"Russia’s Dylan": Blowin’ In the Glasnost Wind

Author: John Milward
Source: Newsday
Date: April 17, 1989

Rock and roll has been glibly referred to as an international language, but at Boris Grebenshikov’s United States concert debut Saturday night at the Bottom Line, the contention took on a literal and thought-provoking meaning.

Grebenshikov is considered the Soviet Union’s premiere rock star, and has been called "the Russian Dylan."

For years, he was the focal point of Aquarium, an underground band based in Leningrad who operated in a communal spirit akin to that of the Grateful Dead. Now, Grebenshikov is awaiting the Columbia release of his first American album, "Radio Silence," and is playing with a Western band led by its producer, Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. Saturday night’s concert focused on the English-language material of "Radio Silence." The folk-flavored tunes, especially those sung in Russian, such as "China," the opening number that Grebenshikov performed to the accompaniment of his own acoustic guitar, found his voice animated by a beguiling lilt. On the rock numbers, when he was joined by eight musicians, including three female background singers, his vocals took on the cool detachment of Western hipsters like David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and Lou Reed.

Western role models have even shaped his visual style. Thin and broad-shouldered, he was dressed in black with two thick belts draped around his waist. With his hair pulled back into a ponytail, his intense look and determined delivery suggested U2’s Bono, and one of that singer’s primary influences, Jim Morrison of the Doors. Such Western influences shouldn’t be surprising - the music of Marshall McLuhan’s "global village" has long been rock and roll - nor do they conspire to make Grebenshikov simply a cultural oddity. He’s learned his lessons well, sings with assurance and has fashioned an English-language repertoire that’s as stylistically broad as those of many of his Western peers.

In a pop world increasingly intrigued by the notion of world music, however, Grebenshikov represents a comingling of cultures that underscores one possible result of the so-called openness initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev under the banners of glasnost and perestroika. Grebenshikov’s new songs are neither Russian nor Western: They are in a style of cultural Esperanto otherwise known as rock and roll.

Following "China," Grebenshikov was joined by an acoustic-guitar toting Stewart for a Russian song called "Jewels" that recalled the Everly Brothers as rendered by the early Beatles. But when the full band took the stage, and Grebenshikov discarded his guitar to launch into "The Postcard" – "Fragile and deathless/ Yes I’m all right/ I am a church /And I’m burning down" – he came on like David Bowie. Call him The Thin White Bear. And as he ended the song with howls that recalled Iggy Pop, he embodied the foreign notion of a Russian punk rocker.

Yet not all of Grebenshikov’s cues come from the so-called progressive wing of Western pop. Songs like "Radio Silence" and "Young Lions" employ the Eddie-Cochran-meets-Bo-Diddley style that George Michael modernized so successfully for the hit single "Faith." A new song, "Run Riot," composed two days before the show, combined a similar approach with a "do-do-do, do-do" vocal line that recalled Lou Reed’s "Walk on the Wild Side."

There is something genuinely startling, and perhaps revolutionary, about hearing a Russian performer with such a firm grasp on Western pop. The notion of a cult figure like Reed having a global impact is certainly a brain teaser. Yet at the same time, there’s no ignoring the cultural calculation that is inherent in this hands-across-the-curtain collaboration.

The only player at the Bottom Line from Aquarium was bassist Sasha Titov, and while Grebenshikov will presumably maintain a Russian constituency with further recordings that more dutifully reflect his homeland’s interpretation of rock and roll, "Radio Silence" is clearly an album fashioned to Western tastes. Boris Grebenshikov is consequently the first manifestation of rock-and roll-glasnost. For three decades, American pop music has swaggered around the world with an imperialistic confidence befitting the pop culture of a superpower. Now it’s the Russian’s turn, and the irony is that their first rock and roll star is so quick to sound like his Western counterparts.

The world will never again seem quite so large.

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