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Elton John in the USSR - how it was!

 

Prologue

Next day after Elton John's 60-th anniversary we were invited to a morning program on Russian service BBC radio station. In a course of the conversation the host asked us whether we had acquaintances who had attended Elton John's concert in 1979. I replied Not yet, but taking an opportunity, Id ask those people to contact me. In July Elton John gave a concert in Rostov-on-Don. That day in the news program on TV guys and girls of our fan-club were shown. And one person who watched the program contacted us. So we got acquainted with the live witness of Elton Johns visit USSR in 1979.

Well, here is how it was

 

Part 1: Elton, do you like the station?

This story begun in March, 1979 and we learnt it from Vyacheslav. He was from Chelyabinsk, and being a student he had a part-time work on constructing of the Kosmos hotel (in Moscow). As well as many Soviet young men he admired western rock music, somehow managing to get lps and cassettes of European and American singers and bands. Vyacheslav knew some people in state organisation that arranged concerts in USSR. In March he learned from those secret sources that Elton John was expected to come in May.

 

Tickets for Elton John's concerts began to sell in April. Of course, the most part of tickets was given to Communist party chiefs, members of KGB and Moscow criminal investigation department, artists, diplomats, etc. Only very small amount went to box-office, and even though they cost quite cheap it was virtually impossible to buy them. They were sold in a peculiar way: a queue was divided into several lines with 20 persons in each. The first line stood in a queue directly to box-office, and the rest lines in turn stood in the subsequent lines: the second one waited when people from the first get their tickets, then the third line waited for the second line, etc. Owing to his useful contacts Vyacheslav found himself at once in the sixth line. But even that didnt help. For three days of awaiting he advanced to just fourth line when it was announced that all tickets had been sold out. Only ticket touts had tickets for sale, but they cost about three monthly salaries of a middle-range engineer.

 

To meet Elton John a company of 12 persons gathered. They were common Soviet students, like Vyacheslav and their leader - Sasha-Gena. It is necessary to tell some more words about him. He received nickname Sasha-Gena (Sasha was his real first name) when working in famous Soviet humoristic magazine "Crocodile", and at the same time Gena was a name of well-known cartoon hero - crocodile. Sasha-Gena was very artful and crafty person. He was a professional black marketer and managed to get various deficit things (clothes, home technique, records and so on) made in USA and Europe and sold them. Besides, he had many communications in many circles, and in general, he was able to organise any sort of business.

 

At last May came. Elton John's arrival to Moscow was planned on May, 20th and Vyacheslav learnt from his acquaintances that the singer would arrive early in the morning from Berlin to the Belarus railway station in Moscow. Guys arrived there and prepared for a meeting. They brought bunches of flowers and big Russian doll from 12 pieces of 1,5 metres height with Elton John's image on it. When train approached and Elton with accompanying group went out from a train, guys didnt recognise his at once. They could discern him only afters seeing Ray Cooper by his side. Elton was absolutely bald, wearing dark glasses and high-heeled boots, what surprised the guys most of all. But Sasha-Gena told them: Didnt you know that he was homo? (Only know-all Sasha-Gena knew that). So, a retro-car named "Chaika" (Seagull in Russian) made in 60s was driven to the Belarus station. Since Elton loved retro cars he was happy to see it. Further plans included press conference in the Actors Palace, staying at the "Intourist" hotel and moving to Leningrad on the Red Arrow speed-train line tonight.

 

Needless to say that the guys already knew about press conference and rushed there off trace. At first they werent admitted into a hall, but Sasha-Gena shown their present - 1.5 metre Russian doll and explained how important it was to give such a great gift from all people of the Soviet Union. So at last they entered the conference-hall and were much surprised straight away. This huge conference-hall was half empty. There were about 10 persons, journalists of main Soviet newspapers and some persons from TV. And this conference was obviously a torture for Elton John. That May of 1979 remained in history as a month of an abnormal heat. For this reason Elton went out from a train being absolutely bald instead of wearing his wig. And at press conference he and those present sweated heavily. He asked journalists: Why dont you have air-conditioners here? But those days even the word air-conditioner" was hardly known in the USSR. And journalists kept on spoiling Eltons mood with their stupid questions like Did you like Moscow?. Elton replied: I saw Moscow just for some minutes, I have just arrived. So what can I say about it? Journalists continued to mock: Well, and did you like the station? Elton burst out laughing and said: Just like anywhere. All other questions were in this silly way and not a single one about his music. At the end of press-conference Elton asked journalists which of his albums were the most popular in USSR. At this point journalists were at a loss what to say. Elton was shocked: Its unbelievable! How can it be that my records dont sell here?

