Yurovision

Corona Rock…?

If you could see my dusty sneakers now, you’d probably accuse me of not taking proper care of my shoes. But this dust is special, I’d reply! You see, living in Berlin, one doesn’t get his or her boots dusty every day, it’s relatively clean here. And this particular dust comes from the city of Koblenz, which is 606 km away from where I live. That’s where I’ve just been to, my first trip since March, I believe. And just imagine, I went there with my band, and that was also the first show we played in many months (and probably the last one for the months to come). Yes, you heard it right, a show! A gig! A concert! Remember those? 

For almost 20 years now, Horizonte Festival takes place in an old fortress, Festung Ehrenbreitstein. We played there 10 years ago and although I‘ve been doing a number of festivals through the years and in my memory many of them melted into one, Horizonte is among those that do stand out. I recognise the fortress’ walls and the stages, I remember the way to the catering area… it’s good to be back! 

But something‘s different. The tables and the chairs. That’s new. Some of the crew members wear masks. There are two stages, but performing there is the identical line-up. In front of each stage there are tables and chairs for 350 people. The audience of each stage gets to see the same three bands. The crowds don’t mix.

It‘s a great feeling to be able to perform live again! Standing in front of actual humans, not streaming into the virtual emptiness…..I surely missed that. But the response we get is different than usual. First I wonder whether we’re doing something wrong. We aren’t, of course, that’s just the safety regulations. All of us fully support them, but….it still kind of weird. 

Knowing that people are not allowed to dance, we have to re-think what we gonna say between the songs. „Everybody dance“, „hug your neighbor“-announcements are out of the question tonight….but clapping and singing along still work, thanks God! 

I’m trying to come up with some stories, this approach would probably be more appropriate for this particular situation, and I suddenly end up talking of how familiar this looks to me. You see, I was born in the USSR and the first rock shows I attended had a similar vibe, in a way. There was a strict code, dancing was absolutely prohibited, many shows were ended prematurely by the police…

Who could’ve imagined that 30 years later the pandemic Germany would remind me of the Soviet Union right before it’s collapse?

In the middle of our set one lady from the first row can’t take it anymore. She stands up and starts dancing… no one stops her. But no one follows her example either. Strange days. 

This might come as a surprise, but musicians whose songs you listen to daily need to pay the rent, too (well, maybe not Sting or Katy Perry, but the rest of them do). They have to earn money and occasionally need to eat (no, they don’t exist on a diet of drugs and alcohol (though guess what, heroin and champagne don’t come for free either)). Should I brief you on the subject of musicians’ income sources?.. OK!

….now imagine you are one of us. Your music is available on YouTube and Spotify (Deezer, iTunes whatever), you get 0,0000000000000001 cents for each stream. You sell your records, CDs and tapes at the gigs, as well as t-shirts, baseballs, panties and bottle-openers. Unless you are very sick or your great-uncle has just passed away and left you a nice little chateau in Southern France, you’re always on tour. People come to the shows, if you are lucky, they support you buying your merchandise. And then it’s 2020 and BAMM!…. what’s that? That’s the sound of your crashed plans, brother! The tour is cancelled, the merchandise is stacked in your basement. In order to survive, you need to adjust, to adapt to the new circumstances, to the new crazy times. So far musicians have always done that, more or less successfully.

There’s a proverb existing in a number of languages – to put a good face to the bad play…..(just checked with my English-speaking friends and found out there’s no such expression in English, so I’ll have to explain this one I guess. It’s simple, it’s like you are at a market, selling rotten apples from last year but still trying to convince people it’s the freshest and tastiest fruit they ever gonna try)…

….that’s how I’d describe some of the attempts to deal with the challenging situation of the last few months. While the concert venues are closed and 99,5% of the summer festivals are cancelled, what are we left with? There’s only one right answer here, streaming. YouTube and Facebook, Instagram and Zoom offer online concerts, workshops and DJ-sets of different quality. This is OK. What’s fascinating however is watching how some try to sell their online events as something absolutely unique. TUNE IN ON TUESDAY TO WITNESS THE FULL MUSICAL EXPERIENCE! And you actually may find this advertisement intriguing…..but what do you see as you tune in? A guy in his tiny kitchen, playing an Oasis cover on an acoustic guitar? Thanks, but no, thanks, if that’s the full musical experience, I don’t want this. But hey, the advertisement rocked anyway! Let’s keep on trying!

