Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union changed the world by launching Sputnik 1, the first man-made object to orbit the Earth. Thus began the Space Race and the rush to create agencies in the United States like NASA and DARPA. Dollars were poured into scientific research and education. Many things we take for granted now - like the Internet - eventually came out of the West's panicked reaction to Sputnik and the thought of Soviet superiority in space.
I am just old enough and young enough that Sputnik's shadow hovered over my childhood. I was born just a little more than a handful of years after that first metal satellite orbited our planet, and nearly a handful of years before man set foot on the moon. It was a point when the Cold War was growing warmer, and I developed an early fascination with All Things Soviet.
Without the mania and growth and competition and fear that came in Sputnik's wake, who knows if I would have grown up to become a Russian-speaking kinda-historian? I was a Cold War baby who wanted to see what was on the other side of the Iron Curtain. And, in time, I saw it, in spades.
That all seems like a lifetime ago.
Today, I rarely use my language skills, except at the local Russian grocery store or to talk back to the pseudo-intellectuals that yammer on the local Russian cable TV channel. But last month, a friend of mine gave me an opportunity I couldn't pass up. He asked if I could help him with a small element of a project he was preparing. Could I come up with Russian song lyrics for a melody he'd crafted for an upcoming concert in England to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik?
Who could say no to that?!?
It was a blast to help a friend and collaborate on something really creative. Writing lyrics that make sense and rhyme and match the rhythm of a melody is tough enough in your native language, but it was a good head-scratcher in Russian. I loved it. Made me think. I even ran the lyrics past my old Russian professor at Mac (who gave me a good drubbing for my single grammar mistake, which I fixed with the change of one verb, I'm happy to say.) I think my friend was pleased with the finished product - I made him an mp3 of me singing it (fortunately, right before I completely lost my voice to pneumonia!) where I went awfully sharp, but he was still able to add keyboards to it for me to get an idea of what the final song would sound like - ambient, ethereal, celestial. Just lovely.
The concert was last night, in a city where I once lived (and got many bad 80s haircuts!) I'm so sorry I couldn't be there. But, even had I been able to buy a ticket to London, I don't think my back, post-accident, would have tolerated the transatlantic flight.
And so, yesterday evening I missed my great three-minute or so debut as Thomas Dolby's Russian-language lyricist, but that's okay. It was simply a delight to help him out. And I hope the audience really dug the song, sung as a duet by Thomas and his friend, Bruce Woolley. Bruce plays the theremin, which is pretty damn cool. Bruce, with Trevor Horn & co., wrote a little ditty called "Video Killed the Radio Star" back in the day. How cool is that, mah fellow children of the real MTV era?
I sent Bruce a note via his MySpace page last week, and he sent back the nicest message as he was working to learn the phonetic Russian I'd provided. I've been humming the song to myself for weeks now. When I was working on the lyrics, I was concentrating so hard, I apparently sang it out loud as I pumped gas one afternoon. The guy across the pump from me just stared like I had a third eye. Considering the number of Soviet emigres in my 'hood, it's entirely possible he understood me and was just wondering what the F I was singing about.
Before he left for the UK, I gave Thomas two vintage Soviet lapel pins, celebrating the launch of Sputnik. They were cast in either 1957 or 1958. I can't quite remember. And I managed to maim Thomas with them when he put them in his pocket and one of those suckers stabbed him in the finger. Lovely. Stab the keyboardist's hand while he's on tour. Jeez, Merujo!
When I find a review of the show online, I'll share it with you. Here's a little skinny from the venue, so you know what this was all about.
I might have been stuck on the sofa in Maryland with my heat pad and a fistful of painkillers last night, but I was in London in spirit, kids. Big time.