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Back in the USSR November 3, 2009

Posted by markgeil in Family, Music, People, Philosophical musings.
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I don’t like to think of myself as an old man. I’m not quite in my 40’s yet, and by some measures of life expectancy I’m not even halfway through my time on this Earth. Still, I feel like an old man when I start marveling at how the world has changed all around me in such a short time.

The latest occasion for my “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!” sentiment is a bargain-bin CD purchase. I nabbed Billy Joel’s KOHUEPT for just a couple of bucks from… actually, I don’t remember which store. The memory fades when you’re old, see. It’s the live album Joel recorded during a rare concert tour of the Soviet Union. It is by no means his best work, but for me it’s more of a souvenir of another time. I remember seeing the double-album with its sparse Communist-red cover back in 1987, when album covers were glorious 12”x12” works of art. I remember wondering how the Dylan cover sounded and how “Allentown” would play before an audience of similarly disenfranchised Soviets.

I played the CD this morning and heard Angry Young Man. I remembered seeing Joel perform this song live a couple of times here in the USA, marveling at his piano rampage. Then I thought about playing the song for Hannah and Rebekah, our two pianists. And then I thought about discussing the concert’s significance with Sarah, who’s taking European History in school right now. Then I felt old.

What’s in Sarah’s history books was my life. I imagined my side of the conversation with my daughters about the CD.

“This was a huge deal back then. It was very rare for a US performer to be able to go to Leningrad and play a concert.”

“No, Leningrad doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s Saint Petersburg.”

“Well, people couldn’t go there because the USSR was isolated from the USA. We were terrible enemies. I used to be worried that we would have a nuclear war.”

 “What was the USSR? Well, …”

They’re all such foreign concepts now, concepts relegated to history books. That’s a striking distinction. Everything that I have lived is contemporary for me, and everything in the history books is old. It could be 1942 or 1542 – it’s all history. Now, my contemporary is my children’s history. I know it happens to every adult, but the inevitability makes it no less jarring.

The opening track on the CD is called Odoya. It’s a traditional Georgian song recorded at the Jvari Monastery on a hill overlooking Tbilisi.

 

During a business trip I had occasion to climb that hill and walk through that very monastery. I simply got a visa and a plane ticket and I went. I took pictures (with a digital camera, even!). Once I was there, I was free to roam the country, the Republic of Georgia. A short time ago, in my lifetime, it was not the Republic of Georgia. It was just the USSR. I could not have visited, and I would not have been free to see the sites. The changes are astonishing.

They say that history and culture and events are cyclic, but today I disagree. The world I live in today is radically different from the world I lived in as a child, and it doesn’t feel like a cycle; it feels like a torrid rush. And even as I sound like an old geezer trying to explain to my children how the Cold War affected everything from the Miracle on Ice to Billy Joel to the nationality of the bad guys in professional wrestling, I take solace in this one thing. The world I inhabit today may be radically different than yesterday, but it is not fundamentally different, because it is still inhabited by people. People are fundamentally the same, and I think they always will be. We are beautiful but flawed beings, every one of us in need of salvation. That is constant. Today, I’m grateful for constants.

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