David Thomas: Back in the USSR (The Wire)
David Thomas: Back in the USSR
Pere Ubu’s David Thomas travels across the republics of the former Soviet Union, to uncover the effects of glasnost and Western Values on the underground pop scene.
(Originally published on The Wire #109, March 1993)
The town of Kyzyl is located on the south bank of the Yenisei River. Across the river is a mountain. It was called Mount Lenin but a while ago some Tuvans climbed to the top and rearranged the white stones that spelled out ‘Lenin’ to read ‘Mountain’ in the Tuvan language. Then the name of the mountain was Mountain until some Russians took exception and scrambled the letters into gobbledygook. Now the mountain has no name and no one can remember what it was called before the Revolution named it Lenin. Now people say, “Oh that’s not a mountain.”
Kyzyl is the capital of Tuva, an autonomous republic of the CIS sandwiched between Siberia and Mongolia. Kyzyl is the geographic centre of Asia. There’s a stone marker to that effect by the river. Except in the area around the riverside and the town (population 75,000) there’s not a tree in sight. The prairie scrubland of the steppe rises and falls and climbs at the horizon into the mountains of the mighty Altai range. Down one road is Mongolia. Down the other road is Russia, Europe and the Atlantic Ocean.
There’s no railway and the next town is 250 miles away. Native Tuvans are a mongol race. Russians colonized the town in the pre-Revolution days of 1914.
For three days I looked at the mountain that doesn’t exist while my host, an Armenian musician named Vrezh Melojan, argued with a bleary-eyed Russian club owner that the concert planned in my honour was a matter of friendship and that to bring up payment of money at this late date was an unspeakable offence against the immutable laws of nature. These two were locked into a series of running skirmishes that orbited me like a Satellite of Chaos.
“Nothing! Nothing is wrong.” Vrezh assured me as first one then another bit part player spun off wild and obliquely.
Meanwhile, I passed the time with the kid rocker recruited by the club owner to translate his side of the argument. He spoke with a great American accent, an asset prized higher than playing skill by prospective band mates. But he plays guitar too loud and nobody wants him in a band. He accepts his fate. He said I didn’t really want a translation of what was going on, did I?
He wore one of the ersatz American baseball jackets that are marketed in unbelievable quantities everywhere in the world except America – invariably with the authentic emblem of the Detroit Falcons Baseball Team. I saw that the emblem on this particular authentic American baseball jacket was from that well-known team, The Cleveland Wall Street American Football Since 1934 Company.
I looked at his jacket. And I saw strange debris washed up on a foreign shore I looked over his shoulder at the mountain stripped of name and meaning. And I saw . . . then I had a vision creeping through the black, cutting through the forest with a Golden Track, BOOMLAY BOOMLAY BOOMLAY BOOM! … and I said in my mind, “Oh, brothers, fear not the military-Industrial Complex. All the military might of the superpowers has been eclipsed by something new on the world scene –CompactDisc Imperialism!”
THIS IS why I came to Siberia, I said to myself. Oh, yes! To SEE. Isolation reveals. And Isolation nurtures.
Moscow is 2300 miles from Kyzyl and when a Siberian, or a Tuvan, speaks of ‘the West’ he’s as liable to mean Moscow as London or New York City. It’s not surprising. Effectively these places are the same. Look around. Listen. Watch. Do you recognise it? Yes, that’s right. Here comes the awful truth: step by step all over the world musicians become admen, shucksters hyping, shaky-hand-on-the-camera-like, the latest bubblegum for the mind, everything from Jacques Derrida to tatty blue jeans. Consider that last year, at one point, something like half the English Top 20 pop chart derived from TV commercial sound tracks. The public finds nothing strange in this. There’s a reason.
Compact Disc Imperialism: two lousy imperatives combined into one tasty phenomenon. Outside, a thick caramel coating: the Truth Behind that Crazy Punk Music Experience, wherein we witness the utter triumph of attitude over substance, style over content, ad over novel, pop video over film; and inside a crunchy caramel heart, the holy Compact Disc, Icon of the Regurgitative New, endlessly recyclable, perpetually re-marketable, evergreen, ever New, a high tech, high gloss new suit of clothes for the oldest scam on the books. Hopes and fears of people just like me and you are reconstituted as easily digestible bite-size frequency response curves and melt-in-your-mouth high end transience; a counterfeit that resembles in every detail the real thing but has no value and can only demean the currency of …the heart.
