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Revisiting Billy Joel's Historic Bridge To Russia

Director Jim Brown and musician Mark Rivera discuss Joel's groundbreaking 1987 Russia concerts documented in new film, Billy Joel: A Matter Of Trust — The Bridge To Russia

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

Did rock and roll actually save the world from nuclear annihilation?

That case could be made with Billy Joel: A Matter Of Trust — The Bridge To Russia, a feature-length film that documents Joel's groundbreaking 1987 concerts in Moscow and Leningrad during a time when relations between the United States and the USSR were still dominated by Cold War tensions. The film, which premiered on Showtime Jan. 31 and was released on DVD May 19, mixes exhilarating concert footage with reflective interviews that tell Joel's story of being the first artist to stage a full-scale, high-production rock concert behind the Iron Curtain. Viewers can almost experience the Cold War chill melting away song by song as the extremely tentative Russian audiences learn to rock, and as Joel and his bandmates are repeatedly stunned by the openheartedness of a people they'd grown up fearing.

In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Emmy-winning film director Jim Brown, who is working on a forthcoming Cold War music documentary, Free To Rock, in partnership with the GRAMMY Museum; and Mark Rivera, longtime saxist/multi-instrumentalist for Joel's band, discuss the new documentary and how Joel's concerts may have helped thaw the Cold War. Following the interview, watch an outtake from the film featuring Rivera revealing a piece of history from Joel's 1987 concerts.

There was a concert documentary and a TV special made about Billy Joel's Russia concerts in 1987. What was the main impetus for revisiting the concerts with a new film?

Jim Brown: At the time, it would have sounded very pretentious for Billy Joel to say that he wanted to thaw the Cold War with rock and roll. But that was the intent, and in reality, those concerts did a great deal to improve relations between the two countries, politically and musically. It wasn't long after Billy's shows that Ozzy Osbourne and Mötley Crüe were sharing a bill with Russian bands at the 1989 Moscow Music Peace Festival, and in '91 one of the biggest rock concerts in history ended up being Metallica's Monsters of Rock shows held outside of Moscow. In the new film, Billy could talk about his experiences with full hindsight.

Mark Rivera: I find the story more compelling now than ever before. Those concerts really had something to do with changing the whole political landscape. I'm still blown away by the fact that we were so afraid of these people for so long, and all they wanted was a taste of freedom.

The film makes it very clear that Joel rose to the occasion at a unique moment in history, when the Russian people were ready to embrace American music, and the Soviet government had loosened up just enough to let the concerts happen.

Brown: Billy went over at a "perfect storm"-like moment. For a long time, rock and roll was banned in Russia; it was thought to be an invention of the CIA. Then, music was allowed but was strictly controlled by the government. There was a slightly more open attitude toward American music in the "glasnost" era and the Soviets really allowed Billy to do whatever he wanted. Billy titled the film A Matter Of Trust, and that's absolutely right — he and the Russians proceeded down this path together. It only worked with both sides trusting each other.

Rivera: You can see the cultural transformation take place in the course of our six concerts. At the beginning, people are just sitting in their seats, not moving and not making a sound. Nobody knows what to do at a rock show. By the end, people are surging forward and pounding on the stage. At one show there was a young Russian soldier up front who took off his hat and handed it up to me onstage. It's still one of my most treasured possessions.

You know, when I saw the Beatles on "Ed Sullivan" as a kid, it felt like everything I knew had been turned upside down, musically and culturally. With Billy's band, we got to see that moment happen all over again with the Russian kids at our shows.

The Soviet Union is gone, but Billy Joel's still rocking. What do you think is the real legacy of the 1987 concerts?

Brown: I think you can see in the film that sometimes music gets to the truth faster than anything else. Billy's trip really raised the question that maybe much of the Cold War was a lie. He went over there and found that the "enemy" actually loved Americans. They loved seeing him and his family. They loved everything about the music. And in terms of technological sophistication, forget about them dominating us; they didn't even have enough toilet paper.

Rivera: They couldn't wipe let alone wipe us out. It was crazy. I remember there were two types of water in Russia then: green and brown. The green had the live parasites; the brown had the dead ones. We lived on warm Coca-Cola and vodka. But these people who had nothing were so generous to us and showed us nothing but love.

The giving of the music was actually the gift that we got back, because the Russian audiences' appreciation of our shows was one of the best feelings I've ever had as a musician. Billy actually managed to make the world smaller by bringing people together with music. That's an incredible legacy.

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(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)

Billy Joel Didn't Start The Fire
Billy Joel in "We Didn't Start The Fire"

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Billy Joel Didn't Start The Fire

GRAMMY winner's "We Didn't Start The Fire" sparks a pop culture trip through time

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

Welcome to Forgotten Videos. For some, these videos are forgotten, for others just filed away, and for others still, a totally brand-new discovery. Whichever category you fall into, each week we'll feature a video that's possibly been collecting dust when what it really deserves is a fresh look. Or vice-versa. … We're not here to judge, we just want to take you on a little trip down memory lane. Yep, you'll remember when hair was really that big, when drums were that up front in the mix, when video was young(er) and so were you.

