Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Songs that Remind Me of My Church Mission

In Doñihue, August 1980
My church mission to Chile in 1979-80 was an important time in my life, and there are a lot of songs that conjure up memories of that period for me. I wrote down a list of such songs in the third volume (of three) of my missionary journal; they aren't in any kind of order, but I'll present them here in a sort of chronological order based on the areas in which I served.

Trip to Utah (January 1, 1979). 
"I Can See Clearly Now" (Johnny Nash, 1972) - My parents drove me up from Albuquerque to Provo on Monday, January 1, 1979, as I was due to enter the MTC that Thursday. I remember two things about the trip: the first was a murder-mystery drama that we listened to on the radio (involving a college professor and a female student with whom he was having an affair, and whom he was later accused of murdering), and the other was hearing my father hum along to Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" when it came on the radio. The latter seemed incongruous for two reasons: (1) my father generally hated the pop music of his children's generation, so it was extraordinary for him to hum along to anything I might have liked; and (2) the lyrics of the song (e.g., It's gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day) didn't square with the gray, wintry weather and (especially) the apprehension I was feeling about being away from home for two years. 

Missionary Training Center (Provo, UT) (January-March 1979)

"Daisy Jane" (America, 1975) - We weren't supposed to be in possession of recorded music in the MTC, but my companion Wayne Illes and I purchased several cassettes at the BYU Bookstore and listened to them occasionally. One of them was America's greatest-hits album, which contained "Daisy Jane," a sentimental love song that resonated deeply with me (and with a lot of other missionaries, I imagine).
"Bright Fire" (Fleetwood Mac, 1973) - The only Fleetwood Mac album I had with me during my mission was Bare Trees, but it was Bob Welch's tune "Bright Fire" (from the Penguin album) that I couldn't get out of my head at night when I was trying to fall asleep. I had never studied so hard and so long, and for such an extended period of time, as I did in the MTC, and consequently it was extremely difficult to turn my mind "off" when it came time to sleep. (It was the first, but hardly the last, time in my life that I suffered from insomnia.)
"Backdoor Love Affair" (ZZ Top, 1971) - I have no idea why, but the last part of "Backdoor Love Affair" (i.e., the power chords) stuck in my head as I was trying to memorize the "canned" LDS missionary discussions (in Spanish) that were in use at the time, and it just wouldn't shake loose. I had only heard the song once or twice during the previous summer while driving around with my friend Tracy Carroll in his car; however, the human mind is a funny thing, and when it's overtaxed and fatigued, who can predict what it will latch onto?

La Florida (March-June 1979)
"Promesas" (Juan Carlos Duque, 1979) - I've already written extensively about this song and its significance to me personally.
"Sólo tú" (Matia Bazar, 1978) - One of the benefits of living in Chile was becoming aware of some of the European pop scene that one would not otherwise be exposed to in the U.S. Matia Bazar was an Italian group whose Spanish-language version of the offbeat tune "Sólo tú" was played a lot on Chilean radio in early 1979. Antonella Ruggiero, the female lead singer, lent an especially alluring quality to the song -- in contrast to her harder-edged vocals on the group's (later) big European hit, "Ti sento."
"Rasputin" (Boney M, 1978) - A disco dance number that told an engrossing, borderline-comical story about Grigori Rasputin -- "Russia's greatest love machine" -- that few Chileans could understand without translation.
"She's Gone" (Hall & Oates, 1973) - I'm not sure I ever actually heard this song while I was in Chile, but, being one of my favorites (and evoking so many conflicting emotions in me), it was always in my head. I will always associate it with a particular afternoon of "tracting" (door-to-door proselytizing) in a La Florida neighborhood called "Villa San Rafael" in roughly May of 1979; I'll never forget that day's fiery-red sunset.
"Just the Way You Are" (Billy Joel, 1977) - Another song that stayed in my head, mostly because it reminded me of good times I'd had at home and at BYU as a freshman. Billy Joel's The Stranger album was one of three cassettes that I took with me to Chile; I still regard it as a pop masterpiece
"Hold the Line" (Toto, 1978) - Toto's first album had come out in 1978, and I remember reading about its guitarist, Steve Lukather, in Guitar Player magazine, which I read religiously before my mission. I don't particularly care for any of the group's music now, but "Hold the Line" definitely reminds me of Chile.
"I Will Survive" (Gloria Gaynor, 1978) - The popularity of disco music lingered on in Chile for quite a while after it waned in the U.S., which is the main reason why it was a mild shock to me to come back to America and find that disco here was dead as the proverbial doornail.
"In the Navy" (Village People, 1978) - This song was definitely the tail end of the weird phenomenon that was the Village People. The gay innuendos in their music continued to fly over a lot of people's heads, however.
"A Little More Love" (Olivia Newton-John, 1978) - I was never much of an Olivia fan, but her 1978 album Totally Hot, which represented a sort of transition from country music to rock 'n' roll, had a few tunes that I liked.
"Le Freak" (Chic, 1978) - I guess Chic was kind of a disco band, although their music was pretty funked-up compared to most late-70s dance music. The song reminds me of Chile because a missionary I knew used to sing the signature "Awww, freak out!" line as "Awww, chuec out!" -- a sort of Americanization of the Chilean colloquialism "chueco" (literally a "crooked person," but a "laggard" or "rule-breaker" in Chilean slang).