Meanwhile, there’s a movie I remember, made in the 50s, about time travel into a post-nuclear wintry future, and it was unbearably tedious its entire length but for the denouement where desperate scientists messing with the fabric of the Universe cause Time to loop back on itself and for the final two minutes the film replays again and again in an ever accelerating feedback loop until all things are happening simultaneously in a jumbled mess, no precedents, no antecedents, no link between future, past or present. Welcome to Russia!
“If I was running a record company in Russia right now I’d shut it down.” So says Artemy Troitsky, head of music programming at TV2, and the authoritative voice of Russian rock journalism. Troitsky, now 37, grew up with the underground, persevered through a government ban as an ‘advocate of rock’, retained his passion, and now in the days of personal success remains, by Western music biz standards, Not Cynical. A sense of mission intact, he’s taken up a personal campaign against bootlegging.
“Just when Russia starts to get out of the cave and to be treated like human beings by the rest of the world, this bootlegging sends us back in,” he says.” It kills civilized business. It treats the artists like dirt.”
But Troitsky know he’s onto a loser and a lonely, lost crusade because, in Russia, bootlegging is legal. And what with inflation running somewhere around 150 per cent, and the utter collapse of record sales, only quick buck clones of clownish Western attitude-rock get produced: punk, rap and brassy girl singers. Russians call it ‘television music’.
Melodiya, the state record company, in possession of the only nationwide record distribution system, has eliminated all production except for classical CDs which they sell in the West for a dollar a piece in valuable hard currency. A Russian distribution system is irrelevant. Music that can’t be sold to the West is irrelevant. In the Melodiya Record Store on Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersberg a year ago there were three departments: classical, folk/jazz and rock/pop. Today the three are condensed into one and overwhelmed by private enterprise stalls selling Snickers candy bars and bootleg sneakers from the East. What’s left of the record store stocks 36 titles, total. “The whole country has gone crazy about making money,” Troitsky says. “It’s gone from one extreme to the other in a very short period. Only quick and truly excessive profits matter.”
There is nothing else. No vision, no plan, no sense, no sanity – only lust. Crazy crazy lust.
Art? Music? Culture is the victim of glasnost.
The rock bands of the underground years, those toughened, resolute veterans of years of KGB arrests and harrassment, lost their way when glasnost set them ‘free’. Finding a gap in the fence, sheep will rush into the middle of the road, where bewildered by the prospect of a world without boundaries they hangout stupidly wondering what to do next. Sheep, though, are liable only to be run down by a Lincoln Continental. People are liable to want to drive one.
Siberians reckon it’s nigh on impossible for a musician west of the Urals to tell the truth. It’s too close to the West, they say. The influence is too strong. The temptation to conform is too great. A Siberian can describe what happened in the west of Russia, post-glasnost, with the clarity of a voice from the wilderness. Eugene Kolbashev was a history teacher for 1 l years in Barnaul. Two years ago he quit to take up full-time frontier rock band booking in Siberia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and Vietnam.
“Step by step the underground bands became very important persons. They wanted to be rock stars,” Kolbashev says. “They wanted to receive big money. They wanted to be cool people. They made themselves into idols for children who want to shout ‘Yeah!’ and wave their arms.”
“It was terrible,” Seva Gakkel says of the same period. Seva is not a Siberian. Nevertheless, he speaks with authority. A kind and quiet man, he is the heart and conscience of the legendary Aquarium, rock band and populist standard-bearer of the underground years.
“The more popular we became the more boring it was. For years after glasnost there was no interesting music in this country.”
Disillusioned, Seva stopped playing music. Today, he lives with his mother in a St Petersburg flat and makes his living tending tennis courts. “I thought I was getting older,” he says of his wilderness years. “I thought that maybe I didn’t understand something anymore, that maybe I’d lost something but I have hope now that a new phase begins.”
