lessons learned, nostalgia, silliness, TV

Life lessons from The Love Boat…

I love watching cheesy TV shows from the 70s and 80s. I especially enjoy watching them when I’m laid up in bed and in need of comfort. Although I’m mostly over the virus that kicked me in the butt all weekend, I was still a touch under the weather for most of Monday. I did experience sort of a second wind later in the day, but not enough of one to call myself “well”. I managed to find the energy to wash all the bed linens and turn on the robot mower 😉 , which I forgot to check on, and later found stuck in the corner of the backyard. I even summoned the energy to walk the dogs in the afternoon, which they both appreciated. But then I came back, hurled, and spent more quality time on the toilet.

Yesterday, I watched The Love Boat, an Aaron Spelling/Douglas Cramer television show that aired on ABC throughout most of my childhood. Someone on YouTube uploaded a bunch of episodes from the 1982-83 season and I found myself glued to them for most of the afternoon. Although most of the plot lines were completely ridiculous and implausible, it was still kind of fun to watch. There are even a few pearls of wisdom within the episodes.

Yes, I did have to suspend belief when I watched the late Eva Gabor (born in 1919) playing the mother of a teenaged boy in the early 80s. It was a bit jarring to see Connie Needham (born in 1959), playing the fiance of her mother’s ex boyfriend Gene Barry (born in 1919), only to have her mom steal him back. I’m sure Alan Hale, Jr. and Bob Denver, both of whom were best known for their roles on Gilligan’s Island, had a great time on the show. It’s a trip to watch the crew members romancing the passengers as they live in huge, sumptuous quarters that I know are not the reality for actual cruise crew members. But still, I remember yesterday afternoon, actually stopping in my tracks to ponder when Dr. Adam Bricker (played by Bernie Kopell) said something unexpectedly profound. Or, at least I thought it was profound when he said it… I wish I could remember what he said at this moment, but alas, the thought has passed. Oh well, next time, I’ll make a note of it.

It’s always a treat to see Charo perform. Seriously– Charo is a very talented entertainer, especially when she plays guitar. She was a staple on The Love Boat, though, and I don’t think I ever need to watch her sing “Physical” again. My respect for Charo came when she was on The Surreal Life around 2004 or so. Even though that was a silly show, Charo showed everyone that she’s a lot smarter than anyone ever gave her credit for in her heyday, and she can REALLY play guitar.

Granted, this is supposed to be tacky and obnoxious, but it kind of goes beyond the pale. Charo later said she “cuchi cuchi-ed” all the way to the bank! I think I see a little Las Vegas era Tina Turner in this performance.
But at around 12:25 on this video of The Surreal Life, you can hear Charo play guitar… she does have some chops. I’d rather hear her play guitar and listen to her sing. Incidentally, this was one of the better seasons of The Surreal Life.

The Love Boat also did a couple of on location two-parters during that time period that were fun to watch, especially since Bill and I have been to some of the places they went. In 2013, we did our last SeaDream cruise from Rome to Athens, which included pre-cruise stops in Venice and Florence. The Love Boat, which usually focused on cruises to Mexico, went to Italy and Greece. They did one two-parter based on an Italian cruise, and one was based on a Greek cruise. I noticed they had some pretty high ranking guests for those episodes, too. Both specials made me want to travel! I have wanderlust anyway, but COVID-19 has made it more intense.

I’m sure all of the footage for the Italy and Greece episodes was filmed at the same time, production costs being what they were. I came to the conclusion they were filmed at the same time because I noticed that Lauren Tewes’ hair was the same “Sun-In” bleached blonde in both of the specials, plus the used the same footage of a TWA plane taking off. Forty years later, I’m amazed that people in the 80s thought that orange hydroxide look was attractive. Lisa Whelchel, who guested on the Greek special, had the same bleached hair with brassy overtones. It was pretty ghastly. As I watched the show, I realized it was work for everyone involved. But it also looked like a lot of fun to film.

I know this is a common phenomenon, but it seems like life was a lot more fun in the 80s… I know it probably wasn’t, for many reasons, but I was a kid back then. Actually, looking back on it, the 80s were hard for me, personally, because that was when I was growing up, and I didn’t have the greatest childhood. But we had all these feel good TV shows that were light entertainment. The Love Boat always had happy endings, with people falling in love, getting married, or discovering a new path in life. The staff on the ship was caring, friendly, and always invested in seeing that everyone had a good time. The Love Boat and Fantasy Island were great shows to watch on Saturday nights when I was growing up– at least until we had The Golden Girls, which was a much better show on all levels.

