The Rooms Off Nevsky Prospect: A Decade in Aquarium
Author: Naomi Marcus
Source: The Village Voice
|1979: STONE ISLAND, BORIS' ROOM
Ten years ago, when I first met the
Leningrad band Aquarium, they had a great hideout/rehearsal space for an underground
Soviet rock group: Boris's rented room, across the lane from a school for deaf-mutes.
There, on Stone Island, 18 Birch Alley,
singer Boris Grebenshikov composed songs on the second floor of a wooden house that
featured a fireplace, and a donkey in the front yard. Both house and beast were equally
rare possessions in Leningrad, and both belonged to his friend of the tuneful name:
Falaleyev, the benevolent landlord and an Aquarium fan since the group formed in '75,
swore that his grandfather had gone to law school with Lenin, and that Lenin himself had
given grand-dad this Abe Lincoln-ish log cabin on one of Leningrad's most remote and
I didn't know anyone else in Leningrad who had a house. Everyone I knew lived in
squashed apartments or cramped rooms (or tenement-style dorms for foreigners like me, a
Russian-speaking exchange student). I figured the only possible way to have a house was to
have known Lenin. It made sense. Also, the thought that Lenin was providing a venue for
Soviet rock and roll was immensely appealing.
Boris was married to Natasha then, and they had an infant daughter, Liza. Natasha
visited Boris, but lived with her parents. There was no place for a baby in Boris's long
smoky salon, as it was usually brimming over loudly with people, music, and tea. Endless
cups of tea - it was like the Mad Hatter's out on Stone Island. Every new arrival, guest,
or musician would be greeted: "So, will you drink tea?" (a line that became the
title of one of Boris's more prosaic songs). With tea he offered Turkish delight and
lethal sugary nougats from Leningrad's popular confectionery: "Sweets of the
East." Friends came by for tea and stayed for days.
Boris was sunny. He played the guitar and looked like David Bowie. Seva was solemn. He
played the cello and looked like Christ. Diusha was a gentleman soldier. He played the
flute in Aquarium and in a military band (while finishing his two-year service in the
Soviet Army). Misha played the bass and was nicknamed "Fun". Once in a while
Guberman sat in on the drums, and Fagot would show up as well. (Fagot, ahem, is Russian
for bassoon, and that was his instrument and his nickname.) In '79 they were in their
mid-twenties, devoted to each other and to the Beatles, without ideology, money, or
Boris worked afternoons as a computer programmer. (He has a degree in applied
mathematics.) At night the band would meet on Stone Island to play. They could play all
night long; the closest neighbors were the deaf students. Natasha (grace among chaos)
would come and nurse Liza, whom Boris called "the littlest Rasta". This was
during his reggae period.
Stone Island was fine as long as it lasted, which wasn't long. Falaleyev, the
music-loving landlord, emigrated to America and the city authorities impounded his donkey.
The house went to his mother and aunt. They let Boris live out the summer of '79, then he
moved back into town.
The last time I heard Aquarium on Stone Island was that June under the dusky, lavender
skies of the White Nights. They played until the 3 a.m. twilight, when the sun dips
briefly below the horizon, then we went strolling through the island, among the birch
trees. I left my Frisbee there.
That December the Soviets went into Afghanistan. It wasn't a great year for Soviet rock
and roll. Though Boris and Co. loved Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead and Jethro Tull,
the young masses (at Leningrad State University's Saturday night dances, and in student
clubs throughout the land) were listening to ABBA, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin's
"Stairway to Heaven"; but the most popular song of all was this disco number
(sung in English) by Boney M:
Rah, Rah, Rasputin,
Russia's greatest love machine
He really knew how to get the job done!
Rah, Rah, Rasputin,
Lover of the Russian queen
There was a cat who really swung!
1979: THE INSTITUTE OF APPLIED MATHEMATICS
I had come from California to attend Leningrad State University, and, not only did I
hate the prevailing pop, I was seriously cold. Everyone kept assuring me that it was an
unusually icy winter, that there hadn't been temperatures so low since the winter that
froze Hitler's armies. That did not console me. I was living in a segregated dorm (for
students from capitalist societies only - the Cubans, Czechs, and Poles were correct and
civil, but who were mainly fulfilling their social obligations by consorting with the
enemy and reporting our activities. The season looked bleak in the kindred spirit
My luck changed during that freezing winter when I met Diusha, Aquarium's flutist. We
rode on an icicle-caked trolley to Stone Island for tea and sympathy, and then to one of
the band's first informal, intense concerts. Someone had a key to a lecture room at the
Institute for Applied Mathematics. Lenin busts to the right of us, Lenins to the left of
us. The room was draped in red bunting that bleated: THE PARTY IS THE MIND, THE HONOR, AND
THE CONSCIENCE OF THE PEOPLE. The lights were shut off, and the band played by
The audience was a beautiful assortment of long-haired young men and women in mufflers
and knit caps. They smoked furiously and listened with passionate attention. Boris was
singing then about rumors of flying saucers over the drab industrial town of Petrozavodsk:
"If I were a saucer/I wouldn't be caught dead over Petrozavodsk." He sang a love
song, "Why the Sky Doesn't Fall", and a beautiful anthem to Leningrad, "My
Heart Bears the Scent of Nevsky Prospekt".