A year ago the Tam Tam Club opened in a former Communist Youth building in St. Petersburg and Seva manages it for the sum of 10 0 roubles a week(about 59c or 35p).At the Tam Tam Club bands play on a small stage in a small room. People stand, drink bottles of beer and watch. The very model of an off-the-shelf rock club in the West is, in Russia, an evolutionary leap beyond the usual career prospectus, of occasional appearances at festivals staged in theatrical spaces.
ther clubs opened at the same time, the lndie in St. Petersburg, two or three in Moscow, one in Siberia. Everyone agrees this is important; after the desolation, a positive step. “We didn’t have this tradition to play in small places where you don’t need to do anything but be yourself,” Seva says.
He says the agenda at the Tam Tam Club is to reconstruct an underground, one of choice rather than government diktat, to foster a brave new world of strong-willed, ethnically-centred musicians liberated from treacherous commercial temptation, isolated from ravenous, corrupting media, preserved from deceitful HOPE. In isolation, incubation.
“People from TV are trying to reach us, to film us and we don’t allow them,” Seva says.” The most interesting things that happened in this country for years happened by word of mouth. I use the same structure. It works.”
Troitsky agrees. “Musicians are finally disillusioned with the West,” Troitsky says. “Now they know they must work here in Russia, in local organic surroundings, and that there is now hope for them in the West. This is good.”
“Yatkha, the Rockin’ Shaman with the Synth”. Photo by: Vladimir Vasiliev
The isolation of Magadan (population 170,000) is fearful. Magadan sits on the Sea of Okhotsk, west of the Kamchatka Peninsula and north of the Sakhalin Islands. When they’re waking up tomorrow in Magadan they’re just going to sleep last night in Moscow. Magadan was the heart of Stalin’s gulag. Three bands share maybe 150 fans. The bands have such a distinct spirit that outsiders think of them as being interchangeable and therefore nameless. Three or four concerts a year is about all the market will bear in Magadan, and the round-trip airfare to Moscow for three musicians is a librarian’s wage for a year, and rock clubs in Moscow and St. Petersburg don’t pay concert fees or travel expenses unless the group is Western, so when I saw Mission: Anticyclone, a trio, play at the Indie Club in St. Petersburg in August 1992 it was a comeback for them. They hadn’t played a concert since November 199 1.
The other groups on the bill that night are ordinary clones of Western styles from the St. Petersburg area. Mission: Anticyclone were special. And nobody liked them. I wrote in my notebook, “Like the ocean when it’s big and coming at you head on. Absolute control of vision and space.”
The guitars sound natural in Magadan hands. A strange observation? Not really. Russians, like the other European and Oriental peoples, have no feel for rock music. It doesn’t flow in their blood and it’s not encoded in their genes. There’s almost always a veil of alienation to be worked through when listening to even the most inventive groups – whereas the most ordinary garage band in all America is, if nothing else, at ease with its own form of ethnic music.
So, the guitars sound natural. And nobody clapped. After the show I question them: “You save up, you come all that way, you play like the ocean and nobody claps, doesn’t it bother you?” “In their hearts they clapped,” say Mission: Anticyclone. Not true, I say to myself but I don’t press it.
“What do you want?” I ask. “To shake the world. To awaken joy in the hearts of the people.” This is the way they talk. Like the way the guitars sound in their hands this too sounds natural.
I say, tell me about Magadan. “Everywhere that you stand in Magadan from the earth a great energy comes because many years ago Magadan was a gulag and many people are buried.” It’s their idea that they receive energy from this, say the stereo interpreters.
I ask them why they don’t leave Magadan. They tell me about Eastern Syndrome, good musicians who moved to St. Petersburg and the music began to go wrong. They move to Moscow, then Kiev, other cities, then Prague. They have no home. They have no source.” Maybe we are afraid of the big city,” say Mission: Anticyclone. “Maybe we are afraid to leave something important behind.”
Yakutsk is the nearest town comparable in size to Magadan. It lies 800 miles to the east and is the capital of the arctic region of Yakut. The people are Tungus, a mongol race. Yakut is the land of the mammoths, frozen as they chewed buttercups.
