both on the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa, although it should grant recognition to Jaroslav Hašek, anarchist and surrealist writer who in 1911 founded a satirical party that would influence recent punk-rocker comedians such as Jón Gnarr, mayor of Reykjavik, who demanded the opposition leaders to watch The Wire before accepting to sit and negotiate with them, probably fascinated by Omar Little, Baltimore’s Robin Hood. The character, also Obama’s favourite, who knows that “a man has to have a code”

When the Teutonic fury decided to conquer the Old Continent’s eastern countries, some high command of the Red Army had the great idea. A brilliant idea. One of those ideas that are so good that one should say to the person who thought of it: “go sleep for a few hours and when you wake up think again to see if it’s such a brilliant idea after all…”

During World War II, the Russians devised the great plan that should finally stop the Nazis. They hired a circus company to train an Army of Superdogs. The idea seemed infallible: they tied bombs round their backs and placed food under the gas tanks of their tanks so that dogs, guided by their incorruptible sense of smell and a Pavlov’s impulse, learned to run towards tanks to set themselves on fire as canine Jihad warriors.

Those dogs must have been as brave as the one that served as consolation to writer John Fante in our last episode, but few counted on them to honour the name of that particular pet (called Stupid, remember?).

When the key moment arrived, when those fascist troops clad in Hugo Boss suits advanced, the Russians put themselves in the hands of one of their generals’ unusual sense of smell. They let their dogs loose and waited for the miracle. Soldier dogs didn’t hesitate when it came to run towards the enemy. Yes, there they went like Pancho and like Lassie, the saviours of their fatherland, to meet their destiny… Wait a minute: what are they doing? Why are they coming back? No, no, no: why are they approaching the Russian troops? One moment, let’s see…

Russian dogs were educated to find food hidden in the tanks of their own army, when these weren’t moving. But when they witnessed the advance of the huge German panzers, when they saw those giants marching, so different from the static Russian tanks, when they smelled them (that smell so different to the one they knew). They decided to repeat the manoeuvres they had always done. So they went back to the familiar Russian tanks and detonated the bombs over the automobiles of their own army.

This story might ring false, but it’s true. It might sound absurd, but war is even more absurd. We should highlight a couple more ironies in the story. Because those Russian dogs called to the glory of annihilating Nazis but which ended killing hundreds of their own soldiers were German shepherds (yep, German!). And on top of that, the Russian army didn’t learn its lesson and continued training a canine division in their army until 1996. OK, who’s Stupid now?

Not all German shepherds are so stupid (or so clever, so heroic in their anti-war ethics and refusal to obey the Russian army’s chain of command). A few years later, a dig of the same race was given an unexpected role: becoming a great rock star, yet another member of Pink Floyd. Their guitar player, David Gilmour, received a call from his friend Steve Marriott, mod hero from The Small Faces, who probably had to go to the doctor’s or had a date or something, and ask him whether he could take care of his dog for a few hours. The dog sitter was rehearsing on his guitar one of his longer-than-a football-match chord progression when out of the corner of an eye he saw his friend’s pet barking to the rhythm of his music. We can’t tell whether it was acid or audacity what gave him the idea of proposing the German shepherd, called Seamus, as new member of his band.

Seamus recorded a song called after him with the most famous (and megalomaniac) psychedelic pop band of the times. His moaning barks accompanied the blues chords included in their album Meddle, from 1971. However, he was, to put it somehow, a studio musician. When Pink Floyd wanted to record a live album, the chosen dog to play live was a good-looking Borzoi she-dog called Mademoiselle Nobs, property of the Bouglione family, a popular dynasty from the circus world.

Many lovers of fresh and uncomplicated music would laugh at the setting chosen for the recording of such an album. The place was Pompeii, the city buried by the violent eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 A.D. (Many, I insist, would have preferred the volcano to wait a few years longer to bury Pink Floyd as well…). Nobs, that precious white dog, an animal with the aristocratic demeanour and alien appearance of the first Bowie, not only performed perfectlybut she also (the arrivist!), managed to get the band to re-christen the track with her name, and so it went down in history as (the quite pretentious) Mademoiselle Nobs on the album Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii.

