Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thin White Rope in Lithuania

I figured that most of you are probably expecting me to rant on about the latest chapter in California’s Proposition 8 battle. I have some pretty strong feelings about the whole thing, of course. But right now I’m still processing the whole thing. I do think that the Supreme Court’s decision was gutless and cynical. The Chief Justice embarrassingly waffled on his earlier decision, and leaving me, Skip and some 18,000 other gay couples still married is just confusing nonsense. I suspect the Court was playing duck-and-cover while trying to satisfy everyone. Instead they satisfied no one. But I’ll wax poetically on this whole thing on another date. I just don’t feel like it now.

But I’ll leave this subject with a few links to some heroes:



And one that doesn’t please me much:


Obama needs to realize that kicking qualified people out of the military is not a fringe issue. What they are doing is hurting our military chances for success during a time when we are in two wars. It’s not something to joke about. I’m willing to wait on DOMA and other gay issues, but this one is hurting the whole damned country and the longer he waits to act on it, the more he’ll look like a fool in the end.


Now, enough of that. I really want to tell another Thin White Rope road story. This one is another from the three week long tour of the Soviet Union in December of 1988. During that trip, we visited Moscow and Tbilisi in Soviet Georgia. We also visited two cities in Lithuania and that’s where these stories come from.

We visited two cities in Lithuania at the end of the tour. The first city was Vilnius (, where we played three nights, I believe. Then we went on to Kaunas (, where we played another two.

I don’t remember much about Kaunas. I vaguely remember touring an old castle covered in ice and snow. I remember hearing the Go-Gos on a tape playing at a restaurant we were at, which was the first sign of any Western Culture I had experienced since arriving in the Soviet Union several weeks before. I also remember that the place we played was a giant sports hall. When the band hit the stage for the first show, the local crew poured so much smoke out of their smoke machine that the band had to stop playing until some of it cleared and they could see what they were doing. I also remember being lured into a janitor’s room by a group of young men, who produced a bottle of homemade schnapps that was clear, beautiful and practically blew the top of my skull off when I drank some of it. Unfortunately, I don’t remember anything else of that particular escapade. (Oh, the chances I took back then. It all made so much sense when I was younger.)

Vilnius is much clearer in my memories. It was the coldest place I had ever been in my life. We went out shopping one day and had to duck into each store along the way to warm up. We could feel our eyes freezing in our skulls. That shopping trip was pretty fun in its own way. We had been told that the Soviets were paying us in rubles, which were worthless to us. It was also against the law to take their money out of the country, although I still own a nice selection of Soviet coins to this day. So we had to spend any money we they gave us and take it out of the country in product. We found a musical instrument store and went wild in there. I wanted to buy this old synthesizer that was huge and looked more like Sputnik than an instrument, but it was way too big and heavy for me to carry on to a plane. I satisfied myself instead by buying an assortment of cheap balalaikas, domras and accordions, which I brought home and gave to friends for Christmas presents.

The hall we played was a rather nice place. When we arrived, a group of women were walking down the aisles of seats affixing numbers into the back of each seat. When I asked about it, our guide told us that it was what they did. They put the numbers on the seats each night and then took them all off that evening, even if there wasn’t a show that day. When I asked why they did it if there wasn’t a show, I was simply told, “because it’s their job.” I guess that policy kept people working and to this day I still wonder about the contrasts of working mindlessly versus not working at all.

As was usual with the Soviets, the sound system wasn’t up to what we asked for and a search started up for the items we needed to get the right sound. Our drummer, Matt, was also running low on snare drum heads and we needed some replacements. That turned out to be the hardest search though. The only replacement drumheads we could find were owned by a local band, who told us that we could borrow theirs. But as soon as Matt hit a drum head, it broke and the band started screaming bloody murder. They had to get their drumheads from out of the country and they were terribly expensive. But the ones they had were like tissue paper, especially for a drummer who played as hard as Matt did. It was a huge problem, but somehow, with the use of duct tape and ingenuity, we managed to make it work until the end of the tour. I believe that once we made it home from this tour, we sent the band a whole slew of new drumheads. We never heard from them, but I imagine it they must had freaked them out, the sight of such wealth.

I also remember our bus getting in an accident with a car one afternoon. The drivers got out and the two talked for awhile. Then they exchanged some info and both got in their vehicles and went their ways. When I asked about it, I was told that it was no problem because the government would pay for whatever damage needed to be fixed. This was all my first exposure to a socialized anything.

There was also another one of our drunken evenings that almost caused an international incident. One night, after we returned from one of our shows, we all went to one room and continued drinking some of the beer and vodka that had been provided for us. Someone, and I believe it could have been Guy, was looking out the window at the snow covered ground. He mentioned how much fun it would be to go sledding if we only had sleds. And that’s all it took. Before I knew it, toilet seats were being ripped off toilets and everyone was outside sledding down icy hills and crashing into trees. It was truly a whole lot of frozen fun.

The next morning the hotel didn’t think it was that much fun though. There had been several complaints of noise and when the maids discovered the damaged toilets and reported that to the front desk, all hell broke loose. At first the hotel demanded that we find another hotel to stay at, which I was told would have been a difficult thing at that late notice. But then the promoters greased some palms and promised to have all the toilets fixed. And of course, we put on our halos and promised not to misbehave anymore. The hotel relented and we were allowed to stay.

