Stuffography Lilith/Black Moon

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Лилит

Lilith/Black Moon

1997


Review

by Elizaveta & Dzhon

Dzhubchik's yoni modulates air to comment: Russians say the lyrics on this album are better than ever, but I think it has some serious accessibility problems for Americans who, at some point in their young lives, were overexposed to the Band's fat guitar-and-organ sound. In other words, parts of it may make you feel trapped in the orange-carpeted interior of a Dodge Van circa 1974. In other words, it may induce bad RC Cola-flashbacks. The songs "Doctor" and "Shadow," however, are true to their names and very cool.



Fweeeeeeeeeeeep! It's the top of the hour and Radio Shao-Lin proudly brings you that holistically happy-go-lucky twosome Yolanda Yoni and Linus Lingham and their ever-popular show "Kar-ma Talk." This week's topic: BG's Lilith: Misunderstood Goddess or the Black Moon of the Russian Soul?

 


Yolanda Yoni:

You call it Black Moon, I call it Lilith. You say "tvoROG," I say "TVORog." Whatever the case may be, I maintain that this is an essential album in the life and work of Boris Grebenshikov. It's easy to overlook the excellence of this album with its mariachi horns and Bob Dylan-esque sounds. But listen...Really listen to the words and you will be smitten, just as I was.Dark Moon cover

You see, Linus, I'd always listened to the catchy tunes and thought they were pleasant. I made a mental note of “mature rocker album” and moved on. It wasn't until I started translating the songs that I realized the depths of the lyrics. Every song but one has some sort of religious reference in it. Moses, Lazarus, the Mother of God and Saint Peter all show up on the album. Not bad for guest stars, indeed.  

Linus Lingham:

I say “Cottage Cheese.” Dunno…I've been slagging Lilith for so long now that it comes as a pleasant surprise after about ten spins in close succession to find that it actually has much to recommend it: inventive lyrics, playful melodies, and a zippity-doo-dah sort of joie de vivre balanced with more serious preoccupations about spiritual and political matters. Still, somehow it all doesn't quite click for me. It has some great songs and the execution is good—especially considering that the recording sessions lasted all of 4 days—but I find that I don't have a Lilith mood…at least in the same way as I have a Russian Album mood, an Aroks i Shtyor mood or a December's Children mood. The word that comes to mind for me in regard to Lilith is “workmanlike.” After the delirious excesses of Hyberboria this was probably a step BG needed to take, but it's an album I can admire without really being able to love.

Still, having said that, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the glass is decidedly at least half-full. And, kudos to The Band for so easily finding a musical lingua franca with BG…the more striking if you're familiar with BG's first Great American misadventure.

But let's spin the album and take a closer look at the tunes, shall we Yolanda?

[cueing If Not For You]

Yolanda Yoni:

You bet.

When the moon glares at me like a conscience
When I feel sick from the vulgarity of my own innocence
I don't know where I floated off to, I would have drunk and drunk
I would have drunk everything over which my soul flew,
If it hadn't have been for you.

Powerful words, right off the bat. It's the best song to lead off this introspective album—it's full of doubt, self-blame, questioning, storytelling. Moses putting out the fire of the burning bush? We're in for a good challenge. And whoa, does it sound like he's trying to be Dylan or what?

Linus Lingham:

And how. But while trying to write like the original Bob-ster is one thing, trying to "sing" (squeal? yelp? moan? yodel?) like Dylan is quite another matter. Even his most ardent admirers concede that Dylan's voice is an "acquired taste" like, um, холодец, perhaps.

This song is an unpromising beginning, if you ask me. You can almost see the notation on The Band's music: "generic, mid-tempo rocker; no hooks; useless organ solo; try not to doze off."

[cueing From Kalinin to Tver]


Linus Lingham: That's nothing…I went all the way from Gorky to Nizhny Novgorod just the other day. But why does this have to be such a lugubrious waltz? Garth Hudson's fruity Hammond organ mixes things up a little in the middle, but in general this one makes me want to say: “The times, they're a changin'…but not for the better.”

Yolanda Yoni:

Whatever, чувак. I kind of like it, though I must admit I'm not exactly sure why.

