Singer, songwriter, guitarist
It’s a warm, muggy night in Moscow, and a hundred or so people are milling around the courtyard of one of the city’s generic apartment complexes, which seems almost tenement-like by U.S. standards. Over to one side is a cluster, in the middle of which, smoking a cigarette and leaning against a brick wall, is Soviet rock star Boris Grebenshikov. It’s 1987, and the lean, handsome singer-songwriter, who hails from Leningrad, is in the middle of one of the things he does best—talking to reporters. “I’m the darling of glastnost, ” he’s declared, and there’s no question that he’s positioned himself well to reap the benefits of Mikhail Gorbachev’s new policies of openness, tolerance, and reform. Though not the first Soviet rocker to reach the West, he was the first to land a big-time record contract; in June 1989, Columbia Records—the label of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and George Michael-released Grebenshikov’s Radio Silence album and put him on tour to spread the word about his distinctive but unquestionably Western-influenced music.
The album and tour were the result of a long and careful process of bringing Grebenshikov to U.S. audiences. The plan began in 1987, about the same time U.S. pop superstar Billy Joel journeyed to the Soviet Union to perform six concerts; Belka International, Inc., a company that puts together joint Soviet-American ventures—including the Space Bridge project—decided to bring Grebenshikov to the West to meet with American and British musicians and with U.S. record companies. Great interest was expressed, with ex-Police member and political activist Sting among the most vocal. The company’s principals—Kenny Schaffer and Marina Albee—figured that of all the Soviet rock acts, Grebenshikov would be their best bet.
“[The interest] is definitely there for Boris,” Albee told the Detroit Free Press. “There really aren’t any other Russian bands now who have the right sound and can go to the U.S.” Dave Snow of Opal Records, which has released albums by Soviet artists like Zvuki Mu and Djivan Gasparyan, agreed. “Its something with a Russian name that was really Westernized and made for Western tastes,” he told the Free Press. Indeed, Grebenshikov’s greatest advantage over his countrymen has more to do with marketing than music. He speaks crystal clear English—he started learning, at his parents’ insistence, when he was eight years old— understanding the nuances and subtleties of the language. It makes him highly quotable and he speaks with an egoistic confidence and assurance reminiscent of the early days of Elton John or Boy George.
Rock and roll wasn’t an early career goal for Grebenshikov. Little is known about his childhood, though his parents’ ability to pay for English lessons indicates that the
Born November 27, 1953, in Leningrad U.S.S.R.; son of Boris Borisovich (an engineer) and Ludmila (a fashion designer; maiden name, Kharitonovna) Grebenshikov; married; wife’s name, Lidmila; currently lives with longtime girlfriend, Irina; children: three. Education: Graduated from the University of Leningrad with a degree in applied mathematics.
Singer, songwriter, guitarist. Formed first band at age 15; founder and leader of rock group Aquarium, 1972—. Worked as a mathematician and sociologist at the University of Leningrad, c 1972-80.
Addresses: Record company —Columbia/CBS Records, 51 West 52nd St., New York, NY 10019.
family was better off than many in Russia. And because he understood English, Grebenshikov was a step ahead in understanding the power of this new and, at that time, illegal art form. Rock and roll became a sensation on the Soviet black market, where albums and tapes were exchanged for outlandish prices. Tastes were largely behind the times—they’ve only caught up during the past three years—and Grebenshikov and his friends were drawn more towards the melodic British rock of the Beatles than to the grittier sounds coming from America. “Our music isn’t as rhythmic,” Grebenshikov, who formed his first band when he was 15, told the Detroit Free Press. “Russian songs are written in minor chord structures, with a lot of feeling and depth. It’s not designed to be as instantly catchy as what you hear [in America].”
Rock certainly served to heal Grebenshikov’s frustrations as he went on to study and earn a degree in applied mathematics at the University of Leningrad. At the time he appeared to be a proper Soviet citizen, even a member of Komsomol, the Communist Youth League. But underneath he was a rocker at a time when it was outlawed and illegal. Though he told the Washington Post that “nobody treated it seriously from the authority side … the state just ignored it completely,” that changed in the mid-1970s, when the government discovered that Western rock was embracing politics, sex, and the drug culture.
Grebenshikov formed Aquarium in 1972, but he also had a day job as a mathematician and sociologist at the university. “When I graduated from school, I had to go somewhere, and it could be either the Army, which I didn’t want to go into, or some kind of university. And so I spent six very nice years doing rock ‘n’ roll and all the antisocial things that I could possibly dream of, and getting by. It was the time of least resistance. That’s how I became a mathematician.”