We had gone in the front door and up the stairs like civilized concertgoers, but had to
leave through the windows when the night watchman came on. Though the concert was illegal,
it wasn't underground actually, but on the second floor. As hoarse Russian voices urged me
to hurry up and jump down into the snow, I realized I wasn't cut out for inaccessible art.
Nevertheless, the music that night was my first revelation about the Soviet Union.
The cellist Seva said, "For two years we had no real place to record or rehearse,
but we didn't worry about it. We just played wherever and whenever we could, because
someone or other was always being drafted into the army. First Misha, then Diusha, then
Aquarium gave free acoustic concerts in cafes, parks, factory recreation clubs, culture
palaces, institutes. They began recording homemade cassettes. They would even hit the road
sometimes (by proletarian train, the cheapest "hard-class" cars), playing at
Vyborg near the Finnish border, or south, in resort towns by the Black Sea. They rarely
went to Moscow, where it was harder to get away with state-threatening activities like
playing rock and roll. When I asked winsome Seva about girls and fans and possibilities,
he smiled mildly, "But we've got Misha for that sort of thing."
1980: VASSILY ISLAND, MISHA'S ROOM
After Stone Island, Aquarium headquartered themselves at Misha's, in his large room in
a communal apartment on Leningrad's Vassily Island. One of the attractions of this flat
was the wineshop below it. (Maybe that's why they called him Fun.) Sweet Georgian port had
replaced tea as the beverage of choice during rehearsals. Down the block a beer wagon
stopped. It dispensed hangover brew in the mornings for Misha and other desperate
neighbors, who would line up with their own glasses or pails. Or they would sweat out
their hangovers with a long morning in the local banya, the sauna where they'd beat each
other with birch branches.
At Misha's, noise was a big problem. His neighbors would pop out of their rooms to peer
down the gloomy communal corridor each time the doorbell or the communal phone rang. They
were furious at the shaggy, guitar-toting multitudes who sang in
Misha's room till early morning. These hooligans used the building's one bathroom,
didn't they? And they would even burn potatoes and cook mushroom soup in the overcrowded
kitchen. Misha's neighbor in the next room was a tough old drunk, in and out of jail, who
would pound on the wall with a frying pan until they appeased him with a bottle.
An ace schemer with ginger eyebrows, Misha was the most financially solvent of the
group, so it was natural to gather at his place. He had the best (Soviet made) stereo, and
a color TV. At one time he even owned a car, a Soviet-made Fiat that never went more than
a block or two at a time. He was always trying hard, against the odds, to achieve a
standard of gracious living. It was touching. Once, I brought him a Japanese tape
recorder. He looked at it, looked and looked at the delicate machine, and said, "God!
How, how ever, do our Soviet planes even get off the ground?" Besides designing
computer systems for the Leningrad Geological Institute, he made jeans at home on an old
pedal sewing machine and sold them for a handy price. He dressed well, and took his role
seriously as the heartthrob of Aquarium. (Maybe that's why they called him Fun.)
In 1980, when Aquarium played at the Tbilisi Rock Festival in Georgia, Misha danced on
stage with Boris. They writhed and twisted and did innocuous rock-festival things. Their
behavior was judged "scandalous" and "anti-Soviet" and letters were
sent to the Leningrad Party Committee accusing the band's members of being antisovietchiki
and Boris, the leader, of being the biggest antisovietchik of all. Upon returning to
Leningrad, he was thrown out of Komsomol (Communist Youth League), fired from his
programming job, and the group was banned from performing.
1981: SOFIA PEROVSKAYA STREET, BORIS AND LIUDA'S ROOM
Boris said, "The best thing that ever happened to me was when I lost my job. I was
free to make music all the time." To avoid the law, and the charge of
"parasitism" (i.e., unemployment, i.e. living off the state), the band took jobs
for a few hours a week.