 

Our guys planned to present a Russian doll during the press conference, but Sasha-Gena decided to postpone that. He said: Easy. Otherwise he will think that the present came from journalists. We will give the present when the press conference is over and he will be going out of a hall. It is necessary to notice, that Elton had no bodyguards, only accompanying team. It was common in those days. But the things changed after John Lennon's murder in 1980. Then all celebrities started to worry about their safety.

Except a Russian doll and flowers, guys brought a popular Soviet magazine with minions (thin blue lps with 1-2 songs on each side) inside with foreign songs. That magazine cost rather dear comparing to many other issues. That copy brought by the guys contained a minion with some Eltons songs.

 

So, guys stopped Elton near an exit and started to hand over their gifts. First they presented bouquets, then that huge Russian doll. Surely, Elton was very much delighted to get such gift and asked: Well, how should I carry it? Have you got any box or a bag for it? Sasha-Gena said: Errr we just didnt think of it. Then they showed a minion from that magazine. Elton John Goodbye yellow brick road was written in Russian on a blue disk. Elton attentively watched at a disk and asked: And which my song is here? Sasha-Gena translated the title, and Elton was surprised: What an old song, dont you have anything newer on sale? With this words he presented to guys his latest lp A Single Man. However, Sasha-Gena, who was the only English speaking guy in the company, managed to wheedle some more disks from Elton.

In the evening of the same day the delegation left to Leningrad, and guys followed.

 

Part 2: Three bottles of vodka for Ray Cooper

Guys were noticed at the press conference and at once got under control of KGB. Upon arrival to Leningrad they were met by the agents. They had to show their passports and answer questions like for what purpose have you arrived to Leningrad?, why dont you work?, where do you study?. Somehow artful Sasha-Gena again managed to clear things up, and the company was let go.

 

The first day passed for nothing, they didnt get to the first concert. So next day guys staked everything and decided to wait by the service entrance to the concert hall "Octyabrskiy" in order to scratch somehow inside and visit the concert. KGB agents became alert but did not approach. In the middle of a concert John Reid suddenly appeared and asked them: Guys, are you waiting for someone? They replied: Yes, were waiting for Elton John, were his fans. John Reid: And why are you there? . Guys told that they didnt have tickets and a story about how the strange manner the tickets were selling. Agents tried to push guys aside, but John Reid interfered in a situation threatening with scandal. He quickly counted guys - 12 persons. He was already going to solve a question with their admission to the hall when the Sasha-Gena "attacked" his with a request to give more tickets for tomorrow concert. As a result John Reid gave them even more tickets than they needed.

 

Next day guys sold extra tickets and bought some presents for Elton and John Reid. Among various knickknacks they presented to Reid a bottle of famous vodka "Stolichnaya". Ray Cooper was highly interested in this alcoholic present. Actually, Ray Cooper, unlike Elton John, was a very conservative Englishman. He wasnt outgoing at all, and rather reserved. But vodka definitely interested him, and he asked guys whether the building in which Stalin said the famous speech in 1945 was depicted on a bottle label. (a hotel "Moscow" where Stalin often stopped was drawn on a bottle label). Guys were very much surprised to hear this question from a musician, but they just stunned when Ray asked them to present him three bottles of this vodka!

And then John Reid surprised guy when asked whether they wished to come to the hotel where Elton was staying. He ringed Elton who told them come about midnight since he had a lot of things to do before that time. Elton asked them not to worry since he was an owl and never went to bed early.

 

In a meanwhile guys observed Elton John walking about Northern capital. By the way, he and Cooper had absolutely different cultural programs. If Elton examined whole Hermitage Museum, Cooper visited only its "Gold Chamber. Cooper admitted his love to precious metals and jewels. Therefore in Moscow he visited famous Diamond collection. It is also necessary to mention that Eltons mother Sheila arrived to Leningrad with her husband Fred Fearbrother. Together with her son she visited Peterhof.

