Meet Boris Grebenshchikov, the Soviet Bob Dylan; A Q&A with the Most Important Musician You've Never Heard of - but Russians Have

By Aleks; Gorbachev, R. | Newsweek, June 26, 2015 | Go to article overview

Meet Boris Grebenshchikov, the Soviet Bob Dylan; A Q&A with the Most Important Musician You've Never Heard of - but Russians Have


Aleks, Gorbachev, R., Newsweek


Byline: Aleksandr Gorbachev

Updated | On Tuesday, May 19, hundreds of people lined up in front of the Webster Hall concert venue in Manhattan's East Village, and most of them were speaking Russian. Expats, first generation immigrants and tourists, they all came to catch Boris Grebenshchikov (who more spells his last name as Grebenshikov in English) on a rare American tour. He's the man who essentially invented rock music in Russia, and has been one of the most respected and influential singer-songwriters in the country for several decades.Grebenshchikov, 61, who started making music in the early 1970's with his band Aquarium, is often described as the Russian counterpart to Bob Dylan. Though this label greatly oversimplifies both musicians' legacies, certain aspects of the comparison make sense. A fan both of British and American rock (from Dylan to Marc Bolan, Lou Reed to Talking Heads) and the Russian literary tradition, Grebenshchikov - usually referred to as BG - synthesized contemporary Western culture with his native Russian one, interpreting the foreign sounds in his own way and creating a unique sub-genre with his brand of highly sophisticated and metaphoric lyricism. Essentially, since the mid-1980's BG has assumed the role of the Russian Poet, an artist who put the nation's spirit into song. Many of his lines have become their own kinds of proverbs in Russian, and hardly anyone who tries to write a song with a guitar there can escape his influence.At some point, BG tried to make it in America. When the Perestroika came, and the West became curious about the Soviet counter-culture, Grebenshchikov went to the U.S. to work with producer Dave Stewart, of Eurythmics, recording an English-language album, Radio Silence. The record managed to enter the Billboard Top 200, and BG even appeared on Letterman, but the breakthrough didn't quite land, and Grebenshchikov went back home to continue his Russian career.

Grebenshchikov's performance on David Letterman's show, 1989It's a widely held belief that the Soviet underground rock scene, led by BG and Aquarium, played an important role in helping to bring the Soviet regime to an end. But apart from his Perestroika anthem "Train On Fire," Grebenshchikov has rarely expressed his personal political views or affiliations, either publicly or in his songs. However, just several months ago, he made an exception. The singer's most recent album, Salt, without specifically naming names, offers a grim perspective on contemporary Russia and the country's social climate. The catchiest song, for example, is called "Love in Wartime," and alludes to the conflict in Ukraine; one of the others, "The Governor," is considered to be about the governor of the Yekaterinburg region, who unfairly persecuted a local journalist.The morning after his New York show, which lasted over two hours and included songs written as early as 1978 and as recent as this year, Grebenshchikov talked to Newsweek about his career, his long-lasting relationship with American culture and his views on current Russian events.Western media usually refer to you as the "Russian Bob Dylan". What do you think of this?Well, I was called all kinds of things--Russian Bob Dylan, Russian David Bowie, The Russian Clash--you name it--Of course, it's misleading. The thing that me and Dylan have in common is that we both are building bridges. Dylan built the bridge between the American traditional culture and pop culture, between folk and rock-n-roll. I have been trying to bridge between Western culture and Russia. As for everything else, well, I don't really care. Branding is a very shallow thing; it doesn't give people any idea of what the music really is. It's probably a bigger responsibility for Bob Dylan than for me. [Laughs.]Still, you said several times that when you started writing songs, one of your purposes was to kind of translate Dylan's songs to Russian.That's not entirely accurate. You can't translate American culture to Russian, because the conditions are very different. …

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