Billy Joel
"We Didn't Start The Fire"
1989

Five decades, multiple kitchens and more than 100 cultural milestones — those are the basic ingredients for Billy Joel's 1989 baby boomer apologia, the Record Of The Year GRAMMY-nominated "We Didn't Start The Fire." Lyrically, the song works as a rapid-fire rundown of burning headlines and pop culture sparks from the '40s through the '80s, with clever word pairings to boot ("communist bloc" rhymes with "'Rock Around The Clock'" and "Lawrence of Arabia" rhymes with "British Beatlemania").

For the song's video, Joel and director Chris Blum came up with the idea of moving visually through the decades, using one family's kitchen as the focal point. The particulars of that concept fell to art director and production designer Sterling Storm, who, over the course of the video's hectic three-day shoot, was tasked with accumulating hundreds of period-perfect details. From evolving refrigerators, lunchboxes and wall hangings, to Jell-O molds and floor tiles, every element of every frame had to be era-evocative.

"I hit every prop shop in Hollywood," recalls Storm, whose work earned him a nomination for Best Art Direction at the 1990 MTV Music Video Awards. "And I didn't sleep much."

The production took a pre-digital approach to creating real flames. When Joel is seen sitting before a wall of burning iconic images featuring figures such as Lee Harvey Oswald and Oliver North, among others, he was in fact sitting feet away from 12' by 12' photo panels that Storm had blown up and then set fire to. "He could only sit there for about 20 seconds at a time before it got too hot on his back," Storm remembers. "And there were no second takes." 

The art director's most memorable moment on the set involved a smaller fire — the burning of a bra worn by a teenage daughter played by Marlee Matlin. "I had to rig her bra with rubber cement so it would burn quickly," says Storm. "At first she would take it off, I'd rig it, then she'd put it back on for the shot. But we were under such a time crunch that the director asked me to just put the rubber cement on the bra while she was wearing it, and I said, 'OK.' I was totally focused on getting the job done, and I started rubbing rubber cement all over the bra when I hear this horrified gasp. I realize that without thinking about what I'm doing I'm basically manhandling Marlee Matlin's breasts. I must have turned red and I started apologizing profusely, but then she smiled and said, 'Just kidding, got ya.' She was a total trooper — just [messing] around with me to keep things fun. And on the next take she started the fire — the bra fire — without any trouble." 

Joel didn't have a problem starting a fire with this song either; it topped the Billboard Hot 100 and the album from which it's taken, Storm Front, reached the peak of the Billboard 200. We wonder what kind of fires Joel is starting now as today marks his 63rd birthday.

Have you ever started a fire? Leave us a comment.

(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)

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FYI/TMI: Stars Come Together For Hurricane Sandy, Justin Bieber Breaks The Law

Alicia Keys, Paul McCartney among performers for Sandy benefit; Bieber gets ticketed in L.A.

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

(In an effort to keep you fully informed, and fully entertained, below we present today's FYI and TMI — news you need and news that's, well, sometimes needless….)

FYI …

More Stars Come Together For Hurricane Sandy
GRAMMY winners Jon Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, Alicia Keys, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, and Kanye West, and legendary rockers Roger Waters and the Who will perform at a benefit concert for Hurricane Sandy on Dec. 12 in New York. Proceeds from the concert will benefit the Robin Hood Relief Fund to aid hurricane victims.

SoundExchange Reports 3Q Royalty Payments
Performance rights organization SoundExchange distributed $122.5 million in royalty payments during the third quarter of 2012, marking the organization's largest quarterly payout since its founding in 2000, according to Billboard.biz. SoundExchange has distributed $326.9 million in performance royalties for the year to date, bringing the organization's grand payout total to $1.2 billion since 2000.

TMI …

Bieber Breaks The Law
As if Justin Bieber's recent trouble in love wasn't hard enough for the 18-year-old, the teen pop sensation has now run into some trouble with law enforcement. Bieber was ticketed by Los Angeles police on Nov. 13 after he was pulled over in his Ferrari in West Hollywood, Calif., for making an unsafe left turn. On top of that, cops found his registration was expired. Hopefully now there's one less unsafe driver on the road.

 

 

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Patriotic Makeover: State Song Edition

In honor of midterm elections, here are five state songs that might be due for makeovers

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

You can say what you want about Delaware's official state bird, the Blue Hen chicken. Or Utah's official state firearm, the Browning M1911 pistol. Or even New York state's recently appointed official state snack, yogurt. 

