|Not have Soviet ballet, folklore, circuses and choirs taken advantage of glasnost to
take the world by storm. T-shirts emblazoned with Soviet insignia have been the fashion
rage in Western capitals for two summers; New Yorkers queue at department stores to buy
Russian bread; and now Soviet rock artists are coming to the attention of American and
European record buyers.
After years of admiration for their idealism, Russian rockers
have finally won musical admiration, and few are reaping more acclaim than Boris
Grebenshikov, whose debut album in the West, Radio Silence, is released in Israel this
Grebenshikovs fame in Russia is a story in itself. A mathematics graduate at his
hometown University of Leningrad, Grebenshikov quit his job as a computer engineer to take
up rock n roll a "parasitical" move that got him kicked out of the
Leningrad Young Communist League in 1972.
Fiercely critical of the regime, Grebenshikov was never an officially sanctioned
singer. For 10 years he fronted the underground Aquarium band, whose recordings were
duplicated on a huge scale through the USSRs vast underground cassette network.
In 1987, however, he was able to quantify his hold on Russian musical taste when the
entire run of 200,000 initial copies of Aquariums first officially released album on
the state-run Melodiya label were sold out within hours. Since then another two Aquarium
albums have been made officially available, with total sales exceeding 3.5 million.
And thanks to the efforts of Kenny Schaffer, a New York inventor and impresario, the
Soviet authorities gave permission for Grebenshikov to record an album in the West for
release there. Some of the top names in British and American rock contributed. Dave
Stewart of the Eurythmics produced, with his partner Annie Lennox contributing to the
vocals with Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders), Siobhan Stewart (Bananarama) and musicians such
as percussionist Ray Cooper.
Although Radio Silence is composed almost entirely of English songs, it still seems to
be thoroughly Russian in character. Grebenshikovs lyrics, which have earned him a
reputation as a significant poet back home, are splattered with the somber imagery and
grave portents that are so much a part of Russian literature. And though he works
comfortably in what is an overwhelmingly Western idiom, his approach to the music is a
million times more reverent than that of his Western colleagues.
"Rock n roll is basically a living myth and religion. All my songs are
prayers," Grebenshikov said last month. This sense of spirituality, allied with a
political militancy which identifies the very existence of rock n roll as a political
protest, means that Grebenshikovs musical approach is disappointingly conservative
at least by Western standards.
A song lifted straight from the decadent Western repertoire of the Rolling Stones is a
far more potent statement than an original Russian composition. With the Russian
fascination for everything Western, its not surprising that their favorite rock star is
so clearly enslaved to Western influences.
Radio Silence is a very derivative album: Grebenshikov sometimes sounds like Bowie,
sometimes like Bruce Springsteen, and one doesnt need to be a particularly astute
listener to notice the occasional Led Zeppelin plagiarism. Grebenshikov is apparently
aware of the problem; he just hasnt found the right way to treat it.
"Of course, because I recorded in the West for release in the West Im competing
with artists whom Ive never competed against back home. So I have to think twice about
doing something in a Lou Reed vein, for example, because Im competing with Lou
But Grebenshikov cant seem to shake off the musical traditions he has adopted in
Russia. "You must understand that for the past 70-plus years, weve had to live in
a totally artificial world with an artificial culture and behavior, where you dont feel
like a human being because you are taught to think of yourself as just participating in a
historic event. When youre 16 years old and all you see around you is bullshit, and you
dont want to live your life like this, you seek out something that is real to you, to
answer the basic question of love and life and death. This is the role that rock n
roll played for me.
"People listen to rock n roll differently in Russia. They sit at home and
listen like its a sacrament, or an evening sermon. But here, people are bombarded by
tons and tons of information," he said in a recent New York interview. "To keep
their brains intact, they have to limit their attention span. In Russia, because we
dont have much informational stimuli, people tend to take fewer things in, but take
them in deeper."