Gorky Parklife

Borscht, Beetlebum and hookers in the hotel. Blur's bassist, Alex James, tells the inside story of the band's adventures, on and off stage, during their first trip to Moscow
03 October 2003

I remember an old tour-manager recounting horror stories of doing a Moscow residency "wi' Sabbath" many years ago. It was an almighty heave-ho to play Russia at all. Management could see no advantage spending a precious working week promoting ourselves in a country where 90 per cent of the music is sold on the black market. There was nothing in it for the agent; his 10 per cent was hardly worth his time. (The road crew moaned as usual.)

The freight company pointed out what a long way it is to Moscow, and everybody involved in the music business acted in their normal conservative safe efficient unadventurous fashion. That's what you pay them for.

I came direct from a beach in Mexico. There was a memo saying "warm clothes" and "remember there are parts of Moscow you really shouldn't go to..."

There usually is a musician on the aeroplane you're on. I spotted Marc Almond, and then in the queue for immigration one of the backing singers bumped into Mariah Carey's "head of security"; she arrives in a couple of days and he's come to case the joint. I'm quite impressed, our head of security didn't think of that.

The transport is a scout van and we can't all fit in, so I take a taxi with the tour manager and the promoter's rep, a Louis Vuitton handbag-wielding high-heely stringy type bird. She doesn't look like she'd fit in a scout van anyway. The taxi driver throws us out halfway into town. We asked him to slow down and it is too much for his pride, never in his 15 years as a taxi driver has anybody criticised his driving. It's all quite amusing and, suddenly cast out by the side of the road, we are still. It happens when you're touring, perpetually moving forward on a plane, waiting for a bag, in a queue, waiting for the singer, waiting in the traffic; it's a fleeting world you inhabit, and then suddenly sometimes you are still. And here we are, by the side of the motorway, suddenly at rest and in peace.

It's clement, and we drink it all in. Look how high the kerb is - that's because of the snow. We're all in good spirits and we stand around chuckling and wait for a lift. Handsome Ed, the skinny bird's boss, eventually arrives in a state-of-the-art Mercedes/BMW sort of car and whizzes us to our hotel by Red Square. In my room is the usual bottle of champagne; beautiful, such a thoughtless gift, champagne, especially to people aged over 30 in bands.

The hotel is a Metropole. It has very wide corridors, some bits are painted gold, reception is a vast cavern. There are a couple of sexy hookers in the bar. There's a dinner laid on for everybody, but I'm too tired to wait for them all to accumulate, so I amble out on my own.

It's usually easy to be invisible if you want to be, just stick your head down and keep moving. I slip out a side door to avoid the people waiting for us outside, but a handful spot me and follow. I kind of wanted to be alone, but as I'm signing their bootlegs I'm very taken with their gentleness and ask them where I might get some goulash. They offer to show me and I really can't think of any reason why not. The one who speaks the best English tells me in perfect Oxford RP: "I don't have a job," like he's telling me he's a prince. He's very pleased he doesn't have a job, like it was quite hard work not to have a job but he's managed it.

He's a philosopher, like all people with time on their hands. He emanates benevolence and explains things. Yes, but borscht is really from Ukraine. He says the goulash is very spicy and am I sure and I say yes, and it is just warming and nourishing and wholesome soul casserole. Lovely and tired, we get slung out of the café and repair to a neon ice-cream parlour for something small and delicious. I drift off to bed.

Jet lag generally tends to have quite a positive effect on me, makes me wake up at a reasonable time. It's the crispest clearest brightest September morning; T-shirt weather and shades. By lunchtime I'd called my wife and told her to get on the next plane east. There was just a lot of good things happening. The overall feeling was of starting a new school.

There was a dizzying amount of new nice people, scary things, and a benign authority. The only other time we played in proper Eastern Europe was in pre-Britpop Estonia. It had all the chic of a building site. Moscow is a grand and elegant city. Parisian boulevards, American neon, trees like London; it's got the ingredients of the rest of the world and made something of them. All the gadgets you can get in Tokyo you can get in Moscow; tiny camcorders, flashy natty mobiles, enormous TVs, bootleg software, Hollywood films being released next week - better shopping than Tokyo, man!

Some places have glamour. Claridge's, Top of the Pops, whole blocks of New York, Jermyn Street, St James's in the morning, Foyles, Tate Modern when it's empty, Hotel Feltrinelli Lake Garda, the Le Chat Bleu chocolaterie in Le Touquet, all have it. And so does Moscow. Everyone, you feel, is living life as it should be lived. The girls have put their hair up; they're all in D&G and high heels. They are handsome and there are no fatties and no scuzzy crackheads asking you for money. There is a learned dignity. They are really laying it on thick for us. The dressing room has staff; two demure and attractive silent girls - classy.

