Pop Music's Ultimate Crossover Artist

Author: Edna Gundersen
Gannett News Service
August 8, 1989

Russian rocker Boris Grebenshikov may be pop music’s ultimate crossover artist. Revered in the Soviet Union as this generation’s poet laureate, Grebenshikov leaped over oceans, language barriers and Red tape to release his debut U.S. album, "Radio Silence" (Columbia).

Tuesday night, as a plane load of U.S. hard rockers head for the Moscow Peace Festival, Grebenshikov will perform in New York at the Bottom Line, one of several dates on his club tour.

Glasnost only recently opened the doors to this pop exchange. Still, Grebenshikov, weaned on Voice of America broadcasts, felt at home composing in English (only two songs are in Russian) and recording in New York, London and Montreal with producer Dave Stewart (Eurythmics).

From the title track and first single: "I don’t feel like I’m a stranger/ I feel like I belong here/ I feel like I’ve been waiting for a long time/ And now I can tell you some stories."

Grebenshikov relishes telling about the pre-glasnost frustrations of a taboo vocation. In 1980, he lost his job as a mathematician and sociologist for playing at a rock festival. Without media attention or sanctioned albums, he and his band Aquarium became superstars, their music dominating the tape-trading underground.

Grebenshikov cracks, "Then (Mikhail) Gorbachev came into power and it was discovered by scientists that rock ‘n’ roll can be good for the state and not a crime. Because Aquarium had the biggest name, we were elected to be discovered."

With no advance publicity, Aquarium’s first official release on the state-owned Melodiya label sold 200,000 copies, exhausting supply, but not demand, in a few hours. Two more LPs sold more than 3.5 million copies. A fourth (the 13th, including unofficial releases) is due this fall.

Grebenshikov gets $5,000 in royalties for every 1 million LPs sold. No wonder he suffered more sticker shock than culture shock in the United States.

"So much rock here is the same as Coca-Cola," he complains. "Rock ‘n’ roll should be a spiritual quest, a shaman’s journey. Here, people treat it as pure entertainment. I was shocked when Steve Winwood said he wanted to be considered just an entertainer.

"Music is my life, so I won’t sell it for any amount. If I give away my life, what would I do with the money?

"I felt like an old person when I was growing up," he says. "I was living this incredibly boring existence with falsehood and lies all around. Rock offered a joyous alternative."

Though he’s counting on future outside recording opportunities, with hopes of collaborations with George Harrison and Ireland’s Chieftains, the recently divorced father of two, headed for his third marriage, has no plans to leave Leningrad.

And while he admires Gorbachev, "the most sympathetic figure in Russian politics in 70 years," Grebenshikov knows it wasn’t just compassion that led to his musical liberation.

"They need some figureheads," he says. "They think they’re using me, but I’m using them in a much more pleasant, permanent way."

Aug. 10 - Cleveland, Peabody’s
Aug. 11 - Detroit, St. Andrews Hall
Aug. 12 - Chicago, Park West
Aug. 14 - Atlanta, Cotton Club
Aug. 16 - Houston, Rockefeller
Aug. 17 - Dallas, Tommy’s
Aug. 20 - San Diego, Bacchanal
Aug. 22 - Los Angeles, Roxy
Aug. 23 - San Francisco, Slims

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