Music brings people together. Whether the reverberations are at the centre of attention or simply an accompaniment to it, a gathering of human souls typically entails the presence of melody and rhythm.
Throughout history, moments of celebration, awareness, and grief, have been coloured by the resonance of an instrumental campaign; for even at times of dissonance, the striking of a chord can signify the coming together of opposition and a renaissance solidarity – and can very much lead to a major social metamorphosis.
It is through notes of harmony that past, present, and future existential accords are often written, and thus, from the song of the morning bird up until the sounding of the seventh trumpet, the esteemed crescendos of humanity’s soundtrack shall keep its hearts beating to the rhythm of the drum.
A lot of childhood memories can end up forgotten; that is just the way the mind works. Yet there are certain pieces that remain, and rest upon a shelf, inside a box of things that made us who were are; or things that simply take us back to how we were. These can be moments, experiences, actions, or even tangible pieces of memorabilia that fill up the cluttered canvas of the painting that we see today. For me, one of those pieces is my mother’s old white t-shirt.
I remember it always being there, floating and folding, enticing and entertaining – just mesmerising. It was loud, colourful…iconic. It can be seen on some of my earliest photos with my mother, where she is holding me and tending to me as baby. On the front it was adorned by a big metal eagle clutching a golden hammer/sickle symbol and spreading its mechanical wings for all to see the bolts and hinges that held its heavy, metallic feathers in place; steel-clad and mighty. And they had to be, for they were holding an equally rugged, grey peace sign, whose geometric openings were filled-in with flags of Germany, the United Kingdom, USA, and the Soviet Union. Framing the image were the words I could not yet read, but which, as I would find out later, said MOSCOW MUSIC PEACE FESTIVAL – МОСКОВСКИЙ МУЗЫКАЛЬНЫЙ ФЕСТИВАЛЬ МИРА – as it was dubbed in Russian underneath.
On the back of the shirt was a list of band names that I wouldn’t become familiar with until late in my teens, but ones that were very important to Rock music enthusiasts like my mother. Stretching across the fabric in fat black lettering were entertainers who at that time dominated the airways in the west. The heavyweights of American and European Rock included the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, and Scorpions – all of whom had traversed the world but never set foot on Russian soil before.
Yet the music from their stages was still heard in the USSR even through the heavy presence of the iron curtain. Expensive bootleg vinyl records from the Eastern Bloc had made their way into the hands of Russian youth in spite of the country’s repressive social standards, and quite soon, in addition to the millions of fans from across the globe, the voices of musical giants from the west reached the ears of a Russian audience.
Unfortunately, despite being able to appreciate their music, the fans in Russia could only dream of seeing their favourite bands in living flesh – that is, until the summer of 1989.
Repression is a teen’s worst enemy. However, in a lot of countries to the west, said ‘repression’ simply manifests itself through parental rules and mild social regulations. For youth in the USSR, however, the status quo had a very different character.
This was particularly evident during the 1970’s and 1980’s, when the voice of Rock ‘N’ Roll grabbed its earth-sized megaphone, and hopped on the pedestal of modern entertainment, rallying the troops of counterculture and professing a gospel of social change; with liberal cries of individual freedom, solidarity, and most importantly, peace and love. Through the advent of festivals like the historical 1969 Woodstock the sound of Rock ‘N’ Roll reached the attention of the masses, but its rebellious message would become beyond taboo in the Soviet Union, where conformity and control served as foundations of its social regime – thus making the prospect of hearing it within the confines of the ‘iron curtain’ virtually impossible.
The west is where popular music has always reigned supreme, and often provided a necessary outlet for many disenchanted youths in their ‘coming-of-age’ quests. In addition to that, the western way of life in itself has always been a picture of prosperity and comfort. For citizens of the Soviet Union however, this lifestyle was not simply beyond reach, it was deemed almost non-existent. And it remained that way until the events of ‘perestroika’ in the mid-1980s, which saw a reformation of USSR’s political and economic structure, and eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Under Mikhail Gorbachev (and his glasnost policy) the USSR began broadening its horizons to the ways of the west, and by the second half of the 80’s, artists like Elton John and Billie Joel had already made their pilgrimage to Russian lands. However, heavy Rock ‘N’ Roll was still off-bounds, and it would take the efforts of parties from both sides of the fence to carry it over the links.
In 1989, through the collaborative effort of renowned American music manager Doc McGhee – who is known for having managed such bands as Bon Jovi and Motley Crue – and Stas Namin – a cult Russian musician and the grandson of then USSR head-of-state Anastas Mikoyan – the once thought to be half-baked dream of organising a Russian version of the historic Woodstock, became a reality.
