|Rock and roll has been glibly referred to as an international language, but at Boris
Grebenshikovs 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 Unions premiere rock star, and has been called "the Russian
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 nights 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 U2s Bono, and
one of that singers primary influences, Jim Morrison of the Doors. Such Western
influences shouldnt be surprising - the music of Marshall McLuhans "global
village" has long been rock and roll - nor do they conspire to make Grebenshikov
simply a cultural oddity. Hes learned his lessons well, sings with assurance and has
fashioned an English-language repertoire thats 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. Grebenshikovs 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 Im all right/ I am a church /And Im 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 Grebenshikovs 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 Reeds "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, theres
no ignoring the cultural calculation that is inherent in this hands-across-the-curtain
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 homelands 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 its the Russians 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.