By the time I came along into the world,
my father had already graduated from a course at the local university and was
working as an inspector in the ÎÁÕÑÑ.
To this day I don’t have a clue what department it stands for. Something to do
with speculators and embezzlers of government property. I don’t know whether my
father was pleased about my birth, but it is a known fact that he didn’t show up
for my discharge from the hospital. Three decades later, I didn’t turn up at
the hospital to pick my daughter up either. Apparently it runs in the family.
But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t happy she was born. On the contrary, I was
thrilled. I adore my daughter. God bless her!
Enough already! This isn’t a story
about love, it’s about music. More precisely it deals with a guitar, a stool
and perhaps life while we’re at it. I leave it up to reader. I’ve got to get
going with the tale. So yeah, anyway, my father. He was always busy in the
service: busy investigating, catching gangsters, putting them behind bars,
conducting raids, pickets, ambushes – all called Operativka, operational work.
He was at it morning to night, sometimes all night. I always thought of my
father as a top secret spy, a cross between Richard Zorge and Nikolai
Kuznetsov. Our paths seldom came together. At times I felt I loved my father,
and sometimes I’m afraid, though it’s terrible to say, I hated him. Our
relationship was like a thermometer in March.
“Stop biting your nails. Stop picking
your nose. Concentrate. Shut up – I’ll tell you when to talk!” That was the
voice of the officer, heavy as lead. The mercury fell down way below zero.
“Chasing bitches, again,” my mother
cried, shaking the dry grass and pine needles from his coat.
“What d’you mean? I spent the night in
an ambush,” came the quiet, tired voice of my father.
The word ambush, full of danger and
terror, spoken in such a quiet tired voice sounded purely heroic. I vividly
imagined my father lying in a wet ravine waiting for bitches. Bitches – some
gloomy unshaven guy – wandering through the forest amid fallen trees in the
night, swearing obscenely and plotting something wicked and vile, and then my
father springing out, shouting,” Gotcha, you bitch you!” and landing on him,
pinning him down, and taking him in under arrest to headquarters. In such
moments the mercury shot up.
Never did the thermometer go up so high
as the time he got into his car accident. Rumors were flying that on that day
my father was chasing bitches, but I still believed the ambush version. The
doctor gave him only twenty-four hours. But he survived and soon I was hearing
once more, “Stop biting your nails. Stop picking your nose.” The temperature
went down to its lowest, and with it my regret the doctor was wrong, when I
became a beatnik. I even recall the words of my father regarding my new life.
“It’d be better if you became a thief.” What? Why? “Because there’s nothing
about a hippie that’s human.” Come on. “Yeah, I mean it. A guy should be
handsome. But what’s a hippie? Nothing but hair down to his knees,
boogie-woogie and epileptic fits.” What’s it got to do with epilepsy? I asked.
“Hey, I’ve seen the way you guys dance.” OK, I said, maybe there’s nothing
beautiful about hippies. But they sure have a hot life! I exclaimed, rather
pathetically, I know. “A man needs to live his life like Pavel Korchagin if he
doesn’t want to end up sick and wasted.” Korchagin, come off it – he’s a total
has-been! Richie Blackmore’s the guy! “Just wait a couple of decades and your
children will be calling Blekmordov the has-been.”
My father happened to be right about
that one. For my daughter, the new Pavel Korchagin is Nick Carter of the
I reminded my father of Eazy Dey Xer
Nait, mangling the title of the Beatles’ song. He blew up. The thing is, hard,
“xer” happens to mean dick in Russian. And like all second generation
men who have brains, my father despised crude jargon. “Wake up before it’s too
late, boy. Or you’re going to find yourself behind bars.”
But I wasn’t listening. For our
generation obeying one’s elders was as old-fashioned as reading Ostrovsky, and I
went on listening to Deep Purple and spending all my free time with my guitar,
doing my best to sound like Richie Blackmore.
“What the fuck, man! Do Blackmore, on
that piece of shit of yours?” cried Obodovsky, the top guitarist of our little
town. I was speechless. “You wanna play Blackmore, you gotta have a
StratakasterAnd old Obodovski pulled out of his crimson case a Fender
Timidly I asked, “Can it be?”
“Un momento,” he said and plugged the
guitar into the amp. My palms were sweating, my fingers shaking, my forehead
was burning. I waited to come down a bit, touched the neck of the guitar and
started playing Highway Star. I’ll be damned if it didn’t sound better than the
I put down the guitar. Obodovsky ‘s
eyes were popping out. “Holy shit, man!”
“How much is this piece of equipment?” I
asked, evading Obodovsky’s regard. He named the amount: alas, it was the cost
of a brand-new Lada.
