US rocks to a Soviet beat. Superstar vocalist Alla Pugacheva tours the States
``Moscow rocks! Moscow rocks! Moscow rocks!'' shouts the Soviet Union's leading pop singer, Alla Pugacheva, into an 8,000-watt Western sound system. Her lead guitarist, Vladimir Kuzmin, moves center stage and unleashes a blistering Hendrix-style guitar riff, while lights flash, and Miss Pugacheva pounds the stage in her black metal-studded miniskirt.
``Because of perestroika,'' she tells a near-capacity audience at Boston's John Hancock Hall, ``I am here.''
Pugacheva's command of rock and pop styles and her electrifying stage presence have made her the most popular singer in the USSR and one of the top-selling recording artists ever. The US trade magazine Billboard has noted that she ``ranks with such all-time music industry greats as Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Michael Jackson..., having sold more than 150 million [recordings]....''
Now Pugacheva is on her first concert sweep of the United States. With opening performer Vladimir Presniakov, a blond-maned singer who ``moonwalks'' `a la russe, and her backup band, Recital, she has brought the new sounds of Mikhail Gorbachev's USSR to Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. Tonight, she will conclude her two-week American tour with a sell-out concert at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Wherever she goes, Pugacheva dazzles audiences by belting out thunderous rock numbers, crooning Russian folk songs, or offering poignant melodies set to the lyrics of Osip Mandelstam, the Russian poet who perished in a Soviet labor camp. In one melancholy number, Pugacheva drops despairingly to her knees, then collapses to the floor as blackness swallows the stage.
Pugacheva's stage persona is what first won her the love of Soviet audiences. ``In the mid-'70s,'' recalls Svetlana Boym, a Russian 'emigr'e who is now an assistant professor at Harvard University, ``Alla brought a distinct personality to the Soviet music scene. She was flesh and blood. When she sang, she laughed and she cried. Audiences loved her for her honesty.''
The predominantly 'emigr'e crowds at Pugacheva's US concerts attest to her popularity among Soviets of all ages. A bulky babushka gazes starry-eyed at the stage here in Boston. Four enthusiastic fans in their late 20s call out repeatedly, ``Harlequin! Harlequin!,'' the title of the 1975 hit song that catapulted Pugacheva to fame.
``I remember seeing her in Moscow when I was seven years old,'' observes a Soviet 'emigr'e teen-ager following Pugacheva's appearance here. ``I couldn't miss the chance to see her again.''
Despite her dizzying popularity in the USSR and Eastern Europe, Pugacheva has been virtually unknown in the West until recently.
``Previously, Gosconcert [the Soviet state concert agency] was only interested in sending the Bolshoi Ballet and the Soviet Army Choir abroad,'' notes the Russian 'emigr'e promoter Victor Schulman, whose efforts to bring Pugacheva to the US foundered in the Soviet bureaucracy for four years until this tour was finally arranged.
``Perestroika changed that,'' he continues. ``People in the Soviet Mission, people in the Soviet Embassy, people at Gosconcert and in the Ministry of Culture are now interested. All comes together,'' he says, clasping his powerful hands with obvious satisfaction.
Things weren't always so promising for the Moscow superstar. ``For many years, I sang in small clubs everywhere in the Soviet Union. In Georgia, in Siberia, small towns you never heard of,'' Pugacheva explains through a translator. ``Many times, I considered giving up singing and doing something else.''
After cutting her first record for Melodiya in 1965, a rock song called ``Robot,'' the 16-year-old, classically trained vocalist appeared with various bands, including Moscow's legendary Happy Guys, one of the first official Soviet rock bands.
Then came ``Harlequin.'' In 1975, Pugacheva won first prize performing the song at an international festival in Sofia, Bulgaria. ``That song gave my career definition. It is a song about taking off masks. I am like the Harlequin. I wear many masks. In everyday life, I am a shy person. But on stage, I become someone else.''
Pugacheva attributes her enduring popularity to the years she spent performing in the backwater regions of the Soviet Union, where she learned to understand the needs of her audiences. ``It was mutual dependence based on love.''
Her career soared. Her albums on the state recording label sold by tens of millions. She appeared on television and regularly packed the USSR's largest concert venues.
Although Pugacheva prospered in the Soviet entertainment establishment during the first half of the '80s, she embraced Gorbachev's 1985 call for reforms ``I was always for perestroika. Perestroika is a state of mind,'' she insists. ``But perestroika is more than talk. You must take action. As I did with the Chernobyl concert.''
In May 1986, shortly after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Moscow rock critic Atiam Troitsky approached Pugacheva with the idea of organizing a fund-raising concert for displaced Ukrainian families.
``Alla was for it, '' Mr. Troitsky recalls in his book ``Back in the USSR,'' ``and after some `telephone' preparation, we went to the party Central Committee. For both of us, this was our first visit to this place, but Alla didn't have to show her identity card to get in: She was immediately admitted by the stunned guards.''
Pugacheva persuaded the Central Committee to let her organize the concert without the involvement of the Soviet bureaucracy and, together with Troitsky, got the event rolling in just two weeks.
On May 29, 1986, six Soviet rock bands and soloists headlined by Pugacheva took the stage before an audience of 30,000 in Moscow's Olympic Stadium. The Chernobyl relief concert drummed up 100,000 rubles for the victims.
In recent years, Pugacheva has taken her message beyond Soviet borders to Western Europe, the Far East - and now, North America. She sees her mission abroad as an attempt to improve international understanding and to ``restructure'' foreign notions of the Soviet people. ``By seeing me perform, I hope that people will change their way of thinking about the Soviet people.'' She adds, laughing, ``That they will see that we are not just Russian bears.''
Even so, since Pugacheva's concerts in the United States have been attended almost completely by the 'emigr'e Russian community, her contact with Americans has come primarily during sightseeing.
She found San Francisco ``charming.'' She loved the glitz and excitement of Hollywood, but was shocked by the urban sprawl in Los Angeles and New York.
With the blessings of Gosconcert, she says she ``would like to return to America and sing for American audiences ... perhaps with some Western performers.
``If I could choose a female singing partner, I think it would be Tina Turner. Or perhaps Cyndi Lauper or Bette Midler.'' As for men: ``I really like performers with a strong artistic personality: Michael Jackson, Sting, Elton John.'' And, she adds with a smile, ``There is also Mr. Bruce Springsteen.''
Timothy W. Ryback, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University, is author of ``Rock Around the Bloc: Rock Music in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 1954-1988,'' being published next year by Oxford University Press.