Glasnost Produces Rock-n-Roll Emissary;
Boris Grebenshikov on an American Tour

Author: Barbara Jaeger
Source: The Record
Date: July 30, 1989

It’s strange I don’t feel like I’m a stranger
I feel like I belong here
I feel like I’ve been waiting for a long time
And now I can tell you some stories

– from "Radio Silence" by Boris Grebenshikov

The lyrics of the title song of Boris Grebenshikov’s American debut album ring true, as the Russian rock-and-roller graciously greets visitors to his Greenwich Village apartment, barefoot.

With his 17-month-old daughter toddling beside him, and his wife in the kitchen brewing herbal tea, the singer-songwriter, clad in black jeans and an open-neck shirt, looks perfectly at home in the airy apartment, with its panoramic view of lower Manhattan.

As Grebenshikov settles his slim frame into the corner of a black leather couch in the living room, lights a cigarette, and begins talking of the journey that has brought him from the underground musical community of Leningrad to rock-and-roll clubs of America, only the accent of his excellent English indicates that he is a stranger here.

Traveling back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union , with frequent stops in France and England, Grebenshikov is, at the moment, the most visible example in the popular music community of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika.

Back in the U.S.S.R, rock-and-rollers once comprised a totally underground movement, but, given the recent change in the political climate, they have come above ground. Some, like Grebenshikov, have even made the leap over the Iron Curtain to find Western record company executives, eager to capitalize on the current interest in Russia, waiting with open arms, and open checkbooks.

However, Grebenshikov has the distinction of being the first Soviet citizen to sign an American recording contract. "Radio Silence," his Columbia Records’ debut, was released last month, and Grebenshikov is on a United States tour, which brings him Aug. 8 to the Bottom Line in Manhattan. In September, he’ll be off to Europe for another round of concerts.

"There’s really no precedent for what I am doing," says Grebenshikov, slowly rolling his cigarette between thumb and index finger. "Lots of people are working on my papers right now. I don’t concern myself with all the details, I just concern myself with the music."

And on this sultry summer evening, having just come from rehearsing with the band he has assembled for the tour, it is his music and how it will be presented that is uppermost on his mind.

"I’m really scared that the sheer volume of the band we have right now will be too big," he says. "When I played the Bottom Line earlier this year, I had the impression that my voice was not coming through.

I’m not on an ego trip, but it’s just that the voice, any voice, is the main source of information and it expresses so much. When you have to shout the words out, that’s not music at all."

He says he sees the American tendency to view rock-and-roll and loudness as synonymous as a major problem.

Pausing to light another cigarette in the chain he will smoke during the course of the evening, Grebenshikov says: "In reading a lot of the reviews of Radio Silence’, I think American critics tend to confuse sheer physical intensity with emotional intensity.

"But they are not the only ones, judging by the musicians that I have been talking with in the last month or two. Even they tend to confuse the two."

Reviews of "Radio Silence", produced by David Stewart of the Eurythmics and featuring members of Grebenshikov’s Russian band Aquarium, as well as guest appearances by Stewart’s partner Annie Lennox and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, have been mixed. Some have praised the folk-inspired rock and its poetic, mood-evocative lyrics, while others have lambasted it for its lack of a hard-driving sound and its use of high-tech instruments.

There have even been charges that Grebenshikov, who wrote the album in English and sings all but two of the songs in English, sold out and tailored his sound to fit into the groove of classic-rock radio stations and thereby earn megabucks.

"For one thing, I don’t have this fat American contract," says Grebenshikov. "It’s the Russian government that has it. I don’t even know how much, 10 percent, 20 percent, goes to me.

"But I am really entertained by what people write about this album. I’ve seen only one phrase used that I would term correct: 'Probably this album means more to Grebenshikov than your average American listener.’ This is OK with me, because being true to myself is most important to me.

"I can tell you one thing, though. This is my first album, and I see it as just that. It was written, recorded, and mixed in six weeks, so there was not really time to develop the songs. The songs on the second album will be quite a surprise."

Rock-and-roll has been Grebenshikov’s passion, and life, since his days as a teenager growing up in Leningrad. For him, and for other Russian teenagers, the link to what was going on beyond the Russian borders.

"You didn’t care who the band was, what language they were singing in, or who was transmitting it. It was the sound that attracted you. It was a sound charged with energy and spirit."

Grebenshikov has a degree in applied mathematics from the University of Leningrad. He says he might have been an engineer, if his dream of playing rock-and-roll, which he equates to a religion, had not been so all-consuming.

"Until recent times, you couldn’t gain anything by playing rock-and-roll in Russia. And chances were you could lose a great deal," says Grebenshikov, who was kicked out of the Leningrad Young Communists League when he formed Aquarium in 1972. "So, if you went into the field, it meant you really had a strong belief and a goal."

Within the underground musical community, Aquarium became one of the biggest acts. When the group was finally afforded official status several years ago, the first 200,000 copies of its debut album for Melodiya, the state-run record label, sold out in several hours. The three Aquarium albums that have been officially released in the Soviet Union have sold in excess of 3.5 million copies.

As Aquarium’s stock began to rise, the sexy and charismatic Grebenshikov soon found himself being called a rock star, a term he disdains.

"I think we’ve had enough rock stardom in Russia, " says the blond and blue-eyed Grebenshikov, who is 35. "That’s why I had to run away for some time, to take some of the heat off my public image."

His journey to the West was aided by Kenny Shaffer, vice president of Belka International Inc., a New York corporation that facilitates business between Western corporations and Soviet state agencies. Shaffer served as the executive producer of "Radio Silence."

"What I immensely like about America is the fact that people are living here under normal conditions," says Grebenshikov. "Here people have freedom of choice, while in Russia a lot of people cannot do a certain thing because it is physically impossible. You can’t play an electric guitar if you can’t buy one. The choices are limited."

Asked then how he managed to fulfill his ambition, Grebenshikov, speaking barely above a whisper, says: "Maybe I felt the obligation to do certain things more strongly than some people. If you do something, that means your life is worthwhile.

If you don’t do it, life feels boring and empty and is just a waste of time."

But Grebenshikov, who is a voracious reader and says he possesses one of the largest Tolkien collections in the Eastern Bloc, is no Yakov Smirnov in his infatutation with America. He dislikes the shallowness of a lot of the country’s culture, and finds much of present-day American rock-and-roll boring.

"I strongly feel that much of the music today is motivated strictly by money. One band gets a winning musical formula, and the next day 2,000 bands are being told that they should sound like that.

"Of the huge bands, the only one that I can really respect is R.E.M. I saw them in Paris recently and they shocked me into reconsidering a lot of things, and that’s the best possible effect any band or performer can hope to have."

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