A Yakut band from the small town of Mirnyi caused a sensation when they appeared at the Rock Asia Festival in Barnaul, Siberia, late in 1990, a famous event that also marked the ‘coming out’ of Mission: Anticyclone and Biosintes from Kyzyl. “We were in shock,” says Kolbashev, the festival organizer. “Oh it’s cool, it’s a sensation! We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. (One group called) Cholbon walked on stage dressed and looking like the lnuit of Alaska. They sang passionately about the tundra, the snow and the sun in the Turkic language.” And the sound was pure Dark Side Of The Moon.”
The musicians in Cholbon learned to play rock music by listening to a Pink Floyd record. Watching a tape of the concert confrims Kolbashev’s report. The initial impression is stunning. There is something so right about the sound and the look that, for a moment, you wonder why, in the face of such overwhelming evidence, Pink Floyd never owned up to the debt they owe Yakutian rock bands. Oh there is no justice in this world!
Questions about cargo culture come later, and opinions differ on the matter. In Yakut all the groups sound like Pink Floyd.
And in Kyzyl? Throat singers! Human jews-harps. Walking talking grocery bag carrying human jews-harps! Tuvan folk music, like folk musics everywhere, can ramble on tediously. Decades ago musicians who played hillbilly and blues in America organised in a way that led to something new -the music group as a dynamic corporate personality, one of only two ideas that lie at the root of rock music.
“To Western ears when we add rock ideas we sound avant garde,” says a Tuvan musician. It’s true. Unlike neighbouring Oriental styles Tuvan music derives from scales shared with American blues. When Tuvan musicians organise as Western-style groups the whispers, echoes and fragments of familiar voices cheat death from a parallel universe: zydeco, Incredible String Band, Silver Apples, John Cale, Country Joe And The Fish. Everything you want it to be and more. Imagine a place in the world where every singer is a relative of Don Van Vliet – rapture! – producing overtones that growl like the weeping sound of camels (kargyra) or whistle like wind in the prairie grass (sygyt), and between these poles are all the variations of rhythm and colour possible, khoomei!
Do you remember that when Elvis was still a man and not a king, he abstracted all the parts and the ghost players that he needed and heard in his head with his voice and that was rock ‘n’ roll and the important thing he did? PURESOUND as abstraction for the human experience. That’s the promise of rock music. Not as wallpaper. Not as a soundtrack for the mating ritual. Not as the Fountain of Eternal Adolescence.
Somebody in Moscow called Biosintes “ethnic psychedelia.” In concert they are visually startling in a Sun Ra-transported mode. A tough mongolin-shades bass player wearing shaman headgear plays a yak-horned mutant guitar. The lama-robed violinist wears crescent moon headgear and glasses. The cellist, my host Vrezh, dresses like a sufi and is obsessed by the notion of a “nature music”. Add dancers in oversize head masks, a drummer, throat singer and several Tuvan folk instrumentalists and it’s a big jumbled-up experience set about with a real enthusiasm for overdrive dynamics that turn on a John Cale-Maureen Tucker axis.
Sainkho Namtchylak is the most famous Tuvan singer. She lives in Germany and makes records. Throat singers end life as physical wrecks, Sainkho says, with collapsed lungs, pneumonia, chronic migraine, respiratory tuberculosis. She says it’s the special effort and the physical strain of becoming such a thing as a human jews-harp that leads inevitably to a “burning up on the inside.”
Albert Kouvezin is a different generation. He’s a kid. He wears skull & crossbones metal badges on his black Zoran sneakers and though he sings Tuvan music he knows he’s a rock musician because he has the “style of life”. I ask him what that means and I don’t get all the answer. It was something about not working. He’s recording with an electronic musician from Moscow.
Oh, I was feeling good in Kyzyl. It’s good in small nations hidden away at the ends of the earth, places like Iceland and Tuva where the man in the delivery van stopped at the lights is also the tenor from the state opera and the old man with bags coming physical wrecks with down the street is a famous composer of folk songs. Moscow and all the rest of the West seem so far away.
I talked to Vrezh about these things as we walked. “I think about adding English texts to Tuvan music,” he says out of the blue.” Will this be popular in the West?” He watches my reaction. “Maybe it is not a good idea.”
I wanted to go home.
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