Boris was a night watchman. Diusha, the flutist, sold watermelons at an outdoor stand.
Seva, the cellist, cut weeds along the railroad tracks. Misha, of the respectable income,
was still at the Geology Institute. I was a tour guide, impatiently tramping American
groups around Red Square, to the ballet, and through various czarist palaces. When the
tour hit Leningrad, I'd dump my charges into the ministering arms of Intourist and escape
to my friends, with all the loot I'd brought them from the world: pennywhistles, Jew's
harps, guitar strings, cowbells, maracas, Rolling Stones, Walkmans, crystals, Celestial
Seasonings teas, Jiffy Pop popcorn, songbooks, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (for Boris),
dried pineapples, and enough blank cassettes to sink a ship.
Boris left Natasha and moved in with Liuda, a lissome, sullen, green-eyed beauty who
for three years had been Seva's girlfriend. She had a small room in a communal apartment,
at the top of a steep eight-story staircase on Sofia Perovskaya Street, off Nevsky
Prospect. Boris and Liuda burrowed into that tiny hobbit shell of a room, filling it with
icons and mirrors, glass ornaments and beads, empty bottles of Bailey's cream sherry,
posters of Bob Marley, and paintings of Russian demons done by their friends. There was no
hot water, and no telephone, but they were at the center of town. And the view from their
roof, of blue canals and golden spires, was like a watercolor.
To get there, you tiptoed through the kitchen, nodding politely at the flat's other
inhabitants, as they fried eggs or ate jam while wearing housecoats and slippers.
("No English," Liuda warned me, "the neighbors called the police last month
because we had too many foreigners in our room"). Then you climbed on the radiator
and out the kitchen window. Bliss on the roof.
In the next seven years, Boris and Liuda gradually took over the kommunalka. Each time
I'd visit, I'd notice, they'd taken over yet another room. One more neighbor had bailed
out, had fled the Americans on the roof and the harmonicas in the kitchen. Boris had
managed to empty the place. One room became his writing studio, one room was devoted to
laundry, and another was a crashpad or, more urgently, a trysting place for whoever needed
it that night.
During that winter, they rehearsed at a friend's dacha (country home) on the Gulf of
Finland, outside Leningrad in the settlement called Solnechnoye. Dressed in shaggy fur,
they would take the electrichka (commuter train) laden with instruments and provisions,
tromp through the snowy streets, and play the night through. Boris remembers, "It was
Dima's dacha, and we used it mainly in winter, when no one with any sense was out there.
Dima is a lazy guy, and he never lit the fire. We'd arrive and he would be lying under
three blankets with ice on the windows, ice on the glasses, ice on his beard. It would
take us hours just to get the fire going and get warm enough to play."
Though banned from the stage, Aquarium was prolific on tape. Through an
engineer-friend, Tropillo, they had access to a recording studio at a Pioneer Palace (a
recreation club for kids). They recorded three albums that year: Triangle, The Blue Album,
Electricity. From the masters, they made 50 to 100 flimsy cassettes and cast them out on
the vast Soviet sea, like messages in a bottle. Boris's lyrics were taking on a steely
glint: "It's high time I found some peace/ I'm weary of being the ambassador of rock
in the country that can't feel the beat." (Young Punks)
And me, as I trekked around the country in and out of Aeroflot planes - how do they get
off the ground? - I was surprised to hear Aquarium's music on cassette decks in Irkutsk
(Siberia), Kharkov (Ukraine), and Samarkand (Central Asia). Those little tapes multiplied
Liuda, Boris's girl and Seva's ex, wore paisley and a rim of eye shadow around her
fiercely guarded , enormous eyes. She pouted because there was never any money.
Guberman, the drummer, left the group in a huff, and young, curly-haired Peter was on a
concentrated hunt for a foreign bride (the freedom railroad out of there), and he asked
for my help. I declined, but admired his hustle. Seva, the cellist, quit drinking, which
made his life considerably harder because he was often the only sober one in the room.
Then he quit smoking and gave up meat. He began to hear voices, in his state of heightened
purity, and he felt he could heal people. He began to talk, to everyone's alarm, about
giving up music.
1983: INSURRECTION STREET, SEVA'S ROOM
If Boris and Liuda's room was a hobbit hole, Seva's room was a chapel. He was becoming
pretty saintly himself. Seva lived on Insurrection Street near Insurrection Square and the
Insurrection Subway Station with his blind, widowed mother. His room was narrow, with one
window on the far wall, a light at the end of the tunnel. Along one wall was a couch for
guests; his place was opposite, an armchair. Between, there was a small round table for
the teapot and the snacks that Seva served: gingerbread, sliced cheese and raisins, beet
salad with sour cream, pickled cabbage, breadsticks. Crowds never gathered at Seva's, out
of respect for his mother, but he had intimate afternoon teas for a few good friends. The
godfather of at least three of the five children born to band members, Seva is beloved for
his gentleness and the fussy concern he lavishes over everyone.
