“We were completely shocked and frightened,” Soviet rock guitarist Alexei Belov says, sitting in a Canoga Park coffee shop and reflecting on the hours he spent watching scenes on television of the abortive coup in his homeland.
“If the coup would have succeeded, it may have meant civil war in the country. We were afraid for our friends and for our family. We could smell the blood in the air.”
A member of the Soviet band Gorky Park, which is temporarily based in Los Angeles, Belov stares through the window of the coffee shop at the sidewalk news racks, most of them filled with papers whose headlines tell of Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s return to power.
“As it turned out, I felt very good . . . the way the people stood up. We were so (proud) of them going into the streets. . . . It showed how things have changed, how people there are no longer puppets. A few years ago, all this would have been unthinkable.”
Almost as unthinkable to Belov at one time would have been the opportunity to come to the United States in pursuit of his rock ‘n’ roll dreams.
For years, Belov, a personable young man with moderately long blond hair, was a “forbidden” musician in his homeland, unable to perform on radio, television or records because Western-style hard rock was considered too decadent by Soviet authorities.
It was only after the rise of Gorbachev and perestroika that Belov, who grew up listening to bootleg Beatles and Who records, helped form Gorky Park, a Moscow hard-rock quintet.
In the age of glasnost, U.S. record companies thought that there might be a market for some Soviet rockers. Gorky Park was signed by PolyGram and was placed on the bill with Bon Jovi at the Moscow Music Peace Festival in the summer of 1989.
Afterward, the band came to the United States for a tour to promote its debut album. Among the stops was the Whisky in West Hollywood, where Steve Hochman, in a review for The Times, found the group’s music limited but was disarmed by the band’s joyful manner.
After the promising start, however, the bottom fell out for Gorky Park. The band’s U.S. management company dissolved early in 1990 and the band was dropped by PolyGram following a wholesale shift in management, even though the album sold more than 300,000 copies worldwide. One member of the group called it quits and returned to Moscow.
With only a few hundred dollars each, the four remaining members of Gorky Park ended up living several months late last year in a house on Staten Island without electricity or a phone--wondering whether they, too, should give it up and go home.
When they needed electrical current to operate recording equipment, they bought a long extension cord, painted it green to camouflage it and plugged it in at night to the outdoor plug of a nearby vacant house. That worked until the owner of the vacant house finally turned off the electricity.
However, things are again looking up for the group, which also consists of singer-bassist Sasha Minkov, drummer Sasha Lvov and guitarist Jan Ianenkov.
The band signed early this year with a powerhouse new manager who brought the band to California and set them up in a comfortable but modest home in the West Hills area of the San Fernando Valley, where they continue to work on new material and hope for a record deal.
Tom Hulett, the Los Angeles-based manager whose clients also include the Beach Boys, Warrant and the Moody Blues, says he is confident the band will be signed before the end of the year.
In the coffee shop earlier in the week, Belov, 31, spoke excitedly of the encouragement the band has been given by such industry notables as Frank Zappa.
“America is where rock ‘n’ roll came from and it was our dream from the beginning to make it in America. We didn’t want to lose our chance.
“It would have been easy to go home when things started going bad,” he says, tugging at his black “I Moscow” T-shirt. “We’d talk to friends and they’d say, ‘Come home. You can tour and make plenty of money. You could probably be millionaires in a few weeks'--in rubles at least.
“But we didn’t go back because we were scared that we couldn’t get another visa to come back to the United States. There are so many people wanting to come here. You have to stand in lines for weeks at the embassy and you don’t know if the visa will be approved.”
While pleased by the way the band’s career is moving again, Belov understandably continues to be fascinated with the political events in his country.
“I really appreciate what Gorbachev did because he started the whole (movement to greater individual freedom) in the beginning, though he has been kind of slow in the last few years,” he notes.
“Everybody expected him to be more progressive . . . to get more done. Boris N. Yeltsin (president of the Russian Federation) is very good for right now. It’s his time.”
If the guitarist’s sights are set on stardom in the U.S., he admits he has often gotten homesick in the almost two years he has been away from Moscow.
“I miss a lot about home,” he says, wistfully. “I miss my parents. I want to earn a little money to support them because things are very difficult for them.
“But I have made a lot of friends here. A lot of people have helped us and we are thankful. One woman (in New York) loaned us the money to buy recording equipment so we could work on the album.”
Belov pauses and looks again at the news racks and at the people walking past.
“‘We heard a lot about America before we came here. There was lots of propaganda that was completely negative, but there were other people who would describe it to us as paradise,” he says, finally. “What we have found is that there is good and bad, just like there is back in Russia. . . .
“I see a lot of similarities between the people. We visit a lot of people here . . . and sometimes I see some people and I see my parents. They look absolutely the same, act the same. It makes the whole idea of (confrontation) all these years seem all the crazier. Maybe that is past now.”