One of the more satisfying things I’ve experienced in hosting this page has been the incredible outpouring of response to our recent posts about the life of Dr. Terry Law. Terry was the father of my partner here at The Pragmatic Constitutionalist, Scot Law. Terry unexpectedly passed away four weeks ago. He was a major and early influence over my own worldview. Most specifically, my unyielding anti-Marxist, anti-communist bent. Upon his death, I posted a couple of stories about Terry’s exploits behind the Iron Curtain. Scot also threw one in. Now, we’re going to finally begin the series the two us have been discussing for almost ten years — the telling of Living Sound, Team IV’s improbable and unknown place in Cold War history.
On Friday, January 4th of 1980, I was a 19-year old trumpet player — bored out of my mind with college — ready to exit into anything other than the academic stockade in which I felt imprisoned. During the Christmas break of my sophomore year, I received the phone call that would change my life. My dad woke me at about nine o’clock that morning:
Dad: “Phone call . . . <pounding on my bedroom door> . . . for you!”
I stumbled out of bed, in a stupor — having been out galivanting with friends most of the previous evening — and made my way to the kitchen phone.
He: “Hi. I’m <don’t remember his name>. I’m with the music missionary group, Living Sound, here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. You were recommended to us by a mutual friend, Jeffery Spence, who is currently a member of another of our bands — Team II. We don’t usually take new members without an audition, but, based on Jeff’s recommendation — and we trust his judgement of your skills — we’d like to offer you a position in one of our full-time touring bands.”
<Uhhh . . . >
He: “If you’re interested, we need you in San Diego, California, next Wednesday. Our Team IV trumpet player ran off with our soprano and got married, so we’ve got to fill this slot, immediately.”
<Uhhh . . . >
Me: “Can I take the weekend to think about it?”
He: “Absolutely. I’ll call you back first thing Monday morning.”
As promised, at exactly 9am on Monday, he did call back, and I accepted the position. I was told there would be a plane ticket waiting for me at the Shreveport, Louisiana airport on Wednesday, January 9th. Shortly after 9pm that same evening I was picked up at the San Diego, CA airport by a tour bus and taken directly to my first rehearsal with Team IV. I was absolutely clueless about what I’d just parachuted into, but my life’s trajectory was about to be forever altered.
Two weeks later, I was in an all-night session at a San Francisco recording studio laying down horn tracks for the initial “demo tape” of a song written by a currently sitting member of the Supreme Soviet of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (USSR’s “congress.”) Our vocalists were recording the song in the Russian language, with the assistance of a dialect coach provided to us from the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco. I was told this song could possibly end up as the de facto theme song for the upcoming 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow — only seven months away.
<Uhhh . . . sure.>
Despite the extreme unlikelihood that any of what I was living with and hearing about in those early Team IV moments would ever come to pass, exactly a year and half later I was videotaping a live concert on a sound stage at Soviet Central Television headquarters in Moscow. The taping was before a studio audience consisting of 500 of Moscow’s artistic and political elite, in the bowels of the very center of the Soviet propaganda machine. This appearance had been personally arranged by Juri Filinov, the editor-in-chief of Komsomolskaya Pravda — the official publication of Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
At this point in the Prologue, I’d be remiss if I didn’t reveal the impossible-but-true punchline to this story:
Living Sound International was an overtly Christian, missions-focused musical organization, who’d already been penetrating the Iron Curtain for a number of years, and were most certainly already on the radar screen of the KGB and Party officials in several of their satellite Republics, as a disruptive influence working with local dissident youth and musical groups. Most significantly . . . the high-level Soviet officials who were facilitating these improbable occurrences were well aware of who we were, and what Living Sound and Terry Law represented. (Something to be explored in later chapters.)
Living Sound ultimately recorded three tracks for the official Moscow Olympics album and movie soundtrack. The Soviet record label, Melodiya Records, pressed and sold over a million copies of those songs on an EP under the band’s real name: “Living Sound.” (When on unofficial excursions into Soviet territories, we’d often refer to ourselves as something other than Living Sound. Especially during border crossings.)
This wild ride additionally included: President Jimmy Carter announcing a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics; people who helped us secure shows behind the Iron Curtain went to prison for their work with us; others involved with Living Sound were able to secure permission to leave the Soviet Union, (before imprisonment), because of direct assistance we obtained from the Reagan Administration.
