James Manteith

Listening to Walls (Blues Report)

Published in: 30. On the Way

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Since the St. Petersburg presentation of the tenth-anniversary edition of 2009′s The Twilight of Saigon, the event’s interconnected themes have stuck with me. What is the basic value of the alternative culture symbolized by the notorious Leningrad cafe nicknamed “Saigon,” many of whose regulars were at the presentation? What is the unexpected link between Saigon and another line of inquiry that has stayed active since then: how to grasp the idea of a wall? And what meaning, for me, do Saigon and walls have for the songs of Mike and Aquarium?


The matter of a wall that “no less connects than it divides” figures in the opening Blues Mondo “When the Wall is Built” in AB‘s prior issue, released in St. Petersburg in parallel with the new Twilight edition. The deliberately provocative little text prompted an unexpected proposal for its author, AB‘s editor-in-chief, to elaborate on it for the Twilight presentation. I also received an invitation to perform classic songs by Mike and Aquarium in my translated versions. Walls, Saigon and the Leningrad rock that I and many others love seemed to cohere in a loose constellation with latent unity. Apparently the presentation organizer also sensed intrinsic connections.

Why, then, do the thoughts in the AB Mondo, grounded in the experience of hand-building a stone wall in the California mountains, resonate with reflections on Leningrad alternative culture and its constituent musical creativity? Perhaps because all these phenomena stem from needing to strengthen material and metaphysical boundaries for further cultivating selves and relationships according to innate tendencies. Such cultivation remains acutely relevant.

Twilight editor Yulia Valieva, an authority on Saigon culture, describes the attitude toward walls, toward the presence of boundaries and restrictions, expressed in “When the Wall is Built” as “exactly what people need now.” A similar conviction made the Mondo’s author write it last autumn, marking the end of many months of work on the AB issue and many years of labor on a stone wall. It might seem surprising to encounter a lively St. Petersburg response to a brief manifesto written in seclusion on the other side of the world. Yet this immediate understanding may come naturally. The assertion that “Without division, freedom is unreachable,” as the Mondo claims, addresses anyone who cares about freedom. Anyone who, striving for freedom, takes its meaning and value seriously.


Walls merit more love now than ever. Popular opinion habitually associates freedom with a yearning for liberation from walls — perceived as infringements, as prohibitions. Yet having reached a historical moment of an apparent lessening of freedoms, many of the original builders of Leningrad alternative culture feel disappointed with the state of life vectors that presupposed greater emancipation. Many of them, of course, have begun to seek freedom foremost in the internet’s social realms. Meanwhile, the achievements of stagnation-era Leningrad’s counterculture, which once had no particular hope of prevailing influence, appear more powerful with each passing year. Seemingly bound for oblivion, that era’s intellectual discoveries are now firmly inscribed in the walls of culture. Such shifts depend on faith in the need to care for truth, in the human ability to cope with any walls, whether friendly or hostile to life.

The same can be said of AB‘s authors, past and present: our authors are those special people who prefer to build and maintain their own walls. The quality of understanding offered by AB comes precisely from the walls represented by contributors. These walls are the key to the longevity of the publication — which turns 25 this year — and the depth of each issue’s contents.

Communication through internal walls is welcome here.

Fortunately, there have always been and remain infinitely many physical and personal walls in the world. Saigon, a hotbed of free communication, existed thanks to reliable material walls — so thick that whole groups of patrons could sit inside its windowsills. The norm in Russia, in the West this is hard to imagine. And communication in Saigon mattered thanks to metaphorical walls which alternative culture’s participants raised individually and together, for the sake of pronounced separation from official surroundings. At the same time, the ability to erect commensurate walls, psychologically and in their daily life, was not limited to Saigon crowds. As Apraksina recently recalled, “I had my own Saigon.” Her own not only territorially, but also a personal version, with its own active catechism of freedom.


