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Explaining A Smash Act : Joel Claims His Cutups Are Just Rock 'N' Roll

July 29, 1987|WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Pop star Billy Joel said Tuesday that he overturned his electric piano Monday night, smashed a microphone on stage and banged angrily on drums because "the point of rock 'n' roll is outrageousness."

Immediately after the display of emotion at Monday night's performance, which seemed to bewilder the Moscow audience, Joel said he had become annoyed because his traveling film crew shooting a documentary of the tour was keeping floodlights trained on enthusiastic Soviet spectators longer than he felt was necessary.

"I have been on the road for 11 months," he said. "I am run ragged." His outburst, he said then, was "a real prima-donna act."

But by Tuesday afternoon the 38-year-old singer-composer gave another explanation for his conduct. In an interview with The Times, he said that when the lights stayed on the crowd, "I thought it was time to go back to that good old rock 'n' roll tradition and trash something on stage.

"I've done that numerous times on tour," he said. "I've dumped that piano three dozen times, and microphone stands have been crushed a lot--there are lots of extra microphones backstage."

He pointed out that Jimi Hendrix and the Who were among performers who wrecked equipment during shows. Referring to his conduct Monday night, in the second performance of a six-concert tour, he said: "It was not a tantrum. The point of rock 'n' roll is outrageousness, the point of rock 'n' roll is losing control. It should be passionate expression."

Opinion among the 20,000 spectators was divided. A young woman said, "He totally lost his cool."

Michael Jensen, spokesman for the tour, said, "He got a little angry."

And an American rock fan who saw the show said, "We thought it was part of his act."

Joel said two young Soviet women approached him in the restaurant of his hotel and asked, "Will you break the equipment again Wednesday night?"

Joel had a day off Tuesday to rest before his last Moscow concert tonight. He is scheduled to leave Thursday for Leningrad, where he has three concerts set for Sunday, Monday and next Wednesday. Those concerts are to be filmed for airing on Home Box Office in October as part of a new series called "World Stage."

Soviet audiences, he has discovered, are not nearly as demonstrative as American audiences.

"At first," he said, "they were very quiet, very attentive, polite, not too dissimilar from the time we played in Japan. I get the feeling they're waiting to be directed what to do."

This was a reference to the rush of spectators to the stage when Joel announces that the band wants it that way. "They got the idea," he said. "Fifty percent of my show is the audience."

And that, he said, is why he was concerned about the floodlights the film crew making a documentary turned on the crowd Monday night. Plans for theatrical showing or airing of the completed documentary have not yet been finalized.

"I like being in the dark," he said. "I want to watch, and not be watched."

As for his shouting curses in the middle of "Just a Fantasy," Joel said, "It's my way of signaling my guys: Can I please get your attention?"

Joel is accompanied by an entourage of 130, including the film crew and lighting technicians, but arrangements have not gone altogether smoothly in the Soviet Union.

"We're beginning to stabilize now," tour director Rick London said. "It wasn't easy at first over here."

There has been some conflict with security officials over the spectators rushing to the stage when Joel extends an invitation. He said that had been worked out; the number of standees is now limited for safety reasons.

Soviet officials said Joel was a big success, with all his concerts sold out and tickets still in great demand. Even so, according to Joel (who is receiving no payment for his performances), his expenses will be $2 million and he'll break even only with the revenues from the documentary film.

He has found intangible rewards, however. Sitting in a hotel room overlooking the golden towers of the Kremlin, he recalled a visit to Tbilisi, where a Georgian choir sang "America the Beautiful" in an ancient church. "My hair stood up so far on my arm I had to comb it before it would lie down," he said.

And he said he will remember the Soviet crowds: "By the end of (Monday night's) show it looked like it could have been Detroit, and that's what you want in a rock 'n' roll show--a little wild."

He recommended that other American bands visit the Soviet Union, if they can come out all right financially. "They'll rediscover their own material, and they'll play to audiences they will never forget," he said.

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