Billy Joel: “Leningrad” (1989)

Billy Joel (1949-) is an American pianist, singer and songwriter who rose to prominence in the late 1970s. In 1987, Joel became one of the first high-profile Western musicians to tour the Soviet Union. Underwriting the tour with his own money, Joel played three concerts apiece in Moscow and Leningrad and was enthusiastically received.

Leningrad, a ballad from Joel’s 1989 album Storm Front, takes its name from the Soviet city of Leningrad, formerly St Petersburg and Petrograd. In Leningrad, Joel compares his own Cold War upbringing with that of Viktor, a circus clown Joel met in the Soviet Union.

Its lyrics refer to aspects of the Cold War, including the aftermath of World War II, Joseph McCarthy, the sadness of post-war Soviet life, civil defence drills in the United States and the Cuban missile crisis. Leningrad also describes the fear and paranoia felt by Americans and Russians while asserting that they, like Billy Joel and Viktor, can be friends.

Viktor was born in the spring of ’44 and never saw his father anymore
A child of sacrifice, a child of war
Another son who never had a father after Leningrad

Went off to school and learned to serve the state
Followed the rules and drank his vodka straight
The only way to live was drown the hate
A Russian life was very sad, and such was life in Leningrad

I was born in ’49, a Cold War kid in McCarthy time
Stop ’em at the 38th Parallel, blast those yellow Reds to hell
Cold War kids were hard to kill; under their desk in an air raid drill
Haven’t they heard we won the war; what do they keep on fighting for?

Viktor was sent to some Red Army town
Served out his time, became a circus clown
The greatest happiness he’d ever found
Was making Russian children glad – and children lived in Leningrad

But children lived in Levittown and hid in the shelters underground
Until the Soviets turned their ships around and tore the Cuban missiles down
And in that bright October sun, we knew our childhood days were done
And I watched my friends go off to war; what do they keep on fighting for?

And so my child and I came to this place
To meet him eye to eye and face to face
He made my daughter laugh, then we embraced
We never knew what friends we had – until we came to Leningrad.

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