San Fernando (July-November 1979)
"Chiquitita" (ABBA, 1979) - One could recall how popular ABBA was in America in the late 70s and still have no idea how much bigger they were in Latin America, especially since they typically put out Spanish-language versions of their singles. I still remember the lines I liked best from the Spanish version of "Chiquitita": Chiquitita, no hay que llorar / las estrellas brillan por ti allá en lo alto / Quiero verte sonreír para compartir / tu alegría, Chiquitita.
"Voy a perder la cabeza por tu amor" (José Luis Rodríguez, 1979) - There were two recordings of this song that were popular in Chile in 1979, the other being by Julio Iglesias. I came to prefer Julio's version, but the Venezuelan Rodríguez's version reminds me more of Chile, especially since it was the theme song of a popular soap opera called "Viviana," starring the Mexican actress Lucía Méndez.)
"Gloria" (Umberto Tozzi, 1978) - This is the song that later became a hit (with bland English lyrics) for Laura Branigan in the U.S. in 1982. I never really thought that Tozzi, an Italian, was much of a singer or a songwriter, but he was a major sex symbol in Chile, and his Spanish-language version of "Gloria" could be heard just about everywhere there in 1979.
"Sólo pienso en ti" (Victor Manuel, 1979) - A poignant "Benny and Joon" song about a developmentally disabled couple who met, fell in love, and ultimately married and had (normal) children together.
"Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress)" (Hollies, 1972) - This song can't help but remind me of San Fernando, as the owner of a "roving" carnival, which took up temporary occupation of a vacant lot in my area, played it over and over on his scratchy PA system.
"To Each His Own" (America, 1972) - I don't think I'd ever heard this song before I borrowed several cassettes belonging to Amalia Rojas (LDS girl in the branch I was assigned to in San Fernando), which she in turn had "inherited" from another missionary.  I was never a great America fan  -- least of all their nonsensical lyrics -- but I liked this tune instantly and keep it on my iPod(s) now.
"Country Road" (James Taylor, 1970) - Another tune from Amalia Rojas's cassette collection that reminds me of San Fernando.  I'd heard the song numerous times before my mission -- the first time being in 1970, when my brother Kelly bought James Taylor's album Sweet Baby James on 8-track -- but it's definitely a "mission song" for me now. 
"Pregúntale" (Julio Iglesias, 1978) - Far and away my favorite Julio Iglesias song and the only one I ever learned to play on the guitar. 
"The Rain, the Park, and Other Things" (Cowsills, 1967) - There was a small radio station in San Fernando that literally played this song every broadcast day.  I had always liked the tune from my childhood -- I was one of a million young American boys who had a crush on Susan Cowsill at the time -- but it takes me back to Chile now.

Ñuñoa (December 1979-January 1980)
"Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" (Michael Jackson, 1979) - I didn't even know who sang this song until several months after I first heard it, but it got tons of airplay in Santiago while I was in Ñuñoa, and I associate it with the antipodal summer of 1979-80.
"Babe" (Styx, 1979)  - Lots of people make fun now of how syrupy this song was/is, but it still holds good memories for me. 
"I Just Want to Stop" (Gino Vanelli, 1978) - A song I don't really like now, but....
"Please Don't Go" (KC and the Sunshine Band, 1979) - I wasn't a KC fan, and I pretty much loathed their disco hits of the mid-70s, but this number was a hit in Chile back in the day.
"Good Times" (Chic, 1979) - Oh, well!
"Crazy Little Thing Called Love" (Queen, 1979) - Another tune that I heard numerous times before finding out who'd recorded it.  It's a great period piece and probably would have been a smash in 1958. 
"Pop Muzik" (M, 1979) - Can't listen to it now, but this song was one of a number of early electronic-style dance numbers that presaged a lot of what followed  in the 80s.