Granted, The Love Boat definitely jumped the shark around the time they kicked Lauren Tewes (cruise director Julie McCoy) off the show because of her cocaine addiction and other issues, but it always featured old movie stars alongside up and coming stars of the 80s. It was great fun to watch when I was a kid, and probably more fun to watch now for entirely different reasons. I could imagine someone turning it into a Mystery Science Theater 3000 type of show, where there are snarky comments made for every ridiculous scenario, cheesy band number, or godawful evening gown. Also, I noticed all the women wore dresses no matter what, many of which were pretty frumpy and uncomfortable looking, even if they weren’t having dinner.

As a child, I was oddly enchanted by evening gowns and fancy events. It’s probably because I used to love reading fairytales. I also used to love watching beauty pageants, not because I believed in evaluating women by their looks, but because I loved the evening gowns. I liked the colors and designs. But times change, and just like The Love Boat and silly shows like it, beauty pageants have also gone out of style. Even Miss America, which was probably the most prestigious pageant, has changed its focus more toward promoting scholarship and community service than beauty. I think that’s a positive thing, but I must admit that as a kid, I loved the glamour of 80s television. It was fun to revisit it over the past couple of days, watching The Love Boat, a televised intellectual equivalent to empty calories.

Having now been on some cruises myself, I now realize that there’s a price to be paid for wearing fancy duds, and not just at the cash register. I have a few sparkly dresses, but I don’t wear them well. I find them uncomfortable, and I never want to spend a lot of money on dresses that I won’t wear more than a time or two. Consequently, I don’t really look smashing in an evening gown. Even if I had a really cute figure, I think I would rather just wear a nightgown with no bra, rather than a hot evening dress that is always too long for me and heavy with sequins. And that is exactly what I did yesterday, as my stomach and intestines launched into a few more revolts. I did feel markedly better yesterday, but I wasn’t quite all the way…

Well, I’m happy to report that today, I feel 100% better. I have a spark of energy, and I managed to eat a banana, toast with butter, and drink two cups of coffee with cream without feeling like I needed to puke. I’m sure there will be some residual crud from the virus my body seems to have vanquished, but I think I’m on the mend. It was the first time I’ve been sick in ages. In fact, I don’t remember the last sickness I’ve experienced since moving to Wiesbaden. I was sick more often in Stuttgart, probably because Bill was always traveling to Africa and exposing me to exotic pathogens.

One thing I’ve learned from being sick for the past few days is that I needed a reminder that I don’t enjoy the experience of sickness. In fact, perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that I definitely don’t want to catch COVID-19. I have no idea how I got this stomach bug, which I’m guessing is less contagious than COVID is. But being sick for the past few days has SUCKED, even though I was somewhat functional the whole time. Maybe if this bug has done anything, it’s renewed my resolve to stay healthy.

Will I watch more Love Boat today? Maybe… I was watching the second part of the Greek two-parter when Bill got home. He worked late last night and stopped by the store to get me some OTC meds and food. I might watch the second part, just to finish. I could tell I was getting better, though, because as the day wore on, I was getting more tired of the lame storylines. I may need to view something with more substance today, if I choose to watch television at all. It’s amazing the boost one gets when that initial post-sickness energy surge hits.

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celebrities, nostalgia, TV

Wandering into a Solid Gold time capsule…

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, music shows were all the rage. I watched a lot of them, mainly because my sisters did, but the show that I liked best was Solid Gold. This musical variety show had a bona-fide star as its host– Dionne Warwick, Marilyn McCoo, Andy Gibb, Grant Goodeve, or Rex Smith– and a weekly countdown. There would be an array of musical guests, many of whom would lip sync to their hits, and a duet starring the host and a musical guest, which was performed live. They had “man on the street” segments, which would show off the singing or lip syncing talents, or lack thereof, of everyday people on the street. And, at least in the early years, there would be comedy. All of it was accompanied by hyper-sexual dancing by the Solid Gold Dancers, led by the highly exotic and erotic Darcel Leonard Wynne.

How do I remember all of this? Well, I was a fairly regular viewer back in the day. But I also remember it because I binge watched a bunch of episodes yesterday. Someone uploaded several of the earliest episodes of Solid Gold, and in a few cases, even left the ads in circa 1980 and 1981. I found myself falling down the nostalgia time shaft as I watched these videos, remember when I was still a child in the early 80s. I never stopped listening to a lot of the music from that era, so that was less of a shock than the ads were.

