Lead singer of The Romantics journeys to his parents' homeland

by Zenon Zawada
Kyiv Press Bureau

UVYN, Ukraine - It's not every day that an American rock star breaks bread and toasts moonshine in a rural Ukrainian village.

Uvyn is a picturesque hamlet tucked in the northeast corner of Lviv Oblast, a region of pristine rolling green hills that seem to unravel endlessly.

The Romantics' lead singer, Wally Palmar, traversed this virgin landscape on June 9 with his mother, Theodosija, to finally lay his eyes on the Ukrainian homeland that he had heard, read and learned so much about, but never got the chance to see. It was his first trip to Ukraine.

"I think I needed to be here just to see where my parents came from," said Mr. Palmar, 51, who grew up in Hamtramck, Mich., Detroit's blue-collar ghetto for Ukrainians and Poles in the 1950s through the 1980s.

Growing up in Hamtramck, Mr. Palmar was known by the name his parents had given him at birth, Volodymyr Palamarchuk.

However, his friends already were calling him Wally when he began attending Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Grade School. He graduated from Immaculate Conception High School in 1971.

Just a decade later, Mr. Palmar would thrill tens of thousands of concert-goers as lead singer of The Romantics, one of only a handful of pure American rock bands to reach national stardom during the early 1980s.

By then, British artists had taken over the music scene with "new wave" electronic music based on keyboards and synthesizers.

Prior to 2005, Mr. Palmar's parents had twice visited Ukraine together. Like many Americans of Ukrainian descent, Mr. Palmar always had an interest in visiting Ukraine, but just never managed to set aside the time to do it, largely because of his musical obligations.

To this day, Mr. Palmar still tours and performs with The Romantics, and the summer season for rock bands is the most financially lucrative.

Summertime was also when his parents chose to visit Ukraine, but Mr. Palmar couldn't disappoint his fellow band members who needed to tour and perform.

His father's death at age 90 almost exactly a year prior to his arrival in Uvyn, provided the impetus that was lacking in the past.

"It was very interesting for me, very enlightening, especially since my dad passed away last year," Mr. Palmar said, admitting that he regrets not finding the time to visit when his father was still alive.

"I always wanted to come here with both my mom and dad," he said.

Mr. Palmar's father, Mykola Palamarchuk, was born in Uvyn and his mother, Theodosija Bojarczuk, was born there 10 years later.

When the second world war had reached the village, the Poles pulled Mr. Palamarchuk into their army, Mrs. Palamarchuk said.

As the war dragged on, Mr. Palamarchuk confronted the decision that hundreds of thousands of other Ukrainians contemplated at the time: to remain in Ukraine and risk death, or to try and flee to the West, where there was hope for a future.

He approached his neighbor, Theodosija, and asked whether she wished to leave with him.

The two crossed battle lines and trenches before reaching a German displaced persons camp in May 1944. They married the next year and Mrs. Palamarchuk gave birth to their first son, Peter, in 1946.

Through a sponsor, the Palamarchuks entered the U.S. and eventually settled in Hamtramck.

Mr. Palamarchuk found work on the assembly lines in the General Motors and Chrysler factories, while Mrs. Palamarchuk ran the household. Volodymyr Palamarchuk was born in Hamtramck in 1954, and his younger sister, Mary Ann, was born six years later.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Hamtramck was as Ukrainian a community as could be found in the U.S. Mr. Palmar spoke Ukrainian at home and with his schoolmates.

He studied Ukrainian for a mandatory hour every day from kindergarten through his last year of Immaculate Conception High School.

His years of study were apparent as Mr. Palmar commands Ukrainian as well as any American citizen of Ukrainian descent.

His relatives were pleasantly impressed that he was able to communicate with them with so well. "We thought that he was born here and lived here," said Serhii Melnyk, Mr. Palmar's cousin's husband, perhaps exaggerating a bit.

The Church not only educated Mr. Palmar, but gave him his first practice singing during liturgy at Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church in Hamtramck. "I would answer the priest when I served as 'diak' (cantor)," Mr. Palmar said in Ukrainian.

Little did his priest know that the young boy singing "Hospody, pomylui" (Lord, have mercy) would later play in a band that sang lyrics like, "Telephone whispering in my ear, tell me all the things that I wanna hear!"

Despite his active church life, Mr. Palmar bashfully admitted he wasn't a saint. While his parents paid for him to go to Saturday school, his attendance was less than perfect.

"I blame myself for cutting class," said Mr. Palmar, who was also a Plast scout and attended summer camps in Michigan.

Becoming a rock star is not the typical career path for most Americans of Ukrainian descent, but Mr. Palmar was determined from an early age.

His father bought him his first guitar and amp when he was 12 years old, though not necessarily with the explicit goal of turning his son into a rock 'n roller.

"They were concerned that I was going to pursue something that wasn't going to be very, let's say, fruitful," Mr. Palmar said. "And it was a very well-meant concern. But I still was going to do what I was going to do."

Mr. Palmar and band mates Mike Skill, Jimmy Marinos and Rich Cole formed The Romantics on Valentine's Day in 1977. By then, Volodymyr Palamarchuk had become Wally Palmar.

