Aquarium — Russian rock mystery (Part 1)

Total misunderstanding

The mythology of the Russian rock-band «Aquarium» ascribes to Boris Grebenshchikov and his team two exploits: undermining the foundations of Soviet ideology and promoting religion in the country of scientific atheism. However, if someone praised BG for this in the early eighties, he would probably laugh or be offended. Even from the Komsomol Grebenshchikov didn’t leave voluntarily, and was expelled, and even not because of any protest behavior, but due to a pure misunderstanding: at the Tbilisi rock festival, because of the poor quality of the equipment, the jury heard instead of the line “to marry Ino” — “to marry a son” and considered it incest propaganda. At the same time, Grebenschikovs band «Aquarium» was one of the first to enter the Leningrad rock club  created under the auspices of the Komsomol (and the KGB). And the main comrade-in-arms and co-author of Grebenshchikov Anatoly Gunitsky — even joined the council of this rock club. The Aquarium actively participated in concert activity, including concerts under communist slogans, and did not have any problem with this.

In 1983, the official journal for the youth, Moskovsky Komsomolets, recognized Aquarium as the No. 3 group in the USSR, and in 1984 the group already took second place in this rating, and in 1987, Yunost magazine announced the Aquarium as the number one group in the Soviet Union. Throughout the 80s, the group constantly appeared on television, handed out interviews and even acted in movies. Not every writer or artist was so lucky, even if he were thrice a communist. So the latest statements of the group’s members and critics about some kind of “underground” sound not only unreasonable, but even immodestly: what else did they need — for Gorbachev to dance with them?

When «Aquarium» was just beginning, there was nothing not only anti-Soviet, but also anti-materialist in the songs of Boris Grebenshchikov. Although their meaning was stated in a rather intricate language, it nevertheless fit into the framework of the Soviet ideology of the period of “stagnation”.

Take one of the first releases of Aquarium — the 1981 Blue Album.

In fact, what is so otherworldly or protesting in the song Heroes of Rock and Roll (Young Pun)?

«Жить быстро, умереть молодым» — [“Live fast, die young” —]

Это старый клич; но я хочу быть живым. [This is an old slogan; but I want to be alive.]

Но кто-то тянет меня за язык, [But someone pulls my tongue]

И там, где был дом, остается дым; [And where the house was, smoke remains;]

Но другого пути, вероятно, нет. [But there is probably no other way.]

Вперед – это там, где красный свет… [Forward — this is where the red light …]

Где та молодая шпана, [Where is that young punks]

Что сотрет нас с лица земли? [Who will wipe us off the face of the earth?]

Её нет, нет, нет… [There are none, none, none…]

Well, the author complains that he does not see talented youth around him. In the USSR, they constantly talked about “educating a worthy change”, etc.

The text of the song “Tea” (“Harmony of the world knows no boundaries — now we will drink tea”) resembles a household sketch.

What is incomprehensible in the song «Railway Water»?

Мне нравится лето тем, что летом тепло. [I like summer because the summer is warm.]
Зима мне мила тем, что замерзло стекло. [
Winter is sweet to me because the glass freeze.]

The meaning of the song “Railway water” seems not so obvious. But this is not because of secrecy or complexity, but rather because of lazy writing. As Grebenshchikov himself later explained, the image of “railway water” was born in his mind under the impression of the light of night lamps, which was fancifully reflected on the rails of Finland Station. Just instead of explaining this image, expanding it to a metaphor, Grebenshchikov chose to add some psychedelic fog.

Yes, and in this song there are the words «… naked in the snow under the light of the full moon», which some interpret as a hint of Zen practice. There are a couple of songs that refer to Rastafarianism (Rutman, The Only Home), but they are more like stylizations.

The bards appeared to be more brutal

Does all this compare, for example, with the songs of Dolsky or Okudzhava, who deviated far more from the communist ideology to the right and much more boldly moved towards religious sentiments or nostalgia for tsarist Russia.

Dolsky as early as 1970 in his dong «Gentlemen officers» reminded of “The judgment of god” and «Gentlemen officers of the blue blood«. Bulat Okudzhava in 1976 at a poetry event in Luzhniki openly sang his «Georgian song», which has god and «a blue ox, a white eagle, a trout…» Thou neither Dolsky nor Okudzhava can not be called dissidents — they were typical official performers of the time.

What I am trying to tell is that it’s not worthwhile, having discerned in the songs of the early “Aquarium” something a bit different from the anthem of the USSR, immediately label them as rebels. If you look at the work of this rock band (and many others) in a wider context, that is, at least on the background of the work of recognized Soviet authors, it becomes obvious that in terms of lyrics and the meaning of the songs, the rockers kept a respectful distance from the border of what was allowed and they took a new step towards it not earlier than others pushed this border.

