COLUMN NINETY-TWO, JUNE 1, 2003
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)
BACK TO THE USSR!
(Painting by Kathleen McGuiness)
The USSR customs inspectors
had quite a chuckle when I showed them my Saturday Evening Post with the
Beatles on the cover. I was loaded with more baggage than I could carry.
"Bittles! Bittles!"they laughed to one another. Pointing to the picture on the cover, they kept
poking one another, slapping their knees and laughing:
"Ha ha! Bittles! Bittles!"
Then, still holding their
sides, they waved me through.
What left the customs
inspectors all but rolling on the floor was the Saturday Evening Post
featuring my story about the Beatlemania that'd dropped on America like an
H-for-Happy-Bomb the previous February. This is August 1964, six months after
John, Paul, George and Ringo stepped off the plane at New York's Idlewild
International Airport. Now it's August of 1964 and I've just stepped off a
noisy Aeroflot prop-job after a flight from Amsterdam, where I had to
Because Saturday Evening Post with the "Bittles? on
the cover had turned out to be the best and biggest selling issue since Benjamin
Franklin founded the magazine way back in 1776, the editors sent me to England
to write another cover story about the Beatles. In England I've had a marvelous
time hanging out with the Beatles and their crew in London and Liverpool and
I've also gotten to be buddies with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. We all
hung out at London's Ad Lib Club, where my drunken buddy Pete Hamill nearly
provoked a fistfight with John Lennon.
So now I am at Moscow
Airport. The Saturday Evening Post editors have sent me here from
London to hunt down the USSR's Beat Generation. After all, I?m
journalism's expert on the Beats. The editors also want me to find some
Russian movie stars to write about. This is in the days when Howard Smith has
described me in the Village Voice as a "fairly well known magazine
Years later, I would look back on Russia as a totalitarian playground. That's what it was for me, anyway. Years later, I would look back on a lot of memorable adventures there. But not until many, many years later, would I finally start writing about those adventures. Not until 2003! I am
Rock and Roll
illegal in the USSR?
supposed to write
about them for the Saturday
Evening Post in 1964 when I get back to New York. But in 1964 when the time
comes for me to write about them for the Saturday Evening Post, I find myself too shackled. The
Saturday Evening Post wants
its stories written according to a certain formula and I can't do it. I just
want to let the stories tell themselves.
So, I've just stepped off a
noisy Aeroflot prop-job after a flight from Amsterdam and the customs
inspectors having a laugh wave me through even though I later learn that in my pile
of luggage is a box of contraband---every 45 r.p.m. single to hit the Top Ten on
America's pop charts in the previous bunch of months. A music business friend,
Donnie Kirshner, then a teen tune tycoon music publisher, has gotten this collection of
singles together for me to smuggle into the USSR. Except I don't know I'm smuggling.
That is, not until I play the records for some Russian musicians I later bump
into in Moscow.
For 40 rubles at Moscow's
famous GUM department Store---right cross Red Square from the Kremlin---I buy a
green portable record player. In Moscow---as in any city in the world---it's easy
to spot a musician. He's carrying an instrument case, right? As I now recall,
Lugovoi plays the piano. He is a young man with light hair and brooding eyes
looking out from shadowed hollows in his face. Somehow, the fates throw us together and I ask him if he'd like
to hear some rock and roll.
His eyes suddenly beam
brightly from their shadowed hollows
"Rock and roll? Yessss!"
We set up a date and a taxi
takes me to his address in a housing project. He has convened a few friends, all
young musicians like himself. Because I'm not at all that acquainted with the
Russian language, verbal stumbling blocks get in the way of our communication. But pretty
soon, we're a cozy bunch. Lugavoi and his buddies go about hanging blankets
over the windows. They also stuff the door cracks with towels. This is what the
hippies do back in New York when they wanna get high. What? Are we gonna smoke
pot or something? But we're in Moscow! Besides, I'm not carrying! Why are
these guys so paranoid? Chill! We're gonna listen to some contraband
music. At least, Lugavoi and his friends treat it as if it's contraband. Rock
and roll! They don't want the neighbors to hear. They don't want anybody to
hear. Especially not the Secret Police.
Ah, the Secret Police!
I've hardly gotten off the Aeroflot prop job and already someone's
tailing me. A thin,
well-built guy with light hair who's always lighting cigarettes. He is never at my
elbow but always across the street or a block away. I figure he's got to be
either GKB or CIA. I got nothing to be scared of. I don't tell Lugavoi this, but
he's following me on my way to
Lugavoi's pad. So I go right up to him and try
to give him the address of where I'm going. He refuses to accept it, violently
shakes his head no, puts up his palms in horror against me, turns away and
mumbles something unintelligible. Then I never see him lighting cigarettes on my
I myself find Russian
cigarettes to be horrible. Yes, at this time in my life, I unfortunately smoke
several packs a day, something that would later leave me coughing my way through my old age.
But at this time in my life, to be able to smoke a cigarette gives me great
relief. Except, with Russian cigarettes, you can get a hernia just trying to
take a drag. Like marijuana joints, Russian cigarettes keep having to be relit.
So it's 1964 and here I
am in a housing project in totalitarian USSR and I'm starting to take these
singles out of the box while Lugavoi and his young musician friends look on
expectantly. I put the records on the portable Russian record player. I Want
To Hold Your Hand, Please Please Me, Can't Buy Me Love, She Loves You---all
the Beatles. Eventually, there'll be a gang of competing Russian garage bands
all calling themselves 'the Russian Beatles." Da Doo Ron Ron by the
Crystals. Marvin Gaye's Pride and Joy.
Be My Baby by the Ronettes. Stevie Wonder's Fingertips. Soon,
Lugavoi and his crew are in heaven. They start boogying and clapping time. They
start grinning and giving me the thumbs-up sign.
I get to see a lot of other
people before I leave Russia but Lugovoi and I get to be friends. Before I
leave, I give him a bunch of the 45s. He gives me a miniature alphabetized
address book in a box that's lined with fake felt and bound in an expensive
slick black cover patterned with gold saplings. It's really very spectacular.
On the page facing the back of the front cover is written:
"My dear Alfred!
"I want you to be happy all the time!
"Moscou 19/─viii 64
(Lugavoi to Aronowitz)?
And then there's Lugovoi's
Also, Lugavoi hands me a
small bronze icon that's been looted from a church.
"From church!" he
explains. "Very valuable! Government no allow religion in
USSR. Everybody take icons from the churches. Sell on black market. Icons
valuable. Big thing now in Russia. Hard to get! I want you to have."
Years later I'm writing
this story and I look for the Icon so I can describe it. I think it's somewhere in this mountain of
clutter into which my pad is burrowed. I want to describe the bas-relief figures
on the bronze and I have to look at it again. It's not in the drawer where
I'm accustomed to keeping it. The icon is one of those things that I'd have
to be crazy to give away. But years later I sure become crazy. Suddenly, I
remember. I've given it away.
Years later when I'm crazy and broke, I can't afford to give important people the kind of important presents I think they deserve. I guess I'm crazy enough to think that just because something is valuable and important to me makes it valuable and important to someone else. Vaguely, I remember wrapping the icon for I forget whom. Maybe I gave it to George Harrison. Whoever I gave it to must've thrown it away as a piece of junk. ##
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