[cueing Darya, Darya]

Yolanda Yoni:

I like this song a lot. I remember listening to it for the first time on the long Delta flight home from Moscow. It has such a catchy beat and those mariachi horns...what's not to like? I always viewed it as the Russian entry in the musical Grease. I mean, can't you just imagine the video in your head: horns, synchronized dancing, maybe some midgets. But listen to BG's message:

God told Lazarus—I need someone alive.
The Lord told Lazarus—Hey, get up and sing!
And Lazarus said—I saw it in the grave.
It's not life, it's the circus Marabou,
And you are their conjurer-clown, better move with me.

For me personally, the story of the raising of Lazarus is one of the most moving in the Bible, certainly some of its greatest storytelling. I was shocked when I realized it was in this song. I was always too busy tapping my toes to the horns. I realized that instead of Olivia Newton-John, this song is really Sir Isaac Newton.

Linus Lingham:

Well now, this is indeed a lot more like it. Horns, bouncy percussion and the organ (mercifully on pianissimo) propel this up-tempo rave…sort of like Ivan and Danilo go to Memphis and meet this really, really hot chick, Dasha (so nice they named her twice!). Sure she's a little tawdry, but she's a good-time gal.

Lazarus notwithstanding (if you ask me, he's only along for the ride) "Darya, Darya" is actually an elliptical sort of love song to a love gone-by. Of course BG would never come out and say it directly — “Don't ask me what I love/Those who say don't know, and those who know don't say”—but the gist seems clear. The factory may be shut, the chimneys smokeless, but someone's still got some fire in the furnace…

[cueing The Neva Swamp]

Yolanda Yoni:

This is a sad, sad song. BG couldn't be more vulnerable, when he croons:

My veins are like ropes, my memory like ice
My heart like diesel, blood like honey—
But it fell to me to live here among the gray grass,
In a fool's darkness on the swamps of the Neva

I never thought about BG's appearance in connection with all of this. With any album, really. But think about it: he shaved all of his hair off. On the cover of Lilith, he's buzzed nearly bald. When he did grow some hair, he dyed it an electric blue. That beautiful mane from Radio Silence was gone. Knowing that and hearing this song, I can see that it was recorded at a time of change and deep introspection for him.

There will be Judgement Day—God be with it, but I'm not waiting;
I found a way to leave and I'll leave and return;
I'll return with this word like a key to the Blue Beyond
Let them go home,
All who sleep in the swamps of the Neva.

Linus Lingham:

How the Western Bogs Were Won. A lonely, spare, nearly acoustic under-the-stars-in-the-wide-open-spaces sort of song, pretty much just BG and his guitar. Which is how it pretty much how it should be.

Yolanda's bit about the hair, though…100% a Yoni thing. As any of the Lingham family will tell you, guys get their hair cut for one reason and one reason only: because they're tired of dragging a comb across their head. Only Yonis make a sacrament out of personal hygiene. Besides, need one even point out that “the Russian Flathead” was the absolute height of tonsorial fashion in 1997??

Yolanda Yoni:

Ok, ok Larry. Maybe you have a point. But having personally cut off a long mane, I can tell you that when someone makes that drastic a switch it's because they are ready for a change. A real change. Then there's this line that makes me take an even longer drag on my hookah:

I wanted to be like the sun and became like a shadow on the wall

How about we let the listeners take a drag and ponder it themselves?

Linus Lingham:

Davai. I never says no to a lady with a hookah. But what about the next track?

[cueing On Her Side]

Yolanda Yoni:

I'd been listening to this song for a long time before I heard it, if you know what I mean. I heard the words “Strength is on her side” and thought it was cool. Probably about some woman being strong in the face of adversity. It wasn't until I sat down and translated it that I realized just what an outstanding song it is, one of the best BG has ever written, I would venture to say.

The Russian Orthodox faith places a large emphasis on the Mother of God. Orthodox services and prayers all include a thank-you to the Theotokos, this one being especially significant:

To Thee the Champion Leader, we thy servants dedicate a feast of victory and thanksgiving as ones rescued out of sufferings, O Theotokos; but as thou art one with might which is invincible from all dangers that can be do thou deliver us, that we may cry to thee: Rejoice thou Bride Unwedded!

Similarly, no matter how bleak his thoughts are on the album—herein lies our answer, our strength:

And no one remembers how it was
And those who remember are in heaven or the fire.
But those who are strong are strong in that they know where the strength really is —
The strength is on her side.