La Cisterna (February-June 1980) 
"Give a Little Bit" (Supertramp, 1977) - I guess I'd probably heard this song before 1980, since it's in the soundtrack of the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie that came out in 1978.  It was in La Cisterna that I first took notice of it, however.
"Another Brick in the Wall" (Pink Floyd, 1979) - There was no mistaking who did this song, as I'd listened to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album a lot as a teenager.  David Gilmour's guitar solo on this tune is still one of my favorites after three-plus decades.
"Longer" (Dan Fogelberg, 1979) - I can't listen much to it now, but "Longer" was one of the great pop ballads of the era. It reminds me now of the Moraga family, members of the church who lived in our area and in whose house we hung out a lot, at least until it started to affect my morale.  (They had a large, comfortable house that reminded me somewhat of home.) 
"The Logical Song" (Supertramp, 1979) - My companion in La Cisterna, Kent Bawden, bought a cassette of Supertramp's Breakfast in America album, and thus I became familiar with all the tunes on it.  They all bring back rather dark memories of La Cisterna now.
"Por ella" (Julio Iglesias, 1978) - Probably Julio's best "lover's lament" song -- something he practically invented.
"The Year of the Cat" (Al Stewart, 1976) - One of my favorite pop numbers of all time.  In the pensión where we lived, our "mamita's" brother had this tune on vinyl, and I played it a number of times and came to love it.
"Him" (Rupert Holmes, 1979) - Rupert Holmes is someone who might have had more hits in the 80s if he'd been a pretty boy with big hair; alas, he was another "homely" casualty of MTV.
"Take the Long Way Home" (Supertramp, 1979) - My favorite Supertramp song by far. 
"Coward of the County" (Kenny Rogers, 1979) - I generally hate country music, but this song was played a lot on Chilean radio.
"Píntame con besos" (Albert Hammond, 1980) - An infantile Latin American pop song that somewhat incongruously had very suggestive lyrics.
"Cars" (Gary Numan, 1979) - A song that pioneered a lot of what became synthesizer-based, 1980s new wave music.  There wasn't much to it, but it sounded cool and had a great beat; it predated the "electronic drum/drum machine" fad of the 80s, so it has an actual drummer on it playing actual drums.
"What a Fool Believes" (Doobie Brothers, 1978) - I was a big Doobie Brothers fan in the mid-70s, but I didn't like their later stuff, mostly because I couldn't get into Michael McDonald.  Thus this song is another one that I don't really like but which nonetheless holds "mission" memories for me.
"Heart of Glass" (Blondie, 1978) - Most of the Blondie craze happened while I was in Chile, and they weren't quite as popular there as they evidently were in the States; however, several of their songs remind me of my mission.

Doñihue (July-August 1980)
"Mamma Maremma" and "Yo caminaré" (Umberto Tozzi, 197?) - I may as well lump these two songs together -- both got a lof of airplay in 1980.
"Phoenix" (Dan Fogelberg, 1979) - My companion Knute Sorensen's girlfriend sent him Fogelberg's album Phoenix on a cassette, and I came to like the title song.

"La paz de tu sonrisa" (Roberto Carlos, 1980) - A guy from Brazil once described Robert Carlos to me as the Brazilian "Frank Sinatra" -- someone whom the older generation liked but who was too middle-of-the-road for the younger set.  Chileans must not have gotten that message, however, because practically everyone liked him there.  This was the only song of his that I really liked, and I even worked out my own arrangement of it on the guitar.
"Funky Town" (Lipps, Inc.,1980) - A disco song with some new-wave sensibilities (e.g., programmed drum loops, a novelty in 1980).
"Let's Go" (Cars, 1979) - I knew of the Cars in 1978 before I left on my mission, but their sound was still too quirky for me until I got back from Chile.  I remember liking "Let's Go" when I heard it on Chilean radio, however.

La Florida (Barrio Portales) (September-December 1980)  
"All Out of Love" (Air Supply, 1980) - Air Supply was way too sappy for my tastes, although I remember this song from Chile because a local kid once asked me to write out the (English) lyrics for him.
"De do do do, De da da da" (Police, 1980) - I guess the Police had been around for a couple of years when I first heard this song, although I didn't know them.  Sting's voice had a sort of  "Peter Cetera" quality to it, so I originally wondered if it was Chicago (minus the horn section, obviously); it mildly surprised me later to find out the artist was a band I'd never heard of before.
"Rapper's Delight" (Sugarhill Gang, 1979) - The very first of the rap songs that sampled someone else's tune as a foundation (in this case, Chic's "Good Times").  It was a lot of fun to listen to, unlike the entire hip-hop genre to which it gave birth.
"Never Been Any Reason" (Head East, 1975) - It surprises me that this song was first released in 1975, as I never remember hearing it until the latter part of my mission.  It seemed like a new tune when I got back to BYU and a number of cover bands in Provo had it in their repertoire.
"You May Be Right" (Billy Joel, 1980) - Another song whose artist I mistook for someone else, in this case the Rolling Stones.  (I still think Billy Joel purposely tried to make it sound like the Stones.)  I might have known better, but I only ever heard the song in passing; people's radios were always on everywhere we went, but we of course never had a radio of our own.

