Heavy Metal, Gorky Park, 1987
Nebraska and Fighting for the Right to Party
It was July 1987, and the Russian hard rock bands Cruise and Galactica were co-headliners at an outdoor theater in Moscow's Gorky Park. My host, a translator and housekeeper for the Moscow correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor, had gotten the tickets for us.
Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Communist Party, had come to power in 1985, and his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic reforms) were getting their tryout. I had just arrived to spend three weeks in Russia, still hub of the Soviet Union, covering the Billy Joel tour-- three shows in Moscow, three in what was still called Leningrad (now reverted to St.Petersburg)--for Newsday, my newspaper and Joel's hometown Long Island paper.
Moscow was still very much a third-world city then; it may well be now unless one has benefited from the kleptocracy of Putinomics. Yet there was a whiff of change in the air. Russians would talk to foreigners more readily than just a few years earlier, according to our tour guides and translators. But they weren't comfortable being quoted by foreign media, so every time I interviewed someone, they'd say, "just call me Ivan," or "Irina."
The band Cruise appears at the 4 minute mark of the video below:
There was still only one record label, state-owned Melodiya, which preferred classical, and one state-owned booking agency, Goskconert. The only rock Melodiya released was by state approved bands such as Time Machine, a politically well-connected, technically proficient prog band that we got to see play at the Rossiya Theater. The demeanor of the audience and the plushness of the setting reminded one of a ballet performance. (I brought home Russian pressings of Beatles, Doors, and Abba albums.)
There was an alternative scene, a word of mouth underground not recognized by the state, although there was one organization, called the Moscow Rock Laboratory, that had semi-official sanctioning. True rebels thought bands that signed up with the MRL were sellouts: "We won't be white mice in their laboratory," was the way one punk described the attitude.
The MRL had its benefits. The bands were still regarded as "amateurs," which had nothing to do with talent and everything to do with Communist Party control of the arts. Police still sometimes hassled rock musicians and called them "parasites." These amateurs could not record albums for Melodiya, but were allowed to perform in smaller spaces, such as the Lenin Communist Youth League Theater, or a basement rec hall at the Nuclear Research Institute.
Our tribe of journalists went to these shows as often as possible, in Moscow and Leningrad, on days when Billy Joel was not performing. The group included photographer Brian Brainerd, who Newsday secured from our fellow Times-Mirror newsaper, the Denver Post; Edna Gundersen of USA Today; Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press; Mark Scheerer of ABC News; and Rona Elliot of NBC. It was not a large contingent, because this was not a junket; when I got home, I held my breath when I handed in my $10,000 expense account.
At the Rock Laboratory shows, sound and light, a video screen, microphones and amps were provided; coffee and soft drinks were sold. In Moscow, we saw a show by the ska influenced Brigade S; the performance art group Polite Refusal; and the funk-punk, no-wave group called The Bank. At a similar gathering in Leningrad, the deserving popular attraction was Televisor (Television). I asked our translator to help me approach some pretty young women who were Televisor fans. When he greeted them speaking Russian, the women frowned and firmly said, "We're from Estonia; we speak English, we do not like to speak Russian."
At the heavy metal concert at Gorky Park, you had to remind yourself you were not in Cleveland or Chicago, some midwestern redoubt of hard rock. The fans made the same "hook 'em horns" or devil-horn hand gestures as their American counterparts, and had stencils of bands on their denim or leather jackets: Motörhead was a favorite. During drum solos, the fans would chant: "hey-hey-hey-hey," and when the solo ended and the lead guitar started his shred, another chant went up: "hea-vy me-tal! Hea-vy me-tal!"
There was still no pop music media in Russia, no MTV, although at rock laboratory shows, between sets, there were rock videos recorded on VHS from RTL Luxembourg, a pioneer in rock programming in Europe. As for recordings, cassette tapes were copied and distributed hand to hand.
This led to some unusual takes on what was going on in the music world outside Russia. At Gorky Park, I maintained a conversation through my translator with a 24-year-old music fan named Vladimir. He asked me what of thought of Galactica's guitarist after an adequately-ripped solo, and I politely told him it reminded me of Eddie Van Halen. He put his thumb and forefinger an inch apart to indicate "a very small Eddie Van Halen," and he was right.
Vlad's favorite bands were Whitesnake, Status Quo, and Pink Floyd. He asked me what music I liked in the United States. I mentioned Bruce Springsteen.
He thought about it for a long moment, and then it clicked. "Ah," he said. "Nebraska."
