The Piano, Man, in Russia • Billy Joel

Mark Scheerer in Moscow

• My first assignment for network television finds me in Moscow

• There WAS collusion in Russia. Plus Billy Joel concerts

• And vodka. Lots of vodka

I didn’t aspire to be in television news, and almost made sure I wouldn’t stay — while on my first assignment in that medium.

It was 1987 and I already had one of the best jobs in broadcasting. ABC Radio News had made good on their promise to send me anywhere in the world where anything of interest to young people was happening: Africa, the Middle East, Brazil and dozens of domestic destinations in just the first four years or so. It had become a running joke between Steve Handelsman, an NBC-TV News correspondent, and me when we invariably bumped into each other – whether covering a shootout in Philadelphia or spring break on the beach in Fort Lauderdale: “You’re everywhere!”

“So are you!”

“And I envy you,” Handlesman would say. “I’ve got to travel with my cameraman and sound guy and all this gear and you just have that little shoulder bag with a tape recorder!”

Yet, my friend Fred kept telling me I should get into television. At his insistence, I met with his agent who had secured his latest job as a New York TV sportscaster. She asked me what stories I thought I’d be covering in the near future. I mentioned I was excited to be going to the Soviet Union later in July to cover a tour by Billy Joel, billed as the first major concerts in that country by a Western rock star. She said, “It just so happens I’m having lunch tomorrow with Jack Riley, the executive producer of Good Morning America.”

She called the next day to tell me to high-tail it over to the GMA offices in another building on ABC’s “campus” on the Upper West Side. She had asked Riley how his show was going to cover the Billy Joel story and was told they had thought about sending Ron Reagan, the president’s son who was a GMA correspondent, but had decided not to. She told Riley, you’ve got a guy from your own radio network going; why don’t you give him a shot? Let him try his hand at TV? Riley agreed.

The Bridge Tour press corps in front of one of the canons of journalism

I flew to Moscow along with several other reporters on a flight arranged by Joel’s publicist, Michael Jensen. Billy and his then-wife Christie Brinkley had gone ahead early with a documentary camera crew to Georgia, on the Black Sea, for a few days before the first concert in Moscow. I headed for ABC’s Moscow Bureau, where a producer was delegated to work with me on my first two taped television pieces. In about a day and a half, with her help, we put together a slightly-more-than-shallow overview of rock in Russia, from the era of tapes and blue jeans smuggled through the Iron Curtain to the burgeoning local scene during Glasnost, the cultural and political loosening brought about by Mikhail Gorbachev. The package, imaginatively titled “Rock in Russia,” aired on GMA and while it wasn’t exactly a case of “video killed the radio star,” this radio news guy had waded into the TV waters and liked it, so far.

The contingent of journalists covering the Billy Joel trip was billeted at the Hotel Cosmos, twenty minutes from Moscow’s center. (We were envious of Joel and his entourage who were staying at the history-laden National Hotel across the street from the Kremlin.)

Billy and Christie meet the press at the National Hotel

We were guests of a journalists’ club on one of the first nights and learned the hard way that in Russia, one simply does not turn down toasts of vodka…no matter how long the night goes. Or how horrible the dawn promises to be. We shuffled, with other tourists, past the corpse of V.I. Lenin lying in his tomb in Red Square. We believed it when other visitors told us that, despite Glasnost, you could bet many rooms in hotels and elsewhere were bugged and one should measure one’s words accordingly.

Romance bloomed. Some in the traveling rock press and the Russian-speaking American translators brought along by the publicists began speaking the language of..…well, that’s something I may write about elsewhere. For now, just know that in such a setting, in hotels where on every floor a matron sat at a desk outside the elevators like a high school hall monitor, romance in Russia was romantic, to be sure. Furtive, sometimes.

Our two-week sojourn included an overnight train to Leningrad during which massive amounts of vodka were consumed and sleep was rendered impossible, and visits to the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace.

