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Little Fisherman, Big Pond

Boris Grebenshchikov talks about chemistry, his new album, the smallmindedness of Russian musicians, and a small tribe called Aquarium. by Irina Sandul 11 June 2003 ST. PETERSBURG, Russia--Boris Grebenshchikov, Russian rock star and leader of the legendary band Aquarium, gathers his goatee in the palm of his hand, attaching a metal clip to it. “Inexorable show business,” he says, causing everybody around to smile. Sitting in a leather armchair in his St. Petersburg studio during a break in recording his 22nd album, Pesni Rybaka (Fisherman's Songs), he prepares to face the camera.

Photo by Alexei Gulyayev
The former squat on Pushkinskaya Street No. 10, which homeless musicians and artists illegally inhabited in the early 1980s, has remained Grebenshchikov’s artistic shelter. “For a long time a brotherhood of artists and bomzhi [homeless people or tramps] has lived here,” Grebenshchikov says, recalling the early days of Aquarium, variously described as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Pink Floyd of Russia. People lived and recorded at the house, which had no electricity, gas, or water.

Yet that was where Grebenshchikov, or BG to his fans, wrote the songs he considers his best. In the 1980s, tens of thousands of young people around the Soviet Union queued for hours at Melodiya record shops to buy Aquarium’s early vinyl records. Within days of release, black marketeers were reselling them at 10 times the price. Melodiya was the state-run record label and store chain that produced and sold musicians’ discs on condition of their loyalty to the Soviet state. Grebenshchikov was not altogether loyal, and for years his underground band could not release an album.


After 1972, when he formed Aquarium (subsequently disbanding it twice), BG never submitted his song lyrics to the Ministry of Culture’s censorship committee. Aquarium’s gyrating stage antics at a concert in 1980 in Tbilisi, Georgia, did not conform to the norms of behavior expected of communist youth. The Young Communists’ Union, or Komsomol, expelled BG from its ranks. He also lost his job as a laboratory assistant. Grebenshchikov then had to join a cohort of St. Petersburg’s storage guards and street cleaners, many of whom were also artists and musicians. It was illegal in the Soviet Union to have no official employment.

Today, sitting near a Tibetan lantern over a standard Russian lunch of boiled sausages and rice flavored with nonstandard soy sauce, BG, famous for the intellectual complexity of his lyrics, talks about his enthusiasm for the East and India. Russian icons, Buddha statuettes, and portraits of Tibetan monks cover the walls of the simply furnished room.

Many Russians wonder at Grebenshchikov’s craving for the unusual, including his interest in Buddhism. “Any enthusiasm is a marvel in Russia. To a person who lives from one glass of vodka to the next, everything beyond his or her circle is a marvel,” Grebenshchikov says. “Everybody notices that I am a Buddhist. Nobody notices that I am also a Sufi, a Taoist, and an Orthodox Christian.”

Grebenshchikov, one of the few Soviet-era songwriters and singers who could speak English, was the first Russian nonclassical singer to be welcomed in the West, with David Bowie, Dave Stewart, Annie Lennox, and Iggy Pop among his admirers. In the 1980s, the singer’s name leapt from perestroika postcards to the pages of the Village Voice and Rolling Stone. Western rock stars accepted him “because I am just like them,” he says, but "deep provincialism divides the rest of Russia from them. Russia holds tight to its provinciality, afraid to lose it because when it does, it will have to sail unknown waters.”

In 1988-89, the singer toured the West, releasing an English-language album, Radio Silence, which featured appearances by the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox, the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, and Bananarama’s Siobhan Fahey. He also signed an eight-year contract with CBS Records to release 12 English-language CDs. In London in 1990, Dave Stewart helped Grebenshchikov record demos for his next disk, but the sides broke the contract that same year after Sony bought CBS, and only in 1997 did the well-known Russian company Solyd Records release the album Radio London. That was when BG issued his other solo album, Lilith, recorded in the States and in Russia with former members of The Band, which formerly backed Bob Dylan.


Photo by Alexei Gulyayev
BG himself feels that the success of his singing career has nothing to do with his own merits. “I only did one thing: To always be interested in the world around me. That’s why I happen to know English, that’s why I was always interested in Western and Eastern music,” he says. Grebenshchikov adds that his chances of being noticed in the West were especially low because he never had any strong political views, often a prerequisite for fame in Soviet times. “I was neither a dissident nor a party member," he says, adding that his inspiration never came from protest against the Soviet system. He sees the liaison of rock with protest as propaganda. His inspiration, he says, has always come from the same source: God.