 

At last, late at night, the guys came to see Elton John in his hotel room. Elton stayed at newly opened "Pribaltiyskaya" hotel on Vasilevsky island. It was one of the highest buildings in a city. From one side beautiful views to Peterhof and Kronstadt opened and from another one could see domes of the Isaakievsky cathedral, banks and bridges of Neva-river. Guys stayed there for about three hours. Basically they talked about a life abroad and compared it with life in USSR. Elton returned to his question and asked again why foreign lps dont sell in USSR. Guys answered that he [Elton] was in so called Black list. The point is that several years back KGB and the Ministry of Culture made infamous Black List of western singers and groups who, in their opinion, were not recommended for Soviet people. All western rock stars went to this list, including Elton John. Elton was shocked to hear that and then some days was demanding from Russian attendants to show him this list. Needless to say that the list was secret and no one could show it. Nevertheless, guys and Elton had a great time at the hotel. Elton presented them his 2 poster from European tour with his and Ray Coopers autographs (in January, 2008 Vyacheslav presented this poster to our fan-club). Besides, guy received some badges with Eltons image and various knickknacks.

 

Part 3: I adore Sex Pistols

Upon completing his part of the tour in Leningrad, Elton went to Moscow. There he stayed at the "Intourist" hotel on which place magnificent Ritz Carlton appeared today. A day before to the first Moscow concert Elton visited a football match CSKA-Dynamo (Minsk). Our guys came to this match too. Elton arrived some time later and occupied a regular seat among common fans and ate common Soviet ice-cream in a waffle cone. During the second time the announcer on stadium declared: Today famous British singer Elton John is here with us! Do you think the audience grew excited? Not a bit! People did not stir at all! When the match finished Elton went to a locker room to see football players of CSKA who presented him a ball with autographs of all players. Elton was just happy! He also visited stadium in Luzniki which was on reconstruction to prepare for upcoming Olympic games. Besides, Elton very much wished to meet Lev Yashin, a legend of the Soviet football, but he was too busy. Though there were rumours that KGB strongly advised Lev Yashin not to meet British singer.

 

Guys happened to visit Elton John once again after his third Moscow concert. Even though they didnt manage to attend it they learnt that at that concert Elton tried to set off half-dead Soviet audience and drank a glass of vodka before singing I Think I'm Going To Kill Myself with words in Russian For your health! But then Elton admitted to guys that it was a fake and glass contained just a mineral water. It is necessary to mention, that in Leningrad and in Moscow there always were bottles of foreign mineral water and cognac, but guys never saw him drinking it. And Elton liked Soviet champagne, though saying that it was not so good as in France, but very nice.

Once guys were a little bit surprised when Elton told that he knew about Russian gays gathering by the Bolshoi theatre. In the end of their meeting Elton had a small request to guys: he asked them to support him during the last concert next day and wake up dead audience. He gave them tickets from his own stock. By the way, strange things happened this with his personal stock. The point is that some Russian employees were stealing the tickets in order to sell them to rich Communist party members or to their relatives. Therefore every now and then Elton angrily asked the attendants about his reserves.

Elton invited guys to visit him once again after the last concert next day, and they said good-bye.

 

Next day last concert took place. Its time to tell how all these concerts were going off. It is hardly can be seen in a film To Russia With Elton, but actually, there were two more musicians who were playing on a background of a stage. Initially the Soviet concert institution planned beginning of all concerts at 14.00, but Elton insisted on evening time. The concerts went without a break, therefore he did not leave after them at once, but left to recover in his dressing room for one and a half hour. His last concert in Moscow was the most interesting. During it he was changing his costumes and glasses what he did not do on previous concerts. The guys sat in a zone for foreigners and helped to set off the audience together with four fans who came from Britain. In general it wasnt common in USSR to go to other cities with a purpose to visit a concert. Therefore just a couple of girls came from Vilnius to see the concert. All they were thoroughly enjoying the concert and shouted and danced like real Western fans which irritated all people around who werent accustomed to such behaviour. It was nearly similar in every respect to that official concert in Kremlin in 2007. But the most interesting thing happened in the end. Singing Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting Elton summoned guys to join him on the stage. But security men let only Englishmen go and stopped the guys. At the end a huge flower basket was brought on a stage because of a Soviet tradition to presents it on the first and last concert. It shocked Elton, and he loudly asked in a microphone: Are you going to bury me?

