Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Perestroika, Glasnost, Art-Rock

As part of Hamburg's 1988 annual music festival--a staidly Germanic, conservatory-trained affair now gussied up, like all the continent's cultural assets, into a lure for other people's money--the Soviet rock group AVIA performed a free open-air concert in a downtown shopping district. Seven male musicians and seven female appurtenances who dressed like Kraftwerk (or actually Devo) and played like Pere Ubu (or actually nobody), they probably netted fewer Deutschmarks than a band from the developed world would have, but they were getting paid, and their disjoint art-rock antigroove gave us somebody's money's worth. There was an accordion, a horn section, a cowbell, a bald guy whopping his head on the beat, a synthesizer-cum-Farfisa playing secondhand circus figures, or East European march rhythms, or bastardized folk melodies. Doubting the music would translate to record, however, I soon forgot about it--until the catchiest circus figure surfaced memorably in Marjaana Mykkanen's From Russia With Rock, just closed to politely disappointed reviews at the Film Forum, and the bald guy provided the climax to Artemy Troitsky's Tusovka, just published in the U.K. by Omnibus and in the U.S. by nobody.

I know Troitsky, a Voice writer as of last week, but don't blame me; Troitsky knows a lot of people and writes a lot of places. One reason I went to see AVIA, in fact, was to get a head start on the dialogue book he'd somehow persuaded me we could talk into a tape recorder after a month on the Russian scene the following spring. I admit I was relieved when my collaborator's deal with his state publisher fell through--a Soviet tour seemed less enticing as May got closer and Troitsky got further away. But in the wake of Tusovka and From Russia With Rock--the film shot three years ago, around when our project was conceived, the book begun in mid-1989, around when it didn't go down--I'm not without regrets. What a fascinating mess they've got over there. Sojourning in the East Village a few weeks ago, Troitsky invited me to From Russia With Rock, which exploits his critical expertise as a consultant and commentator, and offered a brief analysis: the film recounts the honeymoon of Russian rock under glasnost, the book the marriage. Neither serves up the new punk or the new worldbeat. Sorry. But taken together they say plenty about the lineaments of bohemia, the politics of culture, and the failure of Zvuki Mu to move up the charts.

Forget the music per se for a while--maybe forever, you'll live. Soviet rock is crucial as a cultural phenomenon. Its history--brought up to early Gorbachev in Troitsky's insider's narrative Back in the USSR and Timothy W. Ryback's thorough if breathless Rock Around the Bloc--is above all the history of a bohemian underground. As such, it does strange things to the sensible thesis of Jerrold Seigel's Bohemian Paris, which holds that bohemia is the ordained obverse of bourgeois society, that the two "imply, require, and attract each other." I'm idealist enough to believe that the Soviet Union is not now and never has been genuinely socialist. But if its new classes and sorry illusion of general well-being ever rendered it bourgeois instead, that word has no meaning. So amend Seigel to define bohemia as an inevitable byproduct of any stable society that affords its citizens leisure time--and also access, however stunted, to alternative information. It's true that in Russia bohemians have to hold jobs. But that no longer distinguishes them from East Village bohemians, except that in the East Village you don't go to jail for parasitism, you go to the park for not making the rent--or you go home to your folks, where many Soviet bohemians live to begin with.

Rock Around the Bloc argues that bloc rock fans' "countless acts of private rebellion, as unperceived as they were uncontrollable, . . . gnawed relentlessly at the fabric of socialist society" and rhapsodizes about "the realization of a democratic process." From Russia With Rock plays up protest lyrics and the struggle against bureaucratic repression. But these processes aren't as grandly political as Ryback and Mykkanen make out. Insofar as Russian kids' romance with rock and roll was a romance with America (and from early Cliff Richard to late Pink Floyd, it's had a distinctly Anglophile tinge), it was a romance with consumer paradise rather than "freedom," just like in any poor country. If anything, Russian rockers romanticize not democracy but the '60s, and "the counterculture" rather than "the Movement" at that. They're more literate and sardonic than their Western counterparts. But their protests are typical boho negations, their idealisms typical hippie (and/or Slavic) romanticism. "We will never be the driving force in any political movement simply because we deeply and sincerely dislike politics," Troitsky claims in Tusovka. Later he notes that "the whole anti-war idea is terribly inflated and uncool in the Soviet Union" because Soviet leaders, those sly devils, have always talked peace while practicing the opposite. Gee, Art, ever heard of "pacified hamlets"? No, huh? Well, how about George Bush?

