Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Man on the Engels St Omnibus

Roger Waters Out Of Pink Floyd is clearly tired of making people laugh through his music and has branched out into egomania as a source of mirth. Why anyone would want to pay money (get back!) for a slice of his progrock salami is beyond me, but then this is a country where newspapers employ astrologers, so who knows.

The epic courtroom battle for the honour of the concept album is a warning of how weird the early 1970s were for those of us old enough only to remember the penny tray, school milk and socially-acceptable racism.

As I've remarked before, the Soviet leadership correctly analysed the situation and sought to insulate Red Youth from hip-gyratin' Western good times by exposing it exclusively to aural mudbaths like Jethro Tull and The Doors. The result was several generations of otherwise healthy Slavs with a penchant for ruminative guitar solos and gnomic references to Mexican drug cures.

Such is the crystalline nature of the human spirit, however, that the occasional soul manages to deflect the daily dross from its sheer surface and let harmony, euphony and other Earth, Wind & Fire backing singers flit in.

One evening I was slumped in my seat on the bus home. It was the cold winter of 1986 in Voronezh, the Bridgend of the Soviet Union. I'd spent a few hours with an agreeable selection of provincial bohemians - artists who lived in boiler rooms, guitar-playing medical students with a ready supply of ethanol, kohl-smeared girls in Polish sweaters a size too small, a Latvian who could open beer bottles with his eye socket, and a character simply known as "Ruslan, the Meat-Eating Poet".

We'd spent our time in a way familiar to all British students in Gorbachev-era Russia: drinking whatever was available, eating pickled matter, smoking dandelion & gunpowder cigarettes and debating who was the bigger dickhead - the General Secretary or President Reagan. Mrs Thatcher was universally admired in the Soviet Union for being a woman, and it was a brave CND-badged drab who dared to question her Klebb-like perfection.

Inevitably conversation had turned to music, and I ended up trying not to explain Genesis lyrics to the masses. I even produced a photograph of Phil Collins and noted his facial resemblance to 78% of all KGB officers, to no avail. As usual I left them a few cassettes of The Fall and hoped they hadn't been taped over with Modern Talking by the following week.

I watched the sleet slide down the totalitarian advertising hoardings - Use Toothpaste! Drink Juice! Ensure That Your Television Does Not Explode! - until the doors clattered open and a stringy teenager in Baltic knitwear loped in. He sat opposite for a while, then realised with that Soviet social telepathy that I was a real foreigner, not just some loser from Leipzig.

He moved to the seat in front of mine and, after some hesitation, turned to me with the English form of address unique to that time and place:

"I'm sorry, maybe you speak English?"

Soviet schools taught that this is how to speak to the British, in an effort to make the average Englishman laugh in the face of his Russian interlocutor and turn the latter into an embittered insurrectionist. You could tell KGB plants in the student milieu because they always knew the correct form of address, even if it amounted to "Stand and face the wall, Prisoner Ж1948Я!"

I told my young friend that I did speak English.

He thought for a while, then asked "So, maybe you like the music of Pink Floyd?"

I had two basic options here:

  • I could follow the standard British student response of smiling and going "Mmmm, yes please!".
  • I could be honest and say that, whereas I had the greatest admiration for the audacity and longevity of these thatch-headed public-schoolboys, I had long ago accepted Sid Vicious as my Lord and Saviour and would rather subsist on the toenail cuttings of Yasser Arafat than listen to Dark Side of the Moon, with or without the benefit of The Wizard of Oz.

Instead I distilled the essence of the latter in the concision of the former and replied "No, I'm afraid I don't".

My companion sat silently for a while. The bus reached its next stop, and he ambled to the door. As it opened he turned, smiled, and said "Neither do I!" With that he stepped out into the snow and was gone.

Whenever I hear of new disappointments from Russia I think of that brief and unsentimental exchange. As a generation grows up with no recall of either Communism or an effective opposition, led by a president who seeks out the company of Deep Purple and a prime minister who pretends to fight bears, I hope my fellow-traveller is still out there somewhere, quietly keeping his children's minds clear of all this cant.

I remain an optimist about Russia, all told. It has survived Stalin, brown nylon flares and a health system based on grain alcohol and being punched in the face, so it will get over these preening dwarves. When the final call to account comes, I'm convinced the Man on the Engels St Omnibus will answer for Russia.

And I bet he hates Oasis too.


xerxes said...

Outstanding, red team.

In the tube the other day there was one of those big advertising posters, entirely in Russian. Real Russian that is, not one of those jokey things touting potato spirit from Canvey Island. However I've shot my bolt after Ya ne ponimayu russkaya yazoika so maybe it too was exhorting our tv sets not to explode.

Gorilla Bananas said...

A third option would have been telling him you admired Pink Floyd for cannily investing their earnings in a tax-exempt pension fund which would allow them to retire on massive incomes at the age of 50. It would have prepared him for the advent of capitalism and the reign of the oligarchs. I believe the documentary Rupert Goes to Town was shown in the Soviet Union in 1983 with this aim in mind.