I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with the past. Maybe it’s because I wish I could do it over. There are other choices I would have made if I had known what would lie ahead for me. But I think I also like looking at the past because I genuinely enjoyed the music of that time period… and the fact that you could have a variety show that featured acts as diverse as Pure Prairie League (featuring Vince Gill), Glen Campbell, and The Rolling Stones! In fact, radio wasn’t unlike that back in the day. You could tune in to your favorite pop station and hear something by a band like Exile, which had sort of a country flair, and then hear Earth, Wind, & Fire or Led Zeppelin.

Since I have wildly diverse musical tastes, that kind of random characteristic of early media appealed to me very much. I miss it now, especially since independent TV and radio stations are now pretty rare. The person who uploaded the Solid Gold episodes lived in the Rochester, New York area, so the ads and PSAs were relevant to that area. But they also ran some pretty awesome early ads for jeans and person hygiene products. I felt both really old watching them, and young, as I remember how young I was in 1980 and 1981. There were poignant moments, too. Like, for instance, this song performed by the late Harry Chapin in a March 1981 episode…

As Harry Chapin introduces this song, he tells everyone that as a 38 year old, he’d already lived a quarter of his life. As it turned out, he was actually nearing the end of his life. He died on July 16, 1981. He speaks about others who died, too. I wonder what Harry would think of the world today.
And this was Harry’s last ever television appearance, which was on Solid Gold. It was taped just two weeks before his death.

I remember watching Stevie Nicks, as she performed live on Solid Gold. She was one of the few guests who performed live, rather than lip syncing and dancing to a recorded version. I seem to recall that she appeared to be a bit coked up for that performance, but who knows?

I always loved this song.

I am so glad someone uploaded those early Solid Gold shows. I had never seen them before yesterday, and they were truly entertaining in a campy kind of way. I forgot how different the early 80s were. We were a lot more innocent and fun back then. Not everything was about political correctness. And you really had no idea what you might see. The episode below had everyone from Rocky Burnette to Bill Cosby, as well as a truly hilarious performance by Cornell Gunter and The Coasters, and a strange dress worn by Stephanie Mills. The 80s were bizarre.

Bill Cosby before he was a jailbird is on this episode.

I think the reason I started watching yesterday, though, was because of the dancers. They popped into my head, even though I can’t dance at all. It was quite a shock to see that three of the former dancers were on a show called Live to Dance back in 2011. They were still pretty hot, despite their somewhat advanced ages.

Dayum! I am especially impressed by Darcel! She was about 60 when she did this.
Speaking of the Solid Gold Dancers… Pam Rossi now has her own dance studio.

It really doesn’t seem like the 80s were that long ago, especially looking at the outfits the dancers wore. To put it in perspective, though, most of what I watched yesterday was from 1981– forty years ago. In 1981, forty years ago would have meant 1941. That was when World War II was in full swing. And come to think of it, I’m sure people in those days thought the world was going to end, too. Somehow, we got through the war and everything that came after it. So I guess we’ll get through these weird times, too. Or, a lot of us will, anyway. I remember when AIDS the scariest thing. Now, it’s COVID-19, and global warming.

Anyway… it was a lot of fun to take a trip on the 1980s time warp. I feel old as hell now. Sometimes, I would like to go back to that era. Then I realize that there were many things back then that I don’t miss. I can always listen to music from the past without revisiting the many traumas of growing up. And watching Solid Gold is definitely a super fun and funny way to revisit the past. It also gives me a convenient topic to write about, other than the other “crap” in the world. God knows, I don’t feel like attracting more hate mail.

On another note, how lovely was Harry Chapin’s last performance! I wish I could have gone to one of his shows. What a wonderful, generous, and heartfelt song… and it was delivered by a man who truly loved and was loved by others. I’m so glad I got to watch it, even as it saddens me that he’s been gone for forty years. If you want to pick any of the videos in this post to watch, that’s the one I think you should watch. Harry Chapin was one in a million, and that last performance really warmed my heart.

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book reviews, celebrities, music

Repost: Belinda Carlisle unzips her lips…

Here’s a repost of an Epinions book review I wrote in July 2010. It’s currently reposted on my music blog, Dungeon of the Past, but I’m giving some thought to discontinuing that blog soon. Since this repost has gotten good views on my other blog, I’m going to preserve it as/is here on this one.

Summer seems to be the time for celebrity memoirs. I happen to love a good celebrity tell all, so I’m always game for reading and reviewing them. I’ve just finished reading Belinda Carlisle’s Lips Unsealed: A Memoir (2010), having picked it up a couple of days ago, thinking I needed something more lightweight to read after the somber subject of my last book review. *Sigh* As it turned out, Ms. Carlisle’s memoir didn’t quite fit the bill for easy, breezy reading material.

Who is Belinda Carlisle?