Those who credit Gorbachev with destroying genuine socialism equate the overthrow of collectivism with the overthrow of tyranny. For them, private rebellions are all the politics a good market economy needs; for them, bohemians are the tip of the bourgeois iceberg. But for those of us who conceive both socialism (still the best name I know for a humane social structure) and rock and roll as marriages of collective consciousness and individual prerogative--radically unlike each other, unconsummated for damn sure, and worth bringing together nevertheless--Troitsky's political alienation, representative if slightly overstated, is painful. It's hardly unprecedented, however--the history of bohemia is full of rebels without a cause, so why shouldn't they pop up here? And it's not unmitigated either.

Even for the mostly dull bands who'd won professional status by the late '70s, recording for Melodiya and touring from Leningrad to Kabul, the rock life was a tightrope walk, and in the space their hard-won privileges signified, a much chancier dissident musicians' subculture took root--a subculture of phantom jobs and magnetizdat tapes, legal youth clubs and private parties, brushes with the law that got serious with every freeze (especially under reputed jazz fan Andropov). Grabbing at the information age's tail, perestroika's handlers hoped to transform such threatening cultural expressions into profitable cultural commodities--perhaps even lures for hard currency. Bureaucratic double-crosses notwithstanding, rock was a national phenomenon that made the Rockpanorama festival Mykkänen filmed inevitable, and though satirical painters proved fatter cash cows, the music got its share of novelty ink in the West. So of course musicians ran around like they'd just dreamt tomorrow's lottery number. Working regular TV and radio gigs, the once-banned Troitsky is doing as well in the economic wreck of perestroika as any noncriminal can ("We can always eat CDs," sighs his wife Svetlana Kunitsina, a fashion journalist in a country where there's still no fashion). More levelly than most propagandists looking down cultural imperialism's throat, he weighs the danger of cooptation against the danger of isolation. But he watches warily for sellouts, fuckups, and other symptoms of panic. And he finds that in the culturally well-endowed but materially underdeveloped Soviet Union, traditional artistic rebels are proving more steadfast than rock's pop-craving, starry-eyed hippies manque.

Save one costume designer, the 10 standard-bearers profiled in Tusovka are all musicians. But only two--rich, ruined Boris Grebenshikov and Zhanna Aguzarova of Bravo, who's highlighted in From Russia With Rock and has one of the few decent tracks on MCA's Melodiya-licensed Glasnost compilation--are committed rock stars. Instead Troitsky honors a songpoet who committed suicide, an old boho with a career as a character actor, a Lithuanian architect turned Lithuanian rock hero turned Lithuanian politico turned Lithuanian rock hero, a Russian punk worthy of the name, and no fewer than three unabashed avant-gardists: painter Sven Gundlach, whose band name translates as both Central Russian Heights and Average Russian Loftiness; keyboardist Sergey Kuriokhin, whose aleatory ensemble Popular Mechanics reads like John Zorn; and mime turned singer turned postmime Anton Adasinsky, who shortly after I watched him whop his bald head in Hamburg left AVIA with his specially trained female dancers to form the bald performance-art troupe Derevo.

Despite complaints that the bands weren't hip or authentic enough--and of course the rockabilly was silly, of course the metal was metal--I found myself enjoying not just AVIA but Televisor and Brigada S in From Russia With Rock. But the film certainly overplays the groups that come its way, especially art-rockers Nautilus Pompilius, who made a splash at Rockpanorama but soon retreated confusedly to their base in Sverdlovsk. It's unrealistic to expect foreign-language nondance music that emphasizes lyrics and comes to guitars secondhand to command much hard currency, especially from America's arrogantly Anglophone market. Like Gorbachev, whom he appreciates now that the road to perestroika is all hairpin turns and falling rock zones, Troitsky identifies more with Europe (the secret of Russian Anglophilia, I'll warrant). So he's signed a label deal with Brussels-based Crammed Discs for three bands. Calling them rock bands would be pushing it--all from Soviet Asia, including Siberian Tuvas whose vocal double-clutching makes your favorite Bulgarian chorus sound like high-school music teachers, they'll market as neatly as "world music" ever markets.

Troitsky hopes the Voice will cover a festival he books in Kazakhastan next summer. But he puts his personal hopes in Anton Adasinsky's Derevo, site-specific improvisors who focus on factory performance and see their mission as combatting acute alienation, a state of mind that's hardly unique to bohemians in Russia--that over the past two decades, in fact, has turned into a life-threatening national disease. Troitsky feared three months in the West in 1989 would blow their collective mind, "another bright light extinguished by the careless but insatiable capitalist monster." Instead the tour left Adasinsky convinced that "only at home can we create our most powerful stuff," that the struggle against an "inhuman, inflexible way of life" must never be abandoned. And if he succumbs to his own marketability, you get the feeling Troitsky will locate other permanent marginals bent on insisting that the Soviet Union succeed bourgeois society rather than recapitulating it. Impossible demands have always been a bohemian specialty.

Village Voice, Jan. 15, 1991