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Lost in Translation

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Boris Grebenshikov

at Park West, April 24

By Julia Barton

"Ona moya drama--shto ya mogu skazat' bolshye?"

It's one of the rare moments in Michael Apted's documentary The Long Way Home when the subject of the film--Russian rock star Boris Grebenshikov--actually says something in Russian. He's singing in a London studio with the man who was to catapult him to Western fame, Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. Grebenshikov's tenor voice is smoky but sweet: Ona moya drama.

"It's quite hypnotic hearing the Russian language," Stewart remarks, "because I don't understand every word that you're singing, so I kind of drift off and it sounds like someone singing backwards."

"I think lots of rock 'n' roll should be in a foreign language," Grebenshikov replies. "Like mantra." But the song "She Is My Drama" never made it onto the album they were recording, Radio Silence.

That was 1989, when perestroika was rock's flavor of the month and Boris Grebenshikov was its main ingredient. Long-haired and lanky, arrogant but undeniably talented, the Leningrad singer was a natural object for the West's affections. Plus he had street cred most established rockers sorely lacked: he had spent most of his life being illegal.

Inspired by smuggled-in recordings of the Beatles and Bob Dylan--and by his own desire for meaning beyond the Soviet Union's next five-year plan, Grebenshikov had been making his own rock music since the early 1970s. He and an amorphous group of friends who called themselves Aquarium performed impromptu concerts in apartments and warehouses. Tapes of their work were passed hand to hand across the country's 11 time zones. The KGB regularly hauled Grebenshikov in to question him about drug use and his "foggy" lyrics, and he eventually lost a university job teaching applied mathematics. But his underground fame grew by leaps and bounds as people turned to his obscure yet optimistic songs for some perspective on Soviet life. In Grebenshikov's songs, the soul was an "electric dog" sinking its teeth into communal apartment walls, and the long February of Brezhnev's rule was "only our dance at the edge of spring."

But those songs were all sung "backwards." Though some of Aquarium's songs had been smuggled abroad on the 1986 compilation Red Wave, what seemed to ensure Grebenshikov's success in the West was his near perfect fluency in English. Backed by some well-meaning Americans who'd "discovered" him, by CBS Records, and ultimately by the cash-hungry openness of glasnost, Grebenshikov decided to record Radio Silence in the language of his rock 'n' roll idols. What happened to him afterward remains a cautionary tale for any foreign star who hopes to ride his steed down Main Street USA.

The first time Grebenshikov played in Chicago, it was at Park West, in promotion of Radio Silence. CBS had told most of the members of Aquarium to stay home, but Grebenshikov forged ahead with the tour, which caused great bitterness in Russia and broke up the band. In its place, Grebenshikov had hype. He fielded calls from People, exhaled clouds of nicotine in New York magazine, and posed for Rolling Stone, which asked, "Is Boris Good Enough?"

Sadly, the answer was "not quite." Able to express everything from sarcasm to hope to despair in a single word of his native tongue, Grebenshikov's voice was now lost in a din of synthesizers. His English lyrics were mostly about the distress of traveling, with a few references to King Arthur thrown in for no apparent reason. The occasional moments of real poetry and talent on Radio Silence only made this all the more disconcerting. At home, Grebenshikov was seen as a traitor; abroad, he was hardly a temptation to the Great Oversaturated American. Park West was only about two-thirds full that night.

Last Friday, Grebenshikov returned to Park West for the start of his third American tour. He managed to draw a crowd of roughly the same size as his first visit--but this time he did it without a single ad or mention in the Chicago press. Thanks to the fall of communism, there are now enough Russians scattered around the globe to fill almost any medium-size hall Grebenshikov cares to play. His Chicago fans ranged from old men in polyester suits to teenage girls in J. Crew miniskirts. "Borya!" they screamed at every interval between songs. During his three encores, Grebenshikov sang the quirky anthems he'd penned for them in darker times, like "Zheleznadorozhnaya Voda" ("Railroad Water"), a simple, Dylan-esque song off Aquarium's 1981 Blue Album about aging without growing apathetic:

Dai mnye napit'sya zheleznadorozhnye vodi

Dai mnye napit'sya zheleznadorozhnye vodi

Mnye nravitsya letom tem, shto letom tyeplo,

Zima mnye mila tem, shto zamerzlo styeklo.

Menya nye vidno v okno i snyeg zamel sledi

(Let me drink plenty of railroad water again.

Let me drink plenty of railroad water again.

I like summertime 'cause it's sunny and warm.

The winter is good at window patterns and storms.

I can't be seen behind glass and snow has covered all tracks.)

Backstage before the concert, now 44 and still smoking, Grebenshikov suppressed a cough with black coffee. He looked older and wiser than in the press photos of 1989--though he's chopped off all his hair and dyed the fuzz blue. He had only wry dismissals for questions about his "circus" days with CBS, but warmed up when asked what he did next: he went back to Russia for a visit and ended up staying to produce some of the best work of his career.

"I just looked around me, and songs started pouring out," he said. "And then I forgot all about this American track."

Starting with 1991's Russian Album, Grebenshikov churned out all the haunting, poetic music his countrymen could ask for. Using guitar, accordion, violin, and oboe (and a few psychedelic Beatles motifs), he composed dark, metaphoric songs about wolves, stars, and horses. But against a subdued acoustic background, Grebenshikov's voice has a beauty and intensity that transcends language. These albums of the early 90s would be most likely to appeal to adventurous listeners in the West--but here they're only available, like most of Grebenshikov's music, by mail order, as pirate cassettes in Russian-language bookstores, or via the Web (try www.planetaquarium.com/english).

Always restless, Grebenshikov has now declared his "folk" period over, and he's turned back to the West. Although his latest album, last year's Lilith, is entirely in Russian, he recorded it with members of the Band, solidifying all those Dylan comparisons. The result, to these ears, is competent but not transcendent. These ears, however, have not been the target of Grebenshikov's music for a long time.

"It's clear to me that Americans don't have ears for anything that's not in an American language," he said, plucking his guitar backstage. Then he went out into the spotlight, where he didn't have to speak a word of English the rest of the night.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Dorothy Perry.

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