|Sitting at the kitchen table in his tiny Leningrad apartment, Boris Grebenshikov
recalls "the best concert I never got to play."
Grebenshikov heads the popular
Leningrad rock group, Aquarium. He had taken the Red Arrow overnight express train to
Moscow for a solo concertonly to find, when he arrived, that Moscow authorities had
cancelled his permission to play. His music, they said, was a bad influence on young
Grebenshikov smiles broadly as he tells what happened next.
"All the ticket-holders came, plus hundreds more who were hoping to squeeze
in," he says. "I was mobbed. I signed autographs and answered questions about my
music, and I couldnt get out of the building. It was great! The poet Andrei Voznesensky
[considered perhaps his nations greatest living poet] was there, and he said he loved
my songs. Incredible! Ive had concerts get canceled before, but this was the
Grebenshikov, 32, is well-known in the Soviet Unions big cities. But he has never
had a record produced, or a song played on the radio. Thats because, as far as the
government is concerned, he is not a musician at all. He is a night watchman.
Grebenshikov belongs to a generation of younger Soviet musicians, artists, and writers
who pursue their arts without official approval. For artistic freedom, most have given up
the chance for a secure place in the cultural establishment. Many look to the West, and
the U.S., for inspiration.
A Giant Fishbowl
"I called my band Aquarium, " he explains, "because here in the Soviet
Union we are in a giant fishbowl. Since we cant travel freely to other countries, we
are like fish in a tank who swim up and press our noses against the glass, trying to see
out at the rest of the world."
Since 1979, Grebenshikov and his band have taped seven albums in a Leningrad recording
studio. Their cassettes are copied and passed from city to city and fan to fan. Aquarium
earns no money from its recordings.
"Were the biggest little label in the world," Grebenshikov jokes as he
pastes photos of his band onto cassette boxes. Next to him, an artist friend neatly
letters the word AQUARIUM above each picture.
Grebenshikov used to travel around the Soviet Union, performing in smaller towns and
distributing tapes. He couldnt afford to continue. He paid his own way, receiving no
money except when, sometimes, someone passed a hat for donations.
In the Soviet Union, musicians must gain professional status before theyre allowed
to earn money. The Leningrad branch of the State Concert Agency wouldnt accept
Aquarium, however, and the Musicians Union denied membership to the bands members.
So, they all make their livings doing other things.
Like Grebenshikov, they have chosen jobs that allow lots of free time for music. His
cello player cuts weeds along the railroad tracks outside Leningrad. The lead guitarist
stokes a furnace, and the flute player sells watermelons from an outdoor stand.
Neither Grebenshikov nor his band members ever have much money. But they and other
musician friends have a strong sense of mutual support. They share food and drink, records
and tapes, even strollers for each others children. Despite their poverty, they insist
theyre not suffering for their art. Theyre having too much fun.
There are many such amateur groups in Leningrad and other large Soviet cities. Some of
the best known go by such names as Strange Games, Animal Noises [Zvuki Mu], The Movies
[Kino], and The Zoo [Zoopark]. They cant perform in the concert halls reserved for
approved Soviet groups. Still, amateur groups can play at private parties, in school
halls, and in trade-union clubs. Usually, the auditoriums are strung with red banners
proclaiming Communist Party slogans, such as, "Work Hard, Study Hard, In The Manner
Of Lenin," or "The Party Is The Honor and Conscience Of The People."
Many Soviet rock musicians, both amateur and official, are trained as classical
musicians. Typically, they graduate from conservatories or music academies, then find
themselves drawn to rock and jazz. So, the quality of the music is quite high.
Glitter and Masks
When performing, Grebenshikovslim, blonde, and intenseresembles David Bowie.
Dressed in a white jumpsuit, he dances around on the small drab stages under the red
banners. He wears glitter on his face and sometimes dons a mask.
Grebenshikov has been performing since he was 17, and he has been influenced by many
Western styles. His band plays them all with ease, from reggae to punk. But Aquariums
usual style is upbeat folk-rock, with classical licks thrown in by the cellist or flutist.
