Boris Grebenshchikov:
a musical revolution

A rambling & interview
by J. Higgins-Rosebrook,
September 2000

It was Lughnassadh and I was in St Petersburg, Russia, on a weekend respite from the detsky dom (children's home) where I'd been volunteering for the summer. Polina, the interpreter for the volunteer team had invited me to a party at the home of a friend, a professor from the U.S. who was in Petersburg doing research. It was late in the evening and at first I had demurred but Polina urged me to go, saying that our host had prepared a special vegetarian menu just for me. So I went.

The company was delightful and the food was wonderful and, as I was sitting there enjoying it, the man across from me said, "So, you're the one who lives on the mountaintop, are you?" "Who is this sweaty, scruffy-looking man?" I asked myself. Not to be impolite, I responded that indeed I'm the one who lives on a mountaintop. "Must be like some sort of guru," he said. Mentally, I rolled my eyes and thought, "Oh my, I hate where this conversation is going." "No," I said aloud, "I'm a novelist disguised as a weather observer. Who are you?"

"I'm Boris," he said, "and I'm a musician. Pardon the sweatiness, we just got out of the studio."

What do I know from Russian music? This Boris was a pleasant enough fellow, excellent English, this may be interesting. After a short conversation about travels and weather and languages, during which I revealed myself to be an absolute tyro in the world of Russian popular music -- which I'm sure amused my new acquaintance no end -- he got up to fill his plate again.

At this point, Polina scoots in under my elbow and whispers urgently to me that this is the, the, THE most important musician in Russia today.

"Hmm," sez I, thinking symphony, "what does he do?" Polina points to a rack of CDs on the top shelf above the stereo and says, "Those."

Boris Grebenshchikov probably is, as Polina said, the most important musician in Russia today. When I arrived back at the detsky dom, I asked around and got a sense of legend. Roman, our other interpreter, brought me all his Grebenshchikov tapes and played his favorites for me and told me how to listen to this or that bit. The next week, he brought me a tape of Legendi, a compilation album of fourteen of Akvarium's albums, and we played it over and over while he told me what he thought Grebenshchikov was saying.

We wore out that tape, so I bought the CD on my last day in Russia passing through Peterburg. By chance, I also picked up a copy of the 13 August '99 St Petersburg Times, and there was an interview with Grebenshchikov by Sergey Chernov, who has kindly given me permission to quote from the article. When I got back to the States, a friend looked up Grebenshchikov and Akvarium online for me (since my connection to civilization is 40 miles of copper wire, I'm limited to 9600 baud). From what my friend sent me, I learned that indeed Akvarium had been to North America a few times and in fact, had recorded an album with REM.

I also got a sense of the risks Grebenshchikov and his fellow musicians in all the permutations of Akvarium had to take in order to make their music. Through the years of the Soviet regime and into the turmoil that followed, Russian musicians who wanted to make rock music had to record, buy and sell their tapes in secret. Acquiring music, especially music from outside the USSR, had to be on the sly, combing one another's collections, having friends smuggle in music or taping off outside radio. Discovery could lead to serious trouble and sometimes did but music will be made and the musician who can make the music feels s/he has to take the risks.

There are a number of reviews at the website and in dull repetition, the reviewers call Grebenshchikov the "Russian Dylan," as though he and Akvarium had just leapt out of a harmonica somewhere. I hate it when reviewers do that. It's so irresponsible and in this case, I find it so patronizing, as if Dylan somehow has the patent on musical protest. Finding a peg to hang someone on is not writing a critical review.

Grebenshchikov is not Dylan and Dylan is not Grebenshchikov. I suspect Dylan doesn't have the testicular fortitude to be someone who is so dedicated to his music that he's willing to risk everything in a country with no enforceable constitution, no "rule of law" in order to make and distribute that music that is so anathema to the ruling power. The "Subterranean Homesick Blues" does not augur a lifetime of risk taking nor does examining the entrails in "Diamonds and Rust."

I suppose one can only review from one's own experience in any case and a reviewer who's never left Philadelphia nor listened to anything that's not North American or British rock 'n' roll might hear a harmonica and have only Dylan to compare with. B.G. (Beh Geh), as he's called, is about my age and his influences must go back at least as far. He has a gorgeous, sexy voice on the ballads, Kostroma Mon Amour is music to get in trouble by, no nasal whine there although, as I listen to the songs on this compilation album, I'm sure I can hear the progressive effects of long years of smoking cigarettes.

Russia still is a country without an enforceable constitution and nobody even bothers to learn what the laws are. Because of this, B.G. and Akvarium decided to release their (as yet unnamed in August) next CD on the Internet in MP3 format. In the Chernov article, B.G. explains, "We are glad that it will be the world's first album which will appear first for Internet users. It'll be with an enhanced cover -- with 250 photos instead of two, and all the rest." In fact, B.G.'s son was in the other room at that evening in Peterburg working on the online album cover. I suspect the album will be rather introspective, considering the Greek goddess whose name they were considering using.

Citing Jerry Garcia's axiom that technologies are only good as long as they are toys, Grebenshchikov said further in the article that he treats positively any system which allows you to destroy the current oligarchy. He says that MP3 has destroyed the current music business for good and that's as it should be because from his point of view, music should be free. Russian musicians make so little money from their albums because there's nobody to curb the activities of the pirates. An artist or group will sell maybe 500 copies of an album and the pirates will sell 10,000.

All this fits with his personal tradition of making his music and getting it out however he can, or not. Making music to make the music can be satisfying for him as well. B.G. himself recorded another album last year, a tribute to the Russian poet, Bulat Okudzhava who he says is one of his most important Russian influences.

In the Chernov article, Grebenshchikov is quoted as saying, "From my point of view it'll be better if it doesn't come out at all. We did the album with no intention to release it. We did it like people who go to pray in church -- for ourselves. It was a religious act."

[ by J. Higgins-Rosebrook ]