The streets of our youth

I remember the parents’ meeting before my daughter started high school. The teacher asked us to close our eyes, and as we did so she played Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head on my Shoulders”. And old pictures and scenes came into our minds; we travelled in time to faraway days… to the days of our adolescence… “Now you have felt what your children are feeling in this age” she said, and indeed we did.

This memory came to me as I was listening to the 1969 album created by Leftheris Papadopoulos (lyrics) and Mimis Plessas (music) “O dromos” – The Street.  It is a travel in time to adolescence in an urban poor neighbourhood of occupied Greece during WW2, which begins with children’s antics and finishes in sudden maturity as the young ones go to the army and the teen lovers part. In between, it is the light of adolescent love and the greys of its pain, all this in an environment of the unpaved streets, with various typical articles of the place, and some peculiar characters.But it seems that there is much common to teenagers’ spirit whatever time and place, as well as the longing on the part of the adults to theirs teens’ times.

“I was born in Athens in November 1935. My parents were refugees,” writes Leftheris Papadopoulos. “I grew up in a courtyard in Fokeas Street 18, down Kyriakou Square (Victoria). The yard had eight rooms, a communal faucet and a toilet. In each room there was a family, with three to four people each. “Heads of family”, day laborer, carpenters, masons, cobblers, plumbers, bakery workers, waiters, yogurt makers; all what I know of my world these great people taught me, and of course my parents.”

Leftheris was less than six when the Nazis and the Italians invaded Greece, in April 1941.A new horrible reality cast its shadow over his neighbourhood: “There were only children, many children; children that played ball on Aristotelous street which was a dirt road at the time. Bony and barefoot children with a touch of bitterness carved in between their eyes. They were speaking with death. That is why they all loved life so much. There were Germans housed in the 2nd junior High School on Hayden Street. Down the street there were Italians. Basements were selling cheap ‘passions’ to soldiers… (Young) boys were selling cigarettes and shining shoes in the streets.”(1)

These were the places, the scenes, the moods and the times in Leftheris Papadopoulos mind when in 1969 he jotted on paper some songs about childhood and adolescence; he placed them in that era. One day in 1969 destiny brought together Leftheris, who was already a notable journalist, lyricist and writer, and the significant musician Mimis Plessas-who wrote from 1952  music to many beloved songs and films.

Mimis tells: “…After our first successes with Lefteris we became friends. We came together in a friendship that became stronger through mutual appreciation, intimacy… I was sitting in his office and was expecting him to finish a phone call. There were some scattered manuscripts on his desk. Knowing his picturesque character, I started reading and I felt flooded with an ineffable tenderness. The writings of Lefteris were describing my teenage years, my years during the occupation. I gathered what I found there before me… what a coincidence… there were 12 (songs)… And immediately I thought, “A great album”… I thought of the title to, “The Immature Years”. I told Lefteris that I wanted to set these songs to music. He gave them to me reluctantly, because he didn’t believe that they could be material for songs. He feared the diffuse of sensitivity as they contained his own memories too, and they were not given the form of verse – refrain that lends the familiar strength to a song.”

From this point it appears that a wind of inspiration had intervened and caught up with everyone involved. It took Mimis Plessas only two days to compose music; the enthusiastic producer in the record company “baptized” the work as “O dromos” (the street); the singers were Giannis Poulopoulos, the leading male voice of the era, Rena Koumioti and Poppy Asteriadi. The musicians made the orchestral recording in less than ten hours “as if the musicians who came to play knew the piece beforehand” (Plessas) and after two days the singers recorded their vocals “in one go”. As the album was released in April 1969, the tender wind strummed the string of people’s souls. It went on to become the best-selling album in Greek music history. Online sources quote between one million to more than two millions copies sold in the last 43 years.

Let’s hear some of the album’s songs. The first three are the original versions. The album opens with children antics. “Maria was laughing”, (Γέλαγε η Μαρία) sung by Giannis Poulopoulos.

A girl describes a love union that is about to happen soon with her beloved one… “Give me, my boy, your mouth”(Δώσε μου το στόμα σου). Rena Koumioti:

“The Statue” is one of the strongest songs on the album, according to its writer. The youth finds comfort from the statue in a painful moment of his life… Giannis Poulopoulos sings.

