EQUINOX: The Swan Song of Classic Aquarium
Interviewer: Boris, tell me: "Ivan Chai"—what's it about, grass?
BG: Yeah, it's about grass.
BG: But then, with us everything's about grass!
ROMANOV: Basically, all of Aquarium's songs are about grass.
BG: No, it's a kind of symbol. Of the people. As long as Ivan Chai blooms, the summer wouldn't dare come to an end…
—Radio interview with Aquarium, from the Soviet program "Youth," November 28, 1987
I don't think I'm particularly over the hill, but when I hear highly advanced Bodhisattvi discussing recent albums like Navigator and Snow Lion as their first introduction to Aquarium, I sure feel like a dinosaur. My first exposure was Red Wave and the so-called White Album, which were released around the time I finished my undergrad work. That led to the bobinas, which were provided by willing Russian friends and which served to fill in the blanks of my A-education—a process that continues to this day.
"Equinox" has sentimental value to me in that it was the first Aquarium album to fall into my hands in LP form, and at a time when it was still a fairly new release. It is a relic of an extraordinary turning point in world history, Russian history, and Aquarium's history. It also brings back nice recollections of some especially memorable and interesting times in my own life—and that's the stuff that favorite albums are made of.
So, as if anyone reading this has still to be convinced that BG is the "мэн крутой, круче всех мужчин," ," then allow me to offer you the irrefutable evidence of Equinox—an official Soviet recording that somehow, simultaneously, manages to rate as "The Great Russian Stoner Album."
It happened in 1987. The previous year, a certain two-tone-mullet-sporting gal from Beverly Hills had "smuggled out" a bunch of Petersburg rock tapes and released them in the U.S. under the title, Red Wave. In a belated cold-war attempt at one-upmanship, the Soviets swiftly released some softer "unofficial" Aquarium tracks on wax—on the compilation now know as the White Album.
"When Dzhoanna released Red Wave in America, finally Melodiya had to answer," according to Boris. "First, because of the publicity Red Wave was getting in the West, and secondly—because of all this perestroika, they had to get money. Melodiya had to produce something that would sell. After years of ignoring us, years, they took our old tapes of December's Children and Silver Day, and they released an album of songs from both. I went to Moscow and I begged them: let me remix those old tapes. No, no budget, they said. Can I put new material on the album? No budget for studio time, they said. So, the album went out and I hated it."
But when the White Album sold out instantly, Melodiya realized they were on to something good, and magnanimously offered Aquarium an opportunity to go legit on its own terms. "Go ahead, boys, here's a little Melodiya studio time; make an album of new material. You can play stadiums now. You are now an officially approved pop ensemble."
The resulting recording was Equinox, the band's first album to be recorded and mixed in a legitimate studio. Naomi Marcus, who was present at some of the recording sessions, offers this great behind-the-scenes glimpse at the album's genesis:
Aquarium was given only four hours a day of studio time, on alternate days. The assigned engineer was used to choirs and chorales. He was unable to cope with Aquarium. The album, Equinox, took months to complete, because of their limited access.
The studio environment was almost as chaotic as their sold-out concerts had become. Fans crowded the unmonitored doors—no guest list, no security. Boris was frequently exasperated, Seva frequently high-strung, the others alternately bored and irritable. One afternoon they recorded "Partisans":
"There go the partisans by the light of the full moon. There they go. Let them go! My place is here. There go the partisans in the light of the underground moon. Let them go, my place is here!"
They tried a four-part harmony and it wasn't working. Seva had a fit. "How can you, how can you expect us to do it without enough rehearsal time?" he screeched at Boris and rushed from the studio out onto the bridge over Griboyedov Canal. The rest piled out and joined him in the early afternoon's winter dusk. They smoked acrid White Sea cigarettes while pacing in the cold. Boris and Seva arrived at some rapprochement and decided to walk through the streets to Boris's for tea.
The others dispersed to wives, newborns, and the daily shopping ordeal. At this hour the trams and trolleys were packed. Holding their instruments above their heads and surefooted from years of lugging burdens around on public transit, they jumped from snowdrifts onto moving buses. As state-appointed "cultural workers," they were now free from having to hold down outside jobs, but there was so little money coming in that they all still depended on in-laws, parents, wives, and the occasional kindness of strangers.
Aquarium were nothing if not expert alchemists by this time, however, and so the result of all this gritty chaos somehow became a slice of pure, transcendent beauty. And there is a satisfying edge of irreverence under that beauty—rather than obsequiously offering a lukewarm, watered-down sound for official consumption, Aquarium took full advantage of the opportunity they'd been given.