But only the most outspoken state advocates would likely defend songs such as "All Hail To Massachusetts," "Hail! Minnesota," "Hail! South Dakota," and "Hail, Vermont!"  

Let's face it, Massachusetts could find much more to brag about then: "All hail to grand old Bay State, the home of the bean and the cod." 

And then there's "Maryland, My Maryland," which contains lyrics that are downright scary: "She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb/Huzza! She spurns the Northern scum!" 

On the state level, there have been numerous legislative efforts to replace what some consider outdated anthems, but nearly all have failed. And federal intervention is, for the moment at least, off the table. 

But this is, after all, the electoral season, a time to keep hope alive. With that, here are five ideas for proposed official state song replacements.

State: Alabama
Official Song: "Alabama" (Julia S. Tutwiler/Edna Gockel-Gussen)
Proposed Replacement: "Shout Bamalama" (Otis Redding & The Pinetoppers)

It's tough to beat Tutwiler and Gockel-Gussen's 1931 lyrics, particularly the Jabberwocky-worthy "Broad the stream whose name thou bearest/Grand thy Bigbee rolls along/Fair thy Coosa-Tallapoosa/Bold thy warrior, dark and strong." But Otis Redding's first 45 rpm single (backed with his less-remembered "Fat Gal") is arguably more catchy and concise. And while Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" and the Doors' "Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)" are both better known, neither can claim a chorus as fine as "I love a chicken, baby/Shoutin' Bamalama." 

State: Colorado
Official Songs: "Where The Columbines Grow" (A.J. Fynn) and "Rocky Mountain High" (John Denver)
Proposed Replacement: "Lucky Old Colorado" (Merle Haggard)

Yes, two state songs for the price of one. In 2007, before Colorado legalized marijuana, the state's legislature faced off on a measure to replace A.J. Flynn's ode to one plant with John Denver's alleged ode to another. The debate focused on a single line in "Rocky Mountain High" — "Friends around the campfire and everybody's high" — and whether it was a reference to elevation or drug use. One of the bill's co-sponsors suggested that it's really about "a bunch of guys who spent the day hunting or fishing and are having a couple six-packs." The easy way out was to adopt two separate-but-equal official songs, neither of which can compete with The Hag's beloved weeper about the state that stole the girl of his dreams.

State: New York
Official Song: "I Love New York (Steve Karmen)
Proposed Replacement: "New York State Of Mind" (Billy Joel)

While Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" may be the gold standard, "New York State Of Mind" acknowledges the fact that there's more to the Empire State than five boroughs. Plus, Billy Joel was born in the Bronx, not Hoboken, N.J., where Ol' Blue Eyes got his start.

State: Ohio
Official Song: "Beautiful Ohio" (Ballard MacDonald/Mary Earl/Wilbert McBride)
Proposed Replacement: "Dayton, Ohio — 1903" (Randy Newman)

Ohio's official state song marvels at how "freedom is supreme in this majestic land" and "mighty factories seem to hum in tune, so grand," which was no doubt true when "Beautiful Ohio" was written in 1918. Subsequent songs about the Buckeye State, such as the Pretenders' "My City Was Gone," with its derisive refrain "Way to go, Ohio," have become a little less starry-eyed. Why not just go with Randy Newman's ode to pastoral nostalgia? "Sing a song of long ago/When things were green and movin' slow/And people stopped to say hello." All you'll need to do is get someone other than Newman to sing it, so that it will actually sound sincere. 

State: Wyoming
Official Song: "Wyoming" (C.E. Winter/G.E. Knapp)
Proposed Replacement: "Song Of Wyoming" (John Denver)

A consolation prize for Denver after he loses Colorado.

Can you name your state's official song?

(Bill Forman is a writer and music editor for the Colorado Springs Independent and the former publications director for The Recording Academy.)

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Clean Bill Of Health?

A look at how the newly passed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will impact the music community

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

Framed in music terms, the U.S. healthcare debate has unfolded like an epic battle of the bands. For nearly a century politicians, doctors and private insurers have riffed on the subject, with each side hoping their proposed healthcare solutions would capture the grand prize of public approval. With the recent passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the debate continues and among the topics is how this historic legislation will impact the music community.

In reviewing the bill with an eye toward how it might apply to musicians, it is difficult to give the legislation a clean bill of health. Too much about the 2,400-page bill and its 10-year implementation plan is simply unknowable. However, the bill does include several provisions that could be beneficial to music professionals and their families — a group that has long struggled to balance employment, artistic fulfillment, health, and financial security.

As mandated by the new bill, most uninsured Americans will be required to purchase health policies starting in 2014, with consumers earning up to four times the federal poverty level qualifying for government subsidies. The mandate is probably a good thing considering the results of a 2002 Future of Music Coalition survey, which found that 44 percent of the 2,700 musicians queried didn't carry health insurance — almost three times the national average.