Here’s an explantation for those of you who did not grow up in the 70s and 80s or did not listen to pop music back in that era. Belinda Carlisle is the lead singer of the 80s era punk/pop girl band The Go Gos. She’s also done quite a few solo albums over the years, though her hey day as a solo artist was in the late 1980s. Since that happened to be the time I was in high school, it made me part of Belinda Carlisle’s targeted group of fans. However, while I did like Belinda Carlisle when she was a Go Go, I never liked her as much as a solo artist.

So why did I read her book?

I read Belinda Carlisle’s book for several reasons. First off, while I wasn’t a big fan of Belinda’s music, I did always think she was kind of cute, likeable, and perky. I liked the Go Go’s; when they were popular, they were among very few all girl bands.  Reading Carlisle’s memoir opened my eyes to the host of personal problems she’s struggled with, apparently throughout her life.

Blame it on dad…

Belinda Carlisle grew up in southern California. She was her mother Joanne’s firstborn child out of a total of seven kids by two different men. Belinda was born when her mother was 18 years old. Her father, Harold Carlisle, who was Joanne’s first husband, was about twice his wife’s age.  He was out of the house a lot when Belinda was growing up, due to his work.  Harold and Joanne were terribly incompatible, yet they still managed to have two more kids before Harold Carlisle permanently left the home. Belinda was seven years old and very upset about the split. However, Joanne had been keeping company with a neighbor named Walt. He eventually moved in, married Belinda’s mom, and took over daddy duties, fathering four more kids.

As Belinda tells it, they were always very poor and her bio-dad wasn’t around at all. Apparently, he never paid child support or visited. And Belinda’s mother had encouraged her kids with Harold Carlisle to call Walt “Dad”. Belinda writes that she still calls him that and thinks of him in that way, even though Walt was abusive and an alcoholic.

As the oldest child, Belinda had to take on a lot of responsibilities around the house.  This was in part because her mother suffered from a mental illness and because with seven kids in the house, there was a lot to do. Belinda also had a very fragile self-esteem. Because her family was poor, she didn’t have a lot of cool clothes and she had a less than svelte body. Her classmates made fun of her.

As she came of age, Belinda Carlisle went from being an awkward, chubby kid to a wild teenager. She writes of hanging around her friends at concert venues in Los Angeles, drinking, doing drugs, and occasionally shoplifting. She developed an affinity for punk music and eventually ran into the other women who would help make up the Go Go’s.

Making music and getting laid and snorting cocaine and getting drunk… lather, rinse, repeat

Once the story progresses into Belinda Carlisle’s music career, an unpleasant image of her begins to emerge. She describes herself as a very troubled person, not particularly talented as a songwriter, not able to play any instruments, and not even the greatest singer. But she was the lead singer for the Go Gos, despite those shortcomings. Her status as a lead singer opened doors for her, created resentments for some of the other band members, and apparently made her feel very insecure.

As Carlisle writes it, she was constantly snorting cocaine and drinking because she didn’t like herself. She also didn’t like her bio dad, who, once Belinda became an adult and was famous, tried to reconnect with her. She writes of an incident in which he showed up at a concert with his second wife and their daughters, whom she claims he “replaced her with”. Belinda met them while extremely high on cocaine. She says he tried to explain his side of the story. She tuned him out, claiming that he was just blaming her mother– who no doubt was responsible for at least some of went wrong. Then she expressed bitterness that he would try to contact her “just because she was famous”. I daresay if she was that high on cocaine, her perceptions of what was actually said in that meeting are probably very skewed.

Later, bio dad and Belinda’s sisters from his side of the family tried to reconnect again. She refused to see them and eventually told her dad she didn’t want a relationship with him. And yet, throughout this book, it’s pretty clear to me that his unexplained departure when she was a little kid had left a huge void. As far as I can tell, that psychic wound is still very painful for her. Yet, as she proudly proclaims her sobriety and newfound sanity, this is an area she evidently still refuses to address.

A bizarre anti-drug PSA by Belinda Carlisle. She had cute hair, though.

I’ll admit…

My husband is one of those dads who left his children when they were young and no longer has a relationship with them thanks to extreme parental alienation. Because of that, I feel some empathy for Belinda Carlisle’s father. Granted, everybody’s situation is different. Harold Carlisle might very well be the jerk Belinda Carlisle makes him out to be. But, I do think it says something for him that he tried on several occasions to reunite with her. Yes, he did find her when she was famous, but this all occurred at a time before the Internet. Maybe that was the only way he could track her down.