Another example of adjustment to the existing reality is a compilation my dear friend Wladimir Kaminer gave me some 18 years ago. 4 CDs, 20 songs each, all of this stuff was recorded in the Soviet Union between 1931 and 1949 and dedicated to the sole subject which gave the compilation its title, SONGS ABOUT STALIN. Listening to these songs, you’re not sure what the appropriate reaction should be, laughing or crying at this? The Stalin’s era left musicians’ with no other choice but singing serenades to The One and Only, The Greatest Of The Greatest, it was either that or death. And sing they did, in Russian and Yiddish, Ukrainian and Kazakh….

Meanwhile in present-day Russia Putin won the referendum on constitutional reforms this week that allows him to rule the country for the next 121 years. So in the coming weeks the “Songs About Stalin” compilation might become a tutorial for our Russian colleagues, sharing some perfect examples of the tools and techniques a songwriter needs to acquire nowadays.

Hello, Lenin?.. Wtf?

I’m not sure whether this is something to be discussed in psychotherapy, but…it can’t be that it’s just me who has a feeling we’ve been haunted and stalked by the ghost of Lenin? By “us” I mean those coming from the former USSR, of course. 

I’m serious, the so-called October Revolution happened over a hundred years ago, the bald guy has been dead and gone for 96 years, but…forgotten he is not, and sometimes there’s this creepy feeling he’s still somewhere close. 

Yesterday I tried to explain this to my 15-year-old son, who was born and raised in Germany. In our childhood Lenin played the role of a grandfather. That’s what he was called in the textbooks, poems and cartoons, Grandpa Lenin. And so I grew up up believing I had three grandfathers, Boris Rivkin, Sergey Gurzhy…and Vladimir Lenin. Wherever we went, there were Lenin monuments, usually Lenin holding a cap in his left hand and showing the path towards the bright future with his right one. As for the number of songs written about him, I think not only can Vladimir compete with Jesus, he also has serious chances to win this. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed I hoped we were done with this idiocy. But over and over, time proves me wrong. First, one of my favourite punk bands covered a Lenin song. 

The battle goes on, again!

The heart is pounding anxiously!

And Lenin, so young, is leading us!

And the youthful October, too!

As 6 years ago in my home country Ukraine the Lenin monuments were finally dismantled, many people tried to protest. Come think of it, in a place where religion was prohibited they grew up worshipping a monster who was (co-)responsible if not for everything, then at least for most of the shit that came down in the 20th century. I remember watching these news in disbelief from Berlin, the city I’ve been calling my home for over 20 years…. I thought we are safe here in Germany, where they even produced a movie called “Goodbye, Lenin”.  Guess what, last week I heard there’s a brand new Lenin monument installed in Gelsenkirchen….what the fuck? Really? 

Lenin was a popular character in the movies and some of them were filmed in Germany. Once Leonid Voytsehov, a brilliant artist from Odessa, Ukraine, suggested that all Lenin monuments should become monuments to the ACTORS WHO PORTRAYED LENIN. Think about that, Gelsenkirchen. I think that’s only one way out of it.   

As a kid, I was often sick and had to stay home in our 3-room apartment in Kharkiv, Ukraine, which I shared with Mom, Dad and my grandparents (who were both dentists and had their private dental office in one of the rooms. In the USSR this was illegal, but … well, .what wasn’t?) As much as many Soviet citizens believed that private dentists are much more effective than those working in the clinics, my parents decided I’d be better off with a day nanny, a Ukrainian Mary Poppins that would take care of me better than her colleagues in the kindergartens. And soon they found one.

Our Miss Poppins was a nice grey-haired lady. She had a kindergarten in miniature, 3-4 kids that would stay in her apartment, go for walks and eat homemade food….or that’s what my parents thought the deal was. What they were not aware of in the beginning, my nanny was religious (which back in the day was also kind of illegal). And as she earned the parents’ trust, she would regularly take us kids to the church with her. 

This was pretty awkward. My family (my Ukrainian father-the-atheist, my Jewish mother and her parents) was not amused. And so at some point I ended up in a regular Soviet kindergarten….

1993 I was 18, studying foreign languages at the Kharkiv University. The Soviet Union collapsed two years earlier. Most of what used to be illegal became perfectly normal. Suddenly being religious was OK, even trendy. And that’s when the country got flooded with the preachers from different churches and cults, fighting for the souls of the newly independent Ukrainians. My fellow students were often recruited as interpreters. They made some bucks and always had funny stories to tell about their employers afterwards. Somehow this made me think of my day nanny. I didn’t have any idea whether she was alive or not….  And then suddenly I saw that flyer. 

