Jon Carroll and Margot Ann Kunkel went a bit far to get away from, Washington's blistering summer: They spent a week in Siberia. They went voluntarily, as cultural representatives to the Forum for United States-Soviet Dialogue, a 10-year-old, privately funded, non-partisan organization that says it represents a wide spectrum of American political opinions and occupations.
The trip -- with long flights, not enough sleep, a bit too much drinking, a tendency to fall apart at "banana time" (the time of every day when fatigue sets it) -- was in many ways reminiscent of the couple's touring days as half the Grammy award-winning Starland Vocal Band. But Carroll and Kunkel pulled double duty in the Soviet Union, where they spent 2 1/2 weeks, as delegates by day and performers by night. Says Carroll, "it was the ultimate class field trip."
The Forum, an ongoing youth exchange, was an outgrowth of a major one-time-only youth conference held in the Soviet Union in 1971; the Forum was organized by John Holman, a Vietnam Vet Against the War, and since 1972, American and Soviet delegations have alternated visits. This year, 35 Americans participated in the program. "Of course, in Russia, you're a youth if you're under 50," Carroll laughs. "The Communist Youth Organization is a bunch of grown men."
The group's point of entry was Helsinki, where it connected with Aeroflot, "whose pilots still think it's World War II -- those guys just go straight up and straight down." The first three days were spent in Moscow, meeting with officials, sightseeing, eating good food and getting used to large intakes of vodka. "They treated us like heads of state," says Carroll.
Although they'd played together for five years with Starland, and continue to perform together locally as part of Jon Carroll and Metro, the husband-and-wife team had never performed as a duo before this trip. "I've always wanted to, but I'd never been able to convince Jon," Kunkel says. "It was wonderful and I really enjoyed it, but, like John, I missed being in a band. We had to force ourselves to think big with just a piano, guitar and tambourine. It was really limited in feel."
They chose material likely to be familiar to Russian audiences, Carroll explains, "real American songs" -- "Tulsa Time," "I Shall Be Released," Wilburt Harrison's "Kansas City" and Carroll's own "Want Love? Get Closer," which became a "kind of sentimental theme song" (more on that later). They didn't do either of the Starland hits, "Country Roads" or "Afternoon Delight," though one "worldly" interpreter on the tour was familiar with the latter.
Performances were loosely structured and frequently shared with a top Russian pop group, Aeriel. At several stops, Aeriel's drummer and an American delegate who played bass formed an impromptu band for renditions of "Kansas City" and another tour favorite -- "Back in the U.S.S.R." As it turned out, as many shows were done for the visiting Americans as vice versa, and there was "a lot of gift-giving, buttons, what they call 'medals,' saying things like 'Leningrad' or 'October 1917.' "
According to Carroll, the Russian discos were not that much different from American ones, except that above the big dance beat, the tunes tended to be in minor keys. "It was so dramatic that it could be depressing except that it has so much heart-wrenching feeling. I wanted to take all their songs and put them in a major key."
Carroll and Kunkel also got used to hearing "Moscow Nights," the Russian equivalent of "Moon River." "Every night, someone would get drunk and sing it!" Russians, they found, also liked country music to the extent of adopting affected Southern-American accents. "That's how they think everyone in America talks. One guy knew all the American phrases, from 'right on' to 'solid'; he also recited verbatim an advertisement from a San Fransisco car painting shop that he picked up on his shortwave set."
As the Forum progressed, the side trips ranged farther afield -- to sports camps, to experimental communes. "And of course everybody was drunk because there was a lot of vodka. If one thing was predicatble, you knew that around 6 o'clock you were going to be in a dining room with food and vodka and that after that all hell was going to break loose. But that was also the best chance to sit down and talk with the Russians and find out how they really felt about things. That was really rewarding."
Adds Kunkel, "Once the Russians start drinking, there aren't any inhibitions. You could say practically anything to them and they wouldn't find it offensive. I really don't drink a lot, so it was an experience for me. They warned us there would be toasts and that we'd have to drink; and the third toast was always to the women, some sort of custom that started in Siberia. By the first toast I was sailing, by the second I was almost out of it; but it's a different kind of high than whiskey -- it sustains you."
The trip created a delicate balance between the fun and the serious sides of life. The daytime conferences would sometimes reconvene after dinner and run deep into the night. The issue of nuclear disarmament was "the biggest, the heaviest, the most emotional," says Carroll, adding that "the bottom line everywhere was that more dialogue was needed."
There were touchy subjects on both sides -- Afghanistan, Vietnam, Poland, El Salvador -- but the delegates always maintained the dialogue. "There's no real cultural exchange between our countries," says Carroll, and that's too bad, he continues, "because they're folks, just folks . . . There's no arena to break through all that. That hit everybody about halfway through and we all got pretty depressed."
At almost the same time, he says, fatigue was setting in. "Margot and I were familiar with 'banana time' from earlier tours, but it set in early because we lost a night's sleep that you didn't get back going over." Everyone faced a grueling schedule -- up at 7 or 7:30 every day, all-day commissions. And sometimes, their plane would land somewhere in the middle of the night and the delegates would get waltzed up to a big dinner with the local mayor. "It was their chance to receive the Americans, but all we wanted was to get somewhere and sleep. Everyone had a day when they missed something so they could get extra sleep. And of course, the whole trip was very emotional."
It was an emotional homecoming too: Carroll found out that one of his songs, already chosen as the title track of Linda Ronstadt's new album, would also be her first single in two years. "Bill Danoff also an ex-Starlander and now Carroll's publisher and manager landed it by playing her my first demo tape at Christmas." The Starland crew and Rondstadt had known each other from sharing adjacent California beachhouses during the recording of Starland's "Rear-View Mirror" several years ago. Carroll still hasn't heard Ronstadt's version, due out in mid-September, "though they just called to see if they could change the title." The song: "Want Love? Get Closer," now known as "Get Closer."
"I was passed out on the beach at Rehoboth when they called, so Bill was wise in saying 'sure.' I'm curious to see just how she ended up doing it."