I don’t get the comment Belinda Carlisle made about her dad “replacing her” with daughters from his second marriage. First off, it would be impossible for Belinda’s father (or any other parent) to replace one child with another. And secondly, clearly Harold Carlisle wasn’t all bad.  He did apparently stick around and raise his younger kids.  If he was a total bum, he would have left them, too.  Finally, Belinda’s mother had four kids with her second husband and she considers them her siblings. Why isn’t her father allowed to have a life post divorce? Clearly, her parents didn’t belong together, but Belinda makes it clear that neither of them were angels. Why heap all the blame on dad?

Like father like daughter…

Another issue Carlisle never seems to address is that for all her complaints about her father’s absence, she was apparently often absent from her son Duke’s life. She was using cocaine and alcohol frequently when Duke was a small child, traveling a lot, and partying a whole lot. Yes, she was still married to Duke’s father, but by her own admission she was not around much and was certainly no paragon of parenthood. I’m sure she’d blame that on her bio father, too.

Beyond Belinda’s daddy woes…

There’s an awful lot about drugs in this book. It seems that Belinda Carlisle spent about thirty years of her life high on cocaine. For that, she was rewarded with fame and fortune. She doesn’t make fame out to be as great as it seems, except when she starts name dropping all the celebrities she’s met over the years. Since this is a celebrity memoir and the nature of a celebrity’s work puts them in contact with other celebrities, that’s to be expected. But it does seem to me that Carlisle got more than her fair share of second and third chances. More often than not, she comes off as a bit self-absorbed and selfish.

Despite my griping…

I will admit that Lips Unsealed is well-written and interesting and, for that, I’m giving it four stars. Belinda Carlisle must have a guardian angel, since she found a husband that she describes as “saintly”. They’ve been married for over two decades and their son has apparently grown up healthy and functional. They live in Los Angeles and the South of France. They must be doing something right.

Overall

Belinda Carlisle’s memoir did annoy me on more than one occasion, but I think it’s worth reading if you’re a fan of hers or the Go Gos. She claims that now that she’s in her 50s, she’s clean and sober. I truly hope she is and has learned from her mistakes. Judging by this memoir, however, I think she’s still got a long way to travel on the road to recovery.

And here are the comments left on my Dungeon repost. One was from Belinda’s sister.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

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memories, nostalgia, travel

Virtual Cascade Steps online! Will we be jamming like it’s 1995? We’ll see…

Thanks to Wikipedia user Gerd Eichmann, who has made today’s featured photo of Yerevan’s Cascade Steps available for public use. I actually have my own photos of the Cascade Steps that date from the 1990s, but they’re currently in a storage garage in Texas, where they’ve been since 2014. I don’t know if or when I’ll ever see my stuff again. As usual, the future is a mystery.

Today’s featured photo is a lovely shot of The Cascade Steps in Yerevan, Armenia. That photo does not show the steps the way I remember them. The last time I saw the Cascades (as we Peace Corps Volunteers referred to them), they still weren’t quite finished. According to Wikipedia, construction on the Cascades began when I was still in utero, back in 1971. They were completed in 1980, when the Soviet Union was still very much in charge in Yerevan. However, even though the steps were technically “done” in 1980, there were still renovations going on in 1995, when I first laid eyes on this massive staircase up a hillside. They are a lot prettier now than they were in those days.

Yerevan’s monument celebrating fifty years of Soviet rule. This is basically how it looks beyond the top of the steps. I think they’re still working on connecting the monuments in a more attractive way.

In 1995, there were no bushes on the steps. The fountains didn’t work, mostly because there wasn’t much electricity or running water in the 90s. At the very top of the steps, there was another, metal staircase that led to the very top of the hill, where a monument to fifty years of Soviet rule was erected. But to get to that staircase, you had to walk through a construction zone.

The landscaping in front of the Cascade steps wasn’t completed, so there were no flowers or shrubs, benches, or any other decoration. There weren’t even many streetlights. The lamps that were there didn’t always work, again, because there wasn’t much electricity. There were escalators to the left of the steps, and I want to say it cost 20 drams or so to use them to get to the top of the steps rather than climbing them. For reference, in 1995, one US dollar was equal to about 425 drams. 20 drams was also how much it cost to ride the metro (subway), and they used plastic tokens. I’ve heard that the tokens have since been retired, and I’m sure it’s now a lot more expensive to ride the metro.

The Cascades have changed a lot since 1995. They look very nice now, with the landscaping and fountains, but I have fond memories of the way they were in 1995, especially during the summer. The summer of 1995 was when A3– that is, my Peace Corps group– arrived in Yerevan for training. In those days, Yerevan was dealing with some pretty tough times. There was no 24/7 electricity, and some people didn’t have running water. There was no hot water. I had to heat up my bath water in a metal bucket, either with an immersion heater or by placing the bucket on a propane stove or kerosene heater. I’d then put the bucket in the bathtub and use a smaller container to pour water over myself. A shower, the way most of us enjoy them, was a true luxury. I even remember paying for the privilege a couple of times.

