Simply BG. Был ли русский рок?

В октябре в галерее MacDougall прошла выставка картин Бориса Гребенщикова. Financal Times опубликовала большое интервью с БГ и любопытный материал, посвященный культовому рокеру, а скорее - той эпохе, которую он символизирует


"Русский Боб Дилан" - так называет Бориса Гребенщикова журналист FT Людовик Хантер-Тилней. Гребенщиков - возведенный в культ в России, но неизвестный на Западе - предстает здесь не просто кумиром рока, но прежде всего революционером от музыки. Хотя эту роль БГ тут же отрицает: "Первый раз я вышел на сцену в составе школьной музыкальной группы, чтобы произвести впечатление на девочек... Я просто хотел делать то, что хотел".

Не сомневаемся, что именно с этой целью на сцену впервые выходили и Боб Дилан, и Битлз, и многие другие... Но им и советским рокерам предстояло сыграть разные роли в истории. И если английский рок "жив", то российского давно уже не стало. Почему же?  

Все дело в том, что времена расцвета Гребенщикова - период советского застоя, когда рок-музыка действительно была чем-то революционным и запрещенным. Пластинки передавали тайно, билеты на подпольные концерты покупать было просто опасно. Песни БГ и других андеграундных музыкантов были наполнены философским смыслом. Их предназначение было не в том, чтобы развлекать, а в том, чтобы передавать в музыкальной форме те идеи, которые в советское время было невозможно выразить напрямую.

Поэтому вполне логично, что в 90-е, после перестройки, рок-музыка вдруг оказалась в кризисе - по словам Артемия Троицкого, с падением советской власти не осталось вещей, против которых нужно было протестовать. И андеграунд, бывший рупором этого протеста, в какой-то мере потерял смысл. Как ни банально, но советский рок был не предназначен для того, чтобы под него танцевали и веселились. И это его принципиальное отличие от английского рока, который хотя и выражал протест (знаменитое "make love not war"), но не был его порождением. Показательно, что Гребенщиков пробовал "завоевать Запад", выпустив англоязычный альбом Radio Silence в 1989 году, который известности ему так и не принес.

Сегодня рок-музыка в России и вовсе не востребована - "балом правят" эстрада и поп, востребованные исключительно на территории своей страны.  Сегодня, как бы это иронично ни звучало, единственной группой, прославившейся за пределами России, стали Pussy Riot - и вовсе не благодаря своим музыкальным достоинствам. Единственной современной звездой рока уже лет 15 остается Земфира, но она скорее феноменальное исключение из правил.

Но, несмотря ни на что, Борис Гребенщиков по-прежнему остается идолом - и останется им навсегда. "Если б мир был старше на тысячу лет, он не смог бы тебя прочесть...."



Interview: Russian singer-songwriter Boris Grebenshikov

Text: Ludovic Hunter-Tilney


Thirty years after Bob Dylan paid a visit to Moscow to perform some of his songs, a singer-songwriter known as the “Russian Dylan” turned up in London for a gig. Boris Grebenshikov, leader of rock band Aquarium, had travelled over for an exhibition of his paintings in a West End gallery. For its launch last month, he played an acoustic set to an almost exclusively Russian audience. Unlike Dylan in 1985, who spent most of his time in the USSR looking bored and saying nothing, Grebenshikov was witty and courteous. Not a word of English was uttered.

Grebenshikov, 61, is hardly known outside the Russian-speaking world. But in his homeland the St Petersburg musician is lionised. Known simply as “BG”, he is one of the leading lights of Russian rock, a scene that provided the soundtrack to the fall of the USSR at the beginning of the 1990s — but which has subsequently waned with the lifting of the restrictions it once chafed against.

Sitting in MacDougall’s gallery before his gig, Grebenshikov, with his sunglasses, denim waistcoat and chunky silver signet ring, looks like he might have motored over from his homeland on a Harley-Davidson. The paintings surrounding us are colourful landscapes with spiritual themes, which he sells to finance his music. Despite a reputation for bardic mysticism, his manner is down-to-earth. High-flown notions of Soviet-era rock as a noble act of political dissidence are instantly disabused.

“That is total bullshit. It never was like that,” he says in English. “I remember the first time I ever went on stage, it was with a school band and all I was interested in was how to be happy and pull girls. Not even pull girls! Just impress them. Impress your friends and yourself by doing this beautiful thing, which is for some reason banned in the country where I live. Do I care about this? No. I’m going to do what I want to do.”

He formed Aquarium in 1972 while studying applied mathematics at university. (“I went only because I had to dodge the army somehow,” he recalls.) The band developed from acoustic Dylanesque beginnings into a Grateful Dead-style outfit, playing lengthy prog rock and folk rock jams at illicit gigs in private flats.

They were part of the Soviet hippy scene, a tamer version of the western counterculture. Drugs were rare, with fortified wine as the favoured intoxicant. Each summer shaggy-haired youths flocked to Crimea for beach parties — a “Soviet California”, in the description of influential rock critic Artemy Troitsky, a key advocate of the music during the Soviet years.

