Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Alexander Pushkin on bridge, Muzeon, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

How does that saying go? If you have nothing good to say, talk about Pushkin? Something like that.
What more can I say about Pushkin? I’ve written about him a million times here already. But with a Trumped up world Putin’ everybody on their heels, there must be some escape.

“‘There must be somewhere outta here,’
Said the Joker to the Thief.”

That’s a Nobel Prize laureate providing me solace right there. An American Pushkin. Pushkin never won a Nobel Prize.

“‘There’s too much confusion,
I can’t get no relief.‘”

Both writers had curly hair; were short, loved women and were loved by them; were seen as the voice of their generation and of their nation. Interestingly, each had forebears that brought the family to their countries from lands afar. Pushkin’s great-grandfather Hannibal came from (perhaps) Ethiopia to Russia. All of Dylan’s grandparents came from Russia to the U.S.
Still, to be honest, I’m stretching it a bit to draw Bob Dylan and Alexander Pushkin into the same conversation. You’ll notice I wrote “an” American Pushkin, not “the” American Pushkin. As omnipresent as Bob Dylan is – in American and even world culture now – he came too late to be what Pushkin was to Russian culture. Modern culture by the time of Dylan’s ascendency was fragmenting into too many different spheres of influence. It’s true that he has spanned many of them as few others have in his time. But, still, it’s a very different world from the one Pushkin inhabited. The famous phrase – repeated too many times in this space already, yet still unavoidable – is that “Pushkin is our everything.” It’s a joke and it’s the truth. I mean it’s a joke because it’s almost become a joke. Almost. But it’s only “almost” become a joke because it’s true. It isn’t a joke.
I love the way the phrase came into being. It was coined by literary critic Apollon Grigoryev 22 years after Pushkin was gunned down in a duel by a capricious and dashing Frenchman who was, at that time in February 1837, a lieutenant in the Russian army. The gallery may now boo and hiss. That was your cue. D’Anthes, the killer of the great Russian poet, is one of the great villains in world literary history. We boo him, we hiss him, we revile him. We damn his soul. But we can’t bring Pushkin back.
Grigoryev (1822-1864) was responding to a two-part article, “A.S. Pushkin and the Most Recent Publication of his Compositions” (1855), penned by fellow critic Alexander Druzhinin (1824-1864).
The best things written about Pushkin of late,” opined Grigoryev, “were contained in articles by Druzhinin, but even Druzhinin looked upon Pushkin as our aesthetic educator. But Pushkin was our everything. Pushkin represented everything that is spiritual and warm about us, special, the kind of thing that remains spiritual and warm about us especially after collisions with alien, other worlds.”

Whether or not the Pushkin-Dylan comparison is not a perfect fit, there is a common thread I have always seen in their work – the generosity and dignity that informs the words they write about lost lovers. Okay, we’ll set Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” aside. I don’t think Pushkin has an “Idiot Wind.” Could you have an “Idiot Wind” in the early 19th century? I don’t know. But “Idiot Wind” was Dylan unloading in a moment of despair, it was a record of pain in a newer world that allowed writers freely to go places that writers in the past had not gone. Anyway, even as wicked as “Idiot Wind” can be, don’t forget the last chorus, the one that after all the accusations turns everything around:

…Idiot wind
Blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Idiot wind
Blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

Our coats, our shelves. We, he writes, it is down to us.
But I digress.
I’m thinking more of what is one of Pushkin’s most famous and beloved lyrics (in my humble translation), and how much it has always reminded me of one of Dylan’s most beautiful early love songs:

PUSHKIN
I loved you once: And I could love you once again,
Love hasn’t faded fully in my heart.
But please don’t let that grieve you anymore;
I have no wish in any way to make you sad.
I loved you silently and hopelessly,
Sometimes shy, sometimes with jealous fury;
My love was always true and tender,
I hope another now will love you just the same.

DYLAN, “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind”
Maybe it’s the color of the sun cut flat
An’ coverin’ the crossroads I’m standing at
Or maybe it’s the weather or something like that
But mama, you are just on my mind.

I don’t mean trouble, please don’t put me down or get upset
I am not pleadin’ or sayin’, I can’t forget
I do not walk the floor bowed down an’ bent, but yet
Mama, you are just on my mind.

 Even though my mind is hazy an’ my thoughts they might be narrow
Where you been don’t bother me nor bring me down in sorrow
It don’t even matter to me where you’re wakin’ up tomorrow
But mama, you’re just on my mind

When you wake up in the mornin’, baby, look inside your mirror
You know I won’t be next to you, you know I won’t be near
I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear
As someone who has had you on his mind.
So, there you have it. For what it’s worth, as Stephen Still might say. Dylan and Pushkin.
The images accompanying my thoughts today are from the sculpture garden at Muzeon. It is called In Pensive Hours and was created by the Moscow sculptor Gennady Krasnoshlykov (born 1955). It shows Pushkin  traversing a tiny bridge, presumably an abbreviated form of some bridge in St. Petersburg, and, perhaps, bucking a bit of wind, rain, sleet or snow. We get that notion as much from Pushkin’s coat, gently flowing backward at the bottom back, as anything. Pushkin’s eyes are open, although they are so faintly drawn in that they give an introspective feel to the sculpture. Another reason for the work’s sense of isolation is that the only things showing from underneath the hat and billowing coat are his face, some hair and his ears. His feet may be buried in snow or just unimportant. In a similar fashion, his arms and hands may be tucked under his greatcoat or may simply be considered unnecessary by the artist. It’s a very nice piece that has a ring of truth and authenticity to it.

 

Fyodor Dostoevsky monument, Moscow

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If you look a little further down at the photos here you’ll see where the jokes come from. It’s been said this monument to Dostoevsky by Alexander Rukavishnikov is a “monument to the Russian hemorrhoid.” It is also called “At the Proctologist.” So says Russian Wikipedia, anyway. There’s plenty to joke about. This may be one of the weirdest major sculptures of an important cultural figure I’ve ever encountered. And it’s not just because it looks like Dostoevsky is slipping off the seat he’s trying to sit on. Look at his face. He’s ready to burst out crying. The pain on his face is plain as day, even on a gray, gloomy, murky day in October when the sun never shines, the rain never really stops and the sky allows no breaks in the monotonous, deadly dull, silvery canopy. His hands – he doesn’t know what to do with them. His right hand seems like it wants to grab onto something, but there’s only his leg, unstable because he’s neither sitting nor standing. His left hand is tucked under him but it does him no good – he’s going nowhere.
So, when you walk around this monument your thoughts are running wild. My first response was that I hated it. Then it began to grow on me. I kept looking around – sculptures are, after all, part of a landscape – and the artistic picture grew clearer and clearer. This Dostoevsky wants to be ANYWHERE BUT HERE! Anywhere. Almost anywhere. Anywhere except before that firing squad the Tsar teased him with in 1849. Just a little joke there, Fedya. We thought we’d teach you a lesson. You know, condemn you to death. Put you in front of the firing squad and then seconds before the trigger is pulled send in a well-dressed adjutant on a fine, prancing steed to stay the execution. Such a humane action.
So INhumane, actually, that one of the guys in the firing line with Dostoevsky went mad. So, no, he doesn’t want to be back there – but he clearly would be happy to be absolutely any other place than there and here before the Lenin Library on 3/5 Vozdvizhenka, just across the street from the Russian Duma (popularly called the Russian Dura, that is, Imbecile, these days), and a stones’ throw from the Kremlin itself. Fyodor is kind of looking out from under his eyebrows in a crosswise way at the Kremlin. Like, “God, I am stuck here for eternity! How in the frig am I going to do that?!”

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The Lenin Library – it’s a great library, one of the greats in the world. I’ve worked there and I know. But the whole notion of poor Fedya having the name of Lenin, in bright gold even on a dreary day, shining eternally behind his head – how can you survive that? The building itself is a disaster, a train wreck of Soviet architecture pretending to play on Greek forms. Ugh! It’s gross and pathetic. Walk up close to those columns or the walls and they’re falling apart; the tiles are chipped and broken; everything is aging, cracked, forgotten. There are a couple of cathedrals attempting to reach out to Dostoevsky from behind corners or trees. They don’t seem to have much power on him, though.
Tiny story here. An hour before I took these photos I had participated in a conference on contemporary Russian culture in the Manege, the exhibition hall that is pretty much across from Dostoevsky, right in his site line. Our panel was crashed by a small group of semi-unhinged people with very unclear, but very adamant, aims. They hated us, they hate everybody who is making theater these days, they hate the Russian city government, they hate gays, foreigners and the Lord knows what else. We had to shut down early and go home because these guys wouldn’t quit shouting and interrupting. They were – they are – I believe, the eternal forces of Russian chaos. They are the people that Dostoevsky described in his novel The Devils  or The Demons or The Possessed – the title is different depending upon what translation is used where you live. I came away from that aborted panel thinking black thoughts. It was raining and – not cold, but – chilly to the bone. And I walked around Dostoevsky, hating him  (hating the sculptor) at first, mumbling, grumbling, picking mentally at every little thing. Until I got it. The sculptor’s point of view, the story he wanted to tell me, the satire he imposed on all the official people who must see this huge and imposing work of art in a wide-open space while they run around doing whatever they do – that all came home and hit me hard.
There’s a  wonderful Bob Dylan song called “Lo and Behold” that will be coming out on a special CD compilation next month. We collectors have known the song for 45 years, but it will be released officially for the first time ever in November. There is a line in there where Dylan sings, his worried, agitated voice rising up higher and higher with unease as it goes: “Let me out of here, my dear man!”
That’s what Rukavishnikov put into this bizarre, deeply compelling monument to Dostoevsky.
The place Dylan’s voice best suits this is at about 1:20 on the Soundcloud recording that you can listen to here.  For the record the monument was unveiled in 1997.
“Lo and behold! Lo and behold! Looking for my lo and behold! Get me out of here – my – dear – man!”

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Vladimir Vysotsky statue, Moscow

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Are we still too close to Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) to see him properly? It’s been a hell of a long time since we lost him – he died during the boycotted Moscow Summer Olympics. I well remember hearing the news. I had returned from a six-month residence in Russia seven months earlier and Vysotsky’s music and his presence were still very alive in my mind. I owned two French-made LPs of his songs recorded in France and I absolutely loved them. Still do, in fact. The quality of the recordings was so much better than the primitive arrangements and mixes you got on the few available Soviet 45s and LPs. More to the point, however, my friend Vladimir Ferkelman in Leningrad owned many of the famous reel-to-reel samizdat tapes of Vysotsky singing his songs at parties, at home and at concerts, so I had had the opportunity to experience the singer-