They used Equinox to champion unofficial artists and to take swats at Soviet hypocrisy. Yes, and there was also that great, subversive "Stoner Album" sound: Dreamy, slow, narcotic, with psychedelic overtones and hallucinogenic undercurrents throughout, it's Pink Floyd meets the Beatles meets … well, meets Aquarium.
Still—all was not well. Despite their new legitimacy and peaking popularity, Aquarium was a band whose time had passed; as Boris told me years later, "Aquarium had served its purpose." And so, just as Soviet power began to unravel, so did Aquarium itself. They were way too famous now; there were way too many guys in the band; they had become a proverbial "loose, baggy monster." What seemed like a new beginning was in reality just a coda—the swan song of classic Aquarium.
Still, the band managed to build a worthy monument to itself: The album is almost of a piece, if not quite. BG knew it, of course. In his notes on the album, he acknowledges that the finished product fell far short of his original conception due to time and technical limitations, and that it lacked several faster songs he'd hoped to include. It's certainly a brief album, clocking in at just 35 minutes.
So what songs are missing? On aquarium.ru, BG reveals that Equinox was supposed to include "Дачные Дни" ("Dacha Days") and "Менять Цвета" ("Change of Hue"), two songs which, as far as I know, have never surfaced anywhere else. It was also supposed to include, believe it or not, "Young Lions" of Radio Silence fame. Too weird? Maybe. But "Молодые Львы" would, I think, have sounded very different had it made its way onto Equinox. As I observed in my Radio Silence review, the words of that song don't really fit the music they're set to on RS. But forget that sorry version for a moment and just look at the words of "Young Lions"—they would fit beautifully to a reggae-type song like "Babylon." And I'll bet that's probably what they would have become. Too bad, huh?
But you know, BG probably knows too much about making the sausage to judge the outcome fairly. Because, objectively speaking, what came out of the sessions is really quite lovely. And though the Western ear will pick up the usual plethora of musical nods, references and influences on Equinox, the unique amalgam that is Aquarium had never before sounded quite so polished, or quite so beautifully original. If you don't believe the words, then do yourself a favor and believe the music.
1. Ivan-Chai. "As long as Ivan-Chai blooms, I won't need any books other than you…." Opening with a murky medieval trumpet fanfare, "Ivan-Chai" is the closest thing to a rocker on the entire album. It's a medium-paced neo-psychedelic masterpiece, laced with chugging wah-wah guitar and a beautiful violin solo where the guitar solo should be. Musically, it recalls Electric Light Orchestra at its best, but it's actually better than that. Whereas Jeff Lynne's voice was nothing very special (and usually electronically enhanced to the extreme), BG goes au natural, his "smoky tenor" (Dzhub's descriptive, I beleive) riding low in the mix: "Sooner or later we'll surely meet again, and what was once our pain will turn into wind." For my money, this is one of Aquarium's most shining moments.
2. The Great Janitor. The first of two janitor songs of the album, and several in BG's ouevre. The actual Russian term used is дворник, which actually translates better as "yard-sweeper"—but that's not an English term that means an awful lot (it's not in my dictionary, at least). So I'll stick with janitor. As used here, the janitor is a romantic character—stuck with a menial job not through lack of knowledge, education or ambition, but because of civil disobedience.
The film Rok highlights the crappy jobs underground musicians had to take to avoid being labeled as "parasites." There's Viktor Tsoi shoveling coal into a furnace; there's Yuri Shevchuk dumping out the mop water; there's BG, lazing on his roof and looking poetic—uh, never mind. Supposedly, he really was officially a night watchman somewhere after getting kicked out of college for his performance at Tbilisi-80.
Anyway, in "The Great Janitor" we have meditative, mystical Pink Floyd-esque music; a chorus of male voices intoning "atkumada atkumada atkumada." (Huh?) And BG singing encouraging words to his partisans of the underground moon: "They'll only catch us if we try to run/ They'll only find us if we hide in the shadows/ They've got no power over what's rightfully yours/ And they won't touch you again, they won't touch you again."
3. The Watcher. More trippy Pink Floyd-ish stuff, as the drugged-out music echoes with half-heard voices. The arrangement is interesting, driven by Seva's cello and Titov's bass, and strung together by Beatles-esque string bridges. I don't think there's any political or social commentary going on here; it's just Boris hanging with the hobbits out in some chemically induced Middle Earth. "The night smells of fire; beyond the hills is the flame/ Four people gazing into it, could one of them be me?/ Maybe it was a dream, or maybe not, we'll never know/ As the morning approaches, the watcher will awake to go to sleep." Whatever.