The well-known Saigon no longer exists in material form. It is now represented by a plaque in its successor, the Radisson Royal Hotel. But there is a rich chronicle of Saigon, and many think Saigon’s spirit is alive or at least has living potential. A fair number of people complain that the portrait presented in the pages of Twilight is not the Saigon they remember with love or disdain. And they are right. But Twilight holds one of those Saigons whose walls deserve to go down in history, in the walls of culture. The Saigon of Twilight is not a forgery, not a fabrication. This is Saigon in a refined form, like a thick, reliable brick, separated with academic precision from the clay of raw, flat time, as a chance to purge Saigon of muddled definitions, to apprehend and manifest its essence anew.

Mike and Aquarium also belong to the walls of culture. Mike died at thirty-six. Classic Aquarium, capsized in the eighties, also can never return. But their songs are alive and seem ever more special each year. Some observers have probably long foreseen this trajectory. I myself had a sense of it upon first discovering Mike’s and the bygone Aquarium’s music, with ample traces of their presence close by, although neither had been around for quite some while. Preparing for the Twilight presentation renewed my appreciation of their songs’ power.

In its own way, the living AB — alive in both spirit and substance — while building culture, is also incorporated into a new culture. Including in the most literal, material sense. That is, as real, solid walls. After all, long before AB‘s first pages appeared, on Apraksin Lane there were a home’s walls, which eventually became the walls of the historical office and which harbored both Mike and Aquarium, among other guests. Communication through internal walls is welcome here. Which connect no less than they divide. Musically — often also in the most literal sense — creating and attaining resonance.


* * *


Supporters of AB have noted that encountering the publication often becomes a meeting with destiny. My own such encounter, which took place in 1997 and blossomed into long-term camaraderie with AB, was certainly fateful. The turn from the Fontanka embankment onto Apraksin Lane proved to be in many respects the main turn of my life. Intuitions of this took root in me, as for many, thanks to an opportunity to meet with the editor-in-chief namely within the walls on the Lane, walls crammed with stacks of newspapers and paintings. The paintings, the walls, the conversation emanated a careful, healing musicality. Musical fields may inspire ardent movements toward essence. Indeed, AB itself interweaves interactions with the musical structure of being.

My life with AB has had a direct tie to music from the very beginning. My current role is as a translation editor, but at first, starting in 1997, I served as the publication’s rock correspondent. My first article ruminated on the appearance of the mainstream hard rock group Whitesnake in St. Petersburg on tour. A little later it was very nice to learn that Dyusha Romanov, Aquarium’s flutist, had jotted down some of my ramblings on musical aesthetics for his own reference. I then represented AB at a number of events in the city. The quality of the events themselves varied, but everything gave important perspectives. Club Alcatraz, decorated like a huge jail, with waitresses clad in prison garb, offered no less to ponder than did the days of Aquarium cellist Vsevolod Gakkel’s eclectic “Another Music” festival. The revelations were different but complementary. Beyond rock music, AB‘s own multidisciplinary “March Solo,” whose 1998 edition was hosted by the philosophy department at St. Petersburg State University, provided a capstone for such eclectic impressions, underscored by the performance of Gakkel’s own “Vermicelli Orchestra” post-rock, post-Aquarium crossover project at the AB festival that year.


In all cases, I was concerned with the question of going beyond stifling, false commercialism and genre constraints, with the difference between attaining a true or false musical and cultural paradise, with how much any person can embody an ideal. Even then, I myself might have argued with what Dyusha liked in my article: “Rock music, as a general rule, makes no pretensions to eternity. Relinquishing the sweaty hall, aiming for the cosmos, means courting earthly failure. The key to immortality in rock music lies precisely in not aspiring to permanence.” Perhaps Dyusha himself could have expressed a counterargument in favor of choosing the cosmos. Then again, music accommodates contrasts and contradictions.

Apparently I had to start with early Aquarium, and with Aquarium paired with Mike.