Pink Floyd’s music, so related to the canine world, plays a decisive role in another European battle between the Eastern and Western blocks. Tom Stoppard, playwright born in old Czechoslovakia, already used the song Seamus for his film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But the key link to all this can be found in the theatre play he premiered in 2006 at the Royal Court Theatre (in London, precisely). The play, entitled Rock’n’Roll, tracked the influence of underground pop music during the years that separated the Prague Spring of 1968 from the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Two characters. On one side of the ring, a Cambridge professor with very clear Marxist ideals; on the other, a young Czechoslovakian fan of rock and roll who saw his liberties frustrated time and time again. Syd Barrett, first (and only acceptable) leader of Pink Floyd appears in the play, but so does an acid and avant-garde rock band the role of which was decisive during its country’s communist decades: The Plastic People of the Universe.

Founded in the mid sixties after an Allen Ginsberg visit to Prague, their music was as influenced by The Velvet Underground (maybe that’s where the name Velvet Revolution comes from) as by Frank Zappa or The Fugs. Its leader, Ivan Jirous, came up with wilder ideas than a poet fireman: for example, he threw fishing nets to his audience and after that, fresh fish. The band used to dress in tunics made with sheets and lit up fires on the stage. Russian tanks had already warned that Czechoslovakia couldn’t be a party when they frustrated the Prague Spring on August 21st, 1968. From that moment on, the repressive apparatus, that would not tolerate expressions of colourful freedom such as this band’s, never stopped. Bands had to hand their lyrics to the censors before publishing them, were forbidden to have Anglo-Saxon names or cover songs by foreign bands. They even came up with regulation 212, which required that all musicians should pass a Marxist-Leninist test. Should they not abide by some of the norms, their license to play in front of audiences and their instruments would be confiscated (in the best of cases).

Thus, the Plastics had to ally with an engineer musician to invent their own sound system, played only at private parties (weddings and christenings) and had a really complicated system of passwords to access their clandestine concerts. Their music and their resilient attitude were very important in the country’s (mind) opening. One of their main fans and defendants was Václav Havel, then an activist and later on president of the already liberated country after the fall of the Berlin wall. In fact, once the country was freed they performed ion several official parties organised by the new government.

Even though The Plastic People of the Universe declared themselves ardent fans of Frank Zappa’s absurd humour, they had an even more ground breaking and brilliant example to draw from in their own country. Czech novelist and journalist Jaroslav Hašek will go down in history as the writer of The Good Soldier Svejk, a huge anti-war novel published between 1920 and 1923 (and unfinished). This sort of (maybe not so) idiotic Don Quixote is a comic marvel like few others in European literature. Its protagonist, arrested at the beginning of World War I for having foretold the conflict in a tavern conversation, is declared mad and sent to a loony bin. But the reader understands that human beings (in general) are a lot more idiotic than anyone diagnosed as mad. And that we’re all crazy and only real madmen don’t know they are mad. Svejk is, in fact, almost an alter ego of his author, that witty and anarchist writer who also fought in the war, changed the Austro-Hungarian side for the Russian and lived all sorts of insane adventures.

One of his best ideas dates from before the war. In 1911 he created the Party of Slow Progress within the Limits of the Law in order to try and become mayor of Prague. No satirical party could ever exist (I’m thinking about the Californian elections mentioned in a previous instalment of A Million Degrees…, in which coincided porno stars, midget Hollywood actors and sportsmen) without the pioneer influence of Hašek and his slow party.

The Party of Slow Progress met in dreadful taverns and its rotund leader proclaimed his absurd slogans standing on bar stools. This is an example of a dialogue he wrote to describe the situations they lived:

— What is your opinion on the Crown? –Asks an Emperor’s emissary.
— It’s an excellent place –he’s referring to the pub The Crown–. I drink there often.
— And why is the Emperor’s portrait facing the wall?
— In case a fly shits on it and someone decides to make an incorrect comment.

