To Russia With Love
The average hipster may not be interested in Billy Joel’s archival release of A Matter of Trust – The Bridge to Russia (upgrading live album КОНЦЕРТ, as a two-CD and a new deluxe version with DVD/Blu-ray), but that’s their loss. As Chuck Klosterman has previously pointed out (see Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs,) the abstract relationship between the perception of Joel and the appreciation of his product could be said to have unfairly ghettoized him whilst he was making the best music of his career.
Twenty-seven years on from Billy Joel’s Russian concert tour, it could be that we are now finally in a place where the concept of “cool” is more or less irrelevant to music because (1) there’s so much of it (music that is), everywhere, in every different form you can imagine from agrotech to zydeco, and what each of us consider cool is quite unlikely to be the same as our next-door neighbour or the person we consider cool and (2) the march of political correctness should, in theory anyway, reduce the element of cultural snobbism Klosterman was pointing us towards.
It seems highly unlikely that Billy Joel ever cared about what was cool and what wasn’t, or whether he was, or was not, cool. He always pretty much just got on with it. The music came first and the image second, which must be the correct prioritisation if you’re a listener.
The average hipster could quite easily watch the concert film and mock the ‘80s fashion of the band on stage or the difficult attire of the audience (imagine trying to get vaguely fashionable clothes in Communist Russia). Such a pre-disposition, however, would entirely be missing the point. Watching in this way, sitting back in ironic detachment and smirking, may provide five minutes of cheap entertainment, but the reality is most of us had style issues in the ‘80s (and some of us still have now). If the hipster can actually disengage from cynicism, he’d probably find the substance, the music, is actually pretty good.
The idea in itself, staging a concert tour in Russia, demonstrated an artist wanting to push literal boundaries. Although Gorbachev’s policies of restructuring (“perestroika”) and openness (“glasnost”) were leading to the collapse of the Cold War, mounting a full-scale rock tour in Russia was still something like the equivalent of arranging a trip to the moon, but with more bureaucratic hassle. If you didn’t bring the correct gear, forget about trying to find it there. You could also say it was a brave move to start planning the trip the same year a catastrophic nuclear disaster occurred (Chernobyl).
Joel was one of the first American rock acts to play in Russia since the building of the Berlin Wall, and regardless of the music, this was worldwide news, just like Wham!‘s visit to China two years earlier. Whether the hipster cares for BJ’s music or not, a cultural bridge was built and a glimpse of western pop music given to an audience behind the Iron Curtain, entirely unused to such things. Given that over the years Joel had suffered various financial blows, striking out on a relatively non-commercial venture goes to show the depths of enthusiasm he had for his Russian project. And besides, if Klosterman is right, that Joel’s best songs seem to be about disaffection and depression, what better audience than some seriously fed-up Russians?
As Klosterman has also pointed out, Joel’s hits almost seem like they’re supposed to be experienced in public. They do translate well live, and the two CDs of the Leningrad concert is full of well-known Joel songs admirably performed, with eleven previously unreleased recordings (two from rehearsals). It’s undoubtedly an improvement on the previous release, giving a more complete, sequenced presentation of Joel’s concerts.
BJ was at the top of his game during this period; An Innocent Man was a big hit in ‘83, and whilst follow-up The Bridge did not achieve such huge commercial success, artistically it was no stinker, with Ray Charles, Steve Winwood and Cyndi Lauper appearing for the defense. Looking at the concert DVD, Joel’s performance levels are still on a par with the Innocent Man tour, and mighty impressive. The band is tight and there’s a distinctive sense of the camaraderie of a gang enjoying a new audience together. Joel crowd-surfs for an a capella version of “The Longest Time”, amusing because the song is not at all suited to this type of thing, and he struggles to get back to the stage only after a lot of gesticulating.
The concert film was re-mastered from the original 35mm negative and is again a more complete version than the previous release (this time including seven previously unreleased recordings). A lot of work has been put in to make this is a true legacy release, and it was a worthwhile exercise because as a piece of music history it does stand up with the inclusion of songs like “Back in the U.S.S.R” and “The Times They Are a Changin’”. Joel has always expressed his own sense of history through his songs, so the covers fit in well with the overall set. “Honesty” changes character somewhat from love song to tribute, in honour of the Russian singer, songwriter and poet Vladimir Vysotsky.
A BJ fan will snap this title up because of the new stuff, but it’s the documentary that will probably be of most interest to the casual observer, and it truly sets the context. In a number of pieces to camera, Joel convincingly tell us that once in Russia he understood there was a real atmosphere of change (most prevalent among the young and long-haired), and he realised Russians were not the enemies after all. If you find it hard to believe such a starting point of animosity, think about the caterwauling reaction to the Russian entry in this year’s Eurovision song contest, suggesting a possible return to Cold War sensibilities following the recent crisis in Ukraine. Still, the principle that music can reach across nations to build friendships remains a good one, and Joel himself had his own bro-mance with a circus performer (later written about in song “Leningrad”). It was an individual example of how things could change for the better. Eventually walls could come down.
The documentary reveals Joel’s genuine enthusiasm for breaking cultural barriers, and is in itself a lesson to the hipsters to be less cynical. Mark Rivera, saxophonist, likened the effect of the tour to bringing colour TV to a black and white world – rock and roll had been considered dangerous, subversive, emotional (which of course it is), and as a result it was carefully licensed—making too much noise could get you beaten up or landed in jail, so Joel’s series of concerts really were something new for the audience. Joel turned up the sound to repel the bureaucrat ticket-holders, initially sitting up-front, fingers in ears. You could say he had some balls.
Interestingly Joel is held to account in relation to a widely-reported incident in which he overturned a keyboard and went slightly bonkers with a microphone stand in response to a camera crew repeatedly turning their bright lights on the audience. As it turns out for the concert film, the shots of the audience are interesting due to the reactions but not essential, so in retrospect you can kind of see why a performer would take objection. Joel’s reasonable explanation was that he was concerned for the audience’s enjoyment—once they were in the glare of the cameras they froze, and it was not the experience he wanted for them.
Superfans are likely to drool over the deluxe edition which includes a book with accounts from writers and journalists who were on the road with Joel during the tour. There Michael Jensen refers to Tolstoy’s belief that it was the collective and random acts of the common man that made history, not the emperors, tsars and generals. Two years after Joel’s tour Václav Havel, an artist, was elected president of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union was crumbling towards dissolution. It’s impossible to quantify with any certainty how much Joel’s tour helped, but there’s a strong argument to say that he made a difference, and was the coolest of the cool after all.