I often refer to this story as “Almost Famous meets Argo.” But Team IV’s story has never been fully told . . . until now. Scot Law and myself are determined to share this truth-is-better-than-fiction tale in serialized form, here on The Pragmatic Constitutionalist’s blog. Except for Terry, all the other principles are still alive, and will be contributing to some extent. Mostly, this story will be told through the eyes and perspective of that 19-year old kid who woke up one day to a life forever changed by the events that transpired between January of 1980 and May of 1983.
That kid was me.
Living Sound, Team IV – The Road to Moscow
Part 1: Leaving Russia
September 26, 2020
In 1979, when Team IV’s tour bus was being followed by several KGB cars as the band made their way to an “unauthorized” gig, Terry Law turned to one of the band members, and with a big grin on his face, said, “Isn’t this more fun than working a day job?”
It was mid-May 1983. I’d just boarded a train in Leningrad for my exit out of the Soviet Union — hopefully, to be safely in Helsinki by day’s end. Three weeks behind the Iron Curtain, alone, was enough. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted, but well-aware there was one final hurdle to jump.
As I sat alone in the berth of the train’s sleeper car, my mind was hurdling through a dozen scenarios I might face in the coming hours. I wasn’t terribly concerned about getting out of the country, but I’d raised enough red flags over the past three weeks to ensure this was not going to be a normal border crossing. While the most important information I was carrying was in my head, there were also a few contraband items amongst my personal effects that could, and would likely, be found.
This was not part of a typical hostel-hopping European adventure of a 23-year old American. I’d been in the Soviet Union on a specific assignment, which was to set up times and places for Terry Law to meet with certain underground dissident leaders. As I sat on the train in Leningrad, Terry was himself already staged up in Helsinki, waiting to go directly into the USSR as soon as I was able to deliver to him the required information.
In those days you couldn’t send an email to arrange a meet-up with Soviet citizens. Just making a phone call into that country was difficult enough, but more significantly, it could be far too dangerous for the recipient to take such a call. All of our dissident contacts were under constant KGB scrutiny — some already having endured prison sentences — others facing direct threat of the same fate from Soviet authorities. My task, with no advance notice or scheduling, was to find and make contact with those principle dissident persons and arrange their meetings with Terry.
In those three weeks, I did manage to arrange and secure the meet-ups but in the process of so doing some of my unauthorized, illicit activities were discovered. Those resulted in two different interrogations with KGB officials, a forced rerouting of my “holiday” plans, the attempted set-up by KGB agents to trap me in illegal money exchanges and sexual encounters, a high-speed car chase, and personalized round-the-clock surveillance for most of my journey through Estonia, Latvia, and Russia. I faced all of this with no special training as an intelligence operative. My only “cover” for the trip was that I was an American touring musician, taking “holiday” in the USSR. Which, in and of itself was a true story. I just happened to have other things to do apart from being a touring musician.
Two years prior, I’d spent one week at a Slavic Missions training camp in Norrköping, Sweden. Additionally, I’d previously travelled behind the Iron Curtain with Terry Law’s music mission organization, Living Sound. Specifically, “Team IV” of Living Sound’s larger organization, which was the group I was part of when we performed on Soviet Central Television in Moscow, in July of 1981. This was the direct result of Team IV’s having developed significant relationships, (in 1979), with ranking Soviet government officials involved in the production of officially-sanctioned musical presentations for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Even with limited training and experience, I knew most of my own personal risks were minimal. I was well versed in the tricks the KGB would use against me should my activities become known to them. The far greater dangers were borne by the Soviet citizens with whom I interacted. Of this fact I was constantly aware — and cautious — yet they were mostly all too willing to take the risks of illegal and covert meetings, gatherings, jam sessions, concerts, and the like. So desperately hungry they were for freedom — and for the special “help” we supplied them in support of their underground endeavors — the individual efforts they made in meeting with me and others was worth the risks and sacrifices. In previous years — mixed with or hidden inside our band gear — Living Sound had managed to smuggle in recording equipment, tape duplication machines, musical instruments, printing press parts, and many other items that aided the efforts of those underground Christian youth and music dissident organizations.
Before boarding the train — and with nerves already frazzled and on edge — I dropped off my rental car at the Leningrad Intourist hotel. Because the KGB had forced me to reroute part of my travel itinerary, I’d been required to leave my rental Zhiguli in Tallinn, Estonia for several days while taking a train to Riga, Latvia. Consequently, I did not use up all my pre-paid fuel coupons. I asked the rental agent for a refund of the days in which I was not allowed to use the car, and for the unused fuel coupons. As it goes in countries without internationally recognized hard currency, there was no way they were going to relinquish any amount of US dollars already in their possession. My requests grew into shouted demands as their curt refusals escalated into streams of angry Russian expletives.