In another article, I wrote: “Studying a language, mimicking those around you, is not enough to overcome cultural dependence on one’s country of origin — you have to breathe the nation’s smoke, not trying to protect yourself.” However, it is worth noting that I also wrote this while in the refined atmosphere of the AB editorial office on Apraksin Lane. The publication became and remains my filter, my axis for dependence and independence in seeking musical and other landmarks in the life of the city.

The musical paintings in AB‘s editorial office intersect with the spirit of particular musicians, composers and concert halls. And here, along with classical music, I heard the early albums of Mike and Aquarium — extensions, as I would learn, of the vibrations of music made in that very place, in a different everlasting layer of time. All this was tremendously stimulating. I had already written songs of my own, including in St. Petersburg. After hearing Mike and Aquarium and grasping their connection to my current location and companions, I began to write and play even more. In one song, I sang of willingness to “give up my life for a way out of the world.” It was a kind of prayer — for myself and for all of us. In a sense, I think the prayer was answered. Fortunately, even exits to the general world, as the “Wall” Mondo notes, become an “entrance to freedom,” given a “return to oneself.”


After reading about Aquarium in a Solomon Volkov book on St. Petersburg, a while before I first wound up on the Lane, I had tracked down a cassette with one of the group’s albums from the nineties. That album somehow didn’t connect with me then. Apparently I had to start with early Aquarium, and with Aquarium paired with Mike, and at first with no particular effort to fathom all the ins and outs of this music. I simply overheard it along with the clatter of the editor-in-chief’s typewriter and felt this music, along with the paintings and the whole setting, becoming a part of me, of my yearnings and views of reality. I began to perceive the uniqueness and soulful freshness of the songs’ authors, as poets and performers. Waves of happiness and age-old melancholy seethed around me. The songs concerned readily familiar joys and difficulties of loneliness, friendship and love, acquiring experience and knowledge of earthly life, with hints of the transcendental and even direct forays into astral territory. Much as in the paintings on the editorial office wall. Much as in AB overall.

I also sensed the songs, paintings and AB as mutually organic to St. Petersburg. Before leaving Russia for the first time after arriving there (not counting brief interludes in Estonia and Finland), I set myself the goal of learning to sing and play at least one of Mike’s songs in order to better feel its proportionality to the city. For this I chose the quirky song “Goodbye, Baby” — a chamber-music miniature compared to the day-in-the-life saga of “Sweet N.” Having already learned more details about the author’s fate and volatile connection with Apraksin Lane, I carried this news in myself like a burn mark or a candle in the night. A majestic and deeply personal Petersburg claimed a place in me.

Such impressions were sharpened by serving as a rock correspondent. As a special assignment, I accepted a proposal to interview AB‘s editor-in-chief about Mike — not for a specific use, but to help her prepare for an interview which other journalists planned to take. To formulate my questions, I studied all of Mike’s and Zoopark’s albums. Focusing on Mike and conversing about him expanded my understanding of the unpredictable range of interests that characterized him and his environment (from T. Rex, Lou Reed and Dylan to Hemingway and Remarque), as well the fateful emotions that inspired him. In many ways, AB‘s editor-in-chief, Mike’s muse, has long kept fuller contours of this theme behind a wall of dedication to her own muse. With respect to some authorities on Mike, she herself has long existed beyond a wall of hastily established genre and biographical conventions. But under the right conditions, with the right communication, all this could change, opening a wellspring of insights.


