Billy Joel – A Matter of Trust: The Bridge To Russia
Billy Joel’s historic 1987 tour of Soviet Russia is reissued as a deluxe 2 CD/DVD set
How long has it been since you lost sleep over the looming Russian nuclear threat? When was the last time you thought of Billy Joel? If you’d asked me a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to recall the last time that either the piano man or America’s former enemy had crossed my mind. After all, the Berlin wall came down nearly a quarter of a century ago; and, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the western world’s worries have switched to grappling with global warming, economic collapse, and the rise of “new” economies such as India and China. As far as Billy Joel is concerned, it’s been more than twenty years since he’s written a new song, though he continues to embark on greatest hits tours when the mood strikes him.
All of this makes watching and listening to the newly reissued A Matter of Trust – The Bridge To Russia set as disorienting as opening a time capsule, though one could argue that with the tensions over Russian control of the Ukraine, the timing of this release couldn’t be better. From an artistic perspective, listening to the set offers an opportunity to reassess the work of one of the most popular recording artists from the last half of the twentieth century–an artist who, like the Soviet Union itself, seems to have all but disappeared from the public’s consciousness.
There was a time from the mid-1970s to the late ’80s when you couldn’t avoid Billy Joel even if you wanted to. As a teenager, I experienced his early music on FM radio where songs like “Captain Jack” and “The Piano Man” were critical hits, and Joel was often praised for his lyrics as well as his melodic skills. With the passage of time, songs like “New York State of Mind” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” continue to stand up very well as narrative pop songs that rival Dylan for their intimate storytelling arcs. A few later songs like “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon” maintained this level of quality, but for many people, Joel’s music went dreadfully wrong precisely at the point when he became the most popular as an artist. Albums like 52nd Street and Glass Houses were hugely successful with multi-million selling singles such as “Honesty”, “You May Be Right” and “Uptown Girl”, relegating the introspective songs of previous releases like “Streetlife Serenade” and “Coldspring Harbour” to distant memory.
By 1987, when Joel went to Russia, he was at the height of his popularity. With huge hits like “Just The Way You Are” and “Uptown Girl” as calling cards, it’s easy to see why he was a natural choice as an artist for both the American and Russian governments to gamble on, as far as touring the Soviet Union was concerned. Joel was opinionated and could be outspoken, but the sheer melodic brilliance of his music and the universal themes in his lyrics–love, honesty, family values and a nostalgia for an imagined past–made him an accessible and appropriate choice. It is hard to imagine how the Russian audiences who were challenged enough by Joel’s extroverted performances would have dealt with the eccentricities of a more idiosyncratic artist like Bob Dylan. It probably wouldn’t have worked. Billy Joel and his music were the perfect choice for the times.
Watching the documentary film that comes with the CDs in A Matter of Trust provides the perfect context and introduction to what all the fuss was about in that long ago summer of 1987. Russia looked gray, austere and run down, but a feeling of change could be felt in the air as the camera followed Joel, his family, band mates, and crew as they interact with people in the churches, markets, and streets of every city they visited. Joel seemed in good spirits throughout the tour, as the film captures a gentler side of his stormy and difficult personality. My favourite sequence involves a visit to an out-of-the-way Georgian monastery where Joel and his band went to hear a local choir. A sing-along in the chapel morphed into an impromptu jam session that showcases Joel’s musicality and his deep love for singing and performing in new and challenging situations. It is moments like this that really allow the audience to reassess Joel’s talent and realize that he didn’t get so popular for nothing.
From a musical perspective, either you’ll love these songs or you won’t. From the distance of time, many of the songs–drenched in ’80s sax and synthesizer washes–sound dated and annoying, there’s no way around that. But, what I was surprised to remember was just how good a piano player Joel is and how much he obviously enjoyed performing at that time in his life. At its core, Joel’s music is pure Tin Pan Alley–easy to discount the overemotional flourishes, much harder to criticize the brilliant sense of melody and counterpoint within each song.
A Matter Of Trust is attractively packaged in a red slipcase that contains two CDs of music from the tour as well as the previously mentioned documentary. While it is unlikely that this release will attract a whole new legion of Billy Joel fans, for me it provided the perfect opportunity to listen again to songs from an artist whose voice I hadn’t heard for more than twenty years. It was an experience I approached with trepidation and, for weeks, I delayed watching the documentary more times than I can count. But, as with many things in life, it’s the things we least expect that surprise us the most, and I admit to being completely taken aback by how much I enjoyed listening to and watching this music. But, don’t tell anybody.
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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