25 years ago today, the whole world looked on as Billy Joel took his family, his music and his concert show to the former Soviet Union in late July and early August 1987. Billy summarized his feelings soon after completing the Bridge Tour and returning to his home in the States, 'You're not quite the same once you've been there.''
The tour to the former Soviet Union was not only unprecedented at the time, it was tremendously exciting, and a vivid demonstration of music's power to connect and communicate. And for those of us who experienced Billy's six overwhelming concerts in Moscow and Leningrad; who spent three weeks working side by side with the Soviets; and who made many great friendships, it was truly an unforgettable groundbreaking experience.
Pulling off the historic tour was a monumental task, and an important moment in Billy's career. We would like to focus on what happened and how it happened and its effect on everyone involved. Pulling material from the Billy Joel Archives, you will get a sense of the triumphs and difficulties encountered in mounting the tour; what was learned about the Soviet people and how our American preconceptions were dismantled; and the sheer exuberance of the Soviet concertgoers as they were energized by Billy's music with six shows in two Russian cities.
Much was accomplished as thousands of Soviets threw aside the rulebook that determined public activities in the Soviet Union for generations. Change was in the air; “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” were just the beginning. We could see an end to the Cold War and the dawn of a new world.
For the remainder of this summer, 2012, we will look back on Billy's tour behind the “Iron Curtain” and share not only what happened but also the huge impact the Soviet trip had on him and on all those — Americans and Soviets — who were involved in making the tour such a success. Here is our first flashback, an excerpt from the Root Beer Rag, Billy's newsletter, published in 1988 as the “spring/summer edition.” Also, please enjoy “A Matter Of Trust” live from the “Live From Leningrad” HBO Special, which was only released on VHS years ago.
Been away so long I hardly knew the place, Gee, it's good to be back home… I'm back in the U, back in the U, Back in the USSR.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney
It was about 4:00 P.M. as the buses lumbered away from Sheremetyevo airport towards the center of Moscow. Most of the passengers were still on London time. Back in the U.K., pubs were serving the midday lunch crowd. Some passengers were on East Coast time. In Manhattan, millions of alarms were being cursed. Everyone was exhausted. Nonetheless, faces pressed against the windows, devouring first impressions of a scene both patently familiar and conspicuously different in ways that were uneasily hard to define.
The buses moved down wide avenues lined with blocks of apartments. Children careened around their parents as families strolled along tree lined sidewalks. Every few hundred yards, lines of would-be ice cream eaters formed up in front of pushcarts attended by stocky women in white smocks. To American eyes, the small number of stores along the avenues seemed a strange mismatch for the densely packed apartment blocks whose residents they served. And the storefronts were austere. No big posters announcing “prices slashed everything must go!” No fetching window displays or flashing neon signs.
For the Americans on the bus, a lifetime of conditioning was at work. It was hard to see only pedestrians, cars and trucks, shops, and ice cream vendors, for these were Russian pedestrians, Russian vehicles, Russian shops, and this was life behind the Iron Curtain. The Americans were over there, in the evil empire, and they had come to play rock and roll.
The signing of the Soviet American cultural accord during the Geneva summit of 1985 had opened a new era in cultural relations between the two countries. After a half dozen fallow years following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979, Soviet cultural planners and American impresarios once again started to lay the groundwork for ambitious cultural exchange projects. Concert tours, movie co-productions, record deals, art exchanges, and a host of other programs were proposed by both Soviets and Americans. Gorbachev's glasnost (policy of greater openness) encouraged artistic expression and cultural exchange in areas that had previously been taboo or strictly controlled. The most visible and glamorous of these areas was that of rock music.
English and European bands had certainly toured the Soviet Union before Gorbachev came to power. But for Soviets, America and American culture hold a unique place. Stemming perhaps from American Soviet cooperation in the battle against the Nazis, and reinforced by respect for America's status as “the other” superpower, Soviets frequently speak of the special kinship that they feel with Americans. One aspect of this kinship is a fascination for American culture. Almost all Soviet schoolchildren read works from some of our great 19th and 20th century writers: Twain, Melville, Cooper, Faulkner, Dreiser, Steinbeck, Jack London. Curiosity about contemporary American pop culture is another facet of the same interest. But keeping in touch with America is another story. American pop records and tapes are unavailable in Soviet stores, music videos are unknown, American movies that occasionally turn up in the theaters are usually out of date, and magazines and newspapers from the U.S. are banned from newsstands (there are unconfirmed reports that selected American magazines and newspapers will soon be sold in hotels for foreigners). Nonetheless, Soviet rock fans display a fervent knowledge of American pop and rock music. All over the Soviet Union, people with similar interests have learned to share resources and information in a way that would put a beehive to shame.
Be that as it may, a coterie of fans is a far cry from the massive popularity that major rock stars enjoy throughout the English speaking world. Even if a select group of fans could recite the lyrics to Billy's songs, his music was largely unknown in the USSR, even to lovers of American popular culture. No American rock star had ever included the USSR in a fully-staged tour, and when Billy and his family flew into Moscow on a sunny July afternoon, no one knew what to expect; not the musicians, not the Soviet officials who agreed to the tour, not the Soviet rock fans whose curiosity drew them to the arenas. When Billy left the Soviet Union, almost three weeks later, his name had become virtually a household word across the vast expanse of the USSR.