And so forth. People became excited when hearing Hašek promises of reading a list of the city counsellors that murdered their grandfathers. Hašek, like his soldier Svejk, was declared an idiot. And a madman. And that’s what made him so dangerous, and so important.

The influence of his satirical party can even be felt today. Iceland, 2008. Absolute bankruptcy. The banks accumulate ten times the GDP and people see the possibility of paying the total amount of their mortgage as possible as a trip to Mars. In that context, the finest party, the definitive one, appears, and it’s called: the Best Party.

It’s lead by a certain Jón Gnarr, the country’s most important comedianA Dada humourist and punk rocker, he was ready to change his city and, since he was at it, the world. Gnarr didn’t have it easy to become best national clown: with a family more humble than a Seat Panda, three years in a reformatory, he worked as a taxi driver and clown for family and company parties. When he founded his party and presented himself to the elections for mayor of Reykjavik he’d already known fame. He used more or less absurd slogans during the election process (no more absurd than the ones used by traditional parties, in any case), a logotype of a fist with a thumb up (a thumb up so long that it kind of looked like something else) and promises such as free access to swimming pools (towel included) for all.

In fact, Gnarr was using a sentence taken from Tolstoy: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself”. That’s how he managed to enrol an army of voters that helped him become mayor of a capital inhabited by two thirds of the country’s population. And there was that clown with a Mohawk, on the crest of a wave.

Gnarr opted for the unexpected. He explains in his memoir, How I Became Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Saved the World, how he refused to receive high NATO commanders, was supported by Noam Chomsky (who defined him as “the best mayor in the world”), dressed himself as a drag queen ro receive high institutional higher-ups and jumped on a Gay Pride Parade float disguised as a Pussy Riot.

This guy, who discovered punk at thirteen and called himself Jonsi Rotten for a while as a homage to the Sex Pistols, believed unreservedly in surrealist anarchism and defended his postures with a discourse as populist as brilliant: “We need workers, stutterers and disabled people, punks, bakers and craftsmen”. All of them voted for him.

When he was elected he had to receive the leaders of the opposition. He put only one condition to sit with them on the negotiation table: they should have watched all the seasons of The Wire. When his advisers told him that the social democrat leader was there to see him, he answered: “No. He should know The Wire. What are we going to talk about otherwise? Socialism?” Jon Gnarr probably felt seduced by one of the characters in this show which portrays the structural corruption linking the officially protected neighbourhoods and the city council’s high-backed armchairs: Omar Little, Baltimore’s Robin Hood.

Omar Little is a dealer thief with a scar crossing his face down to a mouth that hums all the time (before striking) nursery rhyme The Farmer in the Dell. He can’t live without his Newport cigarettes and Cheerios cereal, but this avenging gangster has a strict moral code: he only murders or robs the people inside of The Game (that is, the drug business). Sophisticated in his choice of dressing gowns, this gay gunman never swears but is the tougher guy of all. He’s the anti-heroic hero of that new Greek tragedy that day after day takes place on the heroine-infested streets of Baltimore.

The actor playing him, Michael K. Williams, didn’t have a much easier life. He grew up in a humble Brooklyn family and (check this out!) a Janet Jackson would end up changing his life: thanks to it he decided to become an actor, and soon would shine at Harlem’s The National Black Theatre. In order to interpret this modern day Robin Hood he used the Meisner technique, moving to problematic neighbourhoods and living their stories to be able to play a believable Omar Little. “A man has to have a code,” Omar Little repeats. In 2008, a still candidate Obama gave an interview to the Las Vegas Sun in which he confessed that this gangster with a shotgun, that unforgettable avenger, was his favourite character. We don’t imagine Spanish leaders praising Curro Jiménez, but Obama showed there the first pop and contradictory hint of the many he’d use during his campaign and mandate.