The bagfuls of mail he got from those who heard Radio Silence left BG with no doubt in his mind that he could have stayed in New York and made more records there, but he saw no point in doing so. “I often like comparing music to medicine. No matter how good our aspirin is, if we try exporting it to the States, 40 better aspirins will appear there for each good one we can offer, with all kinds of additives and against all kinds of diseases. Why should we do that? Why should we export our aspirin? We need it,” he says.

So BG brought his aspirin back to his fans, who still listened to him as they smoked in packed kitchens and dormitory rooms. The album of Russian folk songs Aquarium released in Russia shortly after his return was in every way better than anything he had done in the West, he says: “more primitive but a lot better.” He firmly believes that, while music may know no boundaries, songwriting, his main business, is a local virtue. Even though BG also writes in English, he nevertheless feels his place is in Russia. “Everything already exists [in the West]. I am a modest chemist. I make drugs against the disease of the soul. I come to city N and bring it what it lacks,” adds the singer, who spends 70 percent of his time touring Russia and abroad, where he performs for ex-Soviet emigre communities.

The “yodeler” of Russian rock (as BG says someone once called him) does not even consider the music that his band has been playing for more than 30 years to be rock. “This is ethnic music," he defines it, "of a small tribe called Aquarium that has its own life, its own traditions, and its own rituals. It consists of 10 to 15 well-known people and those who listen to us.”

Rock, BG believes, is yet to be born in Russia. Playing on the Russian word for "negative fate," he says, "In Russia, there were rok cries about 'how difficult it is to live with you bastards.' All [Russian] rock songs are about that. 'How difficult it is for me, a genius, to be with you. And how much I want everybody to be kind,' " he says, laughing.

Looking back, BG now wishes he had written more and better in his younger days. “I have always been naturally diffident, same as everybody else. I still am. But now I already know that I can die peacefully with the scope of work that I have done. I have already served my term,” the 49-year-old singer adds.


He reserves harsh criticism for what other Russian bands do. “The problem with Russian music is that everybody wants to be a big fish in a small pond, because they understand that in Rome they won’t get to No. 1, or into the top 10, or the top 100. Nobody here wants to level with the world. Everybody wants to grab something for himself or herself here and now.” He laughingly says the Russian musicians he likes are Piotr Tchaikovsky, Modest Mussorgsky, and Alfred Shnittke, then adds Tequilajazzz. Gently tapping the floor, he listens to a song extract that has just been recorded at the back of his studio, in a space crammed with an old piano displaying its entrails and dusted with wood chippings from microphone stands. “Sometimes you fly in the electric sky thinking, I wish I fell.” “Play it again, I want to listen to how it sounds,” he says to his fellow musicians.

Photo by Alexei Gulyayev
Grebenshchikov’s just-released Fisherman’s Songs is, according to him, “the first album in the history of Russia where nobody will become rich on minor chords. The first album, as far as I remember, where there are no gloomy songs, except one, which is supposed to be a joke.” The album was recorded in St. Petersburg and in Delhi with Indian session musicians. In late March, BG appeared with his band on Moscow’s B2 stage wearing a violet shirt and cowboy boots, dark glasses, rings and earrings, and a thin plaited beard. As he sang in his soft, serene voice, every muscle on his face tensed up and sweat poured down. The raving audience of varied ages roared in support.

Despite frequent stints in the capital, Grebenshchikov is loyal to his native city and the alma mater of Russian rock. “Art, like religion, has to stay separate from the state. That’s why it works perfectly [the way it is]: The state is there [in Moscow] and the art is here.” Grebenshchikov thinks that the capital imposes its commercial values on the rest of Russia. “When one goes outside Moscow to any Russian city, the only thing one sees is Moscow’s value system superimposed on that city’s structure. And since Moscow is money, Moscow, generally speaking, says: ‘Be as we are, do things the way we want you to, and then we will pay you money.’ That’s why any provincial radio station works mostly from Moscow with insignificant local input. All Russia dances to the Moscow tune, while Moscow has stopped being Russia, because it turned into an international commercial center. And naturally the system of values that exists in Moscow does not even entail a value system that exists in Russia. Not everyone can afford to spend $800 on lunch. This is the monthly income of a family.”
Freelance writer Irina Sandul is a former TOL correspondent in Ukraine.
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