A new biography charts the short life of a Russian jazz-rock great who ‘upgraded himself every minute.’by Vladimir Kozlov 10 January 2014
Sergei Kuryokhin was one of Russia’s most extraordinary and talented musicians and composers of the 1980s and 1990s. A virtuoso jazz pianist and composer who toured and released albums in many countries, he was also a longtime collaborator with the frontman of the seminal rock group Aquarium, Boris Grebenshchikov. He was the leader of Pop Mechanics, an experimental orchestra that defied taboos and pushed boundaries. He stood out from most of his fellow musicians as a true intellectual and passionate bibliophile. And in the final years of his life, his embrace of radical politics turned many of his friends away from him.
Observing that Kuryokhin had been drifting into obscurity since his death in 1996 at age 42 from a rare heart condition, music writer and one-time underground journalist Alexander Kushnir was prompted take on this biography. He hadn’t known the musician well, having met him just a few times as a music journalist. But the fact that he wasn’t part of Kuryokhin’s inner circle apparently helped the author to paint a multifaceted portrait.
“It’s very difficult to write about Sergei,” said the musician’s widow, Anastasiya Kuryokhina. “And probably because Kushnir didn’t know him very well and didn’t have a personal history with him, he was able to do this book.”
Over five years of work on the book, Kushnir interviewed dozens of Kuryokhin’s friends, relatives, and collaborators, collecting insights into the musician’s short but colorful life.
“While all of us were admiringly observing something, Kushnir went out and wrote an entire book about it,” the editor and music journalist Yuri Saprykin said.
After a brief run through Kuryokhin’s childhood and adolescence, the book takes readers to the Leningrad of the 1970s and early 1980s. In the Soviet Union’s second city, the ideological pressure applied by the censors seemed less harsh than in Moscow, and as a result, a rich underground subculture was born, nurturing many prominent artists.
Kuryokhin started out playing jazz, a genre he first heard on the Voice of America. Jazz was tolerated, but not officially accepted, and his experiments led to him being banned from certain venues and events.
In the early 1980s he joined Aquarium, a band that had already become an underground legend but had not yet acquired its massive following. He quickly became a key figure in the band, and his keyboards and arrangements were Aquarium’s trademark of the era.
“At every Aquarium show, [Kuryokhin] came on stage as if it were the final battle,” Kushnir writes. This was nothing to do with his mood on the day or the atmosphere of a particular show. “That was Sergei Kuryokhin’s lifestyle.”
With his penchant for extravagance and experiment, Kuryokhin often shocked people around him. Kushnir tells of his appearance at a scholarly conference on improvisation in music when he fed the conservative academic audience with cacophonous sounds from the piano.
Kuryokhin was among those Soviet-era underground musicians who achieved some exposure in the West. His first album, The Ways of Freedom, was smuggled out of Russia and released in Britain on the small Leo Records label in 1981. A few years later, he was featured in an episode of the 12-part BBC documentary on Soviet life, Comrades.
Based mainly on interviews with those who witnessed various facets of Kuryokhin’s life, the book leads the reader through the most important stages in the artist’s creative career. Experimental jazz musician collaborating with the era’s best musicians, like Vladimir Chekasin and Sergei Letov. Keyboardist and lead arranger of the “golden-age” Aquarium. Then, after his disappointment with the existing rock scene, the founder of Pop Mechanics – a crazy explosive mix of jazz, rock, pop music, dance, theater, and various kinds of experiments. In a way, Pop Mechanics, with its spontaneity, chaos, and unbridled experimentation, reflected the late-Soviet psyche better than any other band of the period.
Kuryokhin was also an accomplished prankster and hoaxer. His best-known hoax took in many viewers when he sprung it on Soviet national television early in 1991. On a popular TV show, Kuryokhin, with absolute seriousness, shared with the audience his discovery that Vladimir Lenin had been not a person, but a mushroom, citing various pseudo-scientific data as evidence.
Several chapters toward the end of the book examine Kuryokhin’s sudden plunge into radical politics in the mid-1990s, just a couple of years before his death – a move that soured relations with some of his friends, while leaving others wondering if it was sincere or just another elaborate prank.
In early 1995, Kuryokhin joined the National Bolshevik Party, led by author Eduard Limonov, and took part in the activities of its St. Petersburg chapter. This unregistered, later-banned party combined elements of extreme nationalism with the ideology of Bolshevism, but it was probably best known for the provocative behavior of some party members.
“There is a need today for powerful romantic drive,” Kuryokhin said in an interview of the time, quoted in the book. “Being unable to express themselves in art, people go out into the world carrying a machine gun, like Limonov, for instance.”
“Kuryokhin got very interested in that not because he was much into ideology,” said Sergei Zharikov, a Moscow musician and philosopher and Kuryokhin friend. “It was a kind of extreme experience for him. He wanted to try all kinds of things in his life.
“He understood that the only way to change the world was by changing oneself,” Zharikov continued. “He upgraded himself every minute. And all of his moves, like Pop Mechanics, the National Bolshevik Party, jazz, rock, were experiences he wanted to put himself through.”
In the final chapter, “Sergei’s Heart,” Kushnir describes Kuryokhin’s last months.
“On the day of Kuryokhin’s death, a huge thunderstorm broke in St. Pete,” Kushnir writes in the book’s final paragraphs. “Nevsky Prospect was flooded with muddy water, as if melted snows had suddenly overwhelmed the city. The image was psychedelic – as if nature were taking its revenge on mankind for something.”