 

Listening to the songs makes one wonder how they could have sprout out of a reality of occupation, hunger, uncertainty, fear and death, where “every morning was a resurrection”. The songs bring us back to the past, to children games, to old objects like gramophone and harmonica, to old street scenes and neighborhood life of young people.They reflect the flame of youth, but it looks like they   somehow they have no direct reference to the distressing situation.Their content has a life of its own.

That is exactly what Papadopoulos and Plessas tell us – even in the most horrible days- life is present! No occupation can stop “the most beautiful and pure flower… the flower of love. The flower of uncertain adolescence… which is not yet distinguishable between the years of childhood and the complete erotic acquaintance” (1); it has its own existence and it is universal, eternal, indestructible. Everyone may find his youth in these songs, not only Greeks. The youth ends abruptly at the end. “Soldiers were leaving/ you were leaving too… how to forget you /that earth has taken you away”

In his book “the magical songs of Leftheris”, Makis Tselios asserts that the tender and vivid youth scenes and the old urban neighbourhood’s memories that are in the songs give people moments that they are “happy,crying, hoping,waiting, being nostalgic,remembering,talking,dreaming…but also the memory opens their own notebook”  and that “finally leads you to the unique worldview of those ordinary people and their non-negotiable pride. Because at the time all that the poet describes was happening, the bravery was living and was wandering around, and an indefatigable proud in the neighbourhoods, facing Death by threatening, provoking and mocking him.”

Tselios feels that within the dense urban reality these songs reflects purity and harmony that can be “completely compatible with human action”, a harmony that existed then but doesn’t exist anymore in the modern city life. The bonds, the directness, the respect between people have all been changing, and for the worst.

Even so, there is some bias in nostalgia, and things were not as good as they seem from now, it is well understood why “o dromos” captured so many people’s hearts. The lively youth with their love and pain and the harmony and compassion between people are reflected well in these songs, and they were surely existed, as well as the brave people behind them.

Twelve mandolins will play for you (Δώδεκα μαντολίνα)…(press cc in the video for subtitles, the next two songs are in more recent versions)

The first time (Πρώτη φορά)

Mimis Plessas said once that it is the song with the most erotic lyrics ever. Giannis Kotsiras, with Mimis on the piano:

“Deep silence was falling”(Έπεφτε βαθιά σιωπή)   “It is one of the brightest moments of Plessas, and one of the most lyrical words of Papadopoulos. A blessed time for the Greek song”(Tselios) Adolescence ends as young men goes to life duties-to the army, the same time the lovers parts, and finely it is death that takes the beloved one. Giannis Poulopoulos:

Notes:
A related post: Every one has its own Aristotelous” at: https://greeksongstories.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/aristotelous-street-nostalgia-at-its-best/
(1) from: http://u8329492.fsdata.se/index.php?option=com_fireboard&Itemid=98&id=11049&catid=3&func=fb_pdf
Other links:
http://www.e-orfeas.gr/singing/bestalbums/2066-article.html
http://www.madblog.gr/blog.php?user=vinylmaniac&note=1983
 The parts from the book of Makis Tselios “the magical songs of Lefteris” were  translated and brought by Nata Ostria
 Thanks to  Nata Ostria for translations and research, to Katerina Siapanda for lightening few points, to Shahaf  Ifhar and Dany Matz for editing.

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2 Responses to “The streets of our youth”

  1. Y.r. Radhika Says:

    hi there! this is an amazing set of pages on Greek music. since I am new to the music could you tell me if you are following a particular genre, particular period and whether these songs are still heard in Greece? also any pages that provide lyrics would be awesome. I am learning modern Greek and learning songs is one of my goals! many thanks.

    H Radhika

    • avinishri Says:

      Dear Y.r.
      Greek music is indeed great, rich, wonderful. These songs are part of the culture and are heard in raverns, clubs and concerts. I am not following particular genre, but of course I have my choices. A site of lyrics of almost all the songs, part of them translated is at http://www.stixoi.info/
      Have a great Sunday
      Avi

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