James Manteith

Generating Antibody Rock (Blues Report)

Published in: 31. Nonoctave Scale

Seeking Seva Gakkel’s December concert, we wander in snowy, icy darkness among the brick edifices of former warehouses not far from the railroad tracks to Moscow. When he’d invited us to his next performance of the season, with the winter equinox close at hand (we missed an earlier show because of mandatory quarantine after arriving in St. Petersburg), Seva had described a site off Ligovsky Prospect in a kind of inner city in the city, a bit in the spirit of Apraksin Court. After circumambulating all the buildings, we finally find Seva: the men at the building’s signless entrance tell us that if we’re looking for Club Ionoteka, this is it.



We’re still standing outside when the first notes sound. It’s as if Aquarium from the 70s is playing behind the door: the same lively rawness. A sound that might have seemed archival, lost, is showing up fresh, whole, unharmed. Why be surprised? Seva played at least the second-most important role in shaping the musical face of Aquarium. While Grebenshchikov continues to prove his ability to change, someone has to channel waves of changeless being, initially the main epiphany that set their band apart.


In a room like a cross between a bar and a stable, no less dark than the evening street itself, Seva — the Great Gakkel — sits on stage, readily identifiable after, for us, a ten-year interval. No cello in sight. In Seva’s hands is an electric guitar. Another guitarist, virtuoso Anton Spartakov, forms an expressive pair with him, helping to reveal each song’s uniqueness.


The thing is, Seva, after many years of providing support as a musician and organizer, is suddenly composing his own songs, and there are already enough of them for an independent concert program. Seva is a well-known personality, and many have long been familiar not only with his biography but even with his clan’s. At least approximately. Images of pre-revolutionary airplane designers and post-revolutionary White Guards seem to swirl around him. Many are also familiar with his attitude to life: a mixture of lofty ambition and generous openness, steadfast invulnerability and enduring sensitivity. Helping his friends and dreaming, at least at times, of discovering and encouraging new talent, as he did with Tsoi and others… And all of that has turned into songs. Absolutely, one hundred percent, you hear and feel that yes, that’s him, Seva. And it’s quite clear who different songs are about — which woman or which pivotal friend is sung of in lines like “You have a new frock coat on, but it’s tight on the likes of you.”



Seva himself, as is also well known, sings his own songs wonderfully, and his new compositions teem with vivid poetry. The famous tennis afficionado deftly plays with words, including English ones referencing Western rock classics. He seems to savor each such opportunity. Seva has a deep sense of irony about himself and his dabblings as a songwriter — as, indeed, about all he does — but he subtly knows his own worth. So does everyone else. And if, as he warns the audience, he’s sometimes forgetful, he remembers far more than he forgets.


He’s also scrupulous about making music. When the chords of “I Don’t Want to Be Two-Faced” sound less than perfect — perhaps because of the cold’s effect on the instrument — he twice stops playing and tunes his guitar for a long time, explaining to the audience, “I’m sorry, it’s not right to let this kind of song sound wrong, not like it should.”


The song is about love. About a love that somehow doesn’t work out. The careful tuning pays off. Fresh batches of dry ice puff out from backstage, and in the billows the song finally coheres, and even very well — without hypocrisy, without false turns of phrase.


Between songs, Seva rubs his hands together to warm them. “I don’t think there’s any heating here at all,” he remarks. “Never mind. You have no idea how cold it is here. Your hands must be in your pockets or something.” Hot tea is brought to him onstage. “What drinks inspire you?” asks a cocky young man in the audience. “Puerh,” Seva answers in his inimitable soft voice. He miraculously pulls through.


After Seva’s last song, apparently fittingly chosen as bidding a final farewell to a certain lyrical anti-hero (“You need a ticket, right away, one way ticket, ticket to ride…never come back”), critic Alexander Kushnir — who came late to the concert  after his presentation at the House of the Book, where his still-fresh tome about Mike is on sale — demands more songs. “You’re late; all we can do now is repeat what we’ve already played,” Seva retorts. Kushnir insists — at least an encore! — and gets backing from the audience. “Who asks like that?” Seva says, gratified but still slightly bristling. Yet there will be an encore. Seva begins to talk about volcanoes.


It’s immediately clear which song we’re in for. The song that marked Seva’s turn to songwriting ten years ago, the song he was shooting a music video for in the days when we saw him last. Seva saw the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajöküdl as an “apocalyptic moment. No one knew how it would end. That is, it could have just stopped, or maybe it was just the beginning and all volcanoes would erupt… If anyone remembers, it disrupted travel between Europe, America and Asia. The band “Auktsyon” got stuck on the road somewhere and couldn’t fly out. Either going from America to here or from here to there. It doesn’t matter.”


“It’s about the same as how right now nobody knows how this awful COVID is going to end,” Seva observes. “If it ends. I have antibodies, though. That is, if anyone needs them, I can give you some little hammers or whatever paraphernalia; you can have some of my antibodies. I recovered, somehow — oh well, it’s over now.”


Suddenly it appears that precisely this is happening: while the world seeks vaccines, Seva is quietly sending antibodies right into the audience, straight into his listeners.



We had an apocalyptic feeling in 2010, too, and not just over an Icelandic volcano. We struggled with that sensation. And Seva responded to his own ominous sentiments by penning a dourly cheerful song dedicated to the volcano, then gathering St. Petersburg’s whole rock intelligentsia for the music video, with the song staged as a chorus of alternative all-stars. Back then, Seva confessed that each little project he sets in motion has a strange way of always exceeding his expectations.