Knowing they would not give me any hard currency — dollars or otherwise — I eventually suggested they could issue the refund in rubles. (Maybe I could find some Russian trinkets to spend the money on before I boarded the train?) The rental agent ultimately responded by throwing the rental car’s keys back at me, saying, “We are NOT doing refund! Take the car and drive around block until you use up all the petrol you paid for.”
Realizing I was in a no-win situation, I dropped the keys on the counter . . . left her staring at me in wild-eyed defiance . . . and made my way to the Leningrad train station.
(For what it’s worth: Renting an automobile in the Soviet Union was its own special kind of hell, which will certainly deserve its own chapter in this telling.)
When boarding the train, I was assigned to a spacious “sleeper” berth, with four bunk beds — two of which also served as sofas — and a private toilet. This was not an overnight trip, but I assumed I was given this berth because of what was coming my way when we reached the Soviet side of the Russian/Finnish border. I knew that because of my discovered activities, everyone else on that train was going to suffer through a prolonged delay as myself and every square inch of my belongings would be meticulously searched. In addition to my trumpet, (in a leather “gig bag”), I was carrying a camera bag, a briefcase, and one suitcase. In those bags were about two dozen letters from Soviet citizens, which were to be posted to their family and friends upon my ultimate return to Sweden.
My suitcase was virtually empty — except for my shaving kit, some souvenir items I’d purchased, and a couple items of clothing. Most of the clothes I took with me into the Soviet Union were items to be given away. Several pairs of western jeans, which the dissidents could sell for a high price in rubles on the black market, and then used to fund their operations. I also took in quite a lot of women’s clothing items, including some frilly lingerie and nightgowns. One of our principle contacts, Herbert Murd, (code name: Viktor), was getting married, and all the women’s clothes were gifts for his new bride. (Herbert had already suffered through his second prison term because of his activities organizing concerts and events for Team IV.) When they searched my suitcase going into the country, I simply told them the ladies’ clothes belonged to my Swedish girlfriend who was unable to make the USSR trip with me.
To my surprise, before departure from Leningrad, I was joined in the sleeper cabin by two Finnish gentlemen who’d been on a short “drinking holiday” in Russia. (Yes, that was an actual thing.) They were carrying two large duffle bags filled with souvenirs — of both the legal and illegal variety — and several bottles of Russian vodka. Their English was by no means fluent, but passable enough for us to exchange introductions and pleasantries. Before we ever left the Leningrad station, they produced three ornate goblets they’d acquired in Russia, and a bottle of Stoli. They filled the glasses and offered me one, which I politely refused. I was drinking Pepsi-Cola, which was provided by the train car’s steward.
The Finns were imminently fascinated by the concept of me, a lone American musician traveling in the Soviet Union, and they had lots of questions: Where was I from? What was I doing there? Why was I alone? Where did I go? My radar was still fully engaged, as it was possible these men were also KGB. But they were drinking heavily, and continued offering me vodka . . . which I continued to refuse. Finally, one of them asked me why I wouldn’t drink with them? I explained in simple English words:
“When we get to the border, there will be problems. The police are going to have very many questions for me and are going to search everything I have. We’re going to be there for a long time. I’m sorry.”
They both turned and looked at each other — amused expressions on their faces — then both simultaneously burst out laughing, waving their hands at me, dismissively. One of them was shaking his head and simply said, “Americans” . . . as he also rolled his eyes.
Laughing some more, they poured another drink and began chatting away with each other in Finnish. I sat in silence for the remainder of the Russian part of the ride . . . waiting for what was to come.
The border crossing was to be at the half-way point of the three-and-a-half-hour train ride, but the expected happenings took place at the Vyborg station, about half an hour from the border proper. Shortly after the train stopped in Vyborg, three Soviet Army personnel — one short, squatty female officer, and two subordinates — entered our berth. The officer pointed at the two Finns and ordered them to leave. They suddenly jerked their heads and eyes in my direction, both their mouths reflexively opening wide as they stood to leave. I looked at them and said, “Told you so.”
The Finns exited into the train car’s narrow hallway passage, and the officer immediately ordered her two underlings to begin tearing into my belongings. They paid absolutely no attention to the two Finns’ large duffle bags. Never touched them. Never opened either. I had so few items in my near-empty suitcase, it took them little time to find all the letters I was carrying. They weren’t hidden, but they were also not overtly of Soviet origin, as the addresses were all written in English, so as to appear to be mine. One of the soldiers was ordered to take the letters off the train. I of course asked why, and where they were going? I was told by the officer they were going to be opened and translated. Inside the envelopes, they’d soon learn most of those letters were written in the Estonian language and bound for Soviet expats.