 

After concert guys waited Elton near the hotel. In those days riders werent used yet, and Elton didnt have a personal cook. He ate at restaurant "Aragvy", and detained there during last supper. Probably, officials and Communist party members went there to thank him for concerts and present gifts. At long last Elton returned to the hotel and met the guys. He told that in general he was a bit dissatisfied with USSR. He said: At night all streets are so dark, no illumination at all. After 23:00 everything is closed. No night clubs etc.. Besides, Elton also remained dissatisfied with telephone services: I live near to your central telegraph, and theres so poor communication. Is it because of KGB bugging my calls? But still there were a lot more pleasant themes to talk about. Elton was interested in what music guys liked and decided to show them his musical preferences. A video recorder was brought (guys saw such thing for the first time in their life) and cassette with a video of Sex Pistols concert. Elton told: Look at these guys, its just a top notch work! Then Elton said: Ok, I cannot give you video recorder, but I give you the cassette. He took this cassette and wrote on it: To guys for memory! Maybe, you will like this music too one day. Elton John. He also gave very interesting gifts. Various promo-goods like T-shirts portraying stars werent invented then yet but special jeans sometimes were made. Elton presented to every guy such jeans with inscription on them A Single Man Tour. Happy guys left the room, and at this point a real adventure started: KGB agents already waited for them at hotel hall. They detained the guys and started searching them thoroughly. Since guys had their jeans, lps and other things, agents were ready to arrest them as black marketers. But suddenly John Reid appeared again and saved them by making a big scandal. In some minutes other members of Eltons team joined the scandal. Sasha-Gena said guys not to worry and even promised to get home by agents cars. And that came true! Threatening with the international scandal, John Reid ordered to drive the guys to their homes.

 

Next day Elton John and his team left very early, at 7.00 a.m. from airport "Sheremetyevo-1". The guys decided to see him the last time and present some bottles of the Soviet champagne. Elton was much surprised and pleased to see guys and made a funny thing instead of using exclusive "Chaika" he got on the bus with the personnel and said guys: Come with us, see me off in the airport. All the way to airport Elton, Cooper, personnel and our guys were drinking champagne, laughing, joking The bus was brought up directly to the plane. Guys were surprised that either Elton or his personnel didnt go through the passport control. Probably, it was made in the plane.

So Elton John left USSR.

 

Part 4: would you meet David Furnish?

Many years have passed. And in the beginning of 1995 it was announced that Elton John was going to give two concerts in Russia. Vyacheslav tried to gather that old company of 1979, but only one person replied. Together they collected all the photos made in 1979 as they were taking photographs of Elton not only in a hotel room, but also in streets of Moscow and Leningrad, and made an album with comments to each picture. They decided to present this album to Elton. They learnt that Elton John was to arrive in a closed for regular flights airport "Vnukovo-3" and decided to meet him there. Even though they somehow managed to scratch to the airport territory to, they didnt foresee a more complicated thing Elton John's guards. By that time he already has own security service and when men in black noticed strangers they pushed them away. Nevertheless Vyacheslav and his friend decided to reach their goal. After the first concert they met concert managers and asked them to hand over the photo album to Elton John. When they already were going to leave one of the organizers caught up with Vyacheslav and said: We gave Elton your photo album. He looked at it and asked to invite you tomorrow morning to his hotel room.

 

It was a great gift, especially for Vyacheslav who celebrated his 40-th anniversary in a day when the second concert took place. After a meeting in hotel Elton invited Vyacheslav and its friend to the press conference. But at first a small incident occurred since Eltons guards had to remind him of a meeting with two Russian admirers about which he forgot. Actually, Elton forgot many things. He didnt recognise the guys even on photos and vaguely remembered events of 1979. Surely, it was no wonder after so many years and so many countries, cities and everything. Nevertheless, they had an interesting conversation. In spite of the fact that Elton requested not to photograph him as many years back, he remained outgoing and easy to talk to. He even met Vyacheslav and its friend in a dressing gown. And when Vyacheslav asked about his beloved, Elton replied: David? Hes here, in the next room, would you like to meet him? [Presidential suit of the "Metropol" hotel had 4 rooms]. Elton attentively watched the old photos and gave a special attention to the cap which he had on during his concerts in 1979: This cap is still lying somewhere at my home...

 

Epilogue

We do not know where and how other heroes of this story live. We just know that Sasha-Gena was murdered several years ago, circumstances and reasons are not known. Vyacheslav lives in Moscow and keeps his huge passion to good music. He was very glad to get acquainted with our Fan-club. We have very much in common.

It is our youth!

It is our life!

It is our Destiny!

 

Text by: Denis Azarenkov

English translate by: Natella Hachaturova

 

 
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