Grappling with doubt, with the erosion of faith in our time, the disgrace of the Church, BG's wondering aloud if anyone (including himself) has faith anymore. But in the end, he comes back to Her (and so, literally, does the Priest, I think). Strength is on Her side.

Linus Lingham:

Now we're cookin'. The most Dire Straits-ish BG song ever. (Yes, yes, I know, don't say it…a guilty pleasure! We were all young once.) Just Mark Knopfler's sort of half-articulated, wistful electric guitar licks played over a simple, repeated acoustic riff, with the occasional Love-Over-Gold harmonica thrown in for good measure, anchored by pleasantly understated bongos. A keeper for all except the most jaded.

Linus has a very, very different take on the thrust of the lyrics, however. The key is in the first line: "Дело было в Казани." Having spent more rainy autumn nights in Kazan' fending off obstreperous, clap-ridden Tartar prostitutes than he cares to contemplate, Linus knows that an architectural jewel of the city is the Suyumbika Tower, a 15th or 16th century brick structure of mysterious origins. This tower has come to be associated with a semi-legendary Tartar queen of the same name who is reputed to have saved the city at some point. Lonely Planet Russia provides one version of the tale:

The cause of [Ivan the Terrible's] siege of Kazan'…was Suyumbike's refusal to marry the tsar. To save her city, Suyumike agreed to marry the tsar only if a tower higher than any other mosque in Kazan could be built in a week. After the tower's completion, Suyumbike found it impossible to leave her native city and killed herself by jumping from the upper terrace of the tower.

What I think we have, then, is not a Christian allegory at all but a gonzo riff on this tale, replete with vodka martinis, a bridegroom left at the altar and a wholesale slaughter. And the moral? Only that the so-called “weaker sex” is nothing of the sort…they're as tough as last year's dried fish and have got us all firmly by the, erm, lingham.

Yolanda Yoni:

I'm with you on that last part, Linus, but in general we'll have to agree to disagree about this song. I'm on my Plane, you're on yours. But I love it! Amazing! I like both stories!

Linus Lingham:

Generous of you Yolanda...especially as—ahem—for my part, I'm just not buying the Boris, a practicing Buddhist, is composing some kind of metaphorical tribute to the Orthodox church's "Queen of Heaven." At least not here...

Anyway, movin' on...

[cueing Shadow]

Linus Lingham:

Sublime. A wonderful song, the best on the album by a seven or eight furlongs. Here The Band gets everything just right: slow, throbbing guitars and resonant bass building to an intense, distorted Neil Young-ish crescendo and then skiddering back down…and then back up to a second emotional climax of betrayal and abandonment. Brutal and beautiful.

Yolanda Yoni:

Shadow is originally what I thought Lilith was all about: aged rock star coming to terms with his musical-God status.

Where do I know you from? Tell me, and I'll be glad.
Did we live together a while, or did I catch your eye somewhere?
I was so long at fault that I don't even know why I'm breathing

A terrific song, meant to be heard in a dark, smoky bar. He even whispers the final words, as if it's all a secret between us. Oh Baby! If I ever hear him sing this one live, I think I'll faint!

Linus Lingham:

Whoa, Yolanda! Better put down the hookah now and have a nice chilled herbal-infusion!

[cueing My Friend the Doctor]

Linus Lingham:

Something of a Delta Blues—Borya Lee Hooker, as it were. A simple slide guitar and vocals number that is actually very effective. Boris may not be Bob Dylan, but he could pass for a crusty old black dude who happens to know Russian. My second-favorite track on the album, composed, as BG notes in an interview, right on the spot during the Woodstock recording sessions. Dig the Chevy firing up at the end.

Yolanda Yoni: So BG has a friend the musician and now he has a friend the doctor. An elliptical love song of sorts, but I must say this one doesn't really speak to me.