(Those letters were not returned to me and would never reach their intended destinations. For almost 40 years I’ve hoped no one faced consequences for the contents found in any of those letters.)
In my camera bag were several exposed rolls of 35mm film. Inexplicably, after opening and examining each plastic canister of film, they returned them to the camera bag. I fully expected they’d seize those as well. Then came my trumpet. After digging through the pockets of my gig bag, they began turning the trumpet in all directions, looking down the bell and putting their eyes up to the lead pipe that holds the mouthpiece. The officer ordered one of them to begin taking the trumpet apart, slide by slide, including removing the valves. They had no idea what they were doing and were certain to damage the horn if I didn’t intervene. I finally grabbed the horn from the soldier’s hands, and exclaimed, “There’s nothing inside the trumpet! Do you want me to play it for you?”
The officer gruffly responded, “Da!”
I put the slides back in the horn, attached the mouthpiece, and immediately began playing “The Star Spangled Banner.” The two Finns leaned their heads inside the cabin door — both laughing their asses off. The lady officer went beet red with anger, rattled off a string of Russian curse words in the direction of the Finns, who then jerked back out of sight. She spun around to me and demanded to see the customs document I’d filled out upon entry into her country. She’d previously sent my passport and visa away with the confiscated letters.
On that customs document you are supposed to declare anything of value you were bringing into the country. The items to be listed were very specific:
-All forms and amounts of currency, including traveler’s checks. Those were to be later counter-referenced against what remaining money you had left when leaving the Soviet Union, and against the value of souvenirs you’d obtained while in country.
-Jewelry, and other such valuables. (And you’d better not have sold any of those items while in the country.)
-There was no line upon which to declare specific items of clothing, but my empty suitcase was already suspicious, and had been enquired about.
-Then, there was the line where you are supposed to declare any “Works of Art” you might be carrying. I’d left that particular line empty.
After examining the customs declaration, she looked up at me and said, “This instrument belongs to the Soviet Union.” She tapped her finger on the line I’d left empty. “Here . . . ‘Works of Art” . . . there is nothing declared.” (Referring to my trumpet.) She took it from me and handed it to one of the other soldiers.
I immediately reached over and ripped it back from his hand, holding the bell engravings up to her face, and pointed out to her what was there:
“LOOK,” I shouted. “It says . . . Bach Stradivarius . . . Made in Elkhart, Indiana . . . USA! Your country can’t make anything this nice!”
This time she turned purple with rage and shouted something in Russian at the other two soldiers. She then ordered me to follow them. They led me to the next berth, which was empty — past the two wide-eyed Finns — and the soldiers closed the door. They didn’t speak any English but using sign language began indicating that I needed to remove all my clothing. I complied, stripping down to my underwear. Fortunately, there was no cavity search involved, but they meticulously searched each piece, going through every pocket, and examining every seam. They found nothing and allowed me to put my clothes back on. They took me back to my cabin where the officer was still fumbling through my belongings.
Minutes later, she told me to sit and wait. She and her two underlings finally left me alone, and the two Finns reentered our cabin. They sat down in a state of shock. Over and over, in muted tones, they said, “We’re so sorry. We’re so sorry.”
There we waited . . . for at least two hours. I finally got up and began pacing the narrow hallway. At one point leaning my forehead against the train car’s window, looking out at the station and wondering what would be my ultimate fate . . . if they’d allow me to leave . . . if they’d eventually confiscate my camera and trumpet? Finally, the officer returned and handed me my passport and visa, telling me that they were keeping the letters, but that I was free to go. I was allowed to keep my trumpet, camera, and film rolls. Minutes later the train slowly left the station.
Myself and the two Finnish gentleman now sat in total silence.
About a half hour later there were brief stops and passport checks on each side of the Russian/Finnish border, and as soon we saw the “Suomi-Finland” sign out our berth’s window, one of the Finns grabbed a goblet out of his duffle, filled it with vodka, handed to me, and I chugged it down. Then, another.
As soon as we reached the station in Helsinki, I made a phone call to Terry Law’s hotel room, where he’d been patiently waiting. We’d arrived over three hours later than scheduled — the entire train held up because of me. I gave Terry the memorized meet-up times and locations. Later that evening I caught the Silja Ferry Line to Stockholm, and Terry made his way into the Soviet Union.
That was my last day working with Living Sound and Terry Law, but how I reached that day is where the story really begins . . .