The Beirut Blues

Culture Vulture: I've got the Beirut Blues



WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 -- While doing research on the Internet earlier this week, I stumbled across a reference to my junior high school. Previous attempts to locate former classmates had never shed positive results, as the school -- an American Catholic school in Beirut -- was demolished at the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.

The war, which continued for 19 years, helped scatter most of my friends to the far corners of the planet. Finding any of them became a real challenge.

The Internet link led to another, then another, and as a cyber-Inspector Clouseau, I followed a trail of clues until I discovered a Web site set up by a group of kids that I used to hang around with in high school.

(Well, they were kids when I knew them in the mid-1960s).

My initial reaction was one of elation! I had discovered a gold mine of clues and information, e-mail addresses and photographs of friend and acquaintances that I had not heard of, from, or about, in more than 30 years.

I spent a good hour combing the site, looking at current headshots of people I knew three decades earlier, back when their heads were covered with long hair. (Mine used to come down to my shoulders.)

At first glance, these looked nothing like my old chums, people I used to hang out with at the "Milk Bar," (seriously) and "Uncle Sam's," or go dancing with at "La Fin du Monde," "Your Father's Moustache," and the "Revolution."

On the site was a collection of old black-and-white snapshots and names that had almost entirely disappeared from my memory. Some were of friends I hadn't even thought about in years, other photos were of local rock 'n' roll bands from that era, all trying to look like the Rolling Stones, or The Animals.

In those wonderful days of youthful insouciance, before the harsh realities of such trivial items as health insurance, mortgages, and taxes got hold of us like some dreaded disease, life seemed extremely simple. Our priorities were sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

On the sex side, we never really got as much as we would have liked, or pretended to. At least I didn't. Drugs -- well, this was the wild '60s and Lebanese hash was prevalent, making some of our generation experiment more than others, but among the merry gang I hung around with, there were never any hard drugs, and alcohol was never, ever an issue.

Of course the big thing was rock 'n' roll. And of that, there was plenty.

After all, this was pre-civil war Beirut when the Lebanese capital was easily on a par with Monte Carlo for its beauty, easy living, safety and joie de vivre. The Lebanese liked to call their land the Switzerland of the Middle East. The place did attract many international bankers, spies and many other suspicious characters.

So hesitantly at first, I fired off my first e-mail to the "Web master," a guy who used to be known as "Blondie," because of his straight long blonde hair. (In the early 1960s, during the music and love revolution, everyone wanted to look like Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, or Jim Morrison.)

Along with my e-mail, I included, as requested, a current photo of myself.

My message to Blondie was a cautious introductory email, saying something like, "I don't know if you even remember me ..." After all, Blondie was a few years older than me (I think he must have been two or three years older at most) but more important, he was far more "cool" than I ever was.

Blondie today lives in Paris and, because of the time difference, it took more than 12 hours for his reply to reach me.

"Of course I remember you," his return e-mail started, "but you lost a lot of hair!"

Later that night, I was so excited of hooking up with so many old faces, that I couldn't fall asleep. Shortly after midnight, I jumped out of bed and connected back to the homepage. I spent several hours reminiscing, comparing old faces to their current ones. It was like trying to put a complicated puzzle together. The years are never kind. They stole away the innocence we enjoyed and replaced them with graying and receding hairlines, excess pounds, and bags under the eyes.

Among the many names on the list one in particular one jumped out at me. Ian Copeland, brother of drummer Stewart Copeland, who along with Sting, formed the group "Police." After their breakup, Stewart went on to write numerous film scores.

Like in a movie flashback, my mind suddenly drifted back to the early 1960s when I had my own band, the "Wichita Vortex Sutra," so named after a poem written by Allen Ginsberg.

One night -- I think it might have been New Year's Eve -- we landed a big gig at the in-place of the time, a seedy disco called "La Fin du Monde" (the end of the world). But just a few hours before we were due on stage, disaster struck. Our drummer found himself grounded by his mother because of his failing school grades!

Frantically, we scrambled around looking for a replacement, when someone mentioned that Stewart Copeland, whose father, by the way, turned out to be the CIA's top man in the Middle East, was a "fairly good drummer."

I called Stewart at home, and he accepted to play with us. I think this might have been his first public performance. He astonished everyone, played an amazing drum solo and won the admiration of the audience. I remember him placing a bed sheet over the drum set in order to get "a different sound." We earned about $6 each that night.

Drifting back from my reverie, I continued to explore the site. There was Christine, as beautiful as I remembered her, tall and lanky, striding into the "Revolution" and dancing the night away. I think the most courage I ever mustered was to mutter a meek "hello" to her. Now she has a daughter who is almost as old as she used to be. As Georges Moustaki, a famed French folk singer and poet once sang, "Your daughter is 20 years old, how time quickly flies by Madame, yesterday she was still so young, and her first torments are your first facial lines, Madame, and also your first worries."

Some of the faces I had to scrutinize closely, playing that faded memory tape over and over, digging them up from the confines of my mind. Soon, the names and events started to ooze out. The recollections came slowly at first, then like a flood they gathered momentum. One memory brought out another, and another until the ghosts of the past were dancing inside my head the rest of the night.

I was swimming in memories.

There is Janet, as beautiful as ever. (I used to have a crush on her when I was 15). We exchanged e-mail, trying to compact 30 years of lives -- marriages, divorces, children, tragedies -- the ups and downs of everyday lives in a simple few lines of cold e-mail.

"Where have all the years gone," she asks? Indeed.

But as I continued my exploration of the site, the news was not all good. I learned of the premature death of Charlie, another of the "older boys."

"Charlie left us to ride the wind on Christmas 1999," the site explained.

And later, yet, more sad news: the passing away of another friend of old, Janet's sister Shelagh. I remembered her as a happy, kind, and lively person I used to run into at parties around town.

Time, that old enemy, is never kind. As Moustaki goes on to sing ... "Spring leaves you behind."


Claude Salhani, Editor of UPI's Life and Mind Section, grew up in the "good old Beirut."