Magical, but dangerous tours
The first ever U2 concert in Russia, on August 25, is going to be not only a major musical event but also something of a political event since U2’s Bono and other band members are involved in humanitarian work, tackling poverty and lack of freedom in developing countries. The fact that U2 is finally playing a gig in a country with certain freedom issues simply cannot go unnoticed.
Until this year the Irish four-piece band have never played in Russia, which has led to some speculation among local fans about humanitarian problems in Chechnya and terrorist attacks. Among other possible explanations is Bono’s famously complex personality. There is also the high costs of U2 shows, which is out of kilter with the band’s not-so-high popularity among Russian speakers, a fact which local concert agencies like to point out.
But U2 are a long way from being alone on Russia’s list of long-awaited acts. Although it is true that the number of foreign artists coming to play in Moscow has been growing, that nearly every weekend there are plenty of gigs around to choose from, with local promoters being able to bring all sorts of music from around the world to the Russian capital, and even to other cities, there is still a category of musicians who, it seems, will never come to Russia.
The American singer Tom Waits has rejected offers to play in Russia many times. While some promoters point out that he is still attracted to the idea, others say that he has been very disappointed with the way minorities are treated in the country and that he is scared of Russians. Also, the singer does not allow any sponsor ads at his concerts, which makes the chances of Moscow hearing the maestro’s trademark growl rather slim.
Thom Yorke of Radiohead, in an interview with the BBC, spoke of his brother Andy who studied in Russia and had had some travel experience there. “Last time he went there he got cornered by some Russian guy who was out of his mind on vodka for the whole trip. And you’re stuck there. I mean, you’re on that train. And he said: ‘I am a vegetarian’, but they served only sausages”. So Tom has got the idea of what this country like. Also, rumours have it that all band members believe Russia is a deeply unfair society controlled by mafia.
These are only the most well-known cases, and many more can be added. For example, Andrey Makarevich, the lead singer and guitarist of Mashina Vremeni, one of the oldest and most famous Russian bands, wrote in his memoirs that in the 1990s, Mick Jagger agreed to play with them in Red Square but then changed his mind, allegedly because of the war in Chechnya. But this didn’t stop the Stones from playing a gig in Moscow just a few years later in 1997, did it?
Bizarre it may seem, but some examples can be found even among native Russian musicians. The famous cello player Mstislav Rostropovich declared in 1998 that he would never play in Russia again, following a particularly unfriendly review by the local media of one of his performances in Moscow.
As you have seen from these few examples, different artists may have different reasons for not touring in Russia. Those are mostly based upon real facts, not rumours and prejudices. These issues are only too well known to Russians themselves who, as far as showbiz is concerned, remain post-soviet at best.
Look what happened in the 1980s when a lot of artists said they wouldn’t play in South Africa. You might remember a song named Sun City. It was recorded in 1985 and performed by a large group of famous artists such as Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr, Lou Reed, Run DMC, Peter Gabriel and others, who sang that they would not come to the popular South African resort of that name because of the country’s policy of apartheid. Today, Sun City has become the symbol of equality and hope for a better future for the entire continent.
Recently another country has been declared a similar kind of cultural pariah, Israel. Along with many other artists, the British singer Elvis Costello has cancelled a planned tour earlier this year. The Jewish newspaper Forward wrote: “In a lengthy explanation he provided, the rock musician said that merely having his name added to those appearing in Israel this summer may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent”.
These days, it looks like many of the world’s rock stars are once again separated from their Russian fans by a sort of iron curtain. And to be honest, the western media is not doing much to help bring these two sides together. In 2008, British music journalists were discussing the prospect of emo being made illegal throughout Russia because as a “dangerous teen trend encouraging depression and suicide”.
This hasn’t happened so far and probably won’t, though it is true that the followers of certain subcultures might not feel safe in Russia. But that discussion caused further speculations among My Chemical Romance fans that their heroes, being one of the most prominent emo bands, were going to be banned in Russia too. Can you imagine anything like that ever happen in any other country?
A trip to Russia can still be a slightly hazardous and mysterious experience. While in the 1980s many Western artists would choose to come to the USSR as an act of goodwill, today it’s more often the prospect of high profits that brings them to Russia. A lot of venues across the country host yesterday’s rock stars which now are making their living touring obscure places. In Moscow touring musicians often get paid really high fees, even when compared with most of European cities.
In certain aspects, Russia still remains a half-closed country. This means that, for example, a local promoter might not be able to get visas issued for members of an indie band, or a truck with equipment can be held up indefinitely at the border. It is very likely that REM, who were unable to play in St. Petersburg for the latter reason, won’t come here again in the near future.
In April, a concert of the Italian singer Eros Ramazzotti was cancelled in St. Petersburg. Again, the cancellation was caused by the late arrival of the artist’s equipment due to a long customs inspection procedure.
In 2008 Nightwish and Pain both had to cancel their concerts, as local promoters failed to fulfil all parts of their agreement.
Tokyo Hotel flew over to Moscow but their fans never saw the band play because of an argument between the tour management and the local promoters, which happened just when the first of the two scheduled concerts was about to start.
One of Rammstein’s tour legs, which included gigs in Russia, was postponed due to unrest among football fans. In August 2006 a concert by Eric Clapton in Red Square was being negotiated, but when the location had to be changed to an adjacent area some 100 metres off the square, the legendary guitarist also changed his mind about playing.
So, can we say that the South African story is repeating itself in Russia? Certainly not. And yet all those rumours about Russia are probably not without substance.