Now, you’ve got to understand that in the early 1990s in Ukraine flyers, any flyers, flyers as such,  were not as common as they became years later. So yes, I found that flyer with a picture of an extravagant lady and for a second I thought this was my nanny…but then realised it couldn’t be her, as the woman in the photo was actually much younger. She looked like some goddess (or rather someone under the influence of drugs, dressed to look like a goddess). Her name was Maria Devi Christos, the flyer said, she was a new messiah, the leader of The White Brotherhood Usmalos. This was far-out…but also quite creepy. In the next few weeks I was shocked to see more and more white brothers and sisters on the streets. You could recognize them immediately, cause all of them, well, wore white. They approached the passers-by, handed them flyers, announced that the End Of The World was approaching (on November, 10th, 1993, to be precise) and asked for donations. Maria Devi Christos and her boyfriend threatened to commit a mass suicide with their followers, but were both arrested. The White Brotherhood was declared a totalitarian destructive cult.

 

My taste in music, as you might have noticed, is quite eclectic. In the last year or two I’ve been listening a lot to the stuff from the late 1960s – early 1970s. This used to be my first love, back when I was 16, and it’s much fun to re-discover some of the records I used to know by heart, but also to explore bands and albums from the same era I haven’t heard before. The other day while searching for some record cover on Instagram I stumbled across a hashtag “xianpsych”. What could that be?, I wondered….and some clicks later a brand new world of Christian Psychedelic Rock opened to me. What can I say?..I’ll never be the same again! 

Yesterday night I was going to bed listening to the “Moog Mass” (based on Stabat Mater Dolorosa from the 13th century and recorded in New York in 1970, using the weirdest Moog sounds), today I just did my morning workout with Fraction’s “Moon Blood”, a killer psych album by a Los Angeles-based band from 1972. Praising Jesus and quoting the Holy Book backed by roaring guitars and howling synthesizers is something I couldn’t imagine even in my wildest dreams. 

If you won’t hear from me in the coming weeks, don’t worry. I’m home, next to my record player, dropping acid with Jesus. Amen!

“So…does that mean I’ll have to switch from Facebook to YouTube?”, my mom wonders, messaging me as I’m walking towards the Panda Theatre last Friday night with a suitcase in my left hand and a guitar bag on my back. My phone is in my right hand, we are communicating via WhatsApp. Mom turns 71 this year and seeing her finally exploring the online world is a big deal for me! 

Facebook! YouTube! WhatsApp! ….But as much as I wish I would be responsible for the progress she’s been making recently, it isn’t me, it’s the quarantine and the fact that she can’t see either her kids or grandkids at the moment, so she’s finally getting into the technologies that’d help her to talk to them at least virtually and help her to kill time effectively. 

As for me, my band RotFront is on standby, but suddenly I’m back to DJ-ing regularly. My Friday nights are spent at the Panda Theatre, a venue in the smaller yard of the Kulturbrauerei. I’ve been friends with the guys who run it for a long time but I never spinned music there. It’s no Berghain, if real people would physically dance there, not more than 60-70 would fit in, I guess, and we would eventually get into trouble with the neighbours because of the volume…. But just imagine, as I’ve been spinning my eclectic selections there every Friday night for the last two months, each time our streams attracted thousands of people from all over the world. I get feedback from New York and LA, Jerusalem and Kyiv. Even from Potsdam! Cause my mom’s watching my every performance (which never happened before!)

Her message wakes me up on Saturday at 7 AM.”Good morning! I enjoyed the first two songs of your set, – she writes, – but then it got too loud for me, I hope next time you’ll play some softer stuff! All my girlfriends will be watching. Have a great weekend and see you next Friday!”

Yuriy Gurzhy

I can’t sleep, at night I sing the German anthem. 

I don’t know what’s wrong, maybe I should drink more beer.

I just can’t fall out of love with Germans, no I can’t.

There’s a fairly new Facebook community and I’m sure most of you aren’t even aware of its existence, although by now it has more than 900 members. The only chance you’ve heard of it is if you come from Kharkiv, Ukraine, like me. The community is all about my hometown’s vibrant alternative scene of the 1980s-1990s, and it’s partly a virtual museum, partly a digital cemetery. Though I’m not in a particularly nostalgic mode right now, I do enjoy being reminded of how unique a place Kharkiv was at the time. I mean, come on, what other city in the world (and outside Germany) could claim that Rammstein was invented there…before Rammstein from Berlin became probably the best known German band internationally? Well, Kharkiv can!