"When we are all together, it's okay. That's fine for Seva," Boris said.
"He wants to have everyone together all the time. And he hates chaos."
Boris would drop by and try out songs with Seva, just the two of them in Seva's
sanctuary. They improvised while Seva's mother fluttered around them.
The band released a new cassette: Radio Africa, which includes "Tibetan
Tango" and "The Music of Silver Spokes Spinning." As Aquarium acquired
status and renown in Leningrad, Seva grew concerned over artistic standards. If rehearsals
were too chaotic for him, he would sullenly pack his gear and leave. (Dramatic exits
aren't easy when lugging a cello.) A hundred times he walked out, but he always came back.
1983: ROK KLUB
The Leningrad authorities recognized they had to do something to control the numbers of
rock and roll pick-up bands around town and the growing crowds who were gathering to
listen in impromptu settings. They designated an old downtown theater on Rubenstein Street
as the Club of Amateur Rock Bands. The Rok Klub, as it was familiarly called, was
permitted two blow-outs annually: the opening of the season concert in May, and the
closing of the season in October. All bands had to submit their songs to a censorship
committee beforehand. The concerts were called "festivals," though the
atmosphere was hardly festive. Gray-haired babushka ushers, frowning grannies in red
armbands, took tickets and checked coats. Police, in gray uniforms and black boots,
patrolled Rubenstein Street. Fans thronged the street, trying to buy extra tickets. A
let's-not-rock-the-boat atmosphere prevailed.
Aquarium, whom time had unbanned, was the town favorite. Liuda had dyed Boris's hair a
shiny gold, so it would glow on stage. He sang to rapt audiences in Leningrad, "This
town is Babylon. We are living in Babylon." (Babylon) The sound system crackled and
whined, the audiences rocked in their seats, and the babushkas scowled in the aisles.
1983: LENINGRAD AIRPORT
The komandir brigadaz (customs chief) personally gives me the going over whenever I fly
out. What does he think I'm going to try to take out: Faberge eggs? I'm suspect by
association with rock criminals.
He hands me my purse, as if it were a dirty sock. "Open, please." He removes
my Aquarium cassettes. "What is?" "Music." "Anti-Soviet
music?" "Certainly not." "We keep." "But why?" "We
1985: MOSCOW, THE APARTMENT CONCERTS
Boris was practically commuting on the Red Arrow night train between Leningrad and
Moscow, where things were loosening up and rock scenes percolating. He played around and
about the capital of the Motherland in disheveled, crowded living rooms, occasionally
bringing Misha along on bass, or Diusha on flute. Word of mouth brought the audience, who
congregated at the nearest subway station. Down on the train platforms, under the
chandeliers and stained-glass windows of Moscow's showcase subway, young people carrying
backpacks and records (signs of their tribe) drifted toward each other.
"You're going to hear him?" "Yeah." "You know where?"
"Not exactly." "I heard it's on Sadovaya Street."
In an atmosphere illicit and charged, Boris played by candlelight to quiet audiences on
the floor. Someone passed a hat. Someone brought him a bottle. Someone took care of
bribing the custodian, or the suspicious neighbors. If they were stopped on the street, or
in the elevators, the fans always said they were on their way to a birthday party, one of
the few accepted excuses for large gatherings.
"I always could sell a few cassettes in Moscow, but I sold them for seven rubles,
and they cost four rubles blank. Back home, I used to sit at the kitchen table and paste
Aquarium's photographs on empty cassette boxes. The biggest little label in the world.
Hah! What happened: I would arrive with no money, make enough for my train fare back, come
home with nothing."
Boris wore rings: garnet and moonstone and turquoise. They glinted in the dim light.
His voice had a fatigued quaver. He sang for hours without a break, without applause. In
the hothouse atmosphere of those jammed living rooms, no one clapped.
They were listening too hard. They sighed deeply at certain lyrics, including the
relentlessly unrepentant "Steel".
Here, they've developed the fine art
Of staring out windows and jotting down the names
Of all those who aren't sleeping
If you are not guilty, then who's the one to blame?
The main thing is to be the first one there
With your confession.
And when Aleksander Sergeevich [Pushkin]
Wandered mistakenly into this house,
With his torn and bleeding mouth
They crucified him
They mistook him for Christ
And discovered the error a day later.