"The purpose of it was probably just simplicity," Mr. Palmar said. "My other option was writing 'Volodymyr Palamarchuk' as an autograph ... Probably having 'Jimmy, Mike, Rich and Volodymyr' just wasn't going to work at that point."

Two years later, The Romantics released their self-titled debut album that included, "What I Like About You," which would become one of the most recognized songs in rock and roll history.

Mr. Palmar wrote the song with band mates Mr. Skill and Mr. Marinos. While he was not lead singer on "What I Like About You," Mr. Palmar did sing lead in "Talking in Your Sleep," which broke into Billboard's Top Ten.

When it was released in 1980, "What I Like About You" didn't even make the Billboard Top 40 music charts. But Budweiser and Molson beer commercials in the early 1990s reignited the energetic tune and gave it a whole new life of its own.

Despite the song's mind-numbing repetition on television, The Romantics were not getting a single dime off royalties because of financial chicanery indulged by managers Joel Zuckerman and Arnie Tencer.

They licensed the song for commercial use without informing the band. Thus began an ultimately successful seven-year legal battle in court waged by The Romantics in order to recover rights to their royalties.

To finance the lawsuits, the band kept playing shows, long after the peak of their popularity.

Throughout their tours, Mr. Palmar said, a Ukrainian American contingent came out to enjoy the music.

"I never shied away from the fact that I am Ukrainian," Mr. Palmar said. "God knows there were enough people who knew, and there would be a Ukrainian group of people who would come out to our shows in just about every city."

Despite the band's struggles, Mr. Palamarchuk revealed an exceptionally friendly and easy-going demeanor, and his wide blue eyes revealed a soul evidently at peace with itself.

Sitting in his cousin's house in Uvyn, wearing a black jeans jacket and sweatpants, Mr. Palmar said he and his mother were enjoying their trip to Ukraine. He had already adjusted to local custom, such as removing his shoes when entering the home and putting on "tapochky" (slippers).

Prior to this trip, Mrs. Palamarchuk had never been to Kyiv. On her birthday, June 9, she and her son walked up the steep hill from the Hotel Dnipro on European Square to visit and pray at the grand St. Michael's Cathedral.

While in Kyiv, Mr. Palmar also hung out with a few friends from Detroit who are now working in Kyiv (Roman Woronowycz and Roman Fedorowycz). All the while, Mr. Palmar said he was anticipating his trip to his parents' "selo" (village).

"I told my road manager, 'Now things are going to get interesting,' " Mr. Palamarchuk said.

Like many Ukrainian Americans who seek out their family roots, Mr. Palmar had spent most of his time in Uvyn, visiting what seemed to be an endless stream of relatives.

He figured that by the end of his five-day visit he and his mother would have visited a dozen homes. "And if you don't go, they get offended if you don't stop by," Mr. Palmar said, shrugging his shoulders.

At his Aunt Zosia's home, next to where his mother's childhood home still stands, Mr. Palmar was welcomed in traditional Ukrainian style at a table covered with home-cooked food such as stuffed cabbage, kyshka and deviled eggs.

As family took their seats around the table, the head of the household filled shot glasses with "samohon" (moonshine) as the elderly men ranted about politics. Grandchildren demonstrated their English skills.

Pretty young women planted themselves in the kitchen and kept the food cooking, ensuring that no plate would be left bare. Outside, geese and ducks waddled about.

Mr. Palmar was a bit overwhelmed in trying to sort out everyone's names and relationship to him, as well as all the intricacies of his family's history.

Speaking of which, Mr. Palmar has never been married and has no children. "No kids that I know of!" he said wide-eyed.

His journey to Ukraine has fostered a deeper understanding of his parents and the struggles they endured of leaving family and friends for a strange, foreign land.

"I appreciate how much they did and how hard they worked to make your life easier in the States," he said. "They did whatever they could to give you what you needed."

Mr. Palmar also revealed typical symptoms of the very common Ukrainian American identity crisis.

"I'm an American citizen," he said, before pausing. "Well, I'm a Ukrainian American citizen, I guess. Or you could do it the other way - I'm an American Ukrainian."

He later added, "I can't complain about the States. That's my home. These are my roots, but that's my home."

Though not a nationalist, Mr. Palmar took an acute interest in the Orange Revolution and said he has been following Ukrainian politics very closely. As with most Ukrainian Americans, he vehemently supported the Revolution.

"Thank God ... if this were 25 or 30 years ago before CNN or satellite TV, they would have crushed it," Mr. Palmar said. "But now that the whole world was watching, there's no way they could cover anything up. Nothing can be covered up. It's all wide open for everyone to see."

But after spending time in rural Lviv, he said he can tell that any changes are going to take a lot of time. "Knowing how the country was always being torn apart by whoever was occupying it at the time, I'm not surprised" by the lack of economic development, he said.

Mr. Palmar said he has not heard much of contemporary Ukrainian music or taken much interest in it.

However, he said he'd play a concert in Kyiv if there were enough interest from Ukrainians or the expatriate community.

"I have a feeling this will not be my last trip," said Mr. Palmar, holding back what almost seemed to be a grin.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, June 19, 2005, No. 25, Vol. LXXIII

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