I remember vividly how in the early nineties I was introduced to the Rammstein from Kharkiv, a band of three Ukrainian weirdos that were fascinated by everything German. This was pretty extravagant, as the rest of us were into American or British bands, but these blokes seemed to have been inspired by techno-pop songs in the language of Goethe and some heavy metal as well. They called themselves “GUTEN MUTTER” and were recording their first album at a studio run by someone I knew, so I got to hear the rough mixes and….well, was pretty impressed. 

The first song was sung in a mixture of Russian and German and told a sad story of a guy whose wife and kids ran away because of his love for Germany. 

I can’t sleep, at night I sing the German anthem 

I don’t know what’s wrong, maybe I should drink more beer,

I just can’t fall out of love with Germans, no I can’t.

The next one was a list of German irregular verbs. 

I met the band as they came to work on the new mixes. The bald singer looked like a Nazi, his hairy bandmates like metallheads…. 

I wonder where these three are now. Maybe they could have made it in Germany and get bigger than Rammstein? Who knows…. Looks like Guten Mutter disbanded after the first album and a couple of shows. There are two shitty videos you can find online, a YouTube monument to the lost chances…. 

ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Guten Mutter from Kharkiv, Ukraine!

Yesterday my son asked me to tell him about the first gig I attended. Funny, I remember it quite vividly, although it happened 31 years ago. I was 14 then and my cousin’s brother who knew I was getting into rock music invited me to join him. 

Yuriy Gurzhy

It was a festival, which at the time was pretty much a sensation for my Ukrainian hometown Kharkiv that was still a part of the USSR. As far as I know, this was the second time something like that was allowed by the local authorities to take place. The times were changing, and what used to be underground yesterday was suddenly becoming mainstream. So the festival that featured a number of bands banned throughout the decade, was actually happening, in a venue for almost 2000 people. And it was PACKED! 

However, these were still the transformative years, or PERESTROYKA, as it was called then…which means, the good old Soviet ways were still fought against. The local administration operated in a fashion that today reminds me of “Cheburashka”, a cartoon from the seventies. There was this guy there, a director of the brick factory, and while being approached by the kids to support them in building a playground, he replies: “Well, you see, if I show kindness, people always tend to think I’m too soft. But if I’m strict, they think I’m an asshole”. So in the cartoon he ends up giving half of what he’s being expected to give…but eventually Cheburashka and his friends trick him. That’s more or less what happened behind the curtain of “Rock Against Stalinism” 1989 in Kharkiv (I can imagine the clever young curators of the festival talking to apparatchiks, making it clear those who dare to ban a festival with such a title could be potentially seen as Stalin-sympathizers, which in 1989 would be the uncoolest thing to be). 

Most of the bands on the line-up were allowed to play. But there was one serious restriction, the authorities were to approve all the lyrics that were planned to be sung from the stage in those two days. This kind of censorship was a common practice in the USSR, however the new generation of rock’n’rollers wasn’t ready for that. So among others, they did perform all the songs they were not supposed to, each time introducing them to the audience as the censored content. The crowd, including me in the 7th row, cheered and went nuts.   

But the most unexpected part of that night was the set of Grazhdanskaya Oborona, also known as Gr.Ob. (Civil Defense), the strictly forbidden punk band from Siberia. No one knew they would play, their appearance was not announced, in fact everyone was expecting to see RubFuck, a local avant-garde group. As I talked to their guitar players years later, he told me it took them by surprise, too. They were approached backstage fifteen minutes before the show and were told they wouldn’t be playing. With no sound check The Civil Defense took the stage by storm. Their set was fast and furious, 10 songs in 16 minutes, the quintessence of everything the Soviet underground rock was about. Lyrically, they mostly sang about politics, and their lexicon consisted mainly of 4-letter words. Musically, they were fast as The Dead Kennedys and depressing like Dostoevsky. They performed all their greatest hits, “Totalitarianism”, “They’ll shit us out of their asses”, “To communism we walk down our burning path”, “We are the ice under the mayor’s feet” 

That night I couldn’t sleep. These 16 minutes changed my life completely. I wonder if my son can understand that… I hope he will!