No Good Boyo said...

The march of squat Cyrillic is only just beginning, Inky. It's when they advertise quick victory in Afghanistan that you need to worry. Oh, hang on...

That would have baffled the head of Gosplan, let alone a Soviet teenager, GB, despite its accuracy. The country was doomed.

We Boyos are off on holiday until Thursday, so behave yourself you cheeky commenteers.

Anonymous said...

The first Russian student I met was in Copenhagen in 1994. On hearing that I was from the UK his immediate reaction was to ask me whether I preferred [insert computer-specific nerd-babble here] to [insert more computer-specific nerd-babble here], to which I could only answr "That's something to do with computers, right?", from which point I was then ignored.

Ian Plenderleith said...

On a trip to Venezuela in 1992, the native norm upon finding out I was from Britain was to grin and say, "Aaaaah, Gaaaary Liiiineker!" Difficult to respond to that one, except with, "Yep, what a cunt."

Gareth Williams said...

I think one used to find much the same sort of musical taste in places only a little further east of us, such as France and Germany (not so much now with the former; not sure about the latter).

Not to put too fine a point on it, I think it's down to a lack of appreciation of black music. In which case, perhaps what the Moscow music scene needs is a large influx of Caribbean or West African people? Though I do struggle to justify why someone might choose to leave West Africa to go somewhere that's substantially the same except much, much colder. Not sure the welcome would make it any warmer either.

No Good Boyo said...

Simon, Russians benefited from being in suspended animation for 70 years in some respects, one of which was being able to skip over intermediate stages of technology straight into nano/wap/2.0/Dolby stereo etc. They remain chippy, though, so it's easy to subvert them by insisting that the future is retro. Then they start buying up gramaphones, corsets and the like. Suckers.

Ah, Pop, the bloke Esperanto that is the Premier League. I swear there are as many Man U supporters abroad as there are in London. Lineker is worshipped as some sort of monkey god in Japan.

Gaw, you're spot on. One of the most revealing moments of my time in Moscow in 1989 was attending Paul Simon's Graceland concert in the company of many expats and the Soviet jeunesse dorée. The latter, sleek and sinister in their wrap-arounds and highlights, jerked around in that Russian simulacrum of dancing while Mr Simon was on stage. During the numbers by Ladysmith Black Mambazo they ostentatiously sat down and sucked on their Marlboro Reds. Wankers.

Many Africans did make it to Moscow to study at the Lumumba Friendship University, an institution with as misleading a name as any in that absurd country. If anything accounts for the failure of Communism to catch on in Africa, it was the Lumumba Legacy.

Russian mainstream music have now picked up on the most useless aspects of rap, and that's about it. Soul, R'n'B, funk, hiphop - might as well have happened on another planet. There are honourable exceptions, of course, and at least no one has taken up the Mariah Carey brand of melisma.

Anonymous, the correct transliteration is "Shiruetto ya kage ga kakumei o miteiru", and the singer was Michi Hirota.

Gadjo Dilo said...

The music of The Doors was allowed behind the Iron Curtain?? That's explains why the DJ at our local DIY store is always playing "Light My Fire" and "Break On Through to the Other Side", etc over the tannoy. I thought he was just being ironic (and a bit Hungarian) seeing as how the shop sells doors, like.

St Petersberg has (or had) the most excellent Ska music scene, sometimes featuring an exiled African musician or two.

No Good Boyo said...

The Doors were thought rightly to bring shame on all forms of rock, given their propensity for bad poetry, hammond organs, slap-on Injun culture and obesity. Burial in Paris and an Oliver Stone biopic did the rest.

Your own blog, Gadjo, is a haven for decent music in general, including the Russkies. I urge all visitors to click thither and wallow.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Cheers, Boyo!

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

I once had a flatmate in Paris who (I'm told) was shagging the drummer of that band you don't like. I won't say what year, as he was probably married to someone at the time. I am assured that I must have found him lurking in the kitchen some mornings, if I didn't notice the giveaway red Ferrari parked outside the front door. I have no recollection at all, and wouldn't recognize him or any of his bandmates if I was sat next to them on the Engels Street Omnibus.

Kevin Musgrove said...

What extraordinary good fortune to meet such a man on the bus.

The Major tells me that in the land of the back-pocket handgun it's not a good idea to respond to the cheery greeting "Ah... Manchester United!" with my usual "Fuck off."

No Good Boyo said...

Your mate was shagging Phil Collins, Daphne?! To be fair, he did contribute the eerie, back-recorded drum pattern to Peter Gabriel's "Intruder", and made me a feminist. Of which more another time.

"Fuck off," Kevin, is a greeting that the modern British have made their own. I gather that urchins now yell it at us in souks from the Maghreb to the Gulf.