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Stewart-Panko, Kevin & Smith, Justin
Do You Have Anything to Declare? (Book Review)
August 2014
Released: 2013, Vitriol Literary
Rating: 3.0/5
Reviewer: JP

International travel can be challenging at the best of times for simple tourists but for bands trying to cross borders to work and make a living, it can be an nightmare, especially for Punk/Rock and Metal bands. That is the basis for the book DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO DECLARE? The book was co-written by Justin Smith and Kevin Stewart-Panko and is just loaded with tales of misadventure as bands tell first hand accounts of the pitfalls, perils and occasionally pleasures of crossing international borders.

The actual book itself is a bit weak in terms of technical presentation. There is no index, no bio of the authors, and a few black and while photos in the middle. There isn’t even a foreword, which is odd considering how many people were interviewed for the book, you think there could have been one person to write a foreword! The book was published by Vitriol Literary which seems to be the publishing arm of Vitriol Records, an independent record label. The book is bare bones, minimal budget, no frills and even the printing is blurry in many places. Even the cover is pretty dull but I believe it was supposed to look like a passport so it fits nicely. However, it is what is inside that counts.

The book starts with an overview of the main premise, which is essentially an oral history of bands sharing their experiences. Normally, I would not be too interested in a book like this but the attraction for me is that some of the bands interviewed are Metal bands. Bands getting interviewed included members of Master, Forbidden, Hatesphere, At The Gates, Fear Factory and a bunch of Relapse bands. I would have preferred more Metal types bands getting interviewed as there was a lot of the kinda cool, trendy bands getting interviewed like Danko Jones, KenMode and a whole pile of non-Metal bands, so die-hard readers of, approach with caution.

The authors interviewed what looks like over 75 people so there is a wide-variety of stories. What was a very clever move was that they did a little bio for each contributor. I found it very useful because I was not familiar with most of post-noise-alt-rock-shoegaze-core bands that were interviewed. Most (but not all) of the bands interviewed are small-scale American bands who are still at the phase of touring in vans and without the resources to have professionals manage their international traveling arrangements. It was probably wise to focus on the underground bands because if the authors interviewed say, for example, Ozzy Osbourne he probably doesn’t have a clue about passports, and visas because he probably has someone in an office doing that for him, so he would not really have much to say, other than perhaps some stories from the old days before Black Sabbath were huge. Interviews with members of small, active touring bands are the order of the day because they have more interesting first hand experiences. The authors also said they requested interviews from bigger bands like Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer and in the same line referred to them as 'arena rock troglodytes'! Tough talk, I'm not convinced the authors would say that to Kerry King's or Dave Mustaine's face.

I must admit it did get a bit repetitive reading story after story after story about some band complaining about getting inspected and questioned by border guards or customs agents while trying to enter a country. There were hundreds of quotes and many of them had the same sense of confusion or anger, however, that was the main point of the book. Many (most?) of the people interviewed complained about inconsistency in the rules and regulations. However, they don’t seem to appreciate that laws change, bureaucracies evolve, polices change, front-line staff changes and governments change. There are distinctions between policies and laws and the process is very arbitrary, as well with border guards having certain freedom and responsibility to make judgement calls about who is and who is not allowed into a nation. There is no one master border law that get’s written when a country becomes a nation that stays in effect forever. A band would travel one year, and come back the next year and complain that things had changed…of course they have! Why is that at all shocking? There just seemed to be an enormous amount of vitriol and anti-authoritarian attitudes of the people being interviewed, but I suppose that is part of being a musician outside the mainstream. Aside from the overall negative tone, there were some amazing tales and you would be shocked what bands have to go through just to get from A to B, as well as a side adventure to 'C' after a four-wait wait in 'D' only to miss the gig and get rerouted to 'E' after having all their merchandise confiscated!

Justin and Kevin are entertaining writers with a quick wit and sense of humour and I’m sure many people will really enjoy reading the prose. The authors don’t write too much, just an introduction at the beginning of each chapter but what they do impart is very informative and entertaining, even with a bit of history thrown in! Some of the stories are very entertaining and there are many tales from the US/Canada Border, the US/Mexico border and any number of European borders as well as a chapter on far-flung regions, such as Japan, as well. Apparently Switzerland also have notoriously tough border rules! Who knew?

I want to add one last point to this book. I’ve outlined many of the good points of this excellent and etertaining book. Now, I’m going to add my strictly personal opinion. I really didn’t agree with the authors at all on the their stance of customs officers and their role. From the very first page I knew inherently I would not agree with the politics of this book. With sentences like, “ …you have to plead your case and succumb your travel plans to the judgment of glorified security guards with authoritative attitudes whose entire identity and worth is tied to their badge and uniform, and how everyone has had their short ‘n’ curlies in knots since government’s overlords mandated blind and unquestioning post-9/11 patriotism.” (p. 1) it certainly shows the heavy bias of the authors against customs officers. Chapter titles like, ‘Dealing With Border Patrols When You Are Not Crossing Borders: Can’t Anyone Go Anywhere In Peace Anymore Without Juicedup Jackboots Giving You The Third Degree? are your first clue that the authors are extremely anti-authoritarian and it is unlikely you are going to get a balanced perspective or neutral journalism.

I really found it hard to actually read this book; the bias and rhetoric was so strong. To be fair, the bias is stated right up front, no trying to hide the facts so at least the reader knows the authors position. I don’t think I once recalled anyone, in any of the stories saying, ‘Yes, we were trying to smuggle illegal drugs into the country or tried to avoid paying lawfully applied duty on merchandise we intended to sell. We got caught trying to break the law, it was our fault.” Nope. It is always the governments and border guards fault. The guards are jerks. The laws are unjust etc, etc, etc…there is always an excuse or resorting to the victim mentality instead of accepting the rules of the nation they were trying to visit and/or earn a living in. I had very little sympathy for any of the bands and their stories of perceived mistreatment, except for the stories of bands who were victims of being robbed by actual criminals, not border guards. There were any number of stories where the bands said, (paraphrased) “Yes, we have criminal records, we didn’t have the right paperwork, we lied, we smuggled merchandise, we forged documents, and we got caught and we got arrested and searched and turned away at the border…but it’s not fair!"

The book is a strong political statement against the laws and regulations that are set in place by elected officials to protect nations from criminals and illegal/contraband and substances/merchandise entering nations. I just fundamentally disagree with the authors perspective about the role and importance of these laws and the value that the people in border control/law enforcement have to protect their nations from the entry of people with a history of crime or the importation of drugs, weapons, contraband, diseases and other undesirable elements into any country. My bias is also now upfront and for the record I also really enjoyed the new Ted Nugent album as well, which I listened to while reading this book.

Now that I got all that off my chest, I still would highly recommend DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO DECLARE? As a top-notch read. It is entertaining, valuable and even perhaps a cautionary tale to people, bands or groups who may want to think twice before trying to enter a country without being organized or prepared, or even with intentions to circumvent the laws of any nation. Pick your own position and then you can probably bump this rating of three out of five a point in either direction depending where your politics lie.
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