Aquarium’s activities, however, gave him more notoriety. It wasn’t long before the group became the underground favorite in the Soviet Union, and as its leader, Grebenshikov became a cultural folk hero. The walls leading up the eight-story climb to the three-bedroom apartment he and his family—longtime companion Irina and his three children—share with two other families are lined with graffiti. “Boris is God.” “Long live Boris.” “Boris, I love you—I can’t live without you.” It’s no wonder that his influence is often compared to that of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen in the United States.
Because rock and roll was underground in the U.S.S.R. until recently, there are no record sales figures to track Grebenshikov’s popularity. It’s estimated that millions of homemade Aquarium tapes have passed hands since 1972. When Melodiya, the state-run record label, finally released an Aquarium album in 1987, it sold 3.5 million copies. Two more releases have experienced similar success. Grebenshikov, however, doesn’t enjoy royalties relative to his status; he told the Chicago Tribune that he receives about 4, 000 rubles for every million albums sold, about 300 times less than the average U.S. recording contract.
But money was the least of his worries in the early days of Aquarium. In 1972, Grebenshikov was kicked out of Komsomol because of his rock and roll activities. In 1980, after playing a rock festival in the Soviet republic of Georgia, he lost his job at the university. Aquarium— and other Soviet bands—maintained, playing clandestine concerts and often dodging the arm of Soviet law. “If you’re playing for free, you could spend the night in jail he told the Chicago Tribune. “But if you were caught with some money in your hands, well, I’ve heard of some people who spent several years in jail.”
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, bringing with him reform. Soviet society opened, slowly and with no small amount of suspicion on the part of its citizenry—particularly oppressed artists. “There was no trust,” Grebenshikov told the Washington Post. “He was just another name, and we had three or four of them right before. It was ‘When will he die?”’.Gorbachev proved to be good for Soviet rock and roll, however. The once-underground performers were “recognized” by state agencies governing recording and performing. And plain old business sense allowed rock to become part of the culture. “We’ve learned there’s a lot of money to be made from these bands,” Melodiya executive Victor Solomatzin told the Detroit Free Press. “The young people are the ones who buy records, and this is the music they want.”
So the ultra-popular Grebenshikov, who had already received exposure in People and Rolling Stone magazines, was positioned perfectly to benefit from the new openness. He came to America in December 1987, and was introduced to Western superstars, including Lou Reed, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, and even boxer Mike Tyson. Bowie took him out nightclubbing, but Grebenshikov told Newsday he found it “boring. I don’t like to shout over the din of any club. When I talk with people, I talk with them. When I sit back and listen to music, I sit back and listen to music. I don’t feel the need to do these things simultaneously.”
Working with Eurythmies member and producer Dave Stewart, Radio Silence —which also features guest appearances from Stewart’s partner Annie Lennox and Pretenders leader Chrissie Hynde—was recorded throughout 1988 and early 1989 at several Western studios. What many critics found refreshing was a switch from the blatantly sexual orientation of most Western hitmakers. “Russian culture doesn’t relate to sex at all,” Grebenshikov told the Washington Post. “No one can conceive of a song with sexual overtones like in black music and rock ‘n’ roll, which are based on sex. I can’t imagine a Russian rock ‘n’ roll song being based on sex. We just don’t have the language for it, and I don’t think we need to because Russians are something different and that’s what makes it a thing apart. Russian writers would rather tackle philosophical or political subjects.” For Grebenshikov, one of those future topics might be how a Soviet man of the people copes with Western life. He now doesn’t leave home without his American Express Card, and he has a bank account, which is a true rarity in the Soviet Union. Such luxuries can’t help but put a dent in his street credibility.
Still, that’s something he saw coming in 1987, when his drive to the West began. Radio Silence hasn’t exactly made him a superstar on these shores, which he said was enough of a humbling experience to keep his head below the clouds for the time being. “I’m doing my thing and letting God provide,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I’m not looking to leave Russia. It’s my home. I don’t want to live anywhere else. I’m not after the money. I’m looking for spiritual gratification.”
Red Wave (one of four acts featured on album), Gold Castle Records, 1986.
Radio Silence, Columbia, 1989.
With group, Aquarium, featured on numerous underground and black market recordings in the Soviet Union during 1970s and 1980s and on three sanctioned albums released by Melodiya, the Soviet state-run record company, during the late 1980s.
Associated Press, August 19, 1987.
Boston Globe, August 7, 1989.
Chicago Tribune, June 3, 1989.
Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, February 19, 1989.
Detroit Free Press, June 11, 1989.
Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1989.
Newsday, April 17, 1989; August 6, 1989.
New York, March 20, 1989.
New York Times, April 17, 1989.
People, April 6, 1989.
United Press International, July 28, 1989.
Washington Post, July 16, 1989; August 3, 1989.
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