Together they joined forces to create a festival dedicated to promote clean-living and individual freedom. Yes, in retrospect it might seem ironic that an anti-drug festival should be headlined by a group of 1980’s Rock ‘N’ Roll stars, but in reality, the concert wasn’t about drugs and alcohol, just like it wasn’t about the “rockstars” in particular, the Moscow Music Peace Festival was something bigger, something unifying, and something universally significant.
As a child, when I looked at my mother’s t-shirt, I had no idea what it represented; and I’m quite certain that I still don’t. Even though I was brought into this world amidst the revolutions of 1989-1991, I knew nothing of what transpired around the lives of my parents, and would never be truly able to grasp the type of life that they lived prior to my birth; and just how much it differed from the existence that I was raised into.
Where the younger generations of such countries as the United States had to break the loose chains of conformity, the youth of USSR had to contend with the iron shackles of strict conservatism and a heavily policed state. Beyond the borders there was a entire world that was still a mystery to the majority of the Russian population, and regardless of how you look at it – it was a better one.
People of the Soviet Union had previously gotten a taste of the American life during the Cold War with the American National Exhibition in 1959 at the Sokolniki Park in Moscow – one that featured the now historic “Kitchen Debate” between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon. The exhibition was a showcase for American art, fashion, cars, and the western capitalistic way of life, all of which were so foreign to the Soviet public, that many didn’t know what to make of them.
Yet whilst the older generations may have been content with the values that had already become the norm of their existence, those that came after them held onto the glimpses of the life beyond the Iron Curtain, all in hope of a better future – one that was still quite far away. Thus for the time being, they had to live within the realities of USSR.
And it is those realities that awaited the western stars as they stepped off the Boeing 757 onto the grey concrete plains of Moscow, and were greeted by the shocks of overwhelming security, lacklustre accommodation, and questionable food options – Russian culinary delicacies in the likes of pickled Sturgeon and, I presume, Dressed Herring, were not frequent staples of the American palate; which was largely accustomed to the simpler dietary staples of pizza and hamburgers. The things that they so eagerly took for granted, were make-belief in Soviet lands. In an interview taken from Rolling Stone magazine, Ernie Hudson (then a guitar tech for American band Cinderella) remembered being completely taken aback by people standing in lines for products that were so commonplace in the US:
“We see people queueing, we’d say, “What are people queueing for?” They’d say, “Oh, this is a queue to get toilet paper.” Two blocks down, a mile,“What are these people queueing for?” “Oh, they’re queueing to get milk.” It was just really backwards, compared to anything we were used to, going to the grocery store and getting toilet paper and milk.”
To them, the image of Russia had always been shown through the lens of the Cold War – whose optics portrayed it as a a great enemy. A lot of the budding musicians on the bill were kids in their 20’s, and thus their inexperience of cultural diversity – which was rooted in the norms and values of ‘the land of the free’ – set them up for a ‘culture shock’ of high watt proportions.
Yet perhaps what drew the most incredulity from the guests, were the people themselves. Through perpetuated stereotypes and political tensions, the United States have long viewed the USSR as enemy territory, a hive of KGB agents ready to congregate and take over American soil. However, as they quickly came to realise, this was pure political hyperbole. Yes, the military and the KGB were present, and they were diligent in keeping an eye on the westerners during their stay, but they also seemed very thankful for their presence, as it was mentioned by then Skid Row drummer Rob Affuso:
“Later in the evening, I went up to watch Bon Jovi from the stands, way up in the back. I was sitting there, and this group of soldiers approached me. Obviously, I got really nervous. I didn’t know what was about to happen. And they came up to me and put their guns down. They sat next to me and they said, “We want to thank you so much for coming to our country to bring us rock & roll. We don’t have rock & roll in our country. Thank you, thank you.” And they were crying. It was a really incredibly emotional moment.”
The people, whilst stern and composed – as was required of them by their homeland – were courteous and accommodating; going out of their way to show the western stars that this was a country of good people who were merely stifled by their socio-political state of affairs.
Yet as much as these novel circumstances baffled, and a lot of times even frightened the western stars, the Russian staff members who catered to them were equally impressed by the decrees of the reception that the presence of the American musical entourage had generated. Russian interpreters like Xenia Kuleshova, who grew up in the Soviet regime and didn’t even own a tape player, was completely baffled by abundance of food that was catered to the stars:
“Another thing that amazed me more than the show was the dining room for the organizers and the musicians. To know what I mean, you had to have grown up in the USSR, where there wasn’t any choice as to what you ate. There was always food, but it was all the same stuff all the time. There was nothing to make a shopper happy, nothing to attract them. I couldn’t go to restaurants – not because of the cost, but because only special people who were “allowed” to go could go. And during the show, us, the Russian staff, saw a whole new world. It was like a celebration, there was so much to choose from! Everything, including the food, the dining hall itself, small stuff, like the trays, the utensils, everything amazed me – the form, the smells, the colour, the lack of lines, the lack of feeling that you had to grab what you could because it would run out.”