You’ll have to take my word for it: the Kremlin is outside the windows, overexposed

By now maybe you’re asking: what went wrong? What happened that might’ve sunk my TV career before it had barely begun? The problem I ran into at Joel’s concert in Moscow’s Olympic Sports Complex was that I had seen too many rock concerts. Concerts where bands like the Who would smash their instruments to splinters. Jimi Hendrix immolated his axe at Monterey. On celluloid, the Yardbirds demolished their gear in Antonioni’s “Blow Up.”

When Joel knocked over his electric piano and smashed a microphone the night we were covering the event for GMA, I thought little of it other than it was the kind of showmanship an audience in Russia, with its rich artistic heritage, would appreciate. And they seemed to (although many of the more sophisticated music fans had told me  that while they appreciated Joel’s visit, they wished an edgier band like The Clash, Talking Heads, or The Police had been the groundbreaker.)

After I had returned to the ABC bureau, wrote, tracked and edited the concert package, I went back to the hotel. Seemingly just moments after my head hit the pillow, the phone rang and I was being summoned back to the bureau. The editors at GMA in New York wanted to know: why wasn’t the toppling of the piano in my piece? An Associated Press correspondent had filed his wire story and made Billy’s little tantrum the focus. And so, we had to find that footage, edit it in, and add a line or two to the voice track.

Snapshot I took from stageside; offending electric piano not in frame

At the moment he tipped over his keyboard I had been standing at the side of the stage, very close to the “incident” and I remember the look on Joel’s face was one of annoyance. It seemed likely to me he had just had an issue with monitor sound, something that frequently happens in live rock shows. What I couldn’t hear from my vantage point behind the PA speakers was that he had shouted out a complaint about the lights that his own documentary crew had shined on the audience. It seems he wanted the crowd to feel free to stand up, dance in the dark, let loose and not be intimidated by the ushers or lingering vestiges of authoritarianism.

Billy spoke with reporters about it after the show, but with the time difference between Moscow and New York, my crew and I were probably back at the bureau by then, in order to meet GMA’s morning show deadline. The NY Times quoted Joel as saying, ”It was a real prima donna act, but I have to protect my show.”

An act was precisely what I thought it was, not the international incident some seemed to want to make it. A few years later, to promote the release of the documentary, Billy donated the electric piano to the Hard Rock Café in New York, which hung it – or a facsimile – on a wall. It is rock history. Who am I to blow against the wind?

Anyway, the middle-of-the-night emergency editing and re-tracking of the GMA piece didn’t torpedo my nascent TV career. When I returned from Russia, Jack Riley took me to lunch and offered me a gig as GMA’s music correspondent.

You May Be Right, writer for trade mag HITS (above, right)

The last laugh came some time later, when the documentary, “Billy Joel – A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia” was released.

From the documentary “A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia”

In the film, Billy can be seen doing TV interviews a day or so ahead of opening night in Moscow. An excerpt of my interview is immortalized there, to the everlasting amusement of Michael Jensen, the publicist, who is a friend to this day. Mine was apparently the last of several interviews, and after a handful of questions and answers, Billy told me that he had a ragged throat since returning from Georgia, where he’d had to sing without a PA system. Sympathetically — I thought, with the implication – I assumed — that I would cut it short, I said, “In that case let me ask you one more thing.” The film’s editor did a hard cutaway at that point, creating a laugh line, one that I cringed at as I listened to the laughter of an audience at a screening.

WATCH HERE: The thoughtless reporter doesn’t care about Billy’s health! Ha, ha! 

SMALL WORLD POSTSCRIPT: On our flight back from Moscow to London (again vodka-fueled) there was also a documentary film crew and actor Roy Scheider who had just shot a film for Turner Broadcasting called “Portrait of the Soviet Union.” In about 2014, I was sharing a ride with a neighbor, Ricky Derby, to a weekly pickup hockey game on NY’s Upper West Side when the topic of Russia came up and he told me he had been on a shoot there in 1987. We realized we had both been on that boozy Moscow-London flight.

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3 thoughts on “The Piano, Man, in Russia • Billy Joel

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