One of the great things about living in America is how easy it is to make friends. Visitors from other countries sometimes look upon the American tendency to make such easy acquaintances as evidence of our superficiality. Perhaps it’s because they’re secretly envious of and mortified by the idea of living in a society where it’s considered perfectly appropriate in many circles to start the ball rolling by saying “I always see you when I’m buying cat food! What’s your name?”
My friend Anders, a Swede, tells an illustrative story about an incident with a girl he used to see twice a day walking across a bridge connecting two of Stockholm’s many islands. Anders lived on one island and worked on the other. The girl’s situation, apparently, was the opposite of his, with the result that they passed each other once in the morning and again in the evening without so much as a nod or a smile to break the monotony simply by acknowledging it. Very Swedish. Then, after about a year of this routine, he was out with a group of his friends and she with hers at the same nightclub when they suddenly noticed each other across the room. Faces lit up in recognition, they actually took two steps toward each other in hug formation—until they realized simultaneously how it was they knew, or rather didn’t know each other, at which point they retreated to the safety of their respective friends.
Swedish people as a stereotypical whole have many admirable qualities, but spontaneity and chattiness are not foremost among them. It’s not at all uncommon for neighbors to live in adjacent apartments for twenty years or more and never exchange more than a polite greeting in the hallway. Not that Swedes aren’t friendly once you get to know them; it’s just that they’re not friendly in the American sense of telling you everything about themselves on first meeting or making vague plans to get together for a cup of coffee sometime. There are cultures where it’s considered a shocking breach of etiquette to offer the slightest scrap of unsolicited information in conversation, and on the other end of the spectrum there’s us Americans, spilling our guts at the drop of a “regular or decaf?” Swedes are somewhere in the middle.
Easy for Swedes—citizens as they are of a welfare state that looks after them, as the saying goes, “from erection to resurrection”—to say that Americans seem superficial, but part of the reason it’s so easy is that cooperation in the welfare state is organized from the top down. By paying half their income in taxes, Swedes have essentially agreed to spare themselves the effort of organizing fundraising drives for public radio stations, benefit concerts to cover medical expenses and car washes in convenience store parking lots to pay for after-school activities. All things, I would say, that give American life much of its spontaneous, pick-up game feel. Bereft of these and similar oddments of DIY culture, Sweden can indeed seem barren and inhospitable to the American visitor. Swedes simply don’t have to be neighborly to each other quite the way we do to keep things up and running.
You don’t see many garage sales there, or open-mic nights or Conversation Cafés. Or musical gypsies touring the country by the seat of their pants, coasting from show to show on the hospitality of nice people who put them up and feed them. In sharply simplistic terms, the window of spontaneous culture in Sweden seems to have been open at its widest during the youth upheavals of the late ’60s and early ’70s, the period captured in Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious films and Lukas Moodysson’s period commune comedy Together. Encouraged by the then-new interest in rural communal living and togetherness, a handful of hippie bands like Träd, Gräs och Stenar (“Trees, grass and stones”) took to the highways and byways of Scandinavia, playing gigs for radical student organizations and rural communes like the one depicted in the Moodysson movie. Together, if only it were in general release stateside (and which, by the way, I haven’t actually seen), would be the perfect visual companion for two new discs of Träd, Gräs och Stenar’s rambling, shambling, ragged and glorious folk-psych compiled from live recordings on two 1971/1972 Nordic tours and re-released by New York-based label 1/2 Special.
Great, great stuff if you’re a fan of similarly trippy (in the literal LSD sense), hash-addled jams by the scads of American bands of the same era from whom TGS took their musical cues, only with Swedish vocals. Both Mors Mors and Djungelns Lag (“Law of the Jungle”) feature hazy-fantazee psych odysseys pushing the 15-minute mark and then some, replete with wayward Quicksilver Messenger Service-style guitar leads and plenty of zonked-out sunshine vocals. Thanks to post-1972 technology that has made it possible to squeeze two or more additional album sides onto one CD, both releases also include lengthy bonus tracks not included on the original albums, which were originally released in editions of 1000 each on the tiny Swedish label Tall Records.
The charm of these live recordings is that they sound great but also capture the ambience of the unusual, ad hoc gigs they were culled from. Several of them pick up sounds from audience members caught in the unlikely Swedish act of creating some spontaneity of their own, clapping and chanting in unison. It’s easy and fun to imagine these sons of the Vikings sitting cross-legged in their daishikis and floral-print headbands just digging the scene. The new liner notes, by drummer Thomas Mera Gartz, are a trip, too: idealistic and quasi-mystical as you’d expect, vintage liberation philosophy tempered only slightly by the intervening 30 years.