Friday, October 23, 2009


When I was a kid, partway through high school, there was a song on the radio that has always, for me, summed up the whole us-and-them thing of the Cold War. It was a song written by British songwriter Tom Robinson, but made famous where I live by a Toronto band called Pukka Orchestra. The song was called Listen to the Radio (Atmospherics).

I must be getting old now because I've reached a point in my life where it's possible for me to say, I guess there people now who don't remember what that was like. Countries I grew up thinking of as, essentially, enemies (or at least, potential enemies) of mine are now in the European Union and, more incredible, NATO. But when I listen to Listen to the Radio, I'm right back there in my mid-teens, with the Iron Curtain and the ever-present threat of World War III.

I realize now that most of the references are to West German culture (remember when there were still two Germanys, kids?), but in my mind, the song was always about the stale struggle to get by behind the Iron Curtain; the little joys you held onto in getting through life. For me, the meat of the song comes towards the end, with the music growing heavy and oppressive, and the singer intoning...

Atmospherics after dark
Noise and voices from the past
Across the dial from Moscow to Cologne:
Interference in the night
Thousand miles on either side
Stations fading into the unknown

...That part still gives me goosebumps. I would picture someone like me, just a few years older, huddled in his dimly-lit kitchen somewhere beyond the Elbe, winter just outside his window, trying to tune into the West to rekindle his hope for a better future. It was a romantic notion. Given that my political bent is mostly leftist, there was also a certain envy... I admit it; one of the things I always found warming about the East bloc – and never once forgetting the limits on personal liberty or the tribulations of the thousands who managed (or didn't) to escape westward over the decades – was the idea that the state existed to serve the people, belonged to the people, was the people. I know we have words like that here but it never seemed as real to me as the unrealized ideal of communism on the other side. I always wanted some sort of synthesis of the two... our freedoms, their securities. Some countries in Europe come close.

Whenever I listen to the song now, it brings back so many things... my youth, idealism; that lost world of commies and "good" guys; that sense that the world was on the brink, today, now, always... And that small, homey, struggling-but-it'll-be-alright feeling the lyrics and the tune embodied for me.

Things could have been worse. We never blew the world up (though, of course, it's still possible). But I have this sense it could have been better, too. The West seems to have grown more callous and uncaring since then; it's almost like, as little as we wanted to live like them, the communists set some kind of standard for us, at least in principle, that we had to live up to too... and now that they're gone, we can just let ourselves go and be swept away by the corporations and the ever-increasing excesses of plutocracy. I can't help feeling we lost something vital in "winning" the Cold War.

P.S. Pukka Orchestra's video of the song, which I feel treats the theme far, far too lightly. Close your eyes, please, when you listen...

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