4. Partisans of the Full Moon. Now it's time to shake off the somniferous effect of the previous two songs, pull on your zhyoltiye botinki and tap your feet to an upbeat, optimistic song that could only be more Beatles if Paul and John were there singing along. It's still a real crowd-pleaser: When I saw Boris's "Snow Lion" tour a couple of years back, it was one of his encores, accompanied by a long, painful bout of Soviet synchronized clapping. By the way, on the album version, that four-part harmony Naomi Marcus was talking about seems finally to have come together. In J. Fred. Bailyn's translation:
They have knowledge where the greenest grass grows;
A pure white stag on the blackest of snows.
I know everything, oh my love,
But do I really dare?
Who is our master, and where is his lash?
Fear is his holiday and guilt is his sash.
We'll only sing our song.
But oh my love, we'll open up the door.
5. Swan-like Steel. This one begins with a conservatory-ish duet of cello and violin, then rolls leisurely into a kind of—I hate to say it—power ballad. The song's okay, if a bit repetitive. Lyapin supplies a long, rather shrill guitar solo to break things up, but that gets a little repetitive itself. The song just doesn't seem fully formed.
The lyrics are optimistic again—or are they? "We'll turn into a dream, as our dreams turn to light," BG sings—and that's exactly what ended up happening to the band. But no matter, it seems. The past is past, and it's time to move on: "We lived through the night, let us see what becomes of the day."
6. Adelaida. An oasis of sorts, this song isn't about drugs or politics or the underground music scene. It's about getting away from all that. The Pink Floyd element is still strong, though the intro sounds like nothing so much as Bowie's "Space Oddity." But where Bowie's composition evokes a cold alienation, "Adelaida" is about the warm, comforting isolation of two people together against the stormy world outside. In other words, it's about love.
Wind, fog, and snow outside;
We're alone in this house.
Don't fear the knock at the window, it's meant for me;
It's only the north wind,
We're both in the palm of his hand.
It's a beautiful, quiet arrangement that builds into a cathartic cello solo; Seva keeps the tension simmering through the final stanza, when it finally releases into a loud, jagged guitar chord as the song abruptly ends. Classic stuff, and a highlight of the album.
7. Gold on the Blue. The theme of quiet love continues through this charming number, combining influences from Jethro Tull to CSN&Y. For fans of the Piper of Babylon, Dyusha is the star of the show here, in as fine a form as I've ever heard him. It's really a gorgeous arrangement, and the boys manage to offer up a few more of those four-part harmonies that gave them so much trouble in "Partisans."
The outside threat to this song's happy lovers is more clearly expressed here than in "Adelaida": "Those who are painting us paint us as red set in dull gray." Hm, could he be talking about … Soviet society? Happily, the lyrics quickly transcend time and place, to long for love in a place "where the trees are all green and everything's gold set in blue."
8. Tree. A charming, jaunty song dominated by Sergei Shurakov's accordion. I would guess this is his Aquarium debut, a few years before he signed on as a "permanent" part of the New Aquarium in 1991-1997.
"Tree" doesn't really seem to belong on Equinox, but I'm glad to have it anyway. The lyrics are of the "is it mystically profound or prosaically banal?" school that BG likes to dabble in from time to time: "You're a tree. Your place is in the garden." Through the whole song he chats up the tree, making friends—it "hears his gaze" then "hears his touch" and they agree to "meet again after the end." Hokay?
9. Charmed By You. Another piece opening with conservatory-style strings, and building into one of the most beautiful, fully realized songs on the album. The words are very hard to figure. The "you" that BG is "charmed by" is "his forest." But is it a real forest? A lover? A meditative state? Whatever it is, something seems to have been left behind and something new is emerging. At least the lyrics sound great in Russian:
Who could have known we'd have nothing to drink,
Though the water is flowing through our hands.
Say just a word to me, I want to hear you…
Alone, isolated, defenseless and lost,
The choice was mine, and I'm surely right.
Here is my house, my dazzling forest,
With the stars reflected in the dark water,
In the dark water, in the dark water...
10. A Generation of Janitors and Night-watchmen. Here it is, the second janitor song, and the big closing anthem of "Equinox," wherein BG faults the Soviet system—in surprisingly unambiguous terms—for destroying Russia, raping her lands, polluting her waters, selling out her children, and then furtively trying cover its tracks:
And our fathers would never lie to us;
No, our fathers don't know how to lie.