[cueing A Flimsy Imitation of Love]

Yolanda Yoni:

One of BG's oompah-pah-pah songs. This could be a prime cut on K-TEL's “The Many Moods of BG” disc, but of all his moods I like his oompah mood the least. If you're really into tuba this may be the song for you, but I don't care for it. It doesn't fit on the album, lyrically or musically. Oh well. Yolanda wishes he would just stop making these kind of songs, but realizes that she's hoping for the impossible. Boys, even big boys, like to have fun. {Sigh.}

Linus Lingham:

 Чё???? Where the horseradish did this come from? Sounds like a number deleted from the fourth act of The Music Man…you know, the part where Robert Preston, having been chased out of River City after all, decides to go hawk his trombones, tubas and cornets in Novokuznetsk. So very frickin' weird that it almost works. The key word here being “almost.” On reflection, however, I, too, would have been considerably happier if BG had seen fit to leave Dixieland off his second American tour. A Flimsy Imitation of a Song, and, as Yolanda says, hugely, distractingly, out of place on the album.

[cueing There, Where the Moon Rises]


Linus Lingham:

Well if the moon's rising it must be time for beddie-bye with this way, way down-tempo little number. Nothing wrong with it, really—except for that whole Dzhubchik-Hammond-RC-flashback-thing it has going for it—but surely not one of BG's outstanding efforts. Strummy guitars, the barest hint of drum and a mellow-yellow organ lull into us into a the-party's-over kind of mood. Would probably appeal to me much more if my old friend Sensimilla would stop by for a visit.

Yolanda Yoni:

Hmm, I hear him channeling Dylan in this song again. I see this one as another brooder, more big-time introspection on the part of BG.

When east becomes north and amber becomes honey,
When the mute on the streets teach you to sing...
The good thief, even in heaven, will discover something to steal;
When you gave me your hand I didn't know whether to fly or to fall.

If you ask me, this song's got it all if you take the time to look at it closely and is a great compliment to "The Neva Swamp."

[cueing Heavy Doom]


Linus Lingham: Between a рок and a hard place? Well, then I guess it's true...everybody must get stoned! Boris is being very punny and sounding a whole lot like one of the Grateful Dead's slower numbers. Or, come to think of it, there's another ubiquitous late 60's /early 70's American "band" that this sounds even more like…shoot…what we were they called again? In any case, it's a pleasant, whimsical, meandering, self-aware sort of excursion:

Nothing makes sense anymore. Love's led me into the shadow;
And the higher you climb into the Astral Plane the more nonsense you carry along.

Yolanda Yoni:

I'll just add that I love the image of him sitting down with an angel:

I said "Come here, sit down, I'm not your enemy…
Let's drink to the poor stiff hanging over me”

[cueing Some Marry (and Some Don't)]


Linus Lingham:

This song is notable for being, as of now (2001), BG's last genuine radio hit; it still even crops up from time to time on Radio Europa Plus. Being a “hit” is hardly a recommendation for a song in contemporary Russia, but—it should go without saying—this is far better than the usual Europa Plus pablum, even if it's not exactly BG at the top of his game. Clever-clever lyrics—“болит” is rhymed with “delete”—are all very well and good, but the song's groove is too well worn to engender much excitement in these quarters. I love the funky piano outro, though (which you never, ever get to hear on Europa Plus, because, the bastards, they cut off every single song about two-thirds of the way through).

Yolanda Yoni:

Umm, ok Linus, get ahold of yourself there! Europa Plus can suck, that's the truth. But I have to hit you over the head with still more of this religious imagery stuff: in this song it's the Lord's Prayer. In a rock song! Класс!

[cueing Captain White Snow]


Linus Lingham:

Not much to say about this one...another slow song, but 100% more my kind of slow song than "There, Where the Moon Rises." It's a sad, simple, inchoately yearning piece that's clean and clear as the driven snow.

Yolanda Yoni:

Yeah, and now Captain White Snow can hang out in the officer's mess with Colonel Vasin and Captain Voronin. After all, BG does say in this one:

It'll be easier together on these strange days

Right on, my brother!

 

[cueing On the Road to Damascus]


Yolanda Yoni:

Ah, a fine song...laden with a ton of religious references, addressed to someone who has not done as much soul-searching as BG has. I really get the feeling, though, that I'm missing something on this one. Is there something more to this song that I don't know, Linus?

Linus Lingham:

Yes, it's an interesting one...one of only two songs I know of in the entire canon that is explicitly dedicated to someone—in this case, to the memory of Georgi Zyablitsev a priest murdered in Moscow in September 1997 by assailants unknown, presumably around the time the song was being written. A big musical-lyrical STATEMENT of a song…but what exactly is he saying here? The lyrics are packed with allusion like overloaded Russian elevator:

Apostle Fyoder was the groundskeeper
In the Summer Garden in winter.
He met a girl wearing a long coat
Who said “Come along with me.”
For a fortnight they sailed over the sea,
Sun rising on the left;
And now they're waiting on the road to Damascus
For you to come to yourself again.

