Here’s to you, Viktor
“How many songs are left unsung?
Tell me, cuckoo bird, sing out.
Is it my destiny to live in the city or in the village?
To lay as a stone or burn as a star?
Like a star.”
Kino, “The Cuckoo”
Sunday was the birthday of Viktor Tsoi, the Soviet Kurt Cobain, who wrote some iconic tunes, changed the Russian music world with his group Kino, and then died young enough to become a martyr.
Unfortunately it was also the day after the perennial shitshow “Aliye Parusa” (“Crimson Sails”), which celebrates the end of secondary school for graduates, but is actually just an excuse to pack way too many drunk people and police into the center of St. Petersburg (sometimes the two parties aren’t mutually exclusive: a gang of cops were tipping a few back in Cafe “Bochka” when we arrived). The point is, by the time Sunday rolled around, compatriots to raise a glass or two to Tsoi were few and far between; I didn’t make it out to the artist’s grave at Bogoslovskoye Cemetery.
But I did make it to a birthday concert near my apartment on Petrogradskaya, in the Palace of Culture Lensovyeta, an entirely Soviet venue, down to the angry babushki patrolling the giant, crumbling halls. Apparently Aliye Parusa really took it out of the Petersburg populace, because the concert itself was ill-attended.
In fact, headliner Torba-na-Kruche, a band I’ve seen twice and often imagined as a Russian Coldplay with the slightest metal edge a la Bon Jovi, refused to play because of the low turnout. Before there scheduled performance, the MC came out and announced their absence with an enigmatic Soviet saying: “The money to the ticket counter, the culture to the masses.” But his meaning was apparent looking at the empty hall, where spider webs outnumbered people two-to-one; apparently, the take-in at the door wasn’t enough to pay Torba.
The small crowd began to shout a few meek protests and rumble with discontent, before a savior emerged in the form of an unknown concertgoer with an acoustic guitar who emerged and played half-a-dozen Tsoi tunes. It was just what the audience was looking for, since the bands at the event almost completely avoided Tsoi covers, like Phish always refused to play the Grateful Dead.
The crowd sang along with every word (Tsoi lyrics are more widely known than those of the national anthem, which has changed so often since the fall of the Soviet Union no one’s sure what they are anymore) and swayed arm-in-arm in the mosh pit. Tears and sweat streamed beneath the strains of acoustic guitar and plaintive teenage wailing. It was a 100 percent Russian experience, one that lacks an American equivalent. As the co-pariah of the Moscow expat newspaper The eXile (which has ironically enough been exiled from Russian soil) Matt Taibbi noted, “Americans can’t do anything without irony.”
The next few bands weren’t bad, and Moscow group Priklyucheniya Elektronikov, which might be loosely translated as “Adventures of the Electronicists,” played a great punk-rock cover of the cartoon classic “The Song of the Bremen Musicians.” But the highlight of the night was everyone belting out “The Cuckoo” with our surprise guest.
“Sun, have a look at me,
My palm has become a fist.
And if there’s gunpowder, give me fire.