That spring, Boris was invited to play a solo set at a concert of Moscow bands. The
word went out in the street. This was not soulful, elegant Leningrad, but raggle-taggle,
mix-'em-up Moscow. The crowd was enormous and excited: a chance to see the man behind the
tapes. When he arrived, he was told that Moscow authorities had canceled the whole
concert, rather than allow Boris to take the stage. "It was the best concert I never
got to play! All the ticket holders came, plus hundreds more who were hoping to squeeze
in. I was mobbed. I signed autographs and answered questions about my music, and I
couldn't get out of the building. The poet Voznesensky was there. I've had many concerts
get canceled on me, but this was the best!"
1985: DIUSHA'S ROOM
Aquarium had expanded to include a violinist, two conservatory students. The group had
become, as Boris put it, "not simply a band, but a way of life." Unfortunately,
that life was wearing thin. Diusha, the flutist, had been diagnosed with a chronic disease
and was on a small disability pension. He married Galina and moved into her one-room
apartment, with the bathtub in the kitchen. That wasn't such a terrible thing in itself;
when friends came over they would perch like pigeons on the tub's rim, and flip their
cigarette ashes down the drain. Galina roasted a goose for everyone at New Year's,
stepping gracefully around the bathtub and the hungry musicians.
But, generally, there was no money, and it was hard to survive. In fact, with the
exception of Peter the drummer, and Seva the cellist, everyone had picked up kids and
wives along the way, and you couldn't feed them or clothe them on underground glory. They
were stars with all the hassles and none of the privileges.
Though this was the first year they were allowed honorariums for their music, each of
them only got 18 to 25 rubles a concert. In 1985, 18 rubles bought three bottles of vodka,
or one month's rent in a communal apartment (including utilities), or two kilos of
strawberries in the expensive private farmers' markets. Big deal.
Boris, meanwhile, asked for hours and hours each week of rehearsal time. As Aquarium's
fame spread, he demanded more devotion and professionalism. The band recorded two more
albums on cassettes: Children of December and The Day of Silver. Reader polls in youth
newspapers attested to the popularity of those albums, even though, paradoxically, they
didn't exist officially. One of the loveliest ballads from Day of Silver is "Until
the Jazz Begins":
At the trolleybus depot, they've been dancing for five days.
Laughing gas is spilling out from the kitchen faucets.
Pensioners in the trolleys are at the trolleybus depot.
They've been discussing Star Wars.
Be with me.
Shelter me, until the jazz begins.
In 1985, the year Mikhail Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Communist
Party, the authorities stopped paying so much attention Aquarium. Boris was no longer
summoned by the Leningrad KGB. They had dealt with him in the manner of stern probation
officers, reprimanding the wayward bad boy. They would ask why he was leading the youth of
the Soviet Union astray, and suggest that it was in his interest to stop.
"We had to submit our songs to a sort of censorship committee," Boris said.
"Then, before one concert at the Rok Klub, no one came to check us. Well! So we
played everything we wanted to. Nothing happened to us. No scandal. No outrage. So, we
never submitted our programs t the censors after that."
1986 - 1987: LENINGRAD, THE HOUSE OF SHASHLIKS
Joanna Stingray, an aspiring singer from Los Angeles, traveled in the Soviet Union
during the mid-1980s. She met Aquarium and was so impressed with their music that in 1986
she smuggled out their cassettes, as well as those of three other Leningrad bands. Back in
the United States, she released an LP of selected songs, "Red Wave: Four Underground
Bands From the USSR," essentially Aquarium's U.S. debut. The Soviets were mad. For
over a year, they refused Stingray a visa to go back and marry her Leningrad fiance.
"When Joanna released Red Wave in America," Boris said in January '87,
"finally Melodiya [the Soviet recording monopoly] had to answer. First, because of
the publicity Red Wave was getting in the West, and secondly - because of all this
perestroika, they had to get money. Melodiya had to produce something that would sell.
After years of ignoring us, years, they took our old tapes of Children of December and Day
of Silver, and they released an album of songs from both. I went to Moscow and I begged
them: let me remix those old tapes. No, no budget, they said Can I put new material on the
album? No budget for studio time, they said. So, the album went out and I hated it."