* * *


Along with images of the St. Petersburg editorial office, the music of Mike and Aquarium accompanied me in the years when, again living in America, I participated in creating a base for AB there. It was in America that I began to translate Mike’s and Aquarium’s songs, suddenly compulsively imagining them in English and wanting to answer that hemisphere’s need for their particular soulfulness. As the Mondo says, “A wall forces into overcoming that wall.” As a result, many of those who already knew these songs in the original expressed an opinion, upon hearing English-language versions at the AB Campus in the California mountains, that through this the songs’ power, the real basis of their soul, opened up for them in a new way, from the inside out, precisely in these distant regions. Where a stone wall was being built to echo the Lane’s walls. As their new layer, their amplifier, much as Apraksina’s California Psalms were written and translated to amplify the Petersburg ethos in the West. Against the backdrop of the mountains, crafting AB, helping to fetch stones for the wall, heading out to chop wood and continuing to write songs, I simultaneously began to take an interest in Gregorian chants and psalmody. This was a good setting for approaching Mike and Aquarium from new angles. Not just from the West, but from outside the world. I think they fit in there. It’s their homeland, too. There they can have another creative underground that reaches the highest heights. There they can pass through purgatory. So could I. There, that Mike who waited for “when the paintings on your wall shed all their paint…maybe then, on that day, you’ll come back to me,” can learn better esteem for the heart of painting. And that Aquarium which stigmatically riffed on a woman whose “city center apartment has great views of the park” (supposedly!) can try, as they sing in another song, to “retrace her journey and put into words what it is we owe to her…”

America’s not paradise. Don’t joke like that.

What counts in the work of Mike and Aquarium, I think, is what spiritually unites them with AB and likely led their paths to pass along the Lane: an orientation toward a truth outside the world and a willingness to follow walls that hold the light of life. Without this, what many appreciate in their work — verbal games, satire, witty approaches to translation, intersection with Western influences — would never have converged into larger-scale alchemy.


By the time I sang Mike’s “Seventh Heaven” at the presentation at the Akhmatova Museum, this song had already undergone many metamorphoses in me — not only due to my translating it into English. When I sing “You say that this is paradise — don’t joke like that!” I imagine the genial shabbiness of Leningrad-Petersburg apartments. But sometimes, concurrently, I also imagine America, which I have mentally applied this line to many times. America’s not paradise. Don’t joke like that. “Here there are too many doors, but I can’t find an exit.” That line, from the same song, fits America, too. Nowhere is paradise until you can translate, transform, overcome yourself and your entire reality. For the sake of that, the songs of Aquarium and Mike lived on in me, helping to turn California highways into an edifying “Highway 21,” helping to discern prophetic “ten sharp arrows carried on ten winds,” helping to believe that really and truly, “if you want it, I’ll give some love to you,” and a plan of life would issue from love above all. I would like to return the songs of Aquarium and Mike to St. Petersburg, to the AB office, to a resuscitated spirit of Saigon, but as songs already transmuted, not only due to their manifestation in another tongue. As songs with traces of the cosmos of contemplating change and constancy. And of giving fully of oneself in order to find oneself again. As the best songs, poems and paintings always aim for. As does all real art.

Intriguingly, the presentation in St. Petersburg coincided with America’s Thanksgiving Day — a commemoration of European pilgrims’ first harvest in the New World. Adding to the intrigue, the current Thanksgiving fell on the birthday of Alexander Blok, also a kind of pilgrim, questing after his dream of an Unknown Woman. That passion has long suggested certain parallels between Blok and Mike. Seeking the unknown leads to even more new searches.


“Transformation-transmutation-transubstantiation are the means that form a transition, that open a path to freedom, that are themselves this path and this freedom,” says the Mondo. “And to have somewhere to transition from and to, everything must remain true to its definition and its walls.” This is exactly what I feel on any side of the Earth, in working with AB, translations, literature, art, songs. Playing music on the Lane after a forced twenty-year hiatus, again composing songs and trying out my song translations there, and then performing them in the city, I felt a kind of predestination in all that had transpired. Authentic transformation really does require separation. Mike, Aquarium, Saigon patrons and fans were lucky to the extent that their codes of loyalty also contained renunciation — for the sake of an ultimately sharper perception. As we all know, our own vital walls contain much more than the alien walls of standardized culture — whether official or alternative.

I am deeply grateful for the chance to share, through AB‘s prism, an integrity where Saigon, Mike and Aquarium all have their own ways of harmoniously belonging.

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