Diplomats Who Rock

The Hungarian ambassador, the U.S. ambassador, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Photo: Tina Feinberg/AP

At the Knitting Factory on Leonard Street, the assistant secretary of state was finding his groove on bass, the Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. was singing and playing guitar, and the U.S. ambassador to Russia was on drums. It’s Coalition of the Willing, the band.

“Hard rock is really soft power,” said Hungarian ambassador Andras Simonyi before the set. “The harder the rock, the stronger the message of freedom.”

The messengers first met when Simonyi and Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, were representatives to NATO in Brussels. Their love of rock and roll—Simonyi’s cultivated as a teenager listening to illicit radio stations —led them into a band they called the Combined Joint Task Force. Then, after Simonyi moved to D.C., he began playing with Lincoln Bloomfield, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs; Daniel Poneman, former presidential adviser and now a principal at the Scowcroft Group; and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who used to play with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers but is now a consultant to the military. Vershbow joins in whenever he is in Washington. They played their first concert as Coalition of the Willing last year at the Hungarian Embassy.

The Knitting Factory show, on January 8, was only their second. Poneman had a glitter lightning bolt on his guitar strap but office-neat hair. Lincoln Bloomfield interrupted coordinating America’s Banda Aceh relief mission to play bass.

“In the seventies and eighties, the coolest thing was to be in a rock band,” says Baxter, who gave up his professional musical career to pursue his interest in missile defense. “The coolest thing now is to be in the fight against terrorism.”

Two months ago, a high-school group in Colorado, also named Coalition of the Willing, was investigated by the Secret Service for performing a 1963 Dylan song, “Masters of War,” which some teachers interpreted as a veiled death threat against President Bush. But these freedom rockers have no problem with the war on terror. Appropriately, this Coalition is 83 percent American (and its one foreigner represents a country that pulled its troops out of Iraq last month).

The band’s all-cover act was a little rough at the start, but things picked up with the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love,” as Baxter wailed into an extended solo. And like good diplomats, the group stayed on-message. “I think rock helped tear down the Iron Curtain,” Vershbow told the audience, which included Tommy Ramone (who was invited by the Hungarian ambassador as the only Hungarian-American in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Then the band launched into “Back in the USSR.” Anthony Lake, Clinton’s national security adviser, was there, too, clutching a Red Stripe. “This energy may come from the repressions of working in the government,” he said. “Thank God they found a way to release it that’s unindictable.”

Diplomats Who Rock