So there it is.  Nothing triggers memories for me quite like music, and this list of songs is a powerful reminder that I really was in Chile for two years, an experience that often seems as though it had all been a dream from which I long ago woke up.

[Update 4/3/14: I made a Youtube playlist of all these songs.  It isn't perfect, especially since the owner of the Supertramp copyrights evidently guards them with great jealousy, but it should give anyone an idea of what takes me back to my time in Chile.]

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What planet are we on?

1. The Manhattan Project.  I have a copy of an anthology titled The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians (ed. Cynthia C. Kelly, Black Dog & Leventhal, 2007) (see illustration).  It's a very interesting read and highlights the fact that the notion of nuclear fission went from bare theory to a full-blown weapons application in the space of about seven years.  One can question the development of the atomic bomb (although the original driver for the project was the quite-rational fear that Nazi Germany would get the bomb first, and, in any case, advances in physics made nuclear weapons inevitable at some point in time), or, especially, the U.S.'s dropping it on Japanese cities to hasten Japan's surrender at the end of World War II.  However, taken purely as a matter of science and engineering, what the Manhattan Project accomplished in the three years between 1942 and 1945 was nothing short of miraculous.  (The space race of the 1960s, which culminated in the manned Apollo lunar landings in 1969-1972, produced equally prodigious results, if in a slightly longer timeframe.)  Which raises the question whether the U.S., or multiple countries acting in concert, could achieve anything today on a similar scale of innovation.  Yes, there have been fantastic inventions in the last 20-25 years; we have the Internet, portable computers, smart phones, iPods, PS3s, HD televisions, Blu-ray players, computer-aided design/manufacturing, 3D printers, lidar imaging systems, other-worldly satellite capabilities, high-yield farming, the Hubble space telescope, etc.  But where are the hydrogen-powered automobiles, the readily available fusion energy, and the transformative technologies (versus government handouts and subsidies) that would provide shelter, food, clean drinking water, and gainful employment to the world's poor?  I firmly believe we have the brain power and resources necessary to do all that -- what we lack is the will, a sense of urgency, and perhaps the requisite level of altruistic humanity.

2. Duke University's resident porn star.  I read a news story recently reporting that a female student at Duke University, the prestigious private university in North Carolina, is financing her education by "acting" in porn films.  (She apparently was "outed" when a male Duke student recognized her while watching Internet porn.)  One can sort of see her point -- how does one pay for an education at an extremely expensive college without rich parents and without running up six-figure student loan debts, at exorbitant interest rates, that take decades to pay off?  (On the other hand, isn't a college education supposed to enable people, particularly women, to avoid degrading work -- above all, in the sex trades?)  Based on the young woman's comments as quoted in the story, she's a free spirit who doesn't care much about her public image and thinks doing porn is "fun"; she plans to go to law school and has already carefully determined that having been a porn "actress" won't create "character" issues that might prevent her from being admitted to the bar.  (The cynic in me would say, to the contrary, it only enhances her qualifications to be a lawyer.)  So what can the university say about all this?  Colleges in general have done so little to control costs, in turn allowing tuition and fees to skyrocket in the confidence that young people will always be willing to pay them, that they almost cannot judge what anyone does -- legally and by choice, at least -- to be able to afford an education.  Institutions of higher learning may still cling to the self-delusion that a great part of their mission is to develop character in their students; however, whatever one thinks of this young woman's source of income, she puts the lie to that canard.  She is precisely at the intersection of American higher education and American popular culture.

[Update 3/7/14: I noticed last night that this young woman was on CNN (although I declined to watch her interview), so the story isn't going away.  This is the last reference I'll make to her, however.]