Like a wolf doesn't know how to eat meat,
Like a bird doesn't know how to fly.
In response, BG "turned away from the law, but never quite made it to love." Still, the situation "lit a flame that burned me outward from inside." And here is J. Fred. Bailyn's rendering of the ambiguously hopeless and hopeful closing stanza:
Please pray for us, pray for us, if you are able;
We have no more hope, but we're in this collage.
And the voices sound closer and stronger,
And I'll be damned if this is just a mirage.
Musically, the song is intriguing—it begins with Boris singing a cappella; then a acoustic guitar joins in, then the rest of the band, building to a mandolin bridge drawn from an old Russian folk song.
The documentary film Rok is strung together with wonderful footage of Aquarium gradually hammering out and rehearsing this song, and it ends with the band performing it live. And while its vaguely military beat and folksy motifs are hardly the traditional stuff of rock 'n' roll, somehow the essential rock attitude still survives intact.
Watching a Rok close-up of BG intensely banging out his part in the song's closing orchestral swell, in fact, our own illustrious Dzhub was moved to observe: "Man, he is such a rocker."
And really, what more need be said?
From Dji's Original Album Description, Summer 1998: To my original comment—I don't know what the hell "Ivan-chai" is, but as in that song, I don't need another... only you—Dzhrew writes: "I have a theory. My theory is that Ivan-chai is something you smoke. Just a hunch. WRONG. Ivan-chai is a relative of Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), a flowering plant named for its tendency to grow where there has been a fire. It grows beside the tracks for most of the length of the Trans-Siberian railway, changing somewhat in variety as you near Vladivostok. I first learned The Truth regarding this issue from the good guide Sasha on Lake Baikal's Holy Nose. Smoke that, dharma boy.
Dzhon's Coda: For an truly outstanding version of "Swan-like Steel" that realizes the song's full potential, get a hold of the album 150 миллардов шагов by the incomparable St. Petersburg group Tequilajazzz. Заебись.
The Young Technik studio was closed for eternal repair (that is to say, the directorate finally figured out that the sound-recording club had already lived way beyond "Pioneer" age). Perspicacious Andrei Vladimirovich (Tropillo) had long since managed to remove all the master tapes of the albums from the studio, made copies of them, masterly disguised the copies as originals, and hid the copies in places where they'd surely look for them—"just in case" [A brilliant context for the wonderful expression "если что" - Dzhrew]. Where the originals themselves were hidden, by now no one even asked.
For a year and a half, we had nowhere to record and only through blackmail did we compel "Melodiya" to give us studio time (a long, but funny story). That's how we first dropped into a semi-official Soviet studio. Though the sound engineer had an unexpected sympathy for us, all the same the result ended up cumbersome. It's a shame—the second side was supposed to be completely different, but for completely fixed reasons three important songs weren't even finished. In lieu of them, there are "Gold," "Adelaide," and "The Generation of Janitors," which aren't bad works, but are clearly not meant for this album.
In "Tree," we needed an accordion, and Gakkel' brought his old friend Seryozha Schurakov (it's him, by the way, who ditched the studio somewhere in the middle of the recording).
After the death of Sasha Kussul', there arose an empty space where there should have been violin. The new string section became Andrei Reshetin ("Ryusha"), and Vanya Voropayev. They were friends of Kussul's and used to play with him. For us, that was enough of a recommendation.
I should also add that the orchestra Krumkhornov etc. was heard on the street and invited into the studio without delay.
After the the almost home-like refuge of the Young Tekhnik Studio, work in the citadel of Soviet music was a difficult trial. It was strange to be in a place that was built on the principle of maximum scorn for both the people who played the music, and for the people who recorded it—as if the process of a recording is hard labor for the welfare of Motherland (like virgin soil and building the BAM railway)—which by definition can't be light and enjoyable. This invisible veil still hangs over every studio connected with Melodiya, only now they've added to it the rarefied atmosphere of post-imperial poverty. But even there we were sneaky enough to have fun despite all that.
Equinox was the swan song of Akvarium in the 80s. We were already too big for one group—physically, there were too many of us, with interests too varied, and views on the work too varied. Sakmarov [Ded] was right when he designated Equinox a hymn. Time called us to move on. Where, would have been hard to say, but unknown to us, the trap was already set to fly open. [In the book I am translating from, Songs, the next section is Boris's notes on Radio Silence. I think you should always read this paragraph before thinking about "RS." -trans.]
Translated from Songs by Dzhrew.