But the event that would haunt us for years also happened at the hotel. Lithuania was the closest country we had played on this Soviet tour to the Western border. They were able to get some Western radio stations there, so there was a bit more of a knowledge of Western art and politics there. Most of the people who came to our packed shows had no idea who we were. Just like everywhere else in the country, they just came to see the Western Band. But there were a few people we met there who were aware of just who the band was and wanted to see the band for fan reasons. The first morning there, we were met in the hotel lobby by a small group of fans wanting autographs, which the band gladly supplied. One of those fans was a dour and frumpy looking girl, with way too much black eye makeup, by the name of Teresa. After that first day, she went to every show and we would wake up each morning to find her waiting in the hotel lobby with a little home made sign that said “MATTHEW” on it. That led us to believe that she was hot for the drummer. It would have been kind of cute if it wasn’t so desperate. She would approach Matt every morning and made it clear through our interpreter, as she didn’t speak a word of English, that she was hoping to come back to America with us, where she would set up house with Matt and live happily ever after.

It got worse and worse. We tried to ignore her, but she would start crying and it was just so pathetic that we felt sorry for the poor girl. She was obviously very unhappy with her life there. But it also was getting kind of creepy, so on the day we were preparing to leave, Matt decided that he couldn’t face her for final goodbyes. She was just sitting in the lobby with black tears streaming down her face and he didn’t want to deal with it. None of us did. So, we decided to sneak him out through a back door. The problem was, we couldn’t find a back door that was unlocked. We went to all the emergency exits to find them all locked as well. Thank the gods there hadn’t been a fire while we were there. No one would have escaped.

In the end, Matt decided to take responsibility for what he really wasn’t responsible for and went into the lobby to face Teresa and tell her goodbye. It was really quite heartbreaking. I finally had to tell Matt it was time to go and he boarded the bus and we left. Teresa was crying hard, with her face pressed to the glass of the hotel and black eye makeup streaming down her face. We thought that was the last we would hear from her.

We were wrong. For the first couple of years after we left the Soviet Union, we would receive letters, addressed to Matt, at the Swingin’ Danglers Fan Club mailing address. These would arrive about every other month and would usually contain some frilly card written in Russian or Lithuanian. She would switch between the two languages, hoping I guess that we would finally be able to understand one of them. There was also usually a picture or two of her with maybe a favorite chicken or other animal. In these pictures, she always looked depressed. I would usually pass these on to Matt, but after a short while, he asked me not to send them, so I stored them away. We never answered them. Then the cards stopped for a long while.

But a couple of years later, we started receiving the cards again. The weird thing was, they were no longer addressed to Matt. Now they were addressed to Stooert, who wasn’t even playing bass with the band at the time of the Soviet tour. This led me to believe that she must have gotten her hands on a copy of “The Ruby Sea” and decided to try some one else since she wasn’t getting any response out of Matt. She must have liked Stoo’s looks, I guess. We received maybe four or five cards addressed like this. Just like the cards sent to Matt, these were usually manufactured frilly greeting cards in Lithuanian. But the pictures in them now contained her posing with other people, usually a stern looking young man and later, a young baby. I finally had a friend translate one of the letters she enclosed and found out that she had been married and had a baby, something I suspected from the pictures.

The final letter we got contained a picture of all three smiling. It was the first picture I had ever seen of her where she looked happy. We never got another letter from her after that. It’s been about ten years now. I hope she finally found the happiness that was so desperately missing from her life.

The only other event I can remember from this tour was meeting the leader of the Free Lithuania Movement and going to dinner with him. The main reason for this was that he was in a band that was very popular in Lithuania. They were very political and the people loved them for it. The government wasn’t that happy about them, but the band was so popular, they decided to ignore them instead. I no longer remember the name of the man or the name of his band. That actually makes me feel kind of sad.

The main reason he wanted to go to dinner was that his band was being noticed by a promoter from America who wanted to bring them over to tour and he wanted to show me the contract he was being offered. He did and I was appalled. The contract basically made the band responsible for everything and the promoter responsible for nothing. If the tour went good, the band would make a little money, but the bulk of it would go to the promoter. If the tour did terrible, and the chances were that it would, then the promoter would not be responsible for any of the monetary damage, the band would have to pay for everything.

I told the guy to forget it. He was going to get ripped off. This led to a long and rather interesting conversation about what was expected when Lithuania finally achieved its independence, which was going to happen sooner than either of us suspected. This guy and the organization he ran had no idea of the economic realities of the real world. I warned him that he needed to investigate those realities, not just for the sake of his band, but for the sake of his country. He didn’t seem convinced and the last I saw of him, he was still saying that he wanted to bring the band here and he could handle whatever problems arose.

In never heard another word from him or his band, so I assume they never made it to America to tour. Lithuania found itself to be a free country a year later when the Berlin Wall fell. Now they have one of the fastest growing economies in the European Union, so somebody knew what they were doing, or at least found out really fast.

I liked what I saw of Lithuania, although I imagine it must be a very different country now than when I visited it under Soviet rule. Someday I’d like to go back and visit again, especially in the summer time when it isn’t covered with ice and snow. The pictures I’ve seen show a beautiful place and it’s on my list of future vacation spots.


That’s it for this week. I’ll be back again with something else in the next week or so. I’m playing with a few ideas and we’ll see how they develop. As always, thanks for reading and supporting me with this venture. Stay happy and stay well. -ML

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