“Rock music caught me on the head when I was sixteen and it never let go.”
Russia has a huge ‘bardic’ tradition, with a sub-strand of singers who fearlessly speak against authority on behalf of the people.
Ideally they should be careless of material success; difficult to the point of eccentricity; widely known but paradoxically impoverished, and forced to work underground, using guile to get their message across: a message that is universally understood and yet tolerated by the authorities that it criticises.
Pushkin (and, after him, Musorgsky) put one at the centre of Boris Godunov: the yurodivy, the ‘holy fool’ who refuses the Tsar grace and accuses him of murdering his way to the top, but who nevertheless enjoys his protection.
In later times rock musicians began to take on some aspects of the role, one of the most famous (in Russia) being Yuri Morozov (1948-2006) a composer/multi-instrumentalist/producer/sound-engineer.
Pop and rock, like jazz, were strange beasts in the USSR. While they were so popular they demanded some official recognition, their Western influence had to be curbed. Hence they became charged with a meaning even beyond that in the West. Imagine Elvis being put in a mental asylum on the basis that his music is …. well …. anybody who’s sane can hear that it’s just wrong, can't they?
Rock Monologue, Vladimir Kozlov’s portrait of Morozov, attempts to tell something of his life, concentrating on his struggle. Unfortunately Morozov died during filming, so his interviews are framed by friends’ posthumous thoughts, supplemented by Gennadi Zaitsev’s archive film.
But it starts with the regulation counterpoint of official Soviet events (Red Square parades et al) with Morozov’s darker songs about dreams (a recurring theme in his work), dissatisfaction, and how everyday smells and noises block out everything of value. In Zaitsev’s home movies Morozov and his friends horse around, as they occasionally fled the city to the dacha, trying out different personae, dressing up in costumes (or wearing nothing at all) and prancing around the forest, filming and photographing each other.
Back home, he filled his flat with a Heath-Robinson recording set-up or used downtime in the studio to record his music, often multi-tracking himself. Since using state equipment for personal profit was illegal, he embarked on a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, duping them by duping his songs: repeatedly cross-recording them, so the KGB wouldn’t believe that such poor quality could come from professional equipment. Alvin Lucier’s greatest hit, I Am Sitting in a Room, uses the same technique to brilliant, if very different, effect.
As for the actual music, Morozov drew on heavy metal, prog rock, psychedelia, jazz, musique concrète, '80s synth-pop, Russian folk music and anything else that came to hand, pushing it through tape effects and weird concoctions of string-and-sellotape synthesisers. A couple of album covers give some sense of the range: the Genesis-surrealist Jimi Hendrix's Cherry Garden (1973), and the near Ultravox-ish The Exposed Feeling of Absence (2005! - obviously being fashionable was not high on Morozov's list of priorities).
Oddly, for all this experimentalism and official disdain, Morozov was immensely popular. Given the number of his albums in circulation he should have been a multimillionaire, as they were widely (if secretly) circulated: apparently most of the Soviet submarine fleet had copies.
Outside Russia Morozov’s music is still pretty difficult to track down – though the web, a sort of latter-day magnitizdat (the audio equivalent of samizdat) has come to his aid. I’ve found a few mp3s to link to (there are others), though with around sixty albums to his name, plus production credits for a host of other bands including DDT, Akvarium and Chizh and Co, it’s hard to feel that anything but a substantial chunk would only be a snapshot (...)
It’s quite obvious that Morozov needs some serious advocacy in the West. Kozlov’s documentary is a start and it would be good to see more screenings following on from the one at the recent Russian Film Festival. But unfortunately it concentrates on Morozov’s more conservative output. That’s odd given that it also stresses his ‘outsider’ status, admitting that he was difficult to work with: more than once he denied the existence of his wife and his increasing religiosity may have caused some problems. But he inspired adoration from some of those who worked with him. He himself excoriates the compromises of Dylan (his honorary PhD), and McCartney for his knighthood (“that’s got nothing to do with music.”) Lennon was his hero, though there’s a feeling that it’s as much for his political statements as anything on his late-60s avant-garde albums. But for a Soviet artist the two sometimes became intertwined. (source)