arts / Media / music

Demis Roussos RIP

Artemios Ventouris “Demis” Roussos (Greek: Αρτέμιος “Ντέμης” Βεντούρης Ρούσσος)
June 15, 1946 – January 25, 2015

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♦ Pictures by Karl Dallas

It was a strange gig for me, since I’d never been what you could call a big fan of Aphrodite’s Child – though I quite liked Vangelis, especially his music for Bladerunner.

When my friend Denis, whom I’d known since the days when he was a student union concert promoter, called in 1981 and asked if I’d like to join Demis Roussos on a brief tour, my inclination was to say thanks but no thanks. But when he said it was for dates in the Soviet Union – that was ten years before the socialist system was destroyed by Gorbachev and Yeltsin – I said YES, very loudly.

Since journalists needed special attribution to work in  the USSR, I was signed on as a member of the Roussos entourage, receiving a per diem daily payment to cover living expenses. (This had great significance later, when it came to sending undeveloped photos back.)

I no longer wrote regularly for Melody Maker or The Times (previously my main outlets for freelance work) so I approached my contact at The Mail on Sunday, whom I’d represented in Iraq when I covered the Babylon Festival, and obtained a commission from them.

I got on well with Demis from the word go, he being a larger-than-life character in every sense. He reminded me in many ways of Billy Smart, my guv’nor in the eponymous Circus for whom I worked for a couple of seasons as advance man (that was the time I got my picture on the front pages standing in a police launch, throwing fish from Billingsgate to a sea lion we’d managed to “lose” on the Thames). They both had the manners and authority of a bandit chieftain which Demis exerted at the dinner table as he gathered the costs from each of us (it being part of our per diem payments).

Since I didn’t really have any crew-type tasks, I had a lot of time to myself, going to the Anti-God Museum and Pushkin’s favourite Literaturnoe Kafe in Leningrad’s Nevsky Prospekt and, on  a Sunday, to a packed Baptist church with people sitting out in the lobby (“In the name of Jesus Christ we welcome you to the Soviet Union”) and people praying from the congregation with a passionate fervour I envied. Amen, I cried (silently) when a visiting US preacher urged them to take an interest in politics.

I also called on my contacts in the Novosti press agency to discuss an idea that the MoS wanted me to run past them, but instead they offered a trip to see how the people of Chernobyl were faring as (they lied) life was getting back to normal on the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Fortunately for me, nothing came of that particular plan.

I plugged into two aspects of Soviet life: the ancient baboushka who helped me up to my feet, after I had gone arse-over-tit on the icy pavement, and the youthful racism of students in the cafe, who wouldn’t let a colleague join us because he was a Georgian pig (like Stalin – an experience that caused me to wonder if it was Joe’s uncouth provincialism that so got up Trotsky’s nose; when Howard Frost played Stalin in my Red October show in Bradford, I got him to speak with a Brummie accent, which he did brilliantly).

Oh, and then there was the whore who entered my hotel room and lay on the bed when I had propped the door open to I fetch something I had forgotten. And the forbidding old lady at the end of each corridor who’d presumably been bribed to allow the lady of the night to do her business on her watch.

But the main thing was the shows, which were astonishing. The sheer power of Demis’ on-stage presence totally won me over, and I shared the enthusiasm of the Leningraders and Muscovites who’d managed to get into the SRO houses. I took Demis and my camera into Moscow’s Red Square and the man was a joy to photograph. I don’t know if the people all realised who he was, but the man’s charisma was unmistakeable.

I phoned my copy over to the paper, and they loved it, asking for more, so at the next show I walked through the audience, getting vox pop quotes. Hearing the KGB phone-tappers come on the line to eavesdrop on what I was up to took me back to the early Fifties when one could hear MI5 (0r was it Special Branch?) heavy-breathing down the line. These Wikileak days, of course, surveillance techniques are much more sophisticated.

I had several rolls of film but not even my contacts in the Tass press agency could get them developed in time to meet my deadline. So I’d have to send them home undeveloped. Cue sharp indrawing of breath and shaking of head. Strictly Nyet, tovarish. Nezakonnyy, gospodin. “Illegal”.

But me and the tour’s interpreter took a cab out to Sheremetyevo airport, to wind our way through Soviet bureaucracy and find a way to do what was forbidden. Five times, it was Nyet. Then, the sixth cargo carrier, Finnair, said: “Why not?”

Off went the film, and off we all went back home shortly after. I bought the Mail on Sunday at the weekend to read my piece. Not a dicky-bird.

When I phoned my contact to complain, she said “We commission twenty-five per cent more than we’ve got room for. Sorry.” Oh yes, they paid. But Demis wasn’t best pleased, since he’d sprung for my air fare, hotels. Oh, and the per diems.

I thought, briefly, of letting him have the can of Beluga I’d smuggled through customs without an export licence.

It sat in my fridge while I made up my mind. But not for long.



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