Western albums circulated as black-market recordings on reel-to-reel tapes, packaged with a cover to look like a proper LP. In contrast to jazz, banned in the early 1950s during a Stalinist assault on “cosmopolitanism”, rock was not technically outlawed. But bands faced severe restrictions.

Soviet bureaucracy placed musicians into “amateur” and “professional” categories. As amateurs, rock bands were denied the chance to play ticketed concerts or make recordings. Police broke up clandestine gigs. A few favoured acts were given professional status — a band called Pesniary toured the US in 1976, the same year the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band became the first US band to tour the USSR — but the majority of groups were driven underground.

“Soviet Russia was unfortunately not a place where life was taking its due course,” Grebenshikov says. “There were a lot of obstacles to living normally. It’s like your blood is not circulating in a normal way. Music was just an attempt to make it function normally.”

Repressive measures against rock musicians intensified in the early 1980s as the decrepit Soviet regime tried to shore up its power. That period also witnessed a flowering of rock music. With the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost, conditions eased. In 1987, Aquarium were allowed to release an album on the state-run record label Melodiya. It sold more than 1m copies.

Other underground rock bands such as Time Machine, Kino and Alisa also went mainstream in the late 1980s. Styles varied from hard rock to reggae; the main difference from western models was the importance attached to lyrics. (Dylan, during his 1985 visit, was introduced to his Moscow audience as a “singing poet”.)

Grebenshikov is especially renowned as a lyricist. “There are lots of riddles and mystical allusions, musical allusions, allusions to Chinese philosophy, Buddhism, Hinduism. All of this is very skilfully woven together,” says author and arts broadcaster Alexander Kan. Influences range from Tolkien to Dostoyevsky, referred to by Grebenshikov as “the great one”.

Aquarium’s song “This Train’s on Fire” was informally adopted as a glasnost anthem: a Tolstoy-inspired tale of endless warfare that worked at a metaphorical, suggestive level rather than trafficking in crude slogans. “If we want to have a home to return to,” Grebenshikov sang enigmatically, “now is the time to return.”

The decline of Soviet power represented the high watermark of Russian rock. But the triumph foretold a slump.

“Russian rock was hit by a severe crisis at the end of the 1980s,” says Artemy Troitsky. “Suddenly there was nothing to protest about. Another blow was that part of its audience became a little tired of this music, which wasn’t fun. You can’t really dance to Russian rock — it’s more about philosophy than entertainment.”

In 1989, Grebenshikov released an English-language album, Radio Silence, produced by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and released by Columbia Records, Dylan’s label. But his attempt to become an international star flopped.

He has continued releasing records in Russia, both under his own name and with Aquarium, who are about to record a new album. But new generations of Russian rockers have failed to follow in his or his peers’ footsteps.

The main genres in the Russian charts today are dance-pop and hip-hop, by western and Russian acts. One of the biggest young stars is a pop singer called Nyusha, product of an American Idol-style TV talent show.

There were lots of obstacles to living normally [in the USSR]. Music was an attempt to make it functionTweet this quote

Although new record labels sprung up in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR, they have been badly hit by digital piracy and recession. “Right now Russia is back to a prehistoric state with very few record labels,” says Troitsky. This year streaming service Spotify shelved plans to launch in Russia, while international artists have been put off touring by repressive laws and the plummeting value of the rouble.

Ironically, the most globally celebrated Russian band isn’t really a band at all. Pussy Riot are a radical performance art collective who have never officially released a record. “Most Russian rock musicians hate Pussy Riot,” says Troitsky. “Partly this is envy, because Pussy Riot, without even being musicians, have become more famous than any of the others.”

Pussy Riot are not alone in protesting at the return to authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin. Time Machine’s singer Andrei Makarevich, a figure of comparable standing to Grebenshikov in Russia, was denounced by a pro-Kremlin TV channel as a fascist sympathiser when he played a benefit gig for refugee children in Ukraine last year. And rock singer Zemfira — one of the few next-generation successors to the old guard — was dropped by promoters after waving a Ukrainian flag at a gig.

Grebenshikov’s position is characteristically oblique. He was criticised for accepting a Kremlin honour in 2003 but last year released a song attacking military involvement in Ukraine. Asked about his feelings of Russianness, his response is worthy of Dylan at his most elusive: “This is the question of asking the fish about the water.”

“I think it’s a very big temptation for a lot of [famous] people to go, ‘Oh people are listening to me! Let me tell them what I think’,” he says. “I’ve seen one very popular musician in Russia cornering some Kremlin personages and teaching them how to live and I was like” — he mimes a cringe — “please no, this is stupid. Even when [American rock star] Michael Stipe goes, ‘Vote for this, vote for that’, come on! Let people decide whom they’re going to vote for. I’m not taking a stand, I’m just trying to behave normally.”