The album, called "Aquarium," sold out almost immediately. A friend of
Boris's designed the cover, elegantly simple, white with a blue border. Andrei Voznesensky
wrote the liner notes. Peter, the drummer, was courting a secretary from the West German
consulate at the time the album came out. He thought it would impress her that he was the
famous drummer from the famous band Aquarium, with a hit record out on that famous label
"When the record came out," Peter said, "We had to stand in line at the
state record stores along with everyone else, just to get a copy of our own album. I mean,
we didn't even get one complimentary copy to give our friends and families. OK, so none of
us got even a kopek out of it, so what else was new?"
To earn money, Peter worked nights drumming in a restaurant band at the House of
Shashliks, a working-class greasy spoon. The menu consisted of ethnic specialties from the
East: gristly lamb shish kebabs with prunes, Georgian flat bread called lavash, and a
black bean and garlic dish called lobio. People came to drink and dance, wisely ignoring
the food. The band dished up equally indigestible requests: sentimental, dreary Soviet pop
ballads, and patriotic songs in lugubrious rhythms. Peter went off to work every evening
like a condemned man. He thought the album would free him, but he was wrong. He made more
money in a night at the House of Shashliks than he got for the record.
Melodiya owed Aquarium nothing. The guys were not in the union of composers. They were
an amateur band, whose illegal basement tapes had been benevolently pressed by the state
record label. The only one who made any money was Boris; he received 8000 rubles for
author's copyrights. Melodiya cleaned up. Boris said Melodiya told him the album sold
almost two million copies at three rubles each.
1987: LENIINGRAD, CENTRAL RAILWAY STATION
Aquarium went by train in late autumn to play several concerts in Moscow. Their music
was now being played on radio and television across the 11 time zones of the USSR, and
they had scored two popular Soviet films. Boris wore a cowboy hat and had taken to saying,
in English, "Make my day." Following his meeting an American named Ken Schaffer,
talk arose of going to America.
Misha of the ginger eyebrows was replaced by a more competent bassist, so he took to
smoking a pipe, wearing natty jackets, and calling himself the group's manager. Misha set
up concerts, told the others what time to be at the station, found places to stay, and
made the financial arrangements.
In the November frost, they stood on the platform at midnight with their instruments
piled around them, counting up crumpled ruble notes while their breath ballooned under the
neon glow of the station lights. Among them they barely came up with enough for the
hard-class seats, overnight Leningrad-Moscow. That meant sitting up all night on freezing
benches and arriving exhausted with stuffy noses and throats. Soviet stardom. In Moscow
they dispersed to various friends' couches and floors. They played at the theater attached
to a Policeman's Union Hall, next to a prison.
Another tour took them to the industrial city of Perm, near the Ural Mountains. They
flew on Aeroflot, and were welcomed by the best that Perm had to offer: savory fish pies
and the finest steam bathhouse in the city. They were supplied with endless bottles of
vodka and, according to Seva the sober cellist, "played eight concerts all stoned
drunk. I had to pour them from the hotel onto the bus, pour them onstage, and put their
instruments into their hands. Perm!"
1987: LENINGRAD, CAPELLA RECORDING STUDIO
Melodiya commissioned a new album, their first to be recorded and mixed in a legitimate
studio. Aquarium was given only four hours a day of studio time, on alternate days. The
assigned engineer was used to choirs and chorales. He was unable to cope with Aquarium.
The album, "Equinox," took months to complete, because of their limited access.
The studio environment was almost as chaotic as their sold-out concerts had become. Fans
crowded the unmonitored doors - no guest list, no security. Boris was frequently
exasperated, Seva frequently high-strung, the others alternately bored and irritable. One
afternoon they recorded "Partisans":
There go the partisans,
By the light of the full moon.
There they go. Let them go! My place is here.
There go the partisans
In the light of the underground moon,
Let them go, my place is here!
They tried a four-part harmony and it wasn't working. Seva had a fit. "How can
you, how can you expect us to do it without enough rehearsal time?" he screeched at
Boris and rushed from the studio out onto the bridge over Griboyedov Canal. The rest piled
out and joined him in the early afternoon's winter dusk. They smoked acrid White Sea
cigarettes while pacing in the cold. Boris and Seva arrived at some rapprochement and
decided to walk through the streets to Boris's for tea.
The others dispersed to wives, newborns, and the daily shopping ordeal. At this hour
the trams and trolleys were packed. Holding their instruments above their heads and
surefooted from years of lugging burdens around on public transit, they jumped from
snowdrifts onto moving buses. As state-appointed "cultural workers," they were
now free from having to hold down outside jobs, but there was so little money coming in
that they all still depended on in-laws, parents, wives, and occasional kindness of
That December Boris flew to New York, where Ken Schaffer, had worked out a recording
contract with CBS Records.