The audience responds like the footage you see of Beatles concerts in the Sixties. In front of me, when we start "Beetlebum", people are crying too much to sing along, although they're trying. Britpop, someone later informs us, was the theme music to the collapse of Communism, so it's rather too much for some of our comrades. I do wonder what they must have made of "Country House". It's very exhilarating and one of those gigs that reminds you why you do it, why you are alive and why not, and everyone feels good.

We are taken somewhere that's just been finished for a banquet. People keep arriving with platters of steak, potatoes with dill, salmon, pommes allumettes, salads with bright red twangy tomatoes, breads, little stuffed what's-its-names and tasty doo-dads. The crew feel like kings, the girls from the office have another glass of bubbly.

I leave the private dining room to wander round the club. As I enter the lounge everybody rises to their feet and starts applauding. I look behind me but there's no one there. I take a bow and keep moving towards the smoking room. Smoggy, our "head of security", says: "Dem got ubba-bubba poipes in there and Vogue models for yew, lerrus know if the girls are a pain." He's from Wolverhampton! I wander through a smoky cave into a sort of urban Moroccan drapy kind of chamber where a supine Phil Daniels is considering his next move. A very attractive girl has the end of a hookah in one hand and a lighter in the other. She smiles a deep smile and asks us if we want some. We tell her no. Gives me the creeps these days, that shit. Some bloke comes in and says very slowly to Phil in an incredibly deep voice: "Hey Jim-my." We look at each other and crack up. I have to move as I'm getting passively fucked. In a kind of annexe, there are half a dozen Vogue-shaped young ladies sitting very quietly drinking. "Hi," says Blondie. "Hi," says I. "Where you from?" she says. "Bournemouth," says I. She says: "That's amazing," and she definitely means it. Wait till you find out I'm in a band, darling. I just have to get out of here. My wife's arriving at 5.30am. I walk back through the room where everyone stands up and they do it again. I get back in the scout van and go to my bed.

What are women like with room service? I don't even know where the menu is when she arrives and asks about breakfast. I mention the buffet, but she's already saying: "Ooh, look, they do caviar, darling." I've got no idea how much anything costs yet, don't know the exchange rate. The breakfast is excellent and she goes to sleep saying nice things about Aeroflot.

We're doing some photos for Reuters in Red Square, with an Englishman I like instantly. He's been here five years and he's still grinning. "Yeah, it's great," giggle. I ask him where the best place to get caviar is, and he says: "Hold on," and makes a quick call on his mobile. "Beluga, hundred pounds a kilo, unpasteurised, comes up here on a donkey, you can have it tonight. OK?" "Yeah mate, wicked." We walk round the corner into Red Square. It's rainy. Everybody has a story about last night. Someone came home waving a model submarine, some are still unaccounted for...

"And this is where Ivan the Terrible used to roast people," says our affable photographer, pointing at a concrete cauldron. Red Square is an orange rectangle. It has a fairy castle at one end and a classy lingerie shop somewhere along one of the sides. The women are really beautiful. They are everywhere, I suppose, but this lot are dressing up. High cheeks, high heels, high hair and "Hi there". They look you in the eye.

You can go and see Lenin's body. It's in a glass case in one of the buildings. We've got a free afternoon so we have a long lunch. Stews. And then to the grotty shopping street. It's brilliant. We're in the market for some Russian dolls. The best are Osama bin Laden on the outside, you open him up and there is Saddam Hussein, you open Saddam and you get Mussolini and so on until a tiny Hitler in the middle. Très amusant. The antique shop has a lot of pictures of Jesus and what-not. Swords, chandeliers, the usual. We don't buy but we like looking.

Traffic is appalling, and the agricultural-style cars from the old days aren't very enviro-friendly. They look wicked, though. Big bouncy seats. They're like a combination of a tractor, a tank and a Morris Marina. They have a perfect retro chic. In fact, the whole place is just begging to be plundered by style editors and the Conrans. The iconography, the whole aesthetic landscape, is exotic and appealing. Then the taxi driver charges us three times the going rate. Bastard.

We go for a crap and a nap and then the second show. A kilo of caviar is evidently about a bucketful. The unpasteurised stuff is rather nicer than the stuff you get here, but we all make ourselves a bit sick. The show elicits the same hysterical response as the previous night. What are we doing schlepping round America when we could be doing St Petersburg, Kiev, Belgrade and Istanbul? You don't play music for the money, anyway; well, not unless the money's really good. You play music for reasons you can only remember sometimes, and this is one of them.

Dinner is in another new and funky Schrager/Starck film-set type place. The menu is faintly Japanese. I had the steak, it melted. She had three main courses and a chocolate cigar. There is quite a lot of paparazzo attention in the restaurant, but they don't snap us with our mouths full. Damon's getting twatted at the bar. Dave's disappeared, Phil's talking about Chelsea. I wonder what Marc Almond's doing? The backing singers order more champagne, it's another glorious day in rock. Oh yes. It feels like New York before Giuliani made everyone go to bed. You can add Moscow to the list of the world's great cities.

'Good Song', the third single from the album 'Think Tank', is released by Parlophone on Monday

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