During training, I lived with a rather well heeled host family. The mom was an ear, nose, and throat doctor named Nelly. The father was an architect named Gevork. He worked at the airport. I remember liking Gevork. He liked to sing and had a nice voice. Nelly was very money oriented and concerned about the $7 a day she was getting to host me. I lost a lot of weight during Peace Corps training. I don’t know exactly how much, but I would guess about 25 pounds or so. You can see by the photos… I remember actually being able to pull on my jeans without unbuttoning them. I remember Nelly didn’t like that I’m a bit of a slob. I’m not a “dirty slob”– but I don’t keep things organized and tidy. I never have been one for being neat. She also expressed concern because she said I didn’t eat much. It was true that during training, I didn’t eat a lot. I remember eating fried Iranian pasta for breakfast, which wasn’t very appetizing. Sometimes, she even gave me fish! I didn’t mind the fish so much, but I couldn’t stomach Armenian beef or lamb. The lamb would pretty much make me want to throw up and, to this day, I can’t eat it.

After that sudden weight loss, I got sick, and it took me forever to get over the bug. The weight came back when I moved into my own apartment. That was a shame. I lost a lot of weight again when I waited tables. I probably never should have given up that gig, although I don’t have the best personality for it. I’d probably be better as a bartender. 😉

On Friday nights, many of the Peace Corps trainees would gather at the Cascades, where we would sit on the steps and play music. Three people in my group played guitar, and I, of course, would join in with singing. I remember we’d drink beer and sing Tom Petty and Bob Dylan songs. Locals would gather around and watch us. Sometimes, they’d join in. Other times, they might harass us a bit. It was a lot of fun, although I remember coming back extra late one night and getting bawled out by my “host dad”, Gevork. Using my new Armenian skills, I apologized and said, “Yes hooligan em.” (I am a hooligan.) Gevork laughed, and asked me if I was hungry.

Sadly, once training was over, so were our Friday night hootenannies at the Cascade Steps. My colleagues and I spread out all over the country. In 1995, Yerevan was still rough enough that several of us were placed there. I was among those who stayed in Yerevan. I really missed not being able to hang out with them on the steps on Fridays.

For about three months after I finished Peace Corps training, I lived pretty close to the top of the Cascades. I used to walk up and down those steps, often in very hot weather, to get around in Yerevan. It took me a long time to start using buses. I moved after three months because that living situation involved living with an Armenian woman who worked at my school. She and her much younger brother were nice enough, but I never felt like I could relax in that environment. We had incompatible lifestyles, plus her brother had an annoying habit of raiding my stuff when I wasn’t there. Once I moved, I didn’t need to climb up and down the steps so much. I didn’t mind stopping the stair climbing, although my fitness level took a hit.

Nowadays, they don’t put any Volunteers in Yerevan, even when they are in training. Looking back on it, I kind of wish I hadn’t stayed there myself, although staying there did afford me some unique opportunities that I otherwise wouldn’t have had, particularly given my affinity for music. For instance, I got to rehearse with the Yerevan Opera Choir. I also got to take some voice lessons at the Yerevan Conservatory… and on a few occasions, I would go to jazz clubs and sing with the band. These are all precious memories to me. I often miss those days, although I’m not sure I miss the tough living.

It’s funny to see the newer photos of the Cascades. They are so much nicer looking now. In 1995, they were kind of shabby, like much of the rest of Yerevan was. I do remember they were starting to be worked on as I was leaving in 1997. I recall one night, there was a night club opened in one of the levels. I had never been “inside” the steps before. They had always been closed, and a bit trashed looking. But someone did open a club where there was dancing. I distinctly remember hearing a truly wretched dance version of Olivia Newton-John’s song, “Have You Never Been Mellow”. Dolly Parton’s song, “Jolene”, was also made into a bizarre cover of dance music. I can’t find the 90s era techno version of “Jolene”, which could be a blessing.

I think this was the dance version of Olivia’s hit that I heard in the club. It sucks. You have to be drunk to listen to it.

I remember back in the summer of 1995, it was not uncommon to hear Russian pop songs blaring everywhere, along with music by Michael Jackson, The Beatles, and Sade. To this day, I can’t listen to Sade and not think of Yerevan. Or when I hear “rabiz” music, it reminds me of being in Armenia in the early days after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Weird listening to this… I grew up with anti-Soviet propaganda, and never thought I’d ever see the Soviet Union.
Armenian pop circa 1989.