One can say that the governmental ban refered not to words of their songs but to the sound, to the rock genre itself. But it was the Blue Album that was performed in a soft chamber style, it had nothing irritating for the ear of a soviet citizen: an acoustic guitar, bongos and harmonica. This was due to both technical (lack of electrical instruments) and artistic reasons (the enthusiamsm for Bob Dylan’s songs and the reggae music).

By the way, even the idol of Boris Grebenshchikov Bob Dylan at that time was already infected with Christianity. His 1980 album “Saved” is literally crammed with Christian sermons, while Grebenshchikov still keeps his distance to religion until the middle of the 1980s.

As usual rockers were persecuted not for their views or art, but for illegal economic activities, that is for arranging undeground concerts and charging money for them from the audience. Indeed, even for an appartment concert a popular performer got a good money, and such an income could make up a solid (if not the general) part of his earnings. Such an activity was forbidden by the Soviet law, prosecuted and punished. The police arranged raids for illegal concerts. But Grebenschikov had nothing to fear: he had good connections and was often informed of a raid beforehand. Alexander Tarasov recalls: “In december 1983 Bob simply BETRAYED his brothers in counterculture. Having learned in advance about the raid in Rusakov Palace of Culture, he did not come for the concert (which was required by countercultural idea of honor) and did not even warn the others (which was required by elementary decency). I don’t know a living undeground member, who would not say a couple of harsh words about Bob because of this” [1]. Well, Grebenschikov still frankly sais that he has never experienced remorse in his life [2].

An unsolved mystery of Grebenschikov’s songs

But back to the songs. Over time, they became more and more pretentious in terms of texts, now Grebenshchikov imitates not the early Bob Dylan, but … the late Bob Dylan. He is borrowing the method of piling up quotes, which the BG begins to use to stun, suppress the listener, cover the poverty of content with tricks of links and create the illusion of some hidden meaning, which the listener supposedly never gets to. Since the text is perceived by ear, the audience manages to decipher only a part of the Grebenshchikov’s charades, and after listening to the song it still has a pleasant feeling of touching some unsolved mystery.

It is pretty hard to talk about the meaning, which Boris Grebenschikov has put in this or that song, because after catching him several times on a rather literal imitation of other authors, you begin to doubt whether this line or that image is just a product of such borrowing.

Another source of themes for all these songs was the life of an ordinary representative of bohemia, in them are constantly mentioned home concerts, visits, alcohol and continuous meetings and partings with girls.

Сегодня на редкость задумчивый день, [Today is an extremely thoughtful day]
А вчера был дождь, играть было лень. [And yesterday it was raining, it was too lazy to play]
Наверное, завтра; да, завтра наверняка; [Maybe tomorrow; yes, for sure tomorrow]
Во славу музыки [To the glory of music]
Сегодня начнем с коньяка… [Today, let’s start with cognac …]

(«Мой друг музыкант») [«My Musician Friend»]

Там, где я пел, ты не больше, чем гость, [Where I sang, you’re no more than a guest]
Хотя я пел не для них. [Although I did not sing for them.]
Но мы станем такими, какими они видят нас – [But we will become what they see us]
Ты вернешься домой, [You will return home]
И я домой, [And I’m home]
И все при своих. [And all with his own.]
(«Гость») [«Guest»]

Стареющий юноша в поисках кайфа [Aging young man looking for buzz]
Лелеет в зрачках своих вечный вопрос, [He cherishes in his eyes an eternal question,]
И поливает вином… [And pours wine…]
(«Электрический пёс») [«Electric dog»]

Absolute value of art

The more «professional» any performer becomes, the more he closes himself inside the circle of his professional activities and begins to sing about how the singer sings songs, and how he has fun after concerts. In his best things of this time (“My friend is a musician”, “Ivanov”), Grebenshchikov rises to criticism of thoughtless bohemian life, but ultimately justifies the bohemian milieu by the fact that it produces art. According to Grebenshchikov, art does not need justification; it is well without any relation to what its quality is, and whether it brings at least some benefit to those around it. However, this is also not his invention. The ideas praising some abstract art, the image of an artist-enlightener, an idealistic belief in the transforming power of art, which is able to correct the world without any revolutions, were already circulating in Soviet culture and reflected the crisis of the official ideology.

For example, as early as 1968 was released the cartoon «Glass Harmonica» with the musical score by Alfred Schnittke. In it some musician with the help of music healed the people disfigured by the world of money and property (without changing the conditions of their existence). Actually, were the Strugatsky not talking about the same in their science fiction novel «The Ugly Swans», presenting intelligentsia as the sole reformers of the whole world.

