On the world’s largest landmass, he’s almost as well-known as God, and he goes by the same initials. But outside of Russia, Boris Grebenshikov has to get by with comparisons. He’s been called the Russian Bob Dylan, the Russian David Bowie, even the Russian Brian Ferry. With a smoky tenor voice, at times poetic, angry and seductive, Grebenshikov does have something in common with all of the above. But few rock stars have been to hell and back as many times as he has.
Nine years ago, Grebenshikov burst onto the Western scene in a way that no Russian singer had done before or since. It was at the end of rock’s “We Are the World” feel-good period, and BG became the designated perestroika poster boy. Long-haired, brooding and fluent in English, Grebenshikov appeared on the front page of the Village Voice and in the pages of Rolling Stone, New York and Mother Jones, and was the subject of “The Long Way Home,” a documentary by filmmaker Michael Apted (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorky Park”). The film shows Grebenshikov’s struggle to record his album “Radio Silence” with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. With most of its songs in English, “Radio Silence” was to be Grebenshikov’s big Western debut.
Despite all the hype, “Radio Silence” unfortunately remained true to its name. Now, when Grebenshikov travels in the United States, it’s almost as secretly as the illegal concerts he once played in the Soviet Union. His shows are only publicized within the country’s Russian immigrant community, and most of his music is only available by mail order, in Russian bookstores or in RealAudio on the Web. Before the start of a recent U.S. tour, Grebenshikov sat backstage at a Chicago nightclub smoking and strumming a guitar. Gone were the American promoters and journalists, replaced by a jet-lagged and nervous but devoted Russian entourage. Grebenshikov was still unmistakably a rocker — he’d chopped off most of his hair and dyed the remains blue, the same color as his eyes. But at 44, he also looked older and wiser than most veterans of the genre.
“I see myself primarily as an artist working within the confines of the Russian language,” he says. Within America’s English-only rock empire, those confines make fame impossible. But they’ve helped Grebenshikov, of late, to produce some of the best work of his 25-year career.
As a youth in Leningrad, Grebenshikov spent most of his time tracking down smuggled copies of Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and anything else he could get his hands on. “I heard the songs of Dylan, the Beatles, Mick Jagger, and wondered why no one in Russia was writing like that,” he said.
He bought a guitar, and soon he was incorporating the standard blues chords of American rock ‘n’ roll into his Russian folk songs. The result was music that was, by Western standards, unusual — and by Soviet standards, utterly immoral. Calling themselves Aquarium, Grebenshikov and a group of friends began performing in apartments and warehouses, sometimes escaping through the window when police came to break things up. They used the instruments they had on hand — a cello, a flute, bongos, a few guitars — to create the “poetic rock” sound Grebenshikov sought. Using primitive equipment, they recorded illegal cassettes and sent them out into the world, where they were dubbed hand-to-hand across the Soviet Union’s 11 time zones. Fans began making pilgrimages to Grebenshikov’s communal apartment, where they left reams of legendary graffiti in the stairway: BG was an angel, a savior, even Bog (God) himself.
All this was in spite of the fact that Grebenshikov’s songs were often indecipherable. That’s the irony of his language barrier in the West — Russian audiences often don’t understand what he’s talking about any more than American audiences do. In “Sonnet,” for example, one of Aquarium’s early songs, he croons the poetry of his early childhood friend Anatoly Gunitsky in soulful, minor notes accompanied by a haunting cello line:
The dancing goblet looks like a hook
Around which diamonds are strewn
But I didn’t kiss you even once
My disgusting, legless friend.
After dismal sales and a depressing tour in the West, Grebenshikov eventually went home and fell back in love with Russian language and music. Through the early ’90s, he wrote a series of simple, hypnotic songs that needed no translation. His recent concerts in America drew Russians of all ages, including a younger generation that doesn’t remember his underground days. Instead of scrawling graffiti in his stairwell, fans now write long testimonials to BG on the Web.
But, like the country he once aspired to conquer, Grebenshikov has a serious aversion to looking backwards. He’s declared an end to his “Russian folk” period and turned to other genres, especially blues. His 1997 album “Lilith” was recorded with members of the Band, and although some of the songs fall into generic rock ruts, Grebenshikov does at times reach a funky new level of expression. More recently, he’s released a charity album of Tibetan Buddhist mantras, “Refuge,” with percussionist Gabrielle Roth.
After being a student of Western rock for years, Grebenshikov may now have something to teach pop fans everywhere. When he performs in Russian for audiences who don’t understand his language, he says, there are still certain moments that captivate everyone, regardless of their native tongue.
“There are things that are universal enough that every person who listens to it will perk up their ears,” he says. “Nobody looks at it broadly enough to create that type of music consistently. But I know that it exists.”