Tatyana Apraksina (trans. James Manteith)

It’s Mike —The Author of the Theme

Published in: 01. Apraksin Blues

In the beginning of autumn 1974 — so many years ago! — Mikhail Naumenko, or simply Mike, as his friends called him and he liked to refer to himself, looking at the time completely the teenager, took pleasure in spending time along with a number of other similarly young, constant guests, full of enthusiasm, in the home those who frequented it had dubbed “Apraksin Palace.” Palace! How could it have been otherwise, and I was the “countess” — thanks to my work with drawing in those day. Sometimes, true, the apartment was more modestly dubbed “Apraksin House,” and some special observers some time later introduced the term “Madame Apraksina’s salon.”

In the days spoken of here, the company as a rule entertained itself noisily and cut loose with all its spirit — in pursuits, it must be said, of an utterly innocent character. Intense debates of life-shaking questions alternated now and then with foolish student escapades, or decorating each others’ physiognomies with paint, or unimaginable collective music sessions in which the place of honor went, it goes without saying, to the guitar and piano parts. Special expressiveness, however, was achieved by using absolutely any object that happened to be on hand, including items of furniture, table settings and so on — everything able to knock, jingle, ring or shake. At such moments, we experienced the closest possible union of souls and rose toward unknown ideals.

That autumn, Mike was, if only just barely, the “Palace”‘s most faithful visitor. He could be seen almost daily. He came alone, or with one of his friends. Sometimes he showed up to modestly form a small retinue for Aquarium. Skinny, frail, with his large nose stretching forth as if with interest, forever traveling faster than his face — with its lively, round, dark eyes that shone with good-natured curiosity — he was ready to take part in everything, share with all and be everyone’s friend. When he did something that turned out less than smoothly, he usually spoke up to condemn himself, saying with embarrassment, “What a klutz I am!”

Up to that time, he hadn’t written a single one of his famous songs, although he already carried around a neatly kept notebook in which the foundations of future hits were being laid. Many of these songs actually began to be recorded namely then, although they were not to be discovered until significantly later — Mike could take years to bring one song to fruition, from time to time jotting down a word, a phrase in the notebook, “trying on” various variations for size, tossing pieces in as if composing a mosaic, testing whole fragments, putting the text through a step-by-step edit.

All this, however, didn’t become known right away. As far as we were concerned, Mike was simply dear to all, well-disposed to all, a young man very much at home with everyone, markedly the more so in wearing an old felt hat, wide-brimmed, like a sagging mushroom. This famed hat was constantly switching masters. Its generous-spirited owners were forever bestowing it upon one another on the occasion of a birthday or other festive events, or simply as a token of special affection or under the influence of fits of altruism. The hat fell to Mike through this same order of things.

Having appeared once, Mike kept faithful to this route, these friends, energetically taking part in all happenings, playing and singing backup to everyone, eagerly assembling the company for any undertaking — and because, well, why not, it was at this time he dropped out of the institute where he had studied.

And so, in the first days of autumn 1974, sitting in the customary circle amid the usual conversations, occasionally placing a quip in the shared conversation, Mike, escaping our notice, buried his head in a sheet of paper lying before him on the low table and started thoughtfully filling it with words.

Growing absorbed in this assignment, he shut himself off more and more from the company, waving away remarks and jokes in his address. Gradually, everyone ceased to pay him any mind and at last left him in peace.

After some time, Mike came back to life, started to move again, bid all present to silence and announced, with mock seriousness, I just wrote a song…about all of us…if you want, I can…

He asked for a guitar, searched for the right key and added it to his voice — unlike any other, with more than a little nasal twang — and in his beloved “Dylan-esque” manner, a nearly one-note, drawling monotone, he “whined” through his dithyrambs — not very smooth (“What a klutz I am”) but despite this very sincere, as all Mike did: a hymn to wonderful completeness, the unclouded perfection of this moment of life, run-of-the-mill but steeped in feeling and faith in the future. The hymn’s contents amounted to a deep approval of the intuitive wisdom that had summoned each of us to be present at the singularly correct place and time to linger a while as a participant in singularly correct events.

The hymn was accepted enthusiastically — it didn’t commit to anything more, but completely fit the style of other joint endeavors. And Mike himself was not the kind to exaggerate his compositions’ value. Just a sweet nothing — the way a bird on a bough lifts up praise to life’s fullness when spring’s sensations rush upon it.

The sheet of paper holding the hymn’s words lies here to this day, safely pressed among strata of other sheets, all the paper that bears traces of the moving hearts of people close to me. So this sheet stayed to abide in the place where simple words were laid on it, many years ago, where the hand of a dear friend placed a signature — Mike — and broadly inscribed a title — APRAKSIN BLUES.

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