Resurrecting a Guitar-Poet

Boris Grebenshchikov -- what does one call him? rock singer? composer? -- was my stand-by interpreter with Slava Rostropovich the other week. And somewhere along the way -- between his apartment on Nevsky Prospekt and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic -- he gave me a CD of Vladimir Vysotsky.

Now there was a time when Vladimir Vysotsky was probably the most famous man in the Soviet Union. He was the best Hamlet of his generation: He starred in "The Appointment Cannot Be Kept," the most popular television drama series of modern times; and he appeared in some 26 films -- including a performance as the parrot in "Alice in Wonderland."

But it was as a singer and songwriter that he was worshipped across the Soviet Union's eleven time zones. For he sang songs about the drunk and the dispossessed, the low, the lonely and the lunatic. And he spoke in the sardonic tough vernacular of the streets and the camps. In his way, he did as much as Solzhenitsyn did to rediscover and recreate the Russian language, clearing it of attitudinizing clich?s and bureaucratic gibble-gabble and producing a demotic poetry that sang to the heart.

Officially, he was allowed to produce very few records in his lifetime. (The high nomenklatura loved him -- they invited him to all their parties -- but they wouldn't let him record.) So instead his music circulated on underground tapes and on records made from X-ray plates. And in tenth-, twentieth-, thirtieth-generation copies it reached from Moscow to Vladivostok and back again. So famous did he become that he could hitch a ride -- as he often did -- from the pilots working at Sheremetyevo airport to anywhere in the Soviet Union and expect a welcome. When the Taganka Theater, of which he was a member, traveled to outback towns, arriving at three o'clock in the morning, the actors would tramp down the main street to be met on every side by fully-lit houses, every one of them playing his songs.

He drank, they say he took dope. In any case, in 1980 -- in the middle of the Moscow Olympics -- the blazing, angry flame of his life finally ran out of oxygen, and he died. Pravda -- it's said -- announced the event in a tiny paragraph somewhere in its back pages. But by mid-afternoon, there were thousands of people gathered in Taganskaya Ploshchad. Someone told me that the line for his burial in Vagankovskoye cemetery was one of the longest in history -- almost 5 kilometers long.

Just over eight years ago now, I went out to Vagankovskoye on his birthday in January -- he would have been 51. Hundreds of people were there playing tapes and guitars, singing his songs, lining up to lay flowers at his monument. That night, I went to the Taganka Theater for the first public performance of a show in his memory that had been banned -- though performed in-house -- until that day. There were perhaps 1,000 people outside in the street wanting tickets -- though the show was sold out -- and another 200 climbing over the roof trying to get in.

After an evening of his music -- his wry, edgy lyricism -- the man who directed the show, Yury Lyubimov -- who'd just come back from exile -- mounted the stage to conjure up the man he called "our bard, the keeper of the nation's spirit, of our pain and all our joys." As he talked, people came up from the audience to lay red carnations on a lone guitar leaning against the back wall of the stage. Most of those who watched and listened were weeping. It was one of the most moving things I've ever, ever seen.

And yet now, just eight years later, Vladimir Vysotsky -- this odd, distinctively Russian cross between, say, Bob Dylan and Richard Burton, Woody Guthrie and Robert De Niro -- seems almost completely forgotten. How soon the past -- even the best things of the past -- have been thrown away! It's as if the songs on CD -- recorded by his family and friends on whatever (mostly appalling) equipment there was available at the time -- belonged to another age. Yet they still haven't lost their power to move. Their sneering, what-the-hell jauntiness made them the sound track of an entire repressed nation; and it's time they were recorded again.

There'd be no one better for this job of resurrection, I think, than Boris Grebenshchikov himself. For like Vysotsky, he's always gone his own way; and like Vysotsky, he first became famous nationwide not via records but via underground cassettes. He's also the only Russian rock-singer who's earned the right in the end to wear the title Vladimir Vysotsky wore with pride: guitar-poet.