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New Set Revisits Billy Joel's Rocket to Russia

Billy Joel and band onstage in Russia.
Billy Joel and band onstage in Russia.
Photos by Neal Preston/Courtesy of Columbia Legacy

Billy Joel: A Matter of Trust -- The Bridge to Russia Columbia Legacy

When Billy Joel made the trek to Russia to play a series of concerts in the summer of 1987, he had probable cause to believe that, instead of metaphorically killing the audience, they might literally kill him.

After all, the Long Island-bred Baby Boomer, like millions of his peers, had been conditioned for decades to believe that Russia was the Evil Empire ready to launch a nuclear war at any minute. And that all of its citizens were mindless, freedom-hating, order-following Pinko Commies.

But what Joel and his family, bandmates, roadies and personnel found instead was a country eager -- no, slavering -- for the freedoms promised by American culture and Western rock and roll.

Ushered in by Gorbachev's unheard-of new policies of glastnost (openness) and perestroika (rebuilding), the Piano Man was on red soil at the invitation of the Kremlin who - shockingly at the time - pretty much left the and their film crews to wander around unmolested.

And thus was created a fascinating event of Rock and Roll Diplomacy that actually did help to build bridges between two countries and people through music.

The Bridge To Russia, a 2-CD/2-DVD box set, includes 27 songs -- the previously-released Kohuept live record and 11 unreleased tracks -- and a concert film with 17 numbers and, most fascinating, a newly-filmed documentary on the whole experience.

It features both footage shot during the trip and contemporary interviews with Joel, former bandmates, Russian staff and even ex-wife Christie Brinkley. She accompanied Joel with their young daughter Alexa Ray, then 18 months old. The material was culled form Joel's acoustic show in Tbilisi, as well as three concerts each in massive stadiums at Moscow and Leningrad.

"I had a fear of the Soviet Union and Russians...they were monolithic people who wanted to destroy the United States," Joel muses today of his thoughts going in. "But I'd met the people, and they weren't the enemy."

But as the documentary shows, during the beginnings of Cold War thawing, things were still fairly frozen. Having never seen a rock and roll show of the magnitude that Joel put on, initial Russian audiences weren't sure how to react. Or if they'd be yanked out of the audience and arrested if they had too good a time.

This audience reticence lead to the tours most infamous incident when Joel -- angered by the film crew's lighting of the audience which in turn immediately cowed them into submission -- threw over his electric piano. He then banged his microphone to vent until the lights went off.

And while Joel, along with concert film director Wayne Isham, both note that he "probably overreacted," audiences found it thrilling, even thinking it was part of the show.

As the concerts progressed, Joel worked mightily to involve the crowd until the screaming fans at the front of the stage resembled any U.S. audience -- even if some of them were garbed in Russian military uniforms, but just as lost in abandon. Sax player Mark Rivera proudly shows today the military cap a young soldier gave him onstage, knowing that at the time it could have been dangerous for the young man.

The documentary also has some interesting substories, one of a superfan and professional clown for the Gorky Circus named Viktor, whose connection with Joel and his family would inspire the later Storm Front song "Leningrad."

Story continues on the next page.

 

A constant companion at Joel's side, onstage and off, was the amusing "freelance interpreter" Oleg Smirnoff. He got Joel's spoken points across to audiences, the media and citizens. He reminisces about the time in the documentary DVD.
A constant companion at Joel's side, onstage and off, was the amusing "freelance interpreter" Oleg Smirnoff. He got Joel's spoken points across to audiences, the media and citizens. He reminisces about the time in the documentary DVD.

Others show Joel and his family as high-profile tourists, though free enough to have real conversation with Russians they encounter. From longhaired teen outcasts to hosts who ply them with wine, vodka, and song to one women disapproving of anything to do with rock and roll.

Joel says it was important to bring his family on the trip so Russian could see them are "regular people with families like them," even pulling out a very calm Alexa (sporting protective headphones) during one show.

Of the concert DVD, highlights include "Goodnight Saigon," "An Innocent Man," "The Longest Time, "A Matter of Trust," "You May Be Right" and "Big Shot." Many find Joel at the height of his acrobatic skills, sliding across piano tops, jumping and, in one spontaneous incident, crowd-surfing. There's a look of mixed terror and joy on his face, keeping in mind that Russian audiences had never seen such a thing before. And, not knowing any better, might drop him to the ground in mid-song.

At the end of the concert DVD, Joel tells the Russian audience "Don't take any shit from anybody!" It's a standard farewell he'd ended his shows with hundreds of times before in the United States.

But in 1987 Russia, it meant something quite a bit more. The CD also features Joel's cover of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'" from the Tbilisi show. Fitting words for a country and a people and a time when playing and listening to rock and roll music was akin to committing a crime against the state. Even if that state was rapidly changin'.

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