The making of the music video “Eyjafjallajöküdl” served as a fine opportunity to appreciate that Seva really does know everyone and everyone knows Seva. But actually, the song is psychological. Given Seva’s dislike of smoking, the participants’ repeated virtual smoke-blowing seems to project sublimated desires onto a number of alter egos. In lines like “you started off so nicely but just didn’t finish up,” “you gave us hope but you didn’t fulfill it,” “strap on your belt, get a grip, rosin up your bow,” one might presume Seva is aiming reproaches and calls to action at, say, himself and other rock idols, as if taunting sleeping volcanoes. And we can all make this polemic our own.


So at the end of the show Seva sang namely the volcano song, then put on the video, which remained as creepy as we remembered. When in the last frames the crowd of rockers throws up cards with the volcano’s name on them, after which the smoke hides everyone from view, I had again a feeling, just as at the first viewing, of a hopeless, traceless loss of everything these people lived for. It was as if the whole established second culture had been summoned for a mass examination and self-immolation, for the burning of everything meant to be left behind, consigned to the past.


Indeed, that zero year, number ten, had parallels with the current twenty. How much of what happened and existed then has burned up, making room for the future, and how quickly this pattern is repeating itself! Differently, but as if following in the footsteps of those times. Once again, some people and things slip through to the future, while some don’t. Once again, different people try to cope in their own ways.


Thank God, Seva’s composing career didn’t stop with that song about the volcano. May his music keep embodying his amazing life-affirming power. In knowing he is loved, may he stay safe from all regrets. May this knowledge give him antibodies that last.




* * *


The next day Kushnir invited us to his lecture at an elite wine club on Griboyedov Canal. Although Apraksina questions much of what Kushnir wrote in his book about Mike, when it suddenly occurred to the critic to propose that she give a ten-minute talk on the formation of Leningrad rock culture, she agreed, sensing that this might serve as a good excuse to voice certain thoughts.


“I’ll start with the long end of the Leningrad rock music era,” Kushnir explains, “with the death of Kuryokhin in ’95. And then you can start from the beginning, from ’74. This will be a lecture for people who are now in their forties and have no idea where all this music came from.”


For a select audience gathered around a table with ennobled variations on the theme of rock-era drinks — from the best imported port to Calvados — Kushnir cues a video purchased from a Finnish video archive for an exorbitant sum: a performance by Sergei Kuryokhin and his band Pop Mechanics at a festival in Helsinki, a year before the still-young avant-garde artist’s sudden death. Kushnir explains what made the concert scandalous. At a festival press conference, a certain Finn had voiced provocative doubts at the Russian performers’ ability to surprise a Western audience. Kuryokhin’s triumph was that not a soul remained in the hall after the last volley of ketchup attacks. Yet no one, Kushnir notes with obvious pleasure, asked for a refund.


By comparison, the subject of Apraksina’s performance is much more innocent. Having seen for herself that the elite club’s wine connoisseurs indeed know nothing about Leningrad rock music, she decides to take an accessible approach, describing the time when what’s now called rock culture already had a huge influence, but native Russian rock music had not yet coalesced. Yet there were young people. And musical instruments — where Apraksin Blues was born, there were acoustic guitars, a piano, an old Chinese drum, maracas. From such elements, everyone made what music they could.


“Apraksin Court is now ‘Aprakshka,’ it’s God knows what, it’s commerce,” Apraksina says. “You know, back then it was a quiet place, completely unknown. If I took taxis home from work, the drivers wouldn’t know where it was. I’d tell them, ‘Apraksin Lane.’ They’d say, “And where is that?”… By now that’s unimaginable. And the street was very quiet. There wasn’t a single store down the whole lane from Garden Street to the Fontanka! It felt like a personal territory. It was nice to go out, it was nice to come home, and to walk to a store when you needed to.”


The audience perks up. Shopping is easy to understand, shopping is interesting.


“It wasn’t even a social circle — people just came and went, and often didn’t even say who they were… Similarly oriented people just started showing up. At that time, almost any young person couldn’t imagine a future without a part in this rock culture, without intimately belonging to it in some way. Some people might simply have wanted to be in the know: the names of Western bands, songs, the members’ names, and so on. But mostly people fed themselves with the illusion that they could be just as cool, no matter what, and they tried however they could.”


“Often someone would say, most often girls, ‘What about something in Russian?’ And the boys didn’t know yet if it was all right to sing in Russian without blushing. So then, say, Aquarium appears, singing in Russian, and singing very interesting things… That started a process of mutually warming up to each other. Mike’s here, Aquarium’s here, and there are always listeners here: at least two or three people when Grebenshchikov stops by on his way from the Saigon café to the university or vice versa. Geographically, this is a very good intersection. People just drop in along their route somewhere, and when they come in, they find a few people already sitting in the apartment. An audience! People to try yourself out on, people to reach out to. That’s how a place, a geographical point, played a role, left a mark on our rock culture.”


Immediately after the impromptu, we adjourn while Kushnir puts on a recording from the famous TV coverage of the 1980 Tbilisi Rock Festival and begins telling about Aquarium’s scandalous concert there. Yes, it happened. Yes, it became history, it burned. But a life continues which is not necessarily captured by the flashes of loud, smoke-puffing events. That era’s not over, won’t end. Everything depends on definitions, and those definitions have always been simpler than they might seem.


Let’s keep warming up to each other. The source is found, the means are discovered to forge the simplest, strongest antibodies ever. Once again, the way is clear for an era tuned with the perfection of love.


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