I’m occasionally posting some chapters from my “rock memoir,” Jukebox Hero. This seemed like a relevant piece in the wake of Generation Z’s moment in history. Here are some others:
Jukebox Hero 1: Queens of Noise
Jukebox Hero 2: I Will Follow
Jukebox Hero: Bridge Chapter A– “Right Here, Right Now”
I took a break from my trips to Europe after 1987 when I got the job managing the Atlanta band drivn’n’cryin’. The Europe I knew was on the frontline of the cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Frankie Goes To Hollywood song, “Two Tribes” was more of a cautionary tale than a dance hit. “When two tribes go to war, one point is all that you can score.” I had marched in CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) parades in London and a cheered when 70,000 protestors blockaded the RAF Greenham Common nuclear missile base in Berkshire, England in 1983. The window of my squat in Brixton looked out at a massive mural of a nuclear holocaust. Western Europe was Ground Zero for the beginning of the end.
I met a Russian kid named Yuri in Denmark in 1986 who had recently defected to Finland and told me that the Soviet people were deathly afraid of the madman living in the American White House, Ronald Reagan. In 1984, I had tried to see George Harrison’s English house in Henlely-on-the-Thames only to be told that Beatle George had moved his family to Australia out of fear of nuclear war. I made it to West Germany twice, only to witness a heavy presence of the American military and anger that American and Soviet egos were pushing Europe towards nuclear annihilation.
The U.S. policy that was just a budget item or back page news story to most Americans was more than life and death to Europeans. It was mass extinction.
By 1989, I had a good 7-years in protesting the Reagan-Bush arms race under my belt. In 1983, at the tender age of 19, I became a lobbyist in Washington DC for the nuclear freeze movement. When Mikhail Gorbachev began the Soviet period of Glasnost in the late 1980s, it seemed like World War III might be avoided and, more, importantly, that I could finally get into the Soviet Union with a duffle bag full of Levis.
So it was with intense excitement that I watched the Iron Curtain begin to crack in the last minutes of the 1980s. I watched East and West Germans take sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall from a TV in my apartment in Atlanta with tears streaming down my face. People were escaping the oppressive regimes in Romania and Hungary and by 1991 the Soviet Union was collapsing.
I had to get back to Europe to be a part of this moment in history. Just like I had to be in London in 1985 for Live Aid, I had to be back at the frontline for the end of the Cold War. The door to Eastern Europe was finally open and their was a blank slate for the new decade. When I was offered a teaching assistantship in London for an Emory study abroad course, I packed my bags.
In 1991, I was 27-years-old and fully invested in the rock-and-roll lifestyle. I had been teaching undergrads at Emory but spent most of my time on the road or in the studio with drivin’ n’ cryin’. With my long bleached hair and black stretch jeans, I probably didn’t look like the typical university TA.
Once in London, I tried to turn on the American students to the city I knew and loved; shopping in Camden Market, seeing bands at the Marquee Club, and endless pub crawls. While there, I got hooked on going to the theater in the West End, seeing Les Miserables four times. I sent a postcard to my girlfriend, back in Atlanta, that said, “I’m still straight but I LIVE for the musical theater!” And it wasn’t just American university kids in those seats. I started to notice a new subculture in the West End, Russian tourists.
One of the places I loved to take the students was my favorite dance club, the Camden Palace. The hall opened in 1900 as the Camden Theater but had been the Palace since 1982. It was at the Palace in 1983 I had met a nice German girl at the bar. I was trying to chat her up when she realized the guy at the bar next to me was Limhal. Limhal was the poofy-haired singer of Kajagoogoo who were topping the pops that summer with the airy hit, “Too Shy.” Despite the rumors that he liked boys, Limhal scooped in and purloined my fraulein. Damn you, Limhal!
In the summer of 1991, Thursdays were “guitar rock” nights at the Palace. Kids from around the globe met to dance to R.E.M., Happy Mondays, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. There was a song by The Wonder Stuff, “The Size of the Cow” that always filled the dance floor; Americans, French kids, Italians, and the ever-trendy London scenesters. I loved Thursday nights at the Palace because the music kicked ass and you didn’t need a partner to dance with. It was like being at a rock concert. You just hit the floor of the old theater and felt the energy of the crowd.
One particular night in late July, I dragged a few students to the ornate club. I wanted to share the fun of dancing to the new music of the decade with the youth of the world. London always felt like the center of the hipster planet. In London, you can find the best African music, the coolest Middle Eastern late night cafés, and the most over-the-top South American dancers. Going to London, was never like going to “Merry Old England.” It was always like being present in all that was important to the world.
On that night, the floor was particularly rocking. There was a new wave of kids making it to London from the newly free Eastern European countries. You could identify the “Easterners” because they grew up completely removed from any black culture and danced like it. It didn’t matter. For the first time since before Hitler fucked everything up, Europe felt truly united. The next song was Jesus Jones, “Right Here, Right Now,” which was inspired by the fall of communism. The Russian kids and the Czech kids crammed on to the dance floor. Taking their lead, the German kids and the Swedish kids followed.
There were so many people on the dance floor for this song, no one could move. Instead, everyone hugged and jumped up and down and wept. This is what freedom felt like. We weren’t East and West anymore. We were kids who wanted to dance and not get nuked. I had danced at the Palace in 1982 amid fear of atomic bombs. In 1991, I danced in love with the world. We had all survived the long war. You know it feels good to be alive.
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history.
I still get chills every time I hear that song. I’m sure there are Baby Boomers who have one song that crystallizes what it meant to be a part of that generation, but for me it’s that Jesus Jones song that finally plugged me in to my time on Earth; a song that would later become a K-Mart ad and a Ford commercial.
Later that summer, while traveling through Eastern Europe, I was on a train pulling into a station in East Berlin. It was 3:30 in the morning and there was one East German kid on the platform with a beat up boombox. He was playing a tape of the Scorpions’ new song “Winds of Change” over and over. I just listened to the lyrics about the new Europe bounce around the crumbling old regime. Music had the power to ferry us through massive historical shifts. For the rest of our human existence, historians would muse about this massive global right turn, but, in the moment it occurred, it all came down to a song.
In 2003, Vladimir Putin told Paul McCartney that it wasn’t Ronald Reagan that ended the Cold War, it was The Beatles – that once Russian kids heard that sound, they stopped caring about the Communist Party and just wanted to join the world party. When they grew up, they pulled the plug on the USSR and came out to dance.