1987: LENINGRAD, BORIS AND LIUDA'S ROOM
Graffiti had grown like ivy on the walls of the urine-scented stairwell that winds up
eight flights to Boris and Liuda's. Pilgrims from all over the Soviet Union had chalked
billets-doux, love notes, in wild colors to Boris and Aquarium. His address was known. No
one protected him, not even a buzzer system in the long-condemned apartment building. On
the second floor, in pink: "Boris, we await you in Voronezh!" On the fourth, in
huge blue ornate letters: "Bob! You are God! You are ours, Bob!" Sixth floor, in
crimson: "Glory to Seva!" There were usually a couple of intrepid fans camped on
the stairs. Liuda growled at them when she struggled by with her baby and his stroller.
Motherhood hadn't softened Liuda. Her beautiful face had settled into a grimace. The
guys in the band stayed clear. "When Boris went to America," Liuda said,
"all of a sudden our apartment was quiet as a grave. No one came over to see me, no
one at all, except Seva once to check on me. It was as if I didn't exist without Boris
there. Everyone had said - don't worry, we'll stop by, we'll take care of you. We'll help
with the shopping. Don't worry, Liuda, don't worry - and then when he was gone:
Crosby Stills & Nash heard Aquarium on a visit to the USSR and invited them to play
in Montreal, at the June conference of the International Physicians for the Prevention of
Nuclear War. It was Aquarium's first trip beyond Soviet borders. Their way had been paid,
but they earned nothing since it was, after all, a benefit. They played a couple of
numbers with Bruce Cockburn and French-Canadian Michel Rivard. They sang "Teach Your
Children" with CS& N, and they did 40-minute set in Russian.
They were a huge hit with the 15,000 in the hockey arena. They exercised their English
on TV talk shows, and the newspaper reviews were filled with praise: "Imagine a
reggae band with cello, flute, and violin, or a British folk-rock group loose in the
Russian steppes, and you've an idea of Aquarium's ultimately original style. In Boris
Grebenshikov, the band has a full-blown rock star," read The Montreal Gazette.
They spent their three week after the benefit concert doing Western stuff: eating
Chinese food, tasting kiwis and papayas, going to jazz joints and rock clubs. They avoided
window-shopping, however, because, beyond the short stipend Kenny had worked out, it was
so damn frustrating.
"This is a stupid situation we're in," said Misha, the manager. He was
helpless. The ruble wasn't convertible, so they had no currency beyond their dinky per
diem. Riusha, the young conservatory violinist who couldn't stop eating bananas and
pineapples, wanted to try his luck playing Bach and Vivaldi on the streets, but a stern
Seva said such busking would "cheapen them, cheapen the image of Aquarium" and
persuaded him not to. Riusha disappointedly left his violin in his room.
Sasha, the bass player, spent his money on cosmetics for his wife, and exotic alcoholic
fruit drinks for himself. Peter the drummer wandered around in a daze. He went to a strip
club and afterwards told the others how tasteful it was. Really, "you can't imagine,
it wasn't pornography at all. It was very lovely."
Misha bought computer software and realized how much money a computer specialist could
make in the West. Slava, their wraith-thin, cross-eyed sound man, had spent his expense
money on camping equipment. He set up his tent in his hotel room, opened a bottle of
Stolichnaya, built a campfire, and roasted a few potatoes. The fire alarm system went off.
He was ready to go home. Boris gave press conferences, in fluent English, together with
Nobel Peace Prize winners Dr. Bernard Lown and Eugene Chazov.
Seva, to his delight, was given a bicycle, and he rode around the beautiful Montreal
parks and discovered all the choices a Western vegetarian has.
After Montreal, Boris spent the summer recording in America. Then, in the fall, he
returned to Leningrad saying, "I have to go home. My guys are starving. I'm going
back so we can do a bunch of concerts and make them some money." Throughout the
autumn they played all over the USSR: Voronezh, Kiev, Kalinin, Moscow, Tashkent.
In Leningrad in November, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics (who produced Boris for his CBS
album) and other Western musicians joined Aquarium onstage for two concerts. There were
standing ovations for both shows, but longtime fans were not impressed. They felt that
Aquarium had grown soft. Afterwards, Boris decided the era was over. He renamed the group
the New Abyssinian Orchestra. They quarreled. They made up. They planned a tour to America
in the Spring.
1989: LENINGRAD, NEW YORK
For the first time in their lives Aquarium had so much money (from the '88 fall tour)
that the guys could afford unthinkable luxuries, like travel abroad. In December Seva came
to New York on a private visit to see friends. "This trip is a like a dividing line
in my life. I need to think about everything that's happened. I don't think I can play
with Boris anymore. Aquarium doesn't exist anymore. I have to find something else."
