Rock Stays Reverent

Author: Andy Goldberg
Source: The Jerusalem Post
Date: September 6, 1989

Not have Soviet ballet, folklore, circuses and choirs taken advantage of glasnost to take the world by storm. T-shirts emblazoned with Soviet insignia have been the fashion rage in Western capitals for two summers; New Yorkers queue at department stores to buy Russian bread; and now Soviet rock artists are coming to the attention of American and European record buyers.

After years of admiration for their idealism, Russian rockers have finally won musical admiration, and few are reaping more acclaim than Boris Grebenshikov, whose debut album in the West, Radio Silence, is released in Israel this week.

Grebenshikov’s fame in Russia is a story in itself. A mathematics graduate at his hometown University of Leningrad, Grebenshikov quit his job as a computer engineer to take up rock ‘n’ roll – a "parasitical" move that got him kicked out of the Leningrad Young Communist League in 1972.

Fiercely critical of the regime, Grebenshikov was never an officially sanctioned singer. For 10 years he fronted the underground Aquarium band, whose recordings were duplicated on a huge scale through the USSR’s vast underground cassette network.

In 1987, however, he was able to quantify his hold on Russian musical taste when the entire run of 200,000 initial copies of Aquarium’s first officially released album on the state-run Melodiya label were sold out within hours. Since then another two Aquarium albums have been made officially available, with total sales exceeding 3.5 million.

And thanks to the efforts of Kenny Schaffer, a New York inventor and impresario, the Soviet authorities gave permission for Grebenshikov to record an album in the West for release there. Some of the top names in British and American rock contributed. Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics produced, with his partner Annie Lennox contributing to the vocals with Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders), Siobhan Stewart (Bananarama) and musicians such as percussionist Ray Cooper.

Although Radio Silence is composed almost entirely of English songs, it still seems to be thoroughly Russian in character. Grebenshikov’s lyrics, which have earned him a reputation as a significant poet back home, are splattered with the somber imagery and grave portents that are so much a part of Russian literature. And though he works comfortably in what is an overwhelmingly Western idiom, his approach to the music is a million times more reverent than that of his Western colleagues.

"Rock ‘n’ roll is basically a living myth and religion. All my songs are prayers," Grebenshikov said last month. This sense of spirituality, allied with a political militancy which identifies the very existence of rock ‘n roll as a political protest, means that Grebenshikov’s musical approach is disappointingly conservative – at least by Western standards.

A song lifted straight from the decadent Western repertoire of the Rolling Stones is a far more potent statement than an original Russian composition. With the Russian fascination for everything Western, it’s not surprising that their favorite rock star is so clearly enslaved to Western influences.

Radio Silence is a very derivative album: Grebenshikov sometimes sounds like Bowie, sometimes like Bruce Springsteen, and one doesn’t need to be a particularly astute listener to notice the occasional Led Zeppelin plagiarism. Grebenshikov is apparently aware of the problem; he just hasn’t found the right way to treat it.

"Of course, because I recorded in the West for release in the West I’m competing with artists whom I’ve never competed against back home. So I have to think twice about doing something in a Lou Reed vein, for example, because I’m competing with Lou himself."

But Grebenshikov can’t seem to shake off the musical traditions he has adopted in Russia. "You must understand that for the past 70-plus years, we’ve had to live in a totally artificial world with an artificial culture and behavior, where you don’t feel like a human being because you are taught to think of yourself as just participating in a historic event. When you’re 16 years old and all you see around you is bullshit, and you don’t want to live your life like this, you seek out something that is real to you, to answer the basic question of love and life and death. This is the role that rock ‘n’ roll played for me.

"People listen to rock ‘n’ roll differently in Russia. They sit at home and listen like it’s a sacrament, or an evening sermon. But here, people are bombarded by tons and tons of information," he said in a recent New York interview. "To keep their brains intact, they have to limit their attention span. In Russia, because we don’t have much informational stimuli, people tend to take fewer things in, but take them in deeper."

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