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Ambassador Joel Subdued Soviet audience warms to performance by American

Billy Joel answers questions backstage in Moscow before

Billy Joel answers questions backstage in Moscow before his tour of the Soviet Union on July 26, 1987. Credit: AP

[One of many Billy Joel stories in the Newsday archives, this article originally appeared in the July 27, 1987 edition.]

Although Billy Joel eventually had fans dancing on their seats
and swarming up to the stage last night, the first hour of his opening
show here must have left him feeling like the stranger of his album
title, because that indeed is what he was to most of the 25,000 people
in Moscow's Olympic complex.

He felt it necessary to introduce himself in Russian to the crowd. A
joke about how most people in the United States don't understand Joel
because of his New York accent didn't bring much of a chuckle when
repeated in Russian by Joel's translator, Oleg Smirnoff. 

It must have been eerie for Joel. His hit song "Just the Way You
Are" received only scattered claps of recognition. While the audience
seemed to like "Pressure," featured last week on a program about Joel on Soviet television, applause was brief and restrained. 

Of course, it wasn't entirely an audience of rock 'n' roll animals
at the first of three Joel performances in Moscow. A pin in the
well-tailored suit of one man sitting in back of me identified him as a
member of the Supreme Soviet, the nominal parliament. 

"They can buy any ticket without waiting on line," said a
Russian-speaking acquaintance, referring to Soviets of privilege. It was
mostly tough luck for hundreds milling around the box office two hours
before showtime. 

"I'm going to try hard, with all my strength, to find someone with a
ticket," said a 22-year-old named Igor. 

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Another young man who didn't give his first name said a scalper, "if
he's a bad man," could get as much as 50 rubles ($80) for a 6-ruble
ticket to the soldout show.

Another fan spoke of how "the music is of joy and peace and
friendship to our cultures," and said that his friend wanted to know:
"When comes to our country Alice Cooper?"

On stage, Joel slowly found ways to warm up the crowd. He dedicated
a song to Vladmir Vysotzky, an anti-establishment folk singer, actor and
writer who died in 1980. Joel, as thousands of Russians do every year,
recently visited Vysotzky's grave. 

"I was moved by the love and devotion people have for him," Joel
said. The song was "Honesty" and some people seemed to recognize it.

A girl from the audience handed Joel a bouquet of roses. It was the first of many of such presentations through the evening, and slowly the mood of the show was starting to change. 

After a stirring rendition of "My Life," Joel made a joke about the
high, distant seats in the vast arena being in China, and there were
quite a few titters. Comrade Joel should have known that in a classless
society, the concept of good seats and bad seats should not exist.
Particularly moving --  at least to an American in the concert
audience -- were two songs from Joel's most political album, "The Nylon
Curtain. "

He told the soviet audience that "Allentown" was about "young people
living in the northeast of America whose lives are miserable because the
steel factories are closing down. They want to leave, but they stay
because they were brought up to believe that things were going to get
better. "

Though there was plenty to read between the lines of that statement,
the audience clearly responded to the firm, pounding beat. The people in
one section were on their feet, clapping their hands to the beat. As
Joel's wife, Christie Brinkley, shot the scene with a portable video
camera, the enthusiasm of that sliver of the crowd was about to become
contagious. 

But first there was "Goodbye Saigon" one of Joel's most emotionally
complex songs. It is filled with both support for Vietnam veterans and
disgust for the war they fought. 

There was an unmistakable poignance about being in Moscow and
hearing Joel describe what happened to his friends who went to Vietnam
as boys and came back as old men. The audience was impressed by the helicopter sound effects. 

"Scary," my translator said when the song was over. Joel gave the
"V" sign for peace. And many returned it. 

The audience loved "Baby Grand," a song that Ray Charles sang with
Joel on his most recent "The Bridge" album. Joel's perfect imitation of
Charles made one think that perhaps Ray Charles' singing style has
become a kind of international language. 

Then it happened. Joel said: "You can stay next to the stage if you
want. " In America, it's the oldest trick in the book. Here, it's a new
idea. First five people rushed to the stage. Then 10. Then hundreds,
many hundreds. 

By the time Joel and band performed "A Matter of Trust," the
audience lost most of its inhibitions. Almost everyone was standing,
clapping, moving to the music, standing on chairs. 

"Just like an American show," said one of the members of Brigade S,
a popular Moscow rock group. Suddenly a Sunday night in Moscow was
begining to feel like a Billy Joel concert at the Nassau Coliseum.
In contrast with many past rock concerts in Moscow, authorities did
not appear to insist that the audience remain seated and sedate.
The Supreme Soviet member and his family left. But thousands of
others were jumping up and down, shouting approval throughout rockers
like "Sometimes a Fantasy," "You May Be Right" and "Uptown Girl. "

People waved red flags, American flags, T-shirts and posters. Things seemed to be getting out of control, and a few soldiers started moving toward the stage. But the soldiers took off their hats, clapped their hands over their heads, and started dancing like fraternity brothers at a toga party.

When Joel and band kicked into the Beatles "Back in the USSR" for an encore, you could have re-named the building Sputnik 87. We were ready to go into orbit.  

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