SLAVYANSK, Ukraine—It was the heavy metal scene that first drew former rockstar Lisa Roberts to Ukraine.
She’d rubbed shoulders with the West Coast grunge icons of the ’90s as a founding member of the band Hole with Courtney Love, and she’s stayed plugged into the music world ever since.
“I had a lot of friends here in the metal community before the war. In Ukraine, they’re big on it, on heavy metal. I had friends all over, and it started with raising money to pay for an Uber to get a friend’s wife and kid out to Moldova. It was $425, I remember exactly. Then a friend of mine, from the Kyiv band Sabotage Rising, was in the part of Kyiv that was basically invaded, and we kept in touch as much as we could. He spent a month in the goddamn subway,” Roberts told The Daily Beast.
We were sitting next to an outdoor fire in Slavyansk, in the heart of Donbas, late last summer. The sound of rockets pummeling nearby targets was incessant but Roberts’ dry sense of humor, tone of voice, and accent still evoked Los Angeles, where she was born and bred.
In a turbulent former life, Roberts, who is tattooed top to bottom (it’s a lifestyle, she says), was a rockstar; rode around on her Harley called ‘the Piglet;’ and played ice hockey. She also waited tables, and survived cancer. Now she was here in eastern Ukraine as the logistics manager for the humanitarian NGO Road to Relief, talking about drones, pitchforks and her close friend, who is fighting in the army.
She told me everything, from life near the front line to her stories about Kurt Cobain.
Before moving to Ukraine, Roberts was living in the high desert about 60 miles east of L.A. and working for a major company in logistics and she realized her warehouse know-how could be of use in the midst of a war.
“So I know how to organize freight, inventory control, supply chain, that kind of stuff. And when I realized I’m not going into battle this was a good deal. I’m useful,” says Roberts who has witnessed and ingested much of the brutality of this place. She says many of the folks she met online, via her friends or when she came to Ukraine, are now either dead or missing—presumed taken captive.
“The Russians boobytrap houses—put landmines under the floor, or in children’s toys. Torture chambers in every town that was occupied. Their single aim is to wipe out civilians,’ she says, and I know she is right because I have seen all of this by myself.
“They target our vehicles, even though they are marked,” she explained. And that, tragically, proved to be true almost immediately.
The day after, I left the Road to Relief headquarters in September, the NGO’s leader, a brave woman named Emma Igual, and her colleague Tonko Ihnat were killed in their van by an anti-tank missile while on their way to do a needs assessment of civilians in Ivanivske, Donetsk Oblast.
I immediately got Roberts on the phone.
“Emma would regularly say, ‘We are cowboys, we never had a single accident in all this time.’ Emma would work from the time she got up in the morning until 2 or 3 in the morning on most days. If we went somewhere like the lake, Emma would still be working while we all relaxed. She was ceaseless in organizing details for all aspects of the NGO. She was a master of aid procurement. She was also constantly applying for grants to fund basic organizational necessity. She was truly a force to be reckoned with. And so was our dear Tonko, he was the soul of the team. Knew all the best burger joints in Donbas and would regularly take me there. I asked Tonko the night before he died when he was leaving Ukraine. Tonko said , “Never. I am never leaving. I love Ukraine. I love the people here. When the war is over I will still stay until my citizenship is permanent,”’ Roberts told me almost in one breath.
I had also spoken to Emma Igual and she had complained that she missed going out on mission herself because she was stuck with the paperwork. I even encouraged her to put the paperwork aside for a day and focus on a mission—and now she was gone.
Let’s talk about something else, I told Roberts over the phone. Tell me about Courtney, Kurt, and the rock scene.
“Sure. I’m from West Covina, my parents are from L.A., grandparents from the South. I was into punk rock in middle school starting in seventh grade. We started going to live punk shows when I was about 13. I lived on the streets when I was 14 and squatted in Hollywood. At 15, moved to Phoenix. At 18, moved back to LA, and met Courtney when she moved in next door in Hollywood in ’88 or so. We had mutual friends in a band called Celebrity Skin. The two of us started a band and named it Hole after a song by Mike Geisbrecht, who started playing guitar with us. Courtney wrote the lyrics and Mike wrote the music on that but we all wrote,” Roberts said.
As well as the story of underground grunge and rock royalty, she explained how she also served food and gallons of expensive wine in a seafood restaurant to make ends meet even while making music.
“I did meet Kurt and stayed over at their house once later—after I quit the band, and I quit because I felt the quality was lacking.
“Kurt is his own story. He was a very angry and troubled man. I was not surprised when he shot himself or that he shot himself. I honestly don’t think anyone was, but they won’t say it. Chutney—as I used to call her—did not kill her husband. Like I said he was very troubled from the first,” Roberts says about the legendary Nirvana frontman.
Her life took another unexpected turn as she went to college for fine art and became an oil painter, also studying philosophy and social work.
“Courty gave me a book of poems by Charles Baudelaire called Fleurs du Mal. Our friend Rob learned to speak French so he could read it. It’s one of my favorites. I like to read. Much later I played recreational hockey. I was married and lived in the Poconos in PA. When that shit ended badly I moved to Cleveland and played recreation league ice hockey and went to college,” she said.
Now, she is focused on what she calls the “Ukrainian cause.”
“It breaks my heart every time I see the civilians, especially the old ladies or kids. Like they come running up to our car, they know everybody’s name. There was a little boy helping me carry these boxes with aid. And I just thought, man, no kid should have to live like this.
These kids have done nothing to anyone. The old ladies who live there, they have vegetable gardens, and they’re beautiful vegetable gardens. They have very small homes. They have not done anything to deserve constant shelling, harassment, rape, torture. These people have done nothing. That’s what makes me tear up every time,” says Roberts.
“I’m not a geopolitician but I do see potential for this to grow into WWIII. NATO is slow, the allies are groggy, and everyone thinks this does not concern them, and it does, or it will. I also think they should have closed the sky,” says Roberts, indicating her support for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Roberts says she has been treated well by the Ukrainian military heroes she’s met but says they mostly refuse to date for fear of espionage.
“It’s better not to, because they’ll meet a girl, girl shacks up with one of them, and next thing you know, they’re all wiped out when they’re in a trench somewhere because she’s a separatist. So they’re paranoid of dating, but when they see a woman working in these conditions, they will treat you like a queen. Especially if you can handle a pitchfork better than they can, which I do,” Roberts says, through a fit of laughter.
After Emma Igual died and Roberts had gone back to the U.S., I asked her if she would continue with music, or Ukraine.
“I am studying paramedicine, it will take about a year. I will go to Ukraine for a month or two in summer to volunteer and then come back and finish. Then I will apply for the [International] Legion. So for now I sit here in the U.S., depressed, around people who don’t give a fuck and don’t see the war with Russia as a problem to their lifestyle. They simply don’t care. They don’t want to talk about it and they really don't give a fuck what I have to say about it. If I get the opportunity to go back I don’t think I will ever return here. I don’t have any reason to,” says Roberts. Music can be found anywhere, as her network of musical colleagues from the U.S. to Ukraine and beyond proves.
But right now, Roberts is dedicated to her Ukrainian mission—to helping to win the war.