Let Freedom Rock

Author: Naomi Marcus
Source: Scholastic Update
Date: May 18, 1990

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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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, forever."

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 party’s 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 didn’t want to fight the KGB, I didn’t 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 Gorbachev’s 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 couldn’t 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 Train’s 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."

Great Acclaim

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.

Czechoslovakia’s 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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