Tonight– or it will be nighttime where I am, anyway– we are having an online memorial for Matt Jensen, who was tragically killed two months ago in Brooklyn. Matt was in my Peace Corps group, and he was very much a leader. I suspect there will be some reminiscing among us, although I’m not sure how many people will show up. I wouldn’t say our group was particularly close-knit. I did get to know Matt pretty well, especially during our second year, when he came to Yerevan to work. He had previously been in Vanadzor, which is a city up north. It’s been a long time since I last hung with some of the people who will be involved in this reunion. I hope it will be like our Cascade Steps concerts, where we mostly all got along and got together in song on Friday nights, relaxing after another grueling week of training.

I see that now, the Cascades is a focal point in Yerevan. I doubt we could go to the Cascades and jam now, like we did back in the day. Now, even the actor, John Malkovich, has visited there. Funnily enough, back in 2008, we stayed in a tiny B&B in the Piedmont region of Italy where John Malkovich also stayed. In fact, we even stayed in the room where he and his wife, who is from the area, slept. They had come to the Pinasca area to see the wife’s family… Maybe someday, I will actually cross paths with John Malkovich. It wouldn’t be unheard of. After all, two years ago, I ran into Mark Knopfler in a bar after I attended his concert. I have a knack for running into people.

It’ll be interesting to see who I run into tonight… and hope I don’t embarrass myself, the way I sometimes did back in the day. I almost wonder if we shouldn’t have a backdrop of the Cascade Steps as we remember the time… 26 years ago! I can’t believe how long ago 1995 was, and how fast the years have flown by.

On an entirely unrelated note, yesterday, Bill got a lovely birthday card from his younger daughter. She even wrote “Dad” on the envelope. I really think younger daughter is Bill’s kid in so many ways. She looks like him and acts like him, and she loves mushy cards. So does Bill. He is the king of sentimental greetings. It’s so nice to see him being remembered on Father’s Day and his birthday after so many years of no contact.

Yesterday, I happened to see Jon Gosselin on Dr. Oz– the clips were uploaded to YouTube. I listened to what Jon Gosselin has been going through, as he’s been completely estranged from six of his eight children with Kate Gosselin. I never watched their show, but I really feel for him. I think he’s been painted as someone he’s not. Parental alienation is not a joke, and I think he’s definitely a victim. I hope his kids pull their heads out of their butts someday, but as they’re pretty much grown now, that’s really up to them.

Also… I mistakenly booked four nights in Zurich instead of three. I think we’re going to do the extra night, anyway. Bill needs the break. So do I. And it might be the start of a path in a new direction, especially for Bill.

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movies, nostalgia, YouTube

Watching Gulag– anti Soviet propaganda thirty-six years later…

Yesterday’s post about “The Red Scare” inspired me to watch a movie I haven’t seen in years. I grew up at a time when everyone talked about the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. That fear was referenced in a lot of pop culture in the 80s.

In early 1985, the Cold War was in full swing.  I was twelve years old and acutely aware of the threat of nuclear war.  There were many books, TV plots, and movies about the hostilities between the United States and the former Soviet Union.  I was fascinated by it, though I lacked the ability to do a lot of reading about the Soviet Union.  I didn’t have Internet, nor did I have a library card until I was about fourteen.  What I did have in those days was HBO.  When I was growing up, a lot of my world centered around what was on HBO.

Back in the 80s, there was no shortage of films depicting how nasty the Soviet people were.  We had Red Dawn, which was about the United States being invaded by Russians and Cubans.  I watched film that I don’t know how many times.  It thrilled twelve year old me, even to the point at which I felt pretty strongly that I would join the military if the Russians ever invaded.  I think that was also one of the very first movies to have a PG-13 rating.  Since I was twelve, I thought it was “neato” that I got to see Red Dawn, even if I’d been watching R rated movies on HBO since I was about eight.

We had Born American,  a strange film by Renny Harlin that came out in 1986.  It was about three foolish guys on vacation in Finland who decide to cross into the Soviet Union just as some village girl is being raped and slaughtered by a local priest.  The guys get blamed for her rape and murder and end up in a hellish prison where humans are playing a bizarre chess game.

There was 1985’s White Nights, a film notably starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines.  Baryshnikov’s character was a famous ballet dancer who had defected to the United States and ended up back in Russia after a plane crash.  There, he meets Hines’ character, an American who grew disenchanted with the United States after Vietnam and ended up marrying a Russian.  They form an unlikely partnership, dance a lot, and escape to the West.

