Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'BG': Same As He Ever Was

I first met Boris Grebenshchikov at the beginning of 1988. He lived at the time in a seventh-floor walk-up squat in Leningrad, with graffiti on the walls most of the way up the stairway, and with fans from Vladivostok and Siberia hanging about outside his door.


They were outside his door because of the tapes he'd made underground with his band Aquarium, which they'd heard in 10th- or 20th-generation copies that had slowly spread across the Soviet Union. They were there because he was there, living with the janitors and cleaners of the school below him. He was their secret. He spoke to them in a language they recognized: "So many babushkas, and each one wears a tie," and "Our fathers don't lie/Like wolves won't eat meat/ And birds don't fly."


Westerners who came to see him called him the John Lennon of the Soviet Union. And they were not wrong -- even though there was, well, a difference of scale, of money, of units sold. Boris, when I met him, had just had his first album issued by the state company Melodiya, twelve or so years after his band had been founded, and seven years after he'd lost his job as a computer operator and had become, in effect, a pariah. Nobody knew at the time how many hundreds of thousands of copies the record had sold. But he'd been given just enough as the composer, he said wryly, to buy a few bottles of vodka.


It's hard to think back into those days, when Boris would come down from his aerie to give the occasional concert, with rows of eager fans writing down the lyrics of his songs as if they were messages from the mountain. I made a film with him when he went to England and America to make a record for CBS. And it's hard, too, to remember the shy adulation he was greeted with in both places by musicians like Annie Lennox and Chrissie Hynde, who became, for one glorious afternoon in London, his back-up singers. Boris -- for perhaps a little longer than fifteen minutes -- was something of a star in the West in 1988. But his stardom was based on a total misunderstanding of what he meant to the alienated young of the Soviet Union. The record was overwrought; it was not a success. Aquarium -- which was more a drifting underground commune than a professional rock band -- broke up under the tensions involved in making it.


I was reminded of all this, and of how much the times have changed and yet remained the same, by some concerts Boris recently gave, solo and with various personnel from the new Aquarium. The first was on the tiny stage of a club in London. And though Boris' gifts were still much in evidence -- his talent for melody, his edgy lyricism -- the most noticeable thing about the concert was that there were virtually no English people there at all: four, I was told later. Instead, the place was packed with hundreds of Russians, dressed up and ready to party. As they ordered bottles of cognac and champagne, and called for the old songs, I realized that this was the generation that had once sat at Boris' feet, writing down his lyrics, and that instead of being its spokesman, he was now imprisoned in its nostalgia for the Bad Old Days: before Russians had any money at all; when travel to London was just a pipe dream.


The second concert was in Moscow, with David Byrne of the American band Talking Heads, and it was more reassuring. In the end I didn't go to it, but instead waited for Boris at the Pilot night club, where he was due to give another performance after the show.


I waited until after half-past one in the morning, when everyone finally showed up, looking extremely harassed. I laughed when I heard the reason: Byrne's back-up musicians had had a stand-up row with Boris' management about the placing of the amps, about their lack of professionalism, etc. I laughed too when I heard that compared with the "professionalism" of Byrne's musicians, Aquarium had played amateurishly: it seemed endearingly as it always had been. But I laughed loudest when I heard that Boris had waived his fee at the nightclub in return for the spread he'd organized downstairs in the Soho restaurant. It was like a return to the old days, when every night he'd entertained all comers against the odds in that seventh-floor squat. Only the venue had changed.


David Byrne, I think, knew none of this. He just assumed that the banquet was, well, a rock star's due. He ate like a bird, and talked a bit about Baltimore, where he'd been raised. Then, before Boris sang a set of new songs -- swift and straight to the jugular -- he vanished into the night.