Notes From the Underground
I first heard Гражданская Оборона (pronounced Grazhdanskaya Oborona - Civil Defense in English) when I was twelve years old. I picked up a copy of Все Идет По Плану from a vendor selling them on the sidewalk next to the park off the town square in downtown Kurgan, Siberia. It ran me a thousand rubles, which at the time was about thirty-three cents American. It was one of the very first albums I ever purchased myself. Before I left the states I had picked up a copy of Corrosion of Conformity's 'Technocracy' from a headshop because I read an interview with Metallica where they described them as "punk" - a music I had just recently started gaining interest in after I was given a collection of Dead Kennedys records from this college girl named Heather that was living with my family for the summer.
The album was alot less heavy than Corrosion of Conformity. It lacked the metallic guitars and the gutteral vocals. Most of it was slower than what I was used to from the Dead Kennedys. When I was first turned onto punk music, I was struck by how simple it sounded, it seemed amateur - but as Heather, who had told me that she had dated a guy in school who was into "punk rock and speed metal" told me, that was the charm of it. ГРОБ (the abreviation meaning Grave) took that amateur aesthetic to a completely new level - the music was ultra-minimalistic, the recording itself sounding like it was done in a Soviet flat, the instrumentation often dominated by acoustic guitar - the artwork reflected the romantic desperation that was life in Russia. It is to this day my all time favorite album cover, and one of my favorite photographs, period. The album was a double record gatefold and the foldout featured pictures of the group live and it looked as if much of their equipment was homemade. The lyrics, however, they were what provided the coup de grace - it wasn't just the words, which I had some trouble understanding with my loose hold of the language, but the delivery! I had never before heard a singer sound as passionate or as sincere. Listening to Egor Letov sing the lyrics to the title track of the album, the chorus of which translates to "everything goes as planned" hit me in similar way to the words of my friend Sergei who I had recently moved in with.
Sergei was twenty-three and I was twelve, going on thirteen. Sergei was involved in crime, he ran a kiosk near the edge of town where he sold liquor and cigarettes - which was the teritory of the Russian mafia. He was an accomplished street fighter who could hold his breath underwater for over three minutes straight and carried around a pen-flare in case of emergencies. He had made me start carrying a plastic handled torch-flare that worked like a bowie knife sized butane lighter when you pulled off the cap. I told him I was scared of carrying one of the guns, as I was afraid it'd go off in my pocket, but he wouldn't let me go unprotected. He taught me to pull it from my pocket, breaking off the cap at the same time so that I could stick it in a person's face in an a fight. The only situation I would have ever needed it for I talked myself out of in confused English, as the person had been a step ahead of me and had a gun pointed at my face only a few skips away from where I had purchased my copy of the album described above.
His two man crew lived with us there in the apartment. The three of them shared a bed, which was the only piece of furniture in their bedroom. I slept on a cot that functioned as a couch during the day in the living room - a sparsely decorated place where we could sit with a couple of us cross legged on the floor. We'd have bottle or two of Russkaya on the table between us, maybe a bottle of port, smoking cigarettes and listening to Технология sing "push the button" in their best Russified impersonation of Depeche Mode. It was like that when Sergei told me stories of his time in the military, and when he told me of his fear and paranoia... when he told me that they would get him eventually. I felt frightened by the intensity of what he told me, I never shook it, as I've never been able to shake the effect of Egor Letov's voice, or hide from the powerful implications of his words.
It was only during this past year that I found that they eventually did get Sergei, just as he had predicted. He died beneath a subway train in Moscow. It was only a couple years after I saw him last, which would have made him not much older than I am now as I write this. During the twilight hours of my last morning in Kurgan I recorded a version of a classic ГРОБ song with a couple of friends, one of them Sergei's cousin. It was a cover of the title song off their second album: Оптимизм (Optimism) - the lyrics to which nihilistically go through a list of circumstances that will get a person killed: "someone writes on the walls," "she has eyes," "I shouted the word 'Fuck!'" at one point revealing "Soon it will be easy, for we all will die soon. This is optimism. Our optimism." Everything goes as planned.
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