Billy Joel

Bombast Meets Glasnost: Billy Joel in Russia

Maura Johnston

By Maura Johnston

on 05.28.14 in Features

A Matter of Trust - The Bridge to Russia: The Music (Live)

Billy Joel

Last year, the Long Island-born, ever-prickly singer-songwriter Billy Joel sat down with The New York Times for a lengthy interview about his hiatus from popular music — “I haven’t given [his label, Columbia Records] anything since 1993, that’s 20 years ago,” he told Andrew Goldman. In the time since his last album — the sprawling River of Dreams, which was full of bitter snipes at his former manager and had backing vocals by Color Me Badd — Joel’s music has come back into favor, a phenomenon capped off by a series of sellout performances at New York’s Madison Square Garden. (Acid-tongued observers of New York sports have observed that the monthly residency makes him the most successful franchise at Madison Square Garden, which also serves as home to the Knicks, Liberty and Rangers.)

Joel, who turned 65 earlier this month, is the patron saint of a certain brand of high schooler — the kid who lost himself in the music department, blowing off class in order to noodle around on the piano or get in some extra rehearsal time for the student musical. That he not only got out of his hometown, but became a star big enough to have his English credit retroactively fulfilled by his lyrical output so that he could officially graduate high school in 1992, served as inspiration to kids who would blare Joel’s albums during rehearsal breaks. Those records not only spoke to suburban angst, they fit in with the backstage din; the high-school-is-forever chronicle “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and the apocalyptic fantasia “Miami 2017″ blend plainly observant lyrics with bombast that could only be taken from the sort of music pored over by high-school orchestras. This particular influence is all over the radio, from the classic-rock outlets that still use “Piano Man” and “Just the Way You Are” as bedrocks to the pop outlets that sprinkle offerings from the similarly sky-reaching fun. into their playlists.

In the summer of 1987, during the last act of the Cold War and shortly after the release of the crunching The Bridge, Joel blazed another trail — he headed over to the Soviet Union, becoming one of the first Western acts to play large-scale rock shows there since the ’60s. The new set, A Matter of Trust, is a multimedia look back, featuring an expanded version of the Wayne Isham-directed Live from Leningrad as well as a documentary about the Soviet leg of the Bridge tour, supplemented by two discs of live material, which include 11 songs from the shows that didn’t appear on the 1987 album Концерт.

In some ways Trust is a stopgap, a rerelease of Joel’s music by a label likely hoping that the singer could bust his hiatus with one final album and get people back in the habit of buying records again. But the timing of its release is savvy. Not only does it dovetail with Joel breaking his live-performance hiatus, but taking in all this material in 2014 — when the U.S. and Russia are once again engaging in brinksmanship, even though their positions on the world’s stage have changed substantially from the days when glasnost was in its infancy — is enlightening for any historian of pop music, geopolitical power, or just life in the ’80s.

‘Watching the audience navigate the show while Joel tries to situate his music, which chronicles the way of life for a very particular slice of America, is instructive’

Watching the audience navigate the show while Joel tries to situate his music, which chronicles the way of life for a very particular slice of America, is instructive. (A Washington Post review of the Moscow concert called the audience “motley, a mixture of Soviet children, teens and adults.”) By 1987, Joel’s music had been firmly implanted in the United States’ pop-rock canon, his videos serving as a staple on MTV. But his records — including “Angry Young Man,” and its disdain toward someone with “working-class views and…radical plans” — weren’t made officially available in the Soviet Union. Before launching into the miserablist look at post-industrial America “Allentown,” he tells the crowd about the song’s characters (assisted by an interpreter): “They desperately want to leave, but they stay, because they were brought up to believe things would get better…maybe that sounds familiar.” (When the name of the song is announced, though, a cheer comes up from the crowd.)

Joel is a formidable live performer, and even though it dates from three decades ago, the material collected on The Bridge to Russia could double as an ad for his current Madison Square Garden run; while songs like the Vietnam reminiscence “Goodnight Saigon” display his flair for the theatrical a bit too blatantly, tracks like the crackling “A Matter of Trust” and the sneering “Big Shot” are delivered in full force. And while the phrase “Billy Joel crowdsurfs” might sound like a punchline, it happens here — and during the doo-wop throwback “The Longest Time,” at that.

The film closes with Joel (perhaps predictably) returning to the piano and storming through the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R,” much to the delight of the crowd. “Don’t take any shit from anybody,” Joel says as he exits the stage, a sign-off helpfully translated by his interpreter — and one that sums up the career of the often-pugilistic chronicler of fighting one’s way from the suburbs that were once full of promise to Madison Square Garden’s stage.