The Dog Star shines over the Moscow river,
But you can't see any further than your hand;
In Moroccan ports Islamic rebels are waiting
For you to pay off your debt;
In all Smolenschina there's no cocaine
Due to a temporary shortage of raw materials—
But you won't recognize the places where you grew up
When you come to yourself again.

All very suggestive: the Bible, sex, drugs, the Middle East, World War II, personal oblivion…and that's just in the first two stanzas before BG even gets to the bit about the “Holy Beatle” (John? Georege?). But it's all too much of a muchness, and I'm not so much struck blind as struck dumb.

But, unfortunately, it looks like we're just about out of time, Yolanda. Care to sum up?

Yolanda Yoni:

Sure. It's clear to me that BG doesn't have all the answers. He doesn't profess to. But at least he's alive and thinking about it. He named the album "Lilith" after the Biblical figure surrounded in mystery and defiance and sinister deeds and misunderstanding. Once I listened to this album, really listened to what BG was saying, I came to see a whole new side of the musician and poet that I have loved all of these years. He made me rethink some things in my own life.

I definitely don't have all the answers. And this album, in its uncertain beauty, makes me realize that such introspection is just fine.

Linus Lingham:

Right you are, Yolanda. But what I like best about it is actually its playfulness, not its more serious side. The religious imagary is there, for sure, but often, it seems to me, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. But then that's our Borya, a Trickmaster Monkey, adept at double-entendre and a holiness that manages to be both silly and heartfelt.

Until next time, you've been listening to "Kar-ma Talk" with Yolanda Yoni and Linus Lingham! Take hold of the Wheel of Life and go for a spin!


Technical Matters:

Black Moon and Lilith differ by one track—BM has a song called "4D" that Lilith lacks; Lilith has "Captain White Snow" which BM lacks. The sound engineering is also different, Lilith having BG's vocals much further forward in the mix. The track listing here reflects the ordering on Lilith, the one BG declared "canonical" following an involved (and pretty darn petty, if you ask Linus) dispute with his Russian-American producer, Dmitri Strizhkov. If you read Russian you can find Michael Morozov's detailed, guardedly neutral account of the tiff that led to the two competing versions here: Lilith album presentation

After years of owning only Lilith, Linus was astonished when he finally purchased Black Moon in 2003 at how clearly, indisputably superior it is to the Russian version. Not only is the mix far, far more appropriate to the kind of music Boris is attempting to play on this album, even the ordering of the tracks is more natural. "4D (The Last Day of August)," too, is a splendid, growly hard-rockin' song that's far more interesting than its replacement song, "Captain White Snow." In his attempt to cater to the Russian market, Boris emasculated his own album: bad move, bad deal, bad karma, Borya! Buy the American version if you can find it (it's OOP, but can sometimes be found on Amazon or Gemm, among other places).

Note that the track-listing on Black Moon is in English and several songs are given names that are not direct translations of the "finalized" Russian names as they appear on Lilith: "На Её Стороне" is listed as "It Happened in Kazan"; "Мой Друг Доктор" is "Doctor"; "Тень" is "How Do I Know You (Paranoia)"; and "Некоторые Женятся" is "Some Mary" [sic].


Original Description, 1997 (by Dji) Saves Boris' ass on the "brilliant album every year since 1992" thing. Boris proves he understands the "aging rocker releases album showing his musical maturity" schtick. More-aged-than-thou rockers The Band help him reach that goal. Watch for a future live album featuring Lilith tracks, since the live shows (featuring a semi-Akvarium set of musicians) have been amazing.

Dji's Note Concerning Dzhub's Abstract: In 1997 RC Cola made a big market share grab in Russia, taking over (at least) several street kiosk/cafes in Moscow. Their RC Draft is the tastiest cola in Russia... and it mixes well with Kapitanski Rum. [Dzhon counters: ...but, like so many another Western venture, it completely disappeared from Russian the scene following the collapse of the ruble in '98. Sorry, Dji. On a brighter note, however, Kapitanskii Rum—Ussuriskii Balzam's finest product—is more widely available than ever before.]