Soviet Performer Shoots From the Hip

Author: Dennis Hunt
Source: Los Angeles Times
Date: August 19, 1989

No wonder Boris Grebenshikov was an outlaw during most of his life in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet singer-guitarist-composer, who is touring America, doesn’t mince words. He is not afraid to tell you what he thinks – about anything.

Luckily, he quipped the other day, he didn’t wind up in Siberia.

In the pre-Gorbachev years, when creative freedom was stifled and the government was tough on nonconformists, Grebenshikov resorted to working underground, recording tapes that circulated throughout the Soviet Union’s hip musical community.

"I’m always true to my principles, so I wanted to do the music I wanted to do and to be able to say what I wanted to say," said Grebenshikov, 36, who speaks English fluently. "How else can you live?

"In those days, musicians were limited by the ideological concepts of the government. You couldn’t sing about certain things or sing about certain things in a certain way. I couldn’t do things the way the government wanted. I couldn’t work in that framework."

Grebenshikov will be at the Bacchanal in San Diego on Sunday and at the Roxy on Tuesday as part of a national club tour to promote "Radio Silence" (Columbia Records), his first American album. Produced by the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, Grebenshikov’s album is in English – with the exception of two compositions in Russian.

On this soft-rock album with folkish overtones, he sticks to universal themes, emerging as an insightful lyricist with an earnest, often dramatic delivery. His tone and phrasing are quite Dylanesque at times.

With the arrival of the Gorbachev era’s extensive intercultural exchange, Grebenshikov was able to work out a deal, proposed by a U.S. management company, to make an American record. He had earlier appeared on a compilation album of Soviet rockers’ music released on a small, independent label. His management company cut through red tape to get him to the United States – his first foreign trip – to negotiate a contract.

"I was paraded before five companies, but I chose Columbia," he said. "They didn’t know what they were getting." He met Stewart in Los Angeles though a mutual friend during that trip.

Grebenshikov’s attributes the album’s commercial tone to Stewart’s influence. "It had to be that way," he said. "But I don’t like commercial music. Still, I have to do things here a certain way or I couldn’t make the album."

For 17 years, Grebenshikov existed only unofficially. In the Soviet Union, musicians earn a living by officially working in the system—which he was unwilling to do. His rugged individualism dates back to his youth. While in college studying sociology and math, his passion for playing music got him in trouble. He was kicked out of school for playing at a rock festival.

Grebenshikov, who lives in Leningrad, was somewhat guarded about his political attitudes. Still, when asked if he’s a communist, his candor took over: "I wouldn’t say so. I was kicked out of the Young Communists’ League. I wouldn’t say it brought me a lot of pain."

Though he is an official part of the Soviet pop music society now, he hasn’t lost his underground tastes. His preferences run to the avant-garde – artists like Britain’s Cocteau Twins. Most Soviet pop music, he said, is commercial junk: "They’re only copying what they hear. It’s totally soulless."

He’s not too thrilled with most American music either. "It’s boring," he said haughtily. "That’s why the classic-rock (radio) formats are popular. The further from the origins of rock the music is, the more commercial it is—the more boring it is."

He also took on those who are in music just for the money.  "You don’t do it to make a living," he said. "Isn’t that a common excuse for prostitutes—who say they’re in it just for the money? It’s just that making love for money and doing it for love are different. Making music for money and for what I call sacred reasons are different things too. By the way, I have nothing against prostitutes."

Grebenshikov, who has been a musician since the late ‘60s, started out listening to bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Explaining his early attraction to music, he said, "It’s the only thing that’s real. To me, it’s still the only thing that’s really real."

In 1972, Grebenshikov began working with the band Aquarium, which eventually became the darling of the Russian underground. Still, he had to eke out a living through odd jobs. Though he is married with two children—a son, 4 , and a daughter, 11 -- earning money just isn’t a driving force for him.

"I was doing my thing and letting God provide," he said. "Sometimes I sound like a crazed preacher on a mission, but I’m not after the money. I’m looking for spiritual gratification."

Though Grebenshikov often sounds like someone who’s not too fond of his country, he swore he’s not a candidate for defection: "I’m not looking to leave Russia. It’s my home. I don’t want to live anywhere else."

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