Its a rich sound, with pretty melodies. Sometimes odd sound effects, like short-wave
radio transmissions or bird calls, are added. The band also plays some American songs,
including "Johnny Be Good."
Like many Soviet amateur groups, Aquarium is made up of a motley arrangement of
whatever musicians happen to drop by when Grebenshikov is trying out a new song. At
various times, the band has included a bassoonist, a saxophonist, a keyboard player, and a
female vocalist, in addition to its four regular members.
Some rock groups, unlike Aquarium, are officially approved and allowed to perform
abroad and on television. Last year, a Soviet group called Autograph joined, by satellite,
the LIVE-AID concert that raised money for African famine victims. Approved groups get
their instruments and equipment from the government. The state-run record label, Melodiya
("melody"), produces their records.
However, Soviet music buffs say that because the official groups music has won the
censors okay, its not as interesting as what the unofficial groups play. Their
lyrics tend to be bland and sidestep sensitive issues.
A fairly typical song of the official type, by the group Stas Namins People, is
called "Be Glad": Be glad for the sun! Theres still hope for children of
the earth, when adults stop shooting. Be glad for the sun, for the first snows of winter,
For the bold searching of springs first buds! Be glad! Be glad for life itself!
In the Soviet Union, the big newspapers print charts of the most popular songs that
are based on write-in votes by readers. Aquarium has had top songs on the Leningrad charts
several years in a roweven though the band doesnt officially exist. A verse from
"Snow Has Fallen All Morning," a number one hit, shows a daring edge that
official songs lack:
Lets tiptoe past the open door,
Well make it look as if were not home,
Lets go where its quiet and light.
Oh, you can be as haughty as steel,
And you can pretend
This Is only a movie youre in,
About people who live under high tension.
But, love, snow has fallen all morning,
All morning long,
And there is nothing you cant do,
If you want to enough.
Queen of Rock
The undisputed queen of official Soviet rock and pop music is a singer named Alla
Pugacheva. She performs love ballads and story-songs in a husky, powerful voice, often
accompanied by an orchestra. She has a very dramatic presence on stage, reaching out to
the audience, then clasping her arms around herself.
Whatever the music, Soviets love to dance. The Soviet Union reportedly has over 10,000
discos. They all play some Western records in addition to Soviet ones. Admission is cheap,
and there are no age restrictions. Concerts, however, are another matter. Tickets are
impossible to get, and dancing is not permitted. The most emotion fans can show is to sway
Soviets who are curious about trends in Western music often buy records and tapes from
the steady stream of foreign tourists and exchange students. Melodiya puts out a few
records every year of famous foreign artists, such as the Beatles. There are also TV
programs devoted to music from other countries. One show is "Foreign Jazz Tunes and
Still, most current Western music stars are unknown in the Soviet Union, because the
Soviet government considers them unworthy. One Moscow newspaper criticized Michael Jackson
for being indecent onstage, but most Soviets had never heard him.
Even official groups must watch their steps. One of Grebenshikovs close friends is
Andrei Makarevich, the leader of an official group, The Time Machine. His band, praised in
1981 as a trendsetter that dealt with urgent questions, was denounced the next year as
"un-Russian." The Time Machine apparently has corrected its
"mistakes," for Makarevich still enjoys the special privileges of a star. On
tour, he stays at the best hotels, with a car and driver at his disposal.
When Grebenshikov travels, he goes by train, or he hitchhikes. He sleeps on the floors
of friends apartments and worries that the local artistic committees may cancel his
concerts. But he insists that he doesnt envy Makarevichs success.
"When Andrei and The Time Machine are visiting Leningrad, they come over sometimes
after their big concerts in the Palace of Culture," Grebenshikov says. "Sitting
around my kitchen, they play some of their best songs, songs they couldnt play in
public because the censors didnt like them. When I play in public, even though I am
broke and have an old guitar and lousy amps, everything I play is my best and from my
heart. I am freer than Andrei, with his limousine and his prestige, and I prefer it this