And there was also Gulag, a film that was made for Home Box Office.  It starred David Keith (of An Officer and a Gentleman and The Lords of Discipline fame) and Malcom McDowell, a Brit who has been in a shitload of films.  I remember seeing Gulag on HBO not long after it premiered.  I was probably too young to be watching it.  Having seen it on YouTube yesterday, I know I was too young.  It was actually a pretty scary film.

Gulag is the fictional story of Mickey Almon, a track star and Olympian who has been hired by a television network to cover sports in Moscow.  He and his wife are enjoying Soviet hospitality, although Mickey is a bit of an ugly American.  He’s loud, obnoxious, arrogant, and has a false sense of superiority for being from the United States.

At the beginning of the film, Almon runs into a Russian man who claims to be a scientist and asks him to take his story back to the United States.  The man promises that if Almon helps him, he’ll win the Nobel Peace Prize.  Almon is perplexed.  He’s not in the Soviet Union to help anyone.  He’s there to do a job.  But the guy’s request is compelling and as an American with a hero complex, Almon feels compelled to take action.  Naturally, he soon finds himself in serious trouble with the police.  Turns out the “scientist” is really a member of the KGB who has set Almon up to be a political pawn.

Next thing Mickey Almon knows, he’s locked in a filthy cell reeking of raw sewage.  The Russians demand that he sign a confession to spying.  Almon refuses for months and keeps going back to the rotten cell.  He’s forced to wear the same uniform for months, not allowed to shower, and grows a heavy beard.  One day, the guards tell him his wife has come.  They let him shower and give him fresh clothes.  Just when he thinks he’s going to see his wife, they bring back the putrid uniform and demand that he put it back on.

The prospect of wearing the filthy uniform and going back to the disgusting cell is too much for Mickey.   He finally breaks.  He’s been promised that if he confesses and makes a video for the Soviets, he’ll be deported back to the United States.  Of course, the promise of going home turns out to be a lie.  Pretty soon, Mickey is wrestled onto a crowded train with a bunch of other prisoners.  That’s when Almon learns he’s not going to the airport.  He’s destined for a ten year sentence at a gulag in Siberia.  Almon puts on a brave show, swearing at the guards and refusing to cower.  But eventually, Mickey Almon determines that he must take things into his own hands.  No one is going to rescue him.  He either has to stand the brutal, inhuman conditions, or find some way to escape.

As I was watching this film yesterday, I couldn’t help but realize that if Mickey Almon had actually been arrested in Moscow in the 80s, he would not have done ten years in a Soviet gulag.  The Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.  But in the 80s, we had no idea that it was going to fall apart.   In those days, the Soviet Union was a massive superpower and it was perceived to be a huge threat to the United States.  There was a lot of talk about who was going to “push the red button”.

Since I remember the 80s so clearly and they don’t seem like they were really that long ago, this film still gave me the willies.  And yet, just ten years after Gulag was released, I went to the former Soviet Union to live for two years.  I quickly found out that Soviets… Armenians, anyway… were just normal folks like everybody else.  Yes, the lifestyle there was different than what I was used to, but at their core, people living in what used to be Soviet Armenia were just people who wanted the best for themselves and their loved ones.  And I happened to be there at a time when their country was going through extreme turmoil due to the fall of the Soviet Union.

Another thing I noticed was that the film looked “old”.  I mean, I remember watching movies from the 60s and 70s when I was a child and thinking they looked dated.  I had that same experience yesterday.  1985 really was 36 years ago!  To put that in perspective, it would be the same as me watching a film in 1985 that was made in 1949.  1949 in the 1980s sure did seem like it was ages ago.  Hell, that was back before my parents were married.  The upshot is that now I feel ancient.

Actually, I’ve been going through a bit of a mid life crisis lately, so it probably wasn’t the best idea to watch this film.  It really does seem like yesterday that I was a teenager.  Now I’m about to turn 49 and I feel like there’s a lot I haven’t yet done.  I have never had a “real” career.  I don’t have children.  I have a great marriage and I’m grateful for that, but I think it’s mainly because I found an unusually patient guy who has already survived the wife from hell.  Anything I do seems to be very small potatoes to him.

I still have a few Armenian friends.  I wonder what they would think of Gulag and the other American made propaganda films.  I am sure they’ve seen their share of anti-American propaganda, too.  I kind of wish I’d had the chance to talk to some of them in person about it back when I saw them on a daily basis.

Anyway, if you’re curious, here’s a link to Gulag, which also has helpful Polish subtitles.  Enjoy!

Here’s the film, Gulag, which aired on HBO all the time in the 80s! It’s the only film, besides An Officer and a Gentleman I have ever seen David Keith in. What’s weird is that I have twin cousins who look a lot like David Keith. Every time I see him, I think of them.
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