3. Mann v. Steyn, et al. I've been keenly interested in the libel lawsuit that Michael Mann, climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, has filed against the National Review and the columnist Mark Steyn.  The suit is a prime example of how litigation is often used in the U.S. to silence one's critics -- just run up their attorneys' fees and make their lives miserable with discovery requests and repeated motion hearings, and they'll usually try to settle -- underscoring why we should have the same "loser pays the winner's attorneys' fee" rule that Britain has.  (It will never happen, as trial lawyers have way too much influence on American politics to allow a change that would discourage the filing of lawsuits.)  It's getting to the point where proponents of anthropogenic "climate change," who have always been humorless and thin-skinned -- not to mention their being less than forthright about their research -- believe all skeptics should simply be made to shut up, which is not only inimical to rights guaranteed under the First Amendment but also a pretty strong indication that the "warmists" are losing ground in the public debate over global warming.  Michael Mann, however, seems to be particularly petulant when it comes to being criticized, although he should have known that Mark Steyn would never just give up, based on the latter's dogged defense (and ultimate vindication) of free speech in Canada's execrable "human rights commissions."  Indeed, it's easy to foresee an outcome in which Mann has to choose between making full disclosure of his research methods and results -- after all, the discovery process cuts both ways in civil litigation -- and having the suit dismissed.  I think it's as likely as not that Mann will be the one throwing in the towel in the end, but a trial, pitting free speech against climate-science dogma, would be sensational to say the least.

4. Stupid things I've done.  Every once in a while, I remember things that I've done that were so stupid that they still cause me to cringe with embarrassment or shame.  Most of them were the result of immaturity, although it must be said that I'll always be immature for my age; thus I remain susceptible to embarrassing myself.  Still, there are some things for which I can't forgive myself, largely because -- immature or not -- I knew better.  I'll give one example: when I was in second grade, at age 7, I remember tormenting a girl named Susan Boardman one time outside of school.  Susan was a Mormon girl, physically frail and developmentally challenged...and, far from being the friend, defender, and sympathetic coreligionist I should have been, I did as other kids did and made fun of her.  Her plaintive cries of "'Top it!  'Top it!" will haunt me to my grave, and possibly beyond.  I hadn't quite yet reached the LDS "age of accountability" (8 years old) at that time, but it's still one of a number of things that I feel I can never atone for.

5. LDS Sunday meeting schedules.  It seems weird to think about the church meeting schedules we had when I was young and how different things are now.  Our ward, the Albuquerque 6th Ward, always had Primary on Wednesday afternoons, which meant that our teachers were strictly women.  My own mother went back to work when I was in the second grade, so one of our neighbors, Betty Iverson, used to drive a number of us kids to church and back on Wednesdays; I always loathed having to go on a weekday.  What is now Primary on Sundays used to be known as "Junior Sunday School," and Sunday School in general was separate from sacrament meeting, which was always on Sunday evenings.  (The schedule was slightly different on Fast Sundays, when fast-and-testimony meetings took place right after Sunday School.)  After I finally got out of Primary and became an Aaronic Priesthood holder at age 12 in 1971, it was very common for my father and me to make three separate trips (three miles one way) to church at the Eubank Blvd. building on Sundays -- one in the morning for priesthood meeting, a second at midday for Sunday School, and a third in the evening for a 90-minute sacrament meeting.  (For some years we had a bishop named Delbert T. Goates...apt name...who preferred having the late sacrament-meeting time -- thus we had the 5:30-7:00 pm time slot for years on end.)  The three-hour "consolidated" Sunday meeting schedule, first implemented in the early 80s, was a major improvement.  It did away with week-day Primary, long sacrament meetings, multiple trips to church every Sunday, "Junior Sunday School," and multiple administrations of the sacrament on Sunday (both in Sunday School "opening exercises" -- junior and senior -- and in sacrament meeting).  The one downside was that church members had fewer opportunities to visit with each other before and after meetings (although I'm so antisocial that you'd think I'd regard that as yet another positive).  The old "disjointed" meeting schedule seems completely antiquated now.

6. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.  It's old news that President Bill Clinton had a dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in the late 1990s, even though some Republicans seem to want to use it to attempt to cast a shadow on his wife Hillary in advance of the 2016 presidential election.  I got a good laugh, however, out of one liberal writer's incredulous reaction to the accusation that the media had done all they could to suppress the Clinton-Lewinsky story.  This writer wrote something to the effect of, "Man, just go back and look at news stories from 1998!  It was all Lewinsky, all the time!  The media couldn't get enough of her!"  I saw great irony there.  Never mind that it took Matt Drudge to break the story (when at least one "mainstream" journalist, Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, had known even more about it) -- most of the media's "frenzy" to cover the story entailed spinning it, in whatever manner necessary, to keep Clinton in office.  It obviously worked, but at a tremendous cost to journalistic credibility.  Conservatives know that no Republican president could have survived such an episode: one, other Republicans would never have tried to defend him, and the media (and feminists, whose credibility took an even greater hit for having "gone to the wall" for Clinton) would absolutely have drawn and quartered him.  The near-complete lack of self-awareness among leftoid reporters is hilarious at times.