In late June, Boris Grebenshikov's solo album, "Radio Silence," was released
on CBS records. Sasha plays bass on most cuts, Seva and three other members play on one.
Americans and Western Europeans fill out the rest of the studio band. Two songs were in
Russian, the other eight written and sung in English.
The first rock music I heard was the Beatles," recalls Boris Grebenshikov, perhaps
the single most popular rock singer in the Soviet Union today. "I was wildly excited
at the thought that young people had created something so powerful, so beautiful, so
magical. I couldnt believe it was possible. "In our country, no one had the
freedom to make sounds like that, and especially not the youth," he says. We
couldnt express ourselves at all; we were told what to do. And suddenly, over the Voice
of America a U.S. government short-wave radio station broadcasting from Washington, D.C. ,
came these unbelievable sounds. It changed my life, and the lives of my friends,
ACT OF DISSENT
In 1979, when I met Grebenshikov in his hometown, Leningrad, he had been leading his
band, Aquarium, for five years. The strain was showing. Playing rock music in the Soviet
Union back then was an act of dissent, a nervy and courageous risk. It made folk heroes of
an unlikely set of folk: musicians who wanted nothing more than to be left alone to
compose and play the kind of music that reached them over the international radio waves,
and through tapes and records brought in by foreign tourists and students (like me).
While Communist party authorities banned rock groups from theater stages and recording
studios, Grebenshikov and fellow rockers all over the country kept the music alive by
recording their songs at home on flimsy cassette recorders, and then distributing the
cassettes for free. People would record them over and over, and the music moved around the
country this way.
But the more recognized and popular homegrown Soviet rock became, the worse things got
for its creators. Because it was new, different, and out of control, it was a threat to
the Communist partys tight control over its people and their arts. In the late 70s
and early 80s, Grebenshikov was regularly summoned for meetings with the KGB secret
police , in which they would ask why he insisted on leading the youth of the Soviet Union
astray with his bizarre music, his "foggy and puzzling lyrics. " They warned him
to stop his free, impromptu performances in parks, and told him things could go badly for
him if he persisted.
Rock musicians were being harassed to an even worse degree in other Soviet-bloc
countries.In Czechoslovakia, the leader of the popular underground rock band The Plastic
People, saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec, was imprisoned in Prague for corrupting"
Czechoslovak youth with his music. In Czechoslovakia, in the late 70s, there was physical
danger to the members of The Plastic People. They were repeatedly beaten and interrogated.
THE RIGHT TO PLAY
The irony for these musicians is that most of them were completely uninterested in
politics. They were not trying to foment revolution or change the established order. But
against their will, and in spite of their insistence that they were apolitical, they were
thrust into political roles as they fought for the right of their music to exist.
Grebenshikov says of that time, "To me the music was this thing of immense beauty
that brought me happiness. I didnt want to fight the KGB, I didnt need that
headache, I just wanted to play."
In 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power two years, the harassment of Soviet
rock musicians stopped-a direct result of Gorbachevs policy of glasnost, or
"openness." They were allowed to play small, informal concerts. In 1987,
Grebenshikov and Aquarium were invited to play with Crosby, Stills, and Nash in Moscow, at
a concert for the prevention of nuclear war. They jammed together, performed together, and
became close friends.
MUSIC IS POWER
One evening in Moscow, the American and Russian rockers gathered in a hotel room to
talk. Grebenshikov recalls that night: "We discussed the question of whether music
could really change things, could make the difference between peace and war, or could
rouse people to fight hunger and social injustice.
Naturally, being from the Soviet Union, I said no, that music couldnt change
anything. Graham Nash and Stephen Stills disagreed; they said music was power and could
move people to action.
"I went home to Leningrad and wrote This Trains on Fire, the most openly
political song I ever wrote up to then, about the changes happening in my country. Not
only did I not get arrested, but that was the year that we got our first official record
contract on the state record label, Melodiya. "
Here in 1990, it is hard to recall what it was like back then, during the bad times.
With the democracy movement sweeping Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. , Soviet and Eastern
European rock bands are performing to great acclaim in huge sports stadiums and concert
halls throughout their own countries, as well as in Western Europe and America.
Czechoslovakias much-persecuted The Plastic People (renamed Pulnoc, or
"Midnight") had a triumphant American tour last year, during which an
influential New York music critic called their debut one of the most significant concerts
of the past decade. All over the Soviet bloc, as the walls crash down and the dictators
are removed, the music is blaring.
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