The bill bans insurance companies from dropping policyholders from coverage when they get sick. Private insurers will also be prohibited from refusing coverage to children with pre-existing conditions, a protection that will extend to all consumers in 2014. Until then, uninsured citizens with pre-existing conditions will receive immediate access to coverage through high-risk pools. "We see many people who are excluded from health insurance plans because of diabetes, a heart condition, hepatitis C, or cancer that they contracted five years ago," says Debbie Carroll, Executive Director of MusiCares, the health and human services organization established by The Recording Academy in 1989. "The pre-existing conditions clause is huge for [music professionals]."

Effective this year, a provision kicks in that requires new private insurance plans to cover preventive services with no co-payments or deductibles. Another clause allows children to remain on their parents' health plans until they are 26-years-old — a boon for young musicians. "Typically, young bands don't get their footing until they're a little bit older," says Carroll. "If they can be on their parent's plan instead of taking it on themselves, there's a greater chance that [medical expenses] will be taken care of."

Through new tax credits, small businesses will be able to purchase insurance for their employees, which may provide a boost to music entrepreneurs including studio owners, small publishers and even independent artists and bands. A less clear impact on business owners comes in 2014 when those companies with more than 50 workers will be required to offer employees health insurance or face penalties.

Despite many promising provisions and regulations, some Americans remain wary of the new healthcare legislation. A recent CBS News poll found 53 percent of Americans disapprove of the bill, while 32 percent approve and 15 percent are undecided.

A 2009 Harvard University study cited health care as the single largest factor in 62 percent of all U.S. personal bankruptcy cases in 2007. Confronted by this issue and other healthcare-related realities, Pearl Jam, Lou Reed, R.E.M., and Lucinda Williams, among other artists, have participated in benefit concerts and tribute recordings to help ailing comrades, including tributes for artists such as Victoria Williams, who contracted multiple sclerosis in 1993; Alejandro Escovedo, who was stricken with hepatitis C in 2003; Vic Chesnutt, who died in 2009 from an overdose of prescription muscle relaxants; and Marva Wright, who died from complications of a stroke in March.

But while such projects are helpful, they alone can not fully defray healthcare costs. "It used to be that you could have a [benefit] and pay off the person's bill," says Jim Brown, director of health services for the Actors Fund, a New York-based human services organization. "You can't do that anymore. Health care today can be hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Financial healthcare burdens have been so onerous that some musicians have resorted to drastic measures. Reportedly distraught over mounting medical bills, former Ted Nugent drummer Cliff Davies committed suicide in 2008. The problem for many musicians is the episodic and independent nature of professional music employment. While a majority of Americans are insured through their employers, many music industry professionals earn income in a non-union, work-for-hire capacity. As such, they are often forced to directly purchase costly individual health plans from modestly regulated private insurers.

"The difficulty for artists in this country is that much of our employment system depends on that steady 9-to-5 job," says Brown. "Many entertainers simply can't afford the insurance."

For Nashville, Tenn., music publicist Nicole Cochran, the search for affordable health care claimed nearly everything she has. Diagnosed with aggressive multiple sclerosis in 2004, Cochran, 39, was forced to close her Music Row office and lay off her employees in order to pay healthcare bills. "It was devastating," Cochran says. "I went blind. I had to re-learn how to walk. I lost all my savings. It was a struggle, to say the least."

With assistance from MusiCares and Nashville-based program Sound Healthcare, Cochran has reduced her medical bills, which average $3,000 per month. She is one of many Americans hoping to be accepted into the government subsidized high-risk pool. Though she believes the health bill is flawed, Cochran remains philosophical. "Anything is better than doing nothing," she says. "I strongly believe that we have to walk before we run."

The walking analogy seems appropriate — the healthcare debate has been a long, hard road. Despite valiant efforts, past presidents including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Richard Nixon struggled, and failed, to pass comprehensive healthcare legislation. President Bill Clinton's attempt in 1993 was stymied by fervent opposition from Republicans, fellow Democrats and business interests.

Pledging a healthcare overhaul, Democrat Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008. A conservative movement erupted in response to the president's healthcare plans, with self-styled "tea party" protestors equating the president's reforms with Soviet-styled socialism. Liberal critics expressed disappointment when Obama ruled out the possibility of a "public option" — i.e., a government-run alternative to private insurers.

Just when it seemed reform was dead, Obama, encouraged by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), unveiled his own plan. The president then persuaded enough of his moderate Democratic colleagues to push the bill through. The House approved the $2.5 trillion overhaul, which the president signed into law on March 23.

Cochran, also a mother of a foster child, says the bill has given her renewed hope. A former Republican who switched parties over her reform convictions, she has experienced the healthcare debate from both sides.

"To me this is not a partisan issue — it's a compassion issue," Cochran says. "We're the wealthiest nation in the world, and it's absurd that people are dying without health care. This bill was the right thing."

(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)