And that was the reality of that day and age.
In my years as a music journalist – and Hard Rock/Heavy Metal fan in general – I have had the opportunity to attend many concerts – from well-know bands to underground stars – and with me often being at the front lines of the shows in question. Yet for many of the Russian fans (including my mother) that filled the Lenin Stadium (now Luzhniki) from August 12th to 13th in 1989 was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity experience, a taste of – dare I say – freedom.
Spoiled by the liberal frontiers of my generation – not to mention the bubbled digital bath of the 21st century – I was aware of what a Rock concert entails even before I stepped foot on the beer-stained floors of bars in Camden. However, to the vast majority of the crowd at the stadium that day, a spectacle of such character was beyond alien. As Doc McGhee’s attorney Joe Cheshire went on to mention:
“[The audience] didn’t have any idea how to act at a rock & roll concert. They were all in there, but they had no idea how to act. And as the concert progressed, you could see them beginning to understand how to enjoy and participate in this concert. It was amazing watching them figure it out, and then watching them enjoy it. It was almost like you could palpably feel for the first time in their lives, they were in a place where they could have fun and feel free.”
My mother was there with my father to see Bon Jovi, and to this day has a recollection of the event that centres more around disbelief – or better yet befuddlement – rather than excitement. By all means, at barely nineteen years of age and clutching onto a pair of binoculars in the bleachers to see stars of her music magazines come to life was a moment of true exaltation, but it was just so foreign and so phantasmagorical to a youth in the Soviet Union, that it was perhaps hard to acknowledge it as a piece of reality.
And the concert was not just important to the fans, or to the political relations and social perceptions of both countries, it was also a monumental moment for the musicians themselves; for at that time it was truly a destination that they never expected to visit – not to mention for an event that would become so significant in the grand scheme of things. As Tom Keifer (lead vocalist of Rock band Cinderella) would go on to say in a 2019 interview:
“That was a really special show to be a part of. People ask me what has been one of the highlights of my career. The Moscow Music Peace Festival is one of them. It was such a special event, it was like their Woodstock. That was the first time that a rock concert of that magnitude took place there. It was special to the fans that showed up, but it was also special to us as well, it was cool to feel that and you could feel that.”
This particular trip to Russia would also go on to inspire members of German Rock band Scorpions to pen the song “Winds of Change”, which would in turn become an anthem to the fall of the Berlin wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The t-shirt that so prominently features in this story is an artefact that has remained to this day; and how my father came to acquire it (or the tickets) remains a mystery – especially given how expensive they were. Yet if it wasn’t for this piece of garment, I may have never considered just what things were like just a year before my birth. For it is too often that one takes stories of their parents’ youths as fictional exaggerations of cinematic hardships, but in the case of my mother’s generation, these were genuine accounts of struggle for individuality.
I suppose that the t-shirt also represents the consolidation of the already special bond between my mother and I, for as I discovered the songs that fill her vinyl collection, and asked her about the events of that music enterprise, I gathered a much better understanding of what it means to be a wild-hearted youth. For every culture and generation the Rock ‘N’ Roll “sentiment” may remain the same, but it might represent something different from coast to coast. To me, it may have been pure, unadulterated recalcitrance and a right of passage towards the creative plains, but to the flock of Soviet youth that gathered at the Lenin Stadium that August it signified a change on a much larger scope. To them, the earthquake sounds of guitars and drums shook a core of values that was rusted with backward oxidation and perpetual cracks in the system. It wasn’t just a gust in the cyclone of change…it was the thunder of a revolution.
Thus, I think that it bears repeating that it is through notes of past, present, and future harmonies that the esteemed crescendos of humanity’s soundtrack shall keep its hearts beating and strutting to the rhythm of the drums.
For the sound is always so much more…for the sound is life.
(The Moscow Music Peace Festival can now be watched in its entirety on YouTube.com)
Moscow Music Peace Festival: How Glam Metal Helped End the Cold War – By Saul Austerlitz, September 22, 2017, Rolling Stone Magazine (Interview excerpts from Ernie Hudson, Xenia Kuleshova, Joe Cheshire, and Rob Affuso.)
KNAC.com – Tom Keifer interview excerpt.