It had been a long year for Billy Joel and something was bound to give. Then on the night of July 27, , in front of 22, people, it did.
Joel's Soviet trip was two years in the making. When Mikhail Gorbachev took over as leader of the Communist Party there in , he steered the Soviet Union onto a drastically new course, promoting policies of glasnost openness and perestroika restructuring in an effort to end the political and economic rivalry between the Soviets and the US that arose after World War II.
Western culture had previously been explicitly banned under the nation's old totalitarian rule, though rock and roll, a distinctly American export, had managed to seep in via the black market. Bootleggers would smuggle records from the West and etch makeshift copies of them on discarded X-Ray emulsion sheets fished out of hospital dumpsters. These were sold in secret on street corners and alleys, and the practice gained popularity during Beatlemania in the 60s.
It was entirely possible to illegally purchase a copy of A Hard Day's Night on the streets of Leningrad printed on an X-Ray of some poor bastard's broken hand. But Gorbachev liked rock and roll. His wife was an Elvis fan and they were both great admirers of John Lennon. And while American music became more prevalent on the Soviet radiowaves under glasnost, Gorbachev wanted to import the real thing in the form of concerts. He and President Ronald Reagan signed a United States-Soviet cultural exchange agreement in Geneva in an effort to open new lines of communication.
American acts like James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, and Santana had accepted offers to play shorter festival sets at a concert for peace in Moscow in the summer of ' Elton John had also done an intimate performance there in But what the Soviets had never seen before was a full-on stadium rock show, and Billy Joel was ready to give it to them. Depending on whom you asked back in the States, Joel was either a pop genius or a glorified lounge singer.
Some critics questioned whether he was the most well suited man for the job. International touring with a stadium show is difficult enough pull off, and the added complications of heading to uncharted territory seemed to scare other artists away. But Joel was the first to jump at the opportunity, taking the initiative and booking six shows there for July and August, It was immediately obvious this wouldn't be a financially profitable venture for Joel.
He put up a reported two and a half million dollars of his own money to cover the production, knowing he was sure to go into the red.
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Beyond money, though, there was something greater at stake. Joel, who grew up among the millions of other American children who practiced ducking and covering under their school desks during routine Civil Defense drills, was raised to fear and distrust the mysterious Ruskies. Though he made it a point of downplaying his ambassadorial role when speaking to the press, he privately hoped that his trip would be something of a peacemaking expedition between the two enemy nations.
He tried to lower expectations as much as he could, presenting himself as a mere entertainer, mostly to save face in case the whole thing was a disaster. I want to get more communication going between us. People over there like pop music, they like rock and roll.
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But even though he tried to minimize the political aspect of the trip, his entry into the country was such a spectacle that it was a political act itself. He brought his entire production with him to do his show "lock, stock, and barrel, exactly the way we do it in the States," as he put it.
That included everything from the lights to the stage to the speakers, all packed into six semi-tractor trailers, plus several buses full of crew. People lined up on the streets to watch this display of American grandiosity as it rolled through their country. Joel first arrived in Tbilisi, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Georgia, where he and his then wife, model Christie Brinkley, spent time sightseeing—taking walks through outdoor food markets and snapping photos with townspeople.
After befriending a few local singers, Joel was invited to a nearby opera house that evening for a jam session, but he arrived that night to find that 1, tickets had been sold, and it turned into a full-on performance. It wasn't an ideal setup but Joel made due with the subpar house PA, often shouting to help his voice carry to the back of the room to reach the far rows.
Joel and Brinkley celebrated with their gracious hosts afterwards. When Joel arrived in Moscow a few days later for his first of three shows at the Olympijskiy Stadium, his vocal cords were shredded and he was having trouble hitting the high notes during his warm-ups. He visited a medical clinic where a doctor gave him an injection, put electrodes on his throat, and, for some reason, handed him a box of Tic-Tacs and told him to pop a few every so often. But when Joel finally got on stage for the first show, he had a bigger problem to deal with than a sore throat.
As he pounded away on the keys of his black Yamaha piano, belting out bangers like "My Life" and "Angry Young Man" with the rest of his band, he noticed that the audience was as still as, in his words, an oil painting. Looking out into the crowd, he saw the stoic faces of middle-aged men and women, many of them Communist Party functionaries who received tickets as a perk, looking cock-eyed and confused, occasionally offering polite, tepid applause.
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Joel attributes this lukewarm response to the "bigshots who got the tickets in the front" being too turned off by the unprecedented display of bright lights and loud volume to emote any enjoyment. The way Joel tells it, once the bigshots finally gave up and left, they gave their tickets to the younger, more enthusiastic people in the back rows and those waiting outside, at which point it finally turned into a real rock and roll show. Even though the bigshots were gone, Joel still worked himself into a sweat trying to make a connection with the remaining crowd, which he felt was key to a successful performance.
If it's too quiet, you're not doing it good. He prided himself on being a workmanlike performer, and if he had to individually engage with every single person in the crowd of 22, to win them over, so be it.
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Over two and a half hours, Joel did just that. During "For the Longest Time," he ran down the aisle with a wireless microphone, grabbing people out of their seats and leading them to the front of the room like the pied piper of pop. Before long, he had gathered a congregation around the edge of the stage. And since there was no barrier, they could reach out and touch Joel's legs and feet, bopping along to songs they'd mostly never heard sung in a language they mostly didn't speak.
But center stage in this first room is a Hudson Hornet Special that the Eubanks bought new in Billy explains that he enjoys doing the restoration work himself, and remembers fondly his days teaching auto restoration at his local community college. First we see a Stutz, one of two Stutzes he owns. Next is a Lincoln Continental with supposedly factory handmade rear fender skirts. There are Corvettes, Mopars, Jaguars, Cadillacs, and more. There is no rhyme or reason to what fills the rooms—if Billy liked it, he got it and fixed it up.
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Some he drove more than others, but he never got rid of his cars and never even thought about flipping them for profit. He drove it home on five cylinders.
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The next structure over is a garage six lanes wide and about three cars deep, filled with a totally eclectic mixture of stuff. Behind another door, two old Jaguars, also red and green, plus an E-type. I feel guilty about not paying attention and giving credit to them all. I thought he was just so happy about our little girl, but he actually had just bought another car and it was out in the parking lot and he wanted me to see it.
And my life has been like that forever more. In the same building, just around the corner, things start to get even more interesting if you can believe it. Billy explains that the previous owner took it to the Chelsea Proving Grounds in Michigan, where Chrysler to this day does its testing, and ran it to mph.
The owner and the Daytona were promptly kicked out and banned from the premises. And right nearby is a sibling to the Daytona, a white Plymouth Superbird—the 43rd to roll off the production line. My head hurts.