And  Grebenshchikov was not alone among the rockers in exalting the representatives of art — remember Konstantin Nikolsky with his song «Musician» («Музыкант») and Alexei Romanov and his song «Town» («Городок»).

By the way, this idea is fraught with an element of contempt for others: why, they haven’t heard any poetry before, nor music, and now the genius musician will play something lyrical to them, and people will follow him, like a prophet the end of the world. No, excuse me for people to follow you, you need to deeply understand these very people, understand their most important, most urgent needs and cherished dreams, and, finally, with hard work to prove in fact that you are not a thunderbolt, that you are ready to give your life for their happiness. And the heroes of rock and roll are often not even able to stop drinking. Where to go after them? You won’t go far from the bar.

Movement towards spring

I have no doubt that Grebenshchikov compares favorably with many brothers in the stage in terms of education and well-readness, but nevertheless, in terms of ideas, he always turned out to be secondary to other authors and acted only as a more or less successful translator of ideas already expressed.

With all of the above, I do not want to say that the songs of Grebenshchikov and his ilk are bad. Everything is relative. Boris loses in talent to his predecessors, the bards (by the way, American rockers were inferior in some respects to the folksingers) or poets like Yevtushenko and Rozhdestvensky, but the work of Aquarium surpasses almost all the songs of modern pop (we will include most modern rockers to pop). Still, in the early 80s the popularity of humanistic ideas in the world was still quite high, the United States did not establish global hegemony and a cult of consumption, so even the individualist and snob of those times looked and sounded more humane than modern authors. For example, today the line “Give some water to the sons of silent days” sounds like a revelation: the author asks not for himself and not for his girlfriend, but for other people, for the generation he cares! By the way, the theme of the song “Sons of Silent Days” («Сыновья молчаливых дней») is quite traditional for Soviet art of the 80s: we are talking about a generation of Stalin’s times, whose indifference and humility were condemned in the the sixties.

With the progress of “perestroika”, when publicity was decreed from above, Grebenshchikov began to become bold as everyone, and even then carefully and not in the forefront. Since 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the image of spring, which is opposed to winter, begins to appear more and more insistently in Grebenshchikov’s songs.

Today it is generally accepted that BG miraculously foresaw the impending collapse of the “totalitarian Union” and the onset of a market paradise, in which we are still sour. However, I repeat, it’s enough to at least get acquainted with the journalism and art of those years to see: at the first stages, “perestroika” was presented to the people in the form of a second “Khrushchev thaw,” and that is how the vast majority of intelligentsia understood it. Then, many films shot in the 60s were released on the screens (for example, “Sasha Enters Life” and “ Ilyich’s Gate” were released in their original, uncut form), a taboo was removed from the name of Khrushchev, several books dedicated to him were published (for example, “Khrushchev Nikita Sergeevich. Materials for the biography «, which presents the memoirs of Mikhail Romm, Andrey Voznesensky, Roy Medvedev). The intelligentsia shared and supported this interpretation. And since the rockers nevertheless belonged to the least educated (due to their youth, bohemian lifestyle) part of the intelligentsia, they turned out to be, as a rule, the most dependent on the ideological “mainstream”. For example, the text writer of the band “Vakhtang Kikabidze Waterfalls” directly called Khrushchev his political idol.

The following pattern was built up in the minds of Soviet people: the October Revolution is spring; then Stalin’s frosts follow, then the Khrushchev thaw; then Brezhnev’s «stagnation», that is, frost again; and finally, “perestroika” is a new spring, that is, a return to Leninist traditions (note that the albums of the DDT group in 1990 and 1992 are called “Thaw” and “Actress Spring” ).

And although Grebenshchikov was already a well-read guy then, he did not make an exception to the total mass of the Soviet intelligentsia. So his lines “It’s just our dances on the verge of spring” and “I am starting to move towards spring” follow the general trend. Finally, from this point of view, the images of the “children of December” and “polar explorers” become quite transparent:

Боже, помилуй полярников с их бесконечным днем, [God have mercy on the polar explorers with their endless day,]

С их портретами партии, которые греют их дом; [With their portraits of the party that warm their house;]

С их оранжевой краской и планом на год вперед, [With their orange paint and plan for the year ahead,]

С их билетами в рай на корабль, идущий под лед. [With their tickets to heaven on a ship going under the ice.]

(«Боже, храни полярников») [«God save the polar explorers»]

Grebenshchikov yearns for the village

The intelligentsia, including the rockers, accepted the “perestroika” enthusiastically, sensitively listened to its slogans and rehashed them in different ways. But, I repeat once again, at first «perestroika» wore clothes of the “second thaw”, and, perhaps, it seemed to Gorbachev himself that the country was moving in that direction.