At the time, in the summer of 1987, I thought it baffling that the one word with which to associate Springsteen was Nebraska, the low-key 1982 record that was at the time considered an anomaly for its spare arrangements and heartland hard luck stories. But Leonid, the one Russian music journalist I befriended during the trip--an officially sanctioned journalist with a government I.D. card who could enter our tourists-only hotel on the outskirts of Moscow--explained Springsteen's dubious status in the Soviet Union. Leonid, who used the pseudonym "Boris Karloff" when writing about anything that might rile the authorities, said that rock journalists in youth magazines had been obliged to object to Springsteen's "American chauvinism." In the few years after "Born in the USA," since Gorbachev and glasnost, Springsteen was more acceptable. "Suddenly, there are good reviews," he said.
Springsteen is returning to Broadway, which was described by Variety as his contribution to the return of the theater district decimated by Covid. Springsteen on Broadway will begin its summer run at the St. James Theater June 26, according to Deadline. Double vaccination at least two weeks in advance is required for attendance. So is a fat wallet. Officially ticket prices are mostly in the $600-$850 range; already, one StubHub seller was asking ten times that for good orchestra seats. I've seen the Netflix special, and I am a conscientious objector to the inflated Broadway pricing model for anything.
Springsteen announced the tour with a call (surprise!) to Sirius XM's E Street Radio, which is hosted (with Jim Rotolo) by Dave Marsh, the rock critic , author, and first Springsteen biographer. Marsh is married to Springsteen manager Barbara Carr of Jon Landau Management.
I am more interested right now in looking ahead to fall 2022, when Monmouth University's symposium on the 40th anniversary of Springsteen's The River album, originally scheduled for 2020, will finally be held. As 2022 is also the 40th anniversary of Nebraska, it will also be under discussion. Monmouth, near Asbury Park and the Jersey Shore, is where Eileen Chapman directs the Bruce Springteen Archives & Center for American Music.
Dr. Kenneth Womack is Monmouth's benign pop culture czar. He was a gracious host for 2018's International 50th Anniversary of the Beatles "White" Album Symposium. I delivered a paper on the White album, which even more than Sgt. Pepper demanded the quick evolution of professional rock criticism because it was the first Beatles album that had really mixed responses. I also changed my mind about "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." Hearing it performed by a jazz group and an a capella school chorus at Monmouth underscored the sturdiness of a song once considered trifling.
A Czech a capella group the Gentlemen Singers takes on that Beatles song:
I met and developed a quick kinship with critic and author Tim Riley, and had a blast with my St. John's University colleagues Tom Kitts and Larry Pitilli. It was at Pitilli's presentation on the Beatles and doo-wop that I finally learned the meaning of the academic term "intersectionality."
My paper for the Springsteen symposium has already been approved by Ken Womack, so I will be there again with some alternative histories of some Springsteen albums, one of which I will publish soon for subscribers.
My induction into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, a selection revealed to me in January, 2020, will also take place in autumn, 2022, according to sources close to me.
Back to Russia for a moment. I went there with two gifts. One was a bottle of Smirnoff Silver vodka for a VIP friend of a New York friend of mine who frequently visited Russia. I thought this peculiar, a coals-to- Newcastle kind of thing. It's the same concept you often see in sushi bars, where Japanese businessmen often drink Budweiser, while Americans universally order Kirin or Sapporo. Smirnoff Silver had a kind of exotic cachet to the Russian vodka drinkers, so I happily delivered the bottle.
Knowing that western music was almost entirely a hand-to-hand cassette culture, I also brought a tape of a rebellious album I thought would be appreciated by some lucky Russian teenager, should I meet one. The opportunity came on a Friday night in Moscow. I had spent a few hours filing a story from the AP bureau, and spent an hour in a taxi across the city to the hotel. The cab driver spoke almost no English, but I taught him the phrase "rush hour" to describe the traffic nightmare.
By the time I got to my hotel, dinner was over and my colleagues had left to visit some regional site of interest. But one of my translators / American student guides was still around, and she invited me to come with her to visit friends of hers who were "refuseniks," a Russian Jewish family who had been denied permission to emigrate to Israel or America.
We spent hours at their tiny apartment in a drab housing block, drinking vodka and eating the zakuskas, plates of Russian cold appetizers that could make an entire meal. I had brought the tape, because the family had a teenage son, but he wasn't there. I left him the tape as a gift at the end of the evening, and hoped he would use it well.
The tape was Licensed to Ill by the Beastie Boys. "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)" had already become a meme among our music writers group, as our weeks in Communist Russia evolved. We thought that Russians might understand the song as "You've got to fight for your right to fight the party."
Two years later, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union shattered. I like to think that Beastie Boys tape, endlessly reproduced, had started something. I'm not claiming that I am responsible for the fall of the Berlin wall. I'm just saying. . .