Soviet underground superstar Boris Grebenshikov
|On a rainy NEW YORK CITY morning, Boris Grebenshikov - the man touted as The Russian
Dylan - is holding court in a Greenwich Village cafe. Surrounded by an attentive group of
Russian and American friends, Grebenshikov is discoursing in fluent English on everything
from Roy Orison to astrology. Not a word is spoken about his U.S. Debut album, Radio
Silence, or about this evening's show with Eurythmics' Dave Stewart and a band of
top-flight studio musicians. As he sips tea and gazes out at the wet Village Streets, the
thirty-five-year-old Russian rocker is surprisingly serene.
"You know what?" he asks no one in particular. "This is all really beginning to remind me of Leningrad."
While the sight of Grebenshikov's brunching in the Village may seem quite natural today, three years ago it was about as likely as finding Axl Rose at a Politburo meeting. The leader of the underground band Aquarium, Grebenshikov has not exactly endeared himself to Soviet authorities. Ever since the band's formation in 1972, he has declined to submit his introspective lyrics to the censorship committees of the Ministry of Culture. For years, Aquarium did not receive a single ruble and cold not release an album on Melodiya, the state-run record label.
Rather than "going official," Grebenshikov and what he calls his "peaceful guerrilla band" took their eccentric, Sixties-flavored brand of rock & roll directly to the people with concerts in apartments and small dubs around Leningrad. More important, they distributed primitively recorded cassettes of their latest songs through a black-market network that eventually reached the farthest corners of the Soviet Union. By the early Eighties, Aquarium had gained a sizable following whose devotion rivaled that of the most obsessive Deadheads. Grebenshikov's dingy Leningrad apartment became a shrine to which the faithful flocked, paying homage to the band and its charismatic leader.
And charismatic he certainly is. Grebenshikov exudes the cocky demeanor of a born rock star. It's a calling he takes very seriously. "Rock & roll is crucial to the survival of the planet," he says. "It represents the uprising of the spirit, like taking the chains off and doing it."
When Grebenshikov gets started on this subject, he comes off as apeculiar blend of missionary and street kid. With his soft, intense blue eyes and solemn speech, Grebenshikov has something of the religious zealot about him. But in his religion of rock & roll, the bedrock is fun.
"I've had thirty years of fun," he says. "Even in the darkest moments of my life, an observer in my brain was going, 'Ah, now you really feel tragic. Do you like it?' And I said, 'Yeah!'"
But Grebenshikov is no longer an official outsider. He has become, as he admits with discomfort, "the darling of glasnost." Like many other artists previously branded as antisovetchiki, Grebenshikov and his band mates are now being bear-hugged by a Soviet leadership determined to project a new image to the world.
Grebenshikov first realized that things in the Soviet Union were changing when the Leningrad concert organization ("which before wouldn't dare touch us with a poker") invited Aquarium to play eight nights at the city's 6000-seat Jubilee Hall. Aquarium's official legitimacy was sealed in December 1987, when Melodiya finally released an album of previously recorded black-market material. Grebenshikov received only 300 rubles (about $468) for the album. All 200,000 copies of the record's first pressing were sold within hours of its release.
Although Grebenshikov is an avowed fan of Gorbachev's, his enthusiasm for the new permissiveness of the Kremlin is tempered by understandable wariness "We didn't trust them before, we don't trust them now, and we won't trust them in the future," he says firmly. "I mean, who cares about trusting them?"
Grebenshikov's American odyssey began in January 1987, when he met Kenny Schaffer and Marina Albee, cofounders of Belka International, a company dedicated to promoting U.S.-Soviet relations. Schaffer, who invented the cordless microphone and was a publicist for Jimi Hendrix, was determined to find a world-class Soviet rocker to introduce to Western audiences. Grebenshikov immediately impressed him as the genuine article, although the Russian doubted that he could obtain a visa.
Yet the following December, after months of Byzantine negotiations between Soviet authorities and Belka, Grebenshikov was flown to New York and ushered into the palaces of the recording industry's leviathans. Armed with an acoustic guitar and old Aquarium tapes Grebenschikov made a particularly strong impression on Walter Yetnikoff, president of CBS Records. In fact, CBS was only one of five top records companies sufficiently intrigued by Grebenshikov's music, or perhaps by the timely concept of a Russian Dylan, to offer him recording contracts over the following month. In March, Grebenshikov signed his seventy-page CBS contract without a single paragraph change. Three months later recording began at New York's Hit Factory, with Dave Stewart producing.
"It was like a circus," says Grebenshikov of the sessions for Radio Silence. "We were trying to make an album, and we had a movie crew around us shooting all of this. I was trying to write songs while learning how to live over here."
Indeed, it's hard to imagine more difficult conditions for making an album. On top of the culture shock, the suffocating time constraints imposed by a Soviet exit visa (twenty-eight days) and the self-imposed burden of writing in English ("I just felt like doing it"), Grebenshikov also had to master the infinity choices presented by a multi-track Western studio and to cope with the intrusive presence of camera crews under the direction of the British filmmaker Michael Apted (28 Up, Gorillas in the Mist).
The resulting documentary The Long Way Home (made for Britain's Granada Television) offers a glimpse of Grebenshikov's struggle to absorb the barrage of musical and technical possibilities opening up to him while still holding fast to his own creative vision. Despite these obstacles, Radio Silence manages to preserve much of the spirit of Grebenshikov's Russian work. Although sometimes obscured by a sheen of Western-studio professionalism, Grebenshikov's passion and experimentalism come through in the urgent rockabilly of the title track, the winsomely Beatlesque melody of "Fields of My Love" and the joyous, incantatory choruses of "Mother" (featuring backup vocals by Annie Lenox and Chrissie Hynde). Even more impressive is the way Grebenshikov's English lyrics preserve the mixture of the surreal and the mystical for which his songs are famous in the Soviet Union ("Yes, I'm all right /I am a church/And I'm burning down").
Grebenshikov seems pleased with the way his American debut has come out but he's clearly eager to move on. "While we were recording it, people were to me, 'This is your big chance, you mustn't blow it"' " he says. "And I was saying, 'What the hell, it's just the first album. I'm just learning.'"