Of course, we also have to pay attention to the elements of the right ideology, which begin to appear in Grebenshchikov’s songs from the mid-80s and subsequently they only grow in number. Although Grebenshchikov still considers the cry “right of the helm!” to be savage (see the song «Комната, лишённая зеркал» [“A Room Devoid of Mirrors”]), but he insistently wants to “return home”. This call for return sounds in Grebenshchikov’s songs more than once. A contradiction is obvious: on the one hand, he wants to move “forward” to “spring”, and on the other, he wants to return back to a certain “house”. What kind of «house» are we talking about?

First of all, of course, about the roots, about the village, about the old peasant Russia, about traditional folk culture and way of life. Pay attention to the songs «Держаться корней» (“Hold on to the Roots”), «Серебро господа моего» (“Silver of My Lord”) or «Деревня» (“Village”).

Я уезжаю в деревню, чтобы стать ближе к земле. [I’m leaving for the village to get closer to the ground.]

Я открываю свойства растений и трав. [I discover the properties of plants and herbs.]

Я брошу в огонь душистый чабрец, – [I will throw fragrant thyme into the fire, —]

Дым поднимается вверх, и значит, я прав. [Smoke rises, which means I’m right.]

The lyrical hero in this imaginary village does not work at all, but only smells flowers and weaves wreaths, as on the canvases of sentimentalists. It seems that he does not know and does not want to know what a real Russian village is, or was before the Revolution. I’ll give here the testimony of Vikenty Veresaev, who observed this village with his own eyes on the duty of the medical service: “The village really perishes and degenerates, not knowing the medical help. But is the reason for this lies in the fact that we have few doctors? Half of the Russian population walks in bast shoes — is this really because we have few shoemakers? Increase the number of shoemakers endlessly — the result is only one thing: the shoemakers themselves will have to walk in bast shoes, and whoever walked in bast shoes will continue to walk in them. ”

It is a question not only of deep ignorance and degeneration, but also of private property tendencies that have undermined the Russian countryside from within. The hidden hostility that permeated the village from top to bottom broke through open war after the 1917 revolution.

I can not resist another quote, this time from the biography of revolutionary narodnik Andrei Zhelyabov: “Hunger, epidemics kill hundreds of thousands of people with the complete silence of an educated society. Newspapers write about feasts of high society loafers, praise the new masters of life — money bags, gossip about the adventures of actresses, and the village dies. But can they write that when examining new recruits, one fifth of the peasant sons are recognized as “unfit for military service due to health reasons”? Did they write in the newspaper that bedbugs were crawling out of the peasant huts? The owners were so exhausted that insects were malnourished. Does anyone dare to talk about village huts that are without thatched roofs fed to cattle, and about cattle that have no power to stand up from such feeding! ”

It’s not about Grebenshchikov

Where did Grebenshchikov get his fantastic view of village life? Let’s start with the fact that in the Soviet literature the literary movement of the «countrymen» powerfully declared itself. On the one hand, it contrasted the village with the city and its bourgeois spirit, and on the other, it began to grumble about progress in general. Remember «Matryona’s Place» (Матрёнин двор) by Solzhenitsyn, «Farewell to Matyora» by Valentin Rasputin. By the 80s, the image of a dying, but longed for village was already firmly entrenched on television screens. In almost every cartoon, in every film, there was an episode with a «house in the village», in which the hero came to rest his soul after urban troubles. I recall the miniseries “Confrontation” with an episode about an old mother who is always waiting for her dead son in a village house, the animated films “Grandmother’s Lesson” and “Grandmother’s Chest”, the late Shukshin’s short stories.

Shukshin wrote about village parents who are waiting for the return of city children, about a village opposed to a hectic city (“Ignakh came,” “And horses played out in the field”), and also has works that show interest in the heritage of Christianity, so far exclusively from the point of view of protecting cultural monuments (“Strong Man”, “Master”).

So Grebenshchikov, although he didn’t move to the village, he began to actively insert various references to the Orthodox religion in his songs: either the church choir would add in the background, or would put the phrase “Lord, save my soul” into the text, or even a whole line in Church Slavonic language. But, in spite of all these half-worships for Christianity and the Orthodox religion, he did not become an exemplary performer of church rites and a regular visitor to the church. Like most perestroika intellectuals, he perceived Christianity as a kind of moral teaching, and he perceived church ritual from a purely aesthetic, cultural point of view. Well, that is, the temple is beautiful architecture, icon is beautiful painting, church singing is beautiful music. But only.

By Dmitry Kosyakov.

To be continued

Timothy Leary – The great picaroon of the Psychedelic Revolution

Metamorphoses of Bob Dylan. Part II.

Metamorphoses of Bob Dylan. Part I.

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