ABCNews.com, Playing With God: Russian Rocker Gives Fans What They Want >>
By Dean Schabner
Jan. 24 — When Boris Grebenshikov says his band Akvarium bridges the gap between pop music and religion he smiles and his eyes twinkle behind his rose-tinted glasses.
There is a lightness in Grebenshikov's tone, a playfulness in his voice that makes what could be just more unbearable pompousness from yet another deluded pop star seem like, well, common sense.
"There's a gap now between religion that's become an annoying nuisance that nobody cares about, not even people in the church, and popular music that in the 20th century has taken the place of religion," he says. "It can't explain to people what they can practically do, and religion could.
"There's no one like Buddha or Mohammed or Jesus Christ in popular music, for better or worse," he continues after a sip of tea. "Aquarium [Akvarium] exists for the sole purpose of bridging the gap. Not that we're so great. We're bad. We are not ideal. We're total f----ups, but our heart is in the right place."
Grebenshikov is no holier-than-thou God-rocker, as his colloquial English makes clear. And there's no sanctimoniousness in his brand of Buddhism.
"The meaning of religion has been lost," he says. "What Jesus had that nobody else had around him was he knew how to have fun. I mean experiencing God. Ecstasy is good, but experiencing God is so much better."
He lights another cigarette, and adds, "I'm not highly spiritual. I'm highly pragmatic. If someone knows how to have fun, I want to know, too."
For more than two dozen years, Grebenshikov, 47, has been one of the biggest names in Russian music. He is often compared to such rock stars as Bob Dylan, John Lennon or Van Morrison for his songwriting, and to Jerry Garcia for the kind of reverence so many of his fans have for him, and for his apparent integrity and disinterest in commercial concerns.
An Unofficial Star
Recording as an unofficial musician throughout most of the 1980s, his songs were consistently on top of popularity charts published in Leningrad newspapers based on write-in votes from readers. When under glasnost, the Soviet government finally acknowledged that one of the most listened-to singers in the country actually existed, his leap to fame was meteoric.
When he was lured to the United States in the late 1980s to record an album with Dave Stewart and was touted across the country as the next megastar, the experience left him disillusioned with the American music business, and confirmed for him that the Russian language is central to his art.
His astonishingly beautiful melodies, which seemlessly blend elements of the blues, Irish traditional music, Russian folk and reggae among other styles, should have brought him recognition in America, but U.S. audiences are notoriously tone-deaf to songs in foreign tongues, and Grebenshikov, despite his command of English, found his poetic gift did not translate.
"There was no possibility of doing it, because the music is rooted in language and words are the things that are getting people the most," he says. "They can't possibly be translated."
The quality of those untranslatable words have not only kept the loyalty of fans who were first drawn to him when his music became widely known in the early 1980s, but continue to draw new young audiences — a rare feat among rock musicians of his generation from any nation.
There are numerous Web sites devoted to Grebenshikov and Aquarium, not all of them in English, but most offer transcriptions of his lyrics and archives of articles and interviews.
At a recent show in New York's Irving Plaza, the first stop on Aquarium's current North American tour, the band played to an enthusiastic packed house that ranged from teenagers in tie-dyed T-shirts to middle-aged parents with their young children in tow.
"I think basically we are giving the people what they want," he says. "Like Jesus said, I can give you the water after which you'll never thirst again. That's what we're doing, I think."
Inventing a Music Business
In an early song Grebenshikov sang, "To keep standing, I've got to hold on to my roots," and that may be part of the appeal, even as Aquarium has continued to grow musically.
In its early days in Leningrad, Aquarium gained new fans by handing out tapes and encouraging people to make copies and pass them on to their friends — a rock version of samizdat — the self-publication dissident poets and authors used to get their writings to an audience during the Soviet era. Grebenshikov also produced the first rock magazine in the Soviet Union, run off on mimeograph machines and handed out to friends.
"Being in the Soviet Union, I had to invent everything," he said. "I wanted to have it and there was no one around to do it, so I did it. … We didn't have a music business. We said, 'Let's invent it.' It was a great game. It still is."
These days there's no need for such crude methods: Grebenshikov has posted an MP3 file of his latest song, Rastamany iz Glubinki (Rastas From the Provinces), recorded in December, on the band's Web site (www.aquarium.ru).
One of the beauties of Grebenshikov's songs is his ability to move lightly between the transcendent and the mundane details of life on earth, as in "Heaven Comes Closer," when he sings, "All paths begin from our front door/but we only came out to bum cigarettes."
Or, from "It's Snowed Since Morning":
Tiptoe past the open door,
There, where everything's light, where everything's quiet.
haughty as steel,
And you can say
That everything's not as it should be,
And you can pretend you're in a movie
About people living under high tension.
It's snowed since morning,
It's snowed since morning,
And you can do something more,
If you want to, if you want to.
"I just want people to live better," he says. Lyrics translated by Dean Schabner. 01/24/02 >> go there