So that’s when I started building my own
guitar. I begged for some materials, stole others, bought some stuff, bartered
for still others. I even hung out around the cars as they were being unloaded
at the local glue factory. It was known as Syarilvka, Shit-shack, in the town,
for it was a pile of slimey bones crawling with greasy larvae and a whole armada
of nasty rats. But I got the guitar going. I built the shell out of a huge
chunk of cork tree, which I traded for a bottle of Stolichnaya at the village
dump. (The vodka I’d swiped from the family liquor cabinet.) I traded in a
porcelain statuette and got some branded pick-ups. The figurine with my name
engraved on it would come back to haunt me as I was interrogated by the
porcelain maker Alexi Kuz’kin.
“Show me your diary,” my father ordered
. For once he’d returned early from work.
“I wanna know how you’re doing in
physics,” he said.
“I’m doing OK in physics,” I replied.
“Why physics?” my mother wanted to
“Because he builds his guitars out of
broken public phone boxes.”
“Damn,” I said. “Alexi told me I could
get branded pick-ups.” I was cursing Alexi.
“You bad bad boy!” my mother yelled
out. “How could you?”
I couldn’t make out what upset her more,
the theft of our family statuette, the vodka or the three destroyed public
“All right,” my father said. “I want
all this Beatlemania out of the house this minute!”
“I have legitimate right to house and
property!” I objected.
“OK, I lay claim to my right as owner of
this house,” he retorted, closing in on my musical possessions.
“You touch my stuff and I’ll kill you,”
I swore, my blood seething.
Damn you, Makhno! Call the Japanese
police! You’ve had it, boy! We Soviets brought Hitler to his knees, but for a
beatnik like you a couple of smacks’ll do the job!” my father cried, trampling
my Dieperpoltsev cassette underfoot. The glass panels of the bookshelves
rattled, and the plaster bust fell to the floor, breaking off Richie Blackmore’s
“What are you doing?” my mother cried.
“I paid for that out of my pocket!”
“Children pee their pants, but I’ll
train this boy yet. Kill Makhno!” He smashed my tape and went for my guitars.
I puffed out my chest and rolled up my
sleeves, ready to stand like the Maginot Line. But father was as unstoppable as
a German Tiger. “You think you can stop a Russian officer? You think you can
raise your fists at me? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll show you, you little wimp!” And
father tackled me under all his weight.
“You’re crushing me!” I gasped under the
weight of father’s body.
“We’ll see about that,” he said,
dropping me into the armchair. You could hear the guitar crackling. It sounded
like the whole world was crunching up, the universe coming apart.
“I’ll never forgive you,” I swore at him
through my tears, sweeping the smashed fragments under my bed.
“Just calm down,” my father’s victorious
voice rang out. “You’re going to thank me one day.”
“Let your boss thank you, I’m getting
out of here for good. Get used to not having me around.” Slamming the door
behind me, I made my grand exit.
For an entire week I made myself
scarce. I spent my days on the bank of a forest lake right next to our
neighborhood, a place that smelled of fresh leaves and muddy water. I slept in
the attic of an abandoned house, grunge crunching under my feet, the air rife
with bird dung. I went hungry, started losing weight until I was looking all
skin and bones. The smell of fire, mud and pigeon shit stuck to me. On the
eighth day I saw missing child posters with my face on them. On the ninth day,
like poor little Fedor found by his father in the mountains, I was spotted,
taken from the roof and brought home.
“You look terrible!” my mother
cried when she laid her eyes on me.
Something prompted me to come out with “Je
ne me suis pas vu depuis sept jours.”
“That’s right, for you it was a lark,
for me I couldn’t sleep a wink.”
In fact, the week had gone by somewhat
differently. It had given rise to exchanges like this:
Father: How can you get any sleep when
you don’t even know where the hell your son is?
Mother: No use climbing the walls about
it. He’ll come around and return.
Father: What do you mean come around?
Come around where? He’s your son!”
Mother: Great, just great. Am I the one
who smashed his guitar? Am the I one who stomped on his cassette?
Father: So what? I broke it, I’ll fix it.
Mother: He’ll fix it! Don’t start
saying no matter what. When it comes to repair jobs you’re all thumbs.
Father: That’s an insult! I’ve good
great manual skills. After all, I am a qualified locksmith.
Mother: You, a locksmith. You! Apart
from making big speeches and locking people up, all you know how to do is lying
in ambush for bitches.
Father: You are reminding me of xer dey
Mother: Shame on you, wash your mouth
with soap. You, a member of the Communist Party!
But let us return to the day of my
homecoming. Mother told me that my father hadn’t been able to sit still the
whole time I was gone. Where, I asked: in ambush? She said I was a smart-ass.
She said father was sorry. He had fixed my guitar. Indeed, the apartment
reeked of wood glue, of pine needle rosin, a sharp reminder of the factory with
its yard littered with bones.
“Son, what I did was wrong,” father told
me that evening.
“Well, what do you expect me to do with
it?” I asked, pointing to the pieces of my guitar.
“Don’t worry, I’m going to put it all
together like new,” he said with brash self-confidence. “I pledge the word of
a Communist. I’ve already got the glue and the rosin on the boil. Come on, we
don’t have our hand up our asses! They’re screwed on properly, let’s get to
The house was frantic with work. The
moment he got back from work he had a bite to eat and got right down to it.
“Let’s get this guitar moving.”
For a good month we went on sawing,
planning, digging and soldering. We stank like devils in hell. All we said to
each other was chisel, rasp, pin, nut, bore, bridge. We hired Leo Smitchkov,
the maestro of violin makers, as our consultant. My father went as far as to
break the law in the line of duty, breaking into the safe at work where they
kept material evidence. He took out the plans of a fingerboard of an Orpheus
guitar, a Bulgarian make. It enabled us to put together something with a soft,
smooth sound not particularly appropriate to rock music, but when I added fuzz
and hooked the guitar up to a reverb, it didn’t sound so bad. All that was
missing was the varnish. The leftovers went into the kitchen stool.
“Stool of peace,” my father said
solemnly – unless he meant piece of stool.
Anyone entering upon the slippery path
of Russian rock, as indeed of all things Russian, risks breaking one’s head
open. But that is perhaps our Russian way, slippery, perilous. Perhaps it was
along this trail that my father found his calling as a parent. Hard to say, for
my father went on to commit further crimes, going into the vault to bring out
pieces of evidence from ÎÁÕÑÑ
cases all the recording of Dieperpoltsev – Deep Purple, that is -- along with
Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. Soon my musical archives were complete once
again. Soon we were making amplifiers and speakers, aided and abetted by
further crimes on my father’s part. So it was he brought up from the department
cellar lamps, transistors, a 50-watt speaker. My father alleged he was cleaning
the stores out.
It took about a year for my father to be
able to tell the Beatles apart from the Rolling Stones, and Richie Blackmore
from a D. Page. Two years later he accompanied me as my sidekick disk jockey,
and before three years had passed he showed up at a Party meeting in jeans and,
declaring rock the future of the planet, he demanded deep-seated reforms to the
socialist laws of the land.
After making his declaration, my father
was transferred out of the security department. Hired on as a security manager
at a sausage factory, he developed a habit of exposing worst-case scenarios of
rotten meat and was forced into early retirement. The last two years of his
life he didn’t work but sat watching over my disk jockey equipment. Sitting on
the stool of peace, he looked out the window anxiously awaiting my return. When
he saw our car approaching, he came to life. He started putting things
together. He fermented cabbage, pickled cucumbers, cut into strips Chinese ham,
and took out the crystal rum glasses he’d received as part of his pension fund
as a department of the ministy of the interior solderer.
“Don’t get it my way,” he would say to
his protesting wife.
“But you mustn’t! You’ve had two heart
“Step back,” he said. “You’re reminding
me of Xer Dey Nait.”
“You’re the dick, even if you’re not an
officer of the Community Party anymore.”
At one of my gigs someone stole our
guitar. I was no longer using it by now, having acquiring a much better
Japanese model. But one day when it wouldn’t play, I had had to resort to our
home-made guitar. In the evening while we were loading the equipment into the
car I couldn’t find it anywhere. I exhorted food handlers, promising them
anything in exchange for a clue to its whereabouts, but it was useless: the
drunk bastards shrugged, looking at me with blank guilty smiles. I alerted all
the local musicians, but to no avail. It had disappeared without a trace.
Soon thereafter my father died. He
walked into the kitchen and collapsed; he came out propped on my shoulders,
Outside the courtyard the shrill winds
of economic reforms were blowing. Not only were the grocery stores all empty
but the funeral parlors likewise. In the canary yellow building, where the wake
was held, there was nothing, no brushes, no wreaths, no tapes and no coffins.
Just the director and a few not quite sober souls.
“We should call the authorities,” I
advised my mother.
“What are you on about?” she asked.
“Have you forgotten they fired him.”
“Yeah, but with his veterans’ pension,”
I argued stiffly.
“Yeah, sure. First they get fired then
they get medals.”
But it turned out I was right. The
authorities did pay for the coffin – the boards, the red sheathing and even the
bright crimson brush. Once more I was hearing them say chisel, saw, rasp, pin…
All that remains of my father are some
of his black and white photographs and that heavily varnished kitchen stool.
Will we whose lives were so cleverly woven together along the paths of life meet
once again? Whenever I look at our little peace stool I’m quite certain we