What soundtrack do you listen to when you’re writing about the end of the world?
Err…check that. The end of the world is easy — you listen to this.
But what about when the world shakes? When it seems like everything is changing in the blink of an eye?
I don’t remember the moon landings. I don’t remember Kennedy’s assassination. I don’t remember the beginning — or the end — of WW2. Hell, I don’t really even remember the end of Vietnam. But what I do remember…
I remember the explosion of the Challenger.
I remember 9-11.
I remember the beginnings, and the ends, of both Gulf Wars.
I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Hoo boy, do I remember the fall of the Wall. It was my first real adult memory, in fact. The first world-shaking event that was real to me — which is saying something, given that I was a college kid at the time, bent mostly on mostly on drinking beer and meeting girls (not necessarily — but usually — in that order).
I watched the wall fall on TV. I watched what I thought at the time — what we all thought — was a changing of the world, the emergence of a new future. Hell, being a kid, I thought it was the end of the older generation, the end of our parents’ generation, and the emergence of ours as the true power…
We would be different, I thought.
We would change everything.
We wouldn’t fuck things up. Not again.
And now, thirty years later, what do I think?
What a naive little shit was I.
I have friends who stood in Wenceslaus Square, alongside so many thousands of other, and shook their keys at the Soviet-backed government to tell them it was time to go…
I know a man, even, who was one of the last to sneak over the border between Czech and Austria. One of the last to flee home and family to seek for more, to find a better way to live…
I have to talked to them all, over the years, about those fateful days three decades ago. Over beers and over coffee; in peaceful chats and in heated arguments; in words pensive and wistful, and in words callous and cold; in every conceivable way we have talked about those days. It matters, I think, that we were all roughly the same age when the wall fell. Oh, we all lived vastly different lives — both before that point, and after — but we all had the energy and optimism that only really comes in those particular years of life.
With all our differences — with the vast gulf in experiences that exist between an optimistic child of 1980’s America and the bitter cynics who grew up under the Soviets — it turns out that we all felt the same: everything was going to change. It was all going to be better.
We were all naive little shits.
As a part of my twin emphases on languages and history in college, I studied my share of foreign relations. I studied, mostly, how the US related with Central and Eastern Europe. I studied Eisenhower and Kennedy, Stalin and Kruschev. I studied Acheson and Kennan. I studied Kissinger and Brzezinski. I didn’t just study, I lived Reagan and Gorbachev…
None of that study, none of that knowledge, prepared me for the “end.” None of it prepared me for the change, and for the hope of what could be.
Sadly, it did prepare me for what actually came next.
Next verse, same as the old verse.
If you dropped one of those guys I studied in college into the modern world, just how different do you think they would find it? Oh the technology is different…the fringes of society are different…the culture is different…but the realpolitik? George Kennan could step into the US State Department and feel right at home when he looked at the world situation.
I’ve said it before: humanity can — and presumably will — fuck anything up.
To a young college kid — to my whole generation, really — thirty years ago, we had it all right there in our hands. We had optimism and hope, we had the future.
And look what we’ve done with it.
So, back to the question of the soundtrack…
I thought about a number of songs; about a number of ways to capture that feeling of three decades ago. I thought about this, and even this. I thought about a whole host of songs, in fact, both old and new. I thought about them, but in the end there was only one choice, only one song that (to me) defined that time and those events even as they were happening: