Friday, July 7, 2017

Free to Rock (PBS, Grammy Foundation, Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Stas Namin Foundation, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the two presentations of A Capitol Fourth PBS showed a particularly interesting documentary on the Fourth of July: Free to Rock, an audacious film produced and directed by Jim Brown and Nick Binkley and dedicated to the proposition that the real force that brought down the Soviet Union and led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War was … rock ’n’ roll music. It’s one of those arguments that a case can be made for but this movie pushed it way too far. I’d seen previous documentaries about what life was like for teenagers in the Eastern Bloc in the 1950’s and 1960’s and how Western rock, to the extent to which it trickled through the Iron Curtain, offered youngsters in that time and place a sense of additional possibilities, the idea that there was this liberating energy out there that could be grabbed by teens in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and used as a way out of the stifling control the Communist Party bosses in those countries imposed on their people. I’d seen at least one previous film on this premise, How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin, and while the rock revolution as depicted in Free to Rock doesn’t begin and end with the Beatles, they were certainly at the epicenter. In the West the Beatles converted rock from a teenage cult item its audiences were expected to grow out of as they got older (reason enough why Elvis Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, pushed him out of rock and towards middle-of-the-road crooning when Elvis got out of the Army in 1960) to a serious social phenomenon and an art form that could express as much, emotionally, socially and politically, as any other form of music. What Jim Brown didn’t really mention was that well before rock existed as a mass phenomenon in the West, the Soviets had already had to deal with earlier generations of their young people taking an interest in jazz, to the point where Edward R. Murrow once claimed that Louis Armstrong was America’s most effective ambassador. 

Armstrong was actually offered the chance by the U.S. State Department to be the first American jazz musician to tour the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc — and he turned it down because he was worried he’d be expected to toe the American propaganda line that everything was hunky-dory in the U.S. and he wouldn’t be allowed to talk about segregation and racism. So it was Benny Goodman who became the first U.S. jazz musician to play the Soviet Union under State Department auspices in 1962, and he encountered some of the same bizarre restrictions Western rock acts would face later when the Soviets started letting them in. The Soviet teenagers first heard rock in the late 1950’s when it was broadcast on the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and despite Soviet efforts to jam these broadcasts they not only got through (especially in the wee hours of the morning after the crews at the Soviet jamming stations went home for the night), they were sometimes taped off the air by Soviet teenagers and later shared with their fellows as so-called “bones” or “ribs.” These were amateur copies made on record-cutting booths (which were actually quite common in the Soviet Union as a way soldiers stationed thousands of miles from home and their families could communicate via audio letters) and etched onto discarded X-ray film, which meant they were pliable and could therefore be concealed on the person of the seller. People caught selling “bones” or “ribs” risked everything from a short prison sentence to a long stint in the Gulag, not only because they were distributing music the Soviet authorities considered subversive but also because they were selling the discs and therefore engaging in private enterprise. The market for “ribs” zoomed up when the Beatles hit — it’s not mentioned here but in How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin it’s shown that the Soviet government responded to the Beatles’ growing popularity by issuing a propaganda magazine denouncing them as a decadent act who had formerly performed wearing toilet seats around their necks (true, at least in their wilder upper-fueled nights in Hamburg in the early 1960’s) and their manager was a “London fairy” (half right: Brian Epstein was Gay but he was from Liverpool). The propaganda magazine was probably counterproductive in that it made kids who hadn’t heard of the Beatles before aware of them. 

The Beatles and the growing “psychedelic rock” movement that followed them from the U.S. in the mid-1960’s inspired Soviet musicians to take up rock — there’s a fascinating, almost sexual sequence in this film showing a man who became a major Russian guitar builder practically going into orgasm at the sight of a Fender Stratocaster and determining to build a replica (he got his pickups by stealing them from pay phones in Moscow) — and among them was a man who’s listed as a co-producer on this show as well as being extensively interviewed: Stas Namin. In 1967 he founded a rock group called Flower that built enough of a following that the government-owned monopoly record company, Melodiya, actually signed them. Their first Melodiya album sold 500,000 copies and their second sold a million — but after they’d sold 12 million records the government reversed itself, suppressed his band and canceled his contract. The show begins with Stas Namin playing a concert inspired by the arrest under Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime of the women’s performance-art and musical group Pussy Riot; amazingly the writers of this documentary try to present that as a triumph — saying that Russians were able to demonstrate publicly and openly today in a way they couldn’t under the Soviet regime — but the truth, of course, is just the opposite: Putin’s government is just as authoritarian as its predecessors and just as committed as the Soviet regime was (and the Tsarist regime before them!) to keep tight controls on Russia’s artistic community and enforce, sometimes brutally, their standards of what’s considered “acceptable” art and culture and what’s considered beyond the pale and therefore a matter for the police. One of the quirkier aspects of Free to Rock is the if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em attempts of the Soviet cultural bureaucracy to sponsor “rock” acts of their own. They officially authorized groups in a genre called “Vocal-Instrumental Combinations,” or VIA’s for short after the initials for those words in Russian, and judging from the clips presented here the politically correct VIA’s played in a soft pop-rock style musically and sang about hard work, Soviet discipline, building the socialist state and the other propaganda points the Soviet government was trying to instill in their youth. 

One of the quirkier figures portrayed here — though the brief depiction of him really didn’t do justice to his remarkable story — was Dean Reed, a U.S.-born rock singer who attempted to make it in the U.S. in the late 1950’s and got precisely nowhere (he got a one-single deal with Imperial and a major-label contract with Capitol, but the one record he made that ever charted in Billboard, “The Search,” only got as high as #96. Nonetheless, his record “One Summer Romance” was so popular in South America that he settled there in the early 1960’s, settling in Argentina, fronting a rock band otherwise consisting exclusively of Argentine musicians. He lived in Chile for a while and apparently it was there that he was first exposed to socialist politics, eventually becoming a committed Leftist and running afoul of the Argentine military junta that took over in 1966. The Right-wing junta deported him and he went to Europe, settling for a while in Rome and appearing in spaghetti Westerns like Adios, Sabata. In 1973 he was invited to relocate to East Germany, where he lived for the remaining 13 years of his life and became known as “Der Rote Elvis” (“The Red Elvis”). Publicly his statements on politics were down-the-line doctrinaire Communist — he denounced Alexander Solzbhenitsyn for having “slandered” the Soviet Union and he defended the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the building of the Berlin Wall — but there were enough East Germans unsure of where his real loyalties were he was often accused of being a CIA agent, as well as an agent of the East German Stasi secret police. Reed also never turned his back on the U.S. — many of his songs from his East German period reflected his homesickness — and in 1986 he gave a controversial interview to 60 Minutes. His defense of the Berlin Wall on the program got him hate mail from the U.S. denouncing him as a traitor, and six weeks after the interview aired he was found dead in a lake near his home in East Berlin. The authorities officially ruled it as an accidental drowning, but his friends in Germany suspected he had committed suicide (especially after a note was found among his effects expressing regrets over the foundering of his marriage) and his relatives in the U.S. thought he’d been murdered. Reed’s peculiar story seems like one of the great unmade movies (ironically among Reed’s 20 films were one in which he wrote, directed and starred as Victor Jara, the Chilean radical poet killed when that country’s military, with the full support of the U.S., deposed President Salvador Allende in 1973 and started a reign of terror, and whom Reed had known personally during his days in South America) and it’s given oddly short shrift here. 

The next phase of Free to Rock depicts the trickle of American and British rock bands that were actually allowed to perform behind the Iron Curtain, starting in 1969 when — a year after the liberal Communist government of Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia was overthrown by Soviet tanks and soldiers — the Beach Boys were invited to play in Prague and frontman Mike Love (whom we’d just seen as leader of the current edition of the Beach Boys at the Capitol Fourth concert) announced he was dedicating their song “Break Away” (actually written in collaboration between Brian Wilson and his father Murry, the only time the Wilson brothers’ dad wrote for the Beach Boys himself) to Dubcek. There are interviews with members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which wangled an invitation to play in Moscow because they were officially considered a folk ensemble instead of a rock band, and folk was considered the music of the oppressed American working classes. The first major rock star to play the Soviet Union was the young Elton John, but he wasn’t allowed to bring his full band — the only instruments he was allowed to use was his own piano and a pair of conga drums played by his regular drummer, Nigel Olsson. I remember seeing the TV special from this concert when it originally aired and hearing Elton John explain to an interviewer that throughout the concert he’d tried every trick in his book to get the audience out of their seats and dancing, and was frustrated that he couldn’t. Later he found out why: the authorities had minders patrolling the aisles throughout the concert, and every time someone was moved by the spirit of the music to get up and move, one of the minders shoved them back down into their seat. 

It wasn’t until Billy Joel came in 1987, after Mikhail Gorbachev had become the Soviet leader and proclaimed his policies of glasnost (cultural freedom) and perestroika (economic freedom), that a major Western rock star was permitted not only to play the Soviet Union but bring along his full band and use electric instruments — and Joel responded by covering Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing,” playing guitar on the song instead of his usual piano, for a double-edged message: a song that Dylan had written to celebrate America’s turn to the Left in the 1960’s became an acknowledgment of the new freedom that would eventually bring down the Soviet Union altogether. (Of course the producers of this program couldn’t resist the temptation to include a clip of President Ronald Reagan confronting Gorbachev in Berlin and saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” This is one item that plays very differently in the Donald Trump era than it would have under any previous President, Republican or Democrat: as I joked when Trump was still a candidate, today he’d be saying, “Señor Peña Nieto, build up this wall!” It’s nice to be reminded of a time not so long ago when Republicans actually believed that the barriers between countries should come down.) Free to Rock is an interesting documentary even though I suspect it way overestimates the role of rock music in bringing down the Soviet regime — Charles watched part of it with me and said it was full of post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacies — and I also was annoyed that it didn’t mention that well before rock, the Soviet government had felt similarly threatened by their citizens’ exposure to American jazz (while the Communist Party U.S.A. blew hot and cold — pardon the pun — over jazz, at some points regarding jazz as a form of bourgeois social decadence that would be swept away when Communism took over, while at other times they hailed jazz as the authentic voice of African-Americans expressing their determination to combat racism). The Soviets even had their own “safe” jazz musician, Leonid Utyosov (that’s what the Wikipedia page on Soviet jazz musicians calls him; when I read about him decades ago I remember seeing the last name rendered as “Utseyev”), who was able to stay in business for decades by carefully calibrating his music and pushing it just to the farthest edge of hotness the Soviet authorities would then allow. 

The lesson essentially is that authoritarians of all stripes, Left, Right or nonideological, always seek to control the popular culture, not only to make sure subversive or anti-regime messages aren’t secretly being communicated to the masses in the form of “entertainment” but also because authoritarian regimes seem to want their people to be grim automatons committed to the greater glory of the Leader and whatever his social project is. The worst examples are the fundamentalist Islamic regimes like Afghanistan’s Taliban, who banned music, sports and virtually all other forms of popular entertainment, and instead expected people to get their mass jollies by being ordered into Kabul’s former soccer stadium to watch enemies of the state get beheaded. One partial counter-example was Nazi German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who seemed to understand — as his Communist counterparts did not — that truly apolitical light entertainment was actually good for a dictatorial regime: if you gave people harmless ways to amuse themselves and have fun, they’d be less, not more, likely to rebel. This point was made in one of the most engaging documentaries I’ve ever seen about cultural repression in the Eastern bloc during the Cold War, East Side Story, which was about the surprisingly few musicals produced during the Soviet period in the U.S.S.R. itself and its dependencies. Made by Dana Ranga, who herself grew up behind the Berlin Wall in East Germany, East Side Story referenced the 1934 Soviet musical Jolly Fellows (in which Leonid Utyosov played the male lead and became a star), directed by Sergei Eisenstein’s former assistant Grigory Alexandrov. When Charles and I watched East Side Story I commented, “At first the Soviet censors refused to allow this movie to be released on the ground that it was too frivolous — indeed, the theme of super-serious Communist censor boards barring the release of innocuous entertainment precisely because it was innocuous entertainment becomes a leitmotif through this film — but Alexandrov managed to sneak a print to Maxim Gorky, who in turn showed it to Stalin personally; Stalin loved it and ordered it released.” But it remains true that authoritarians of all stripes tend to hate the whole idea of “culture” and try to keep their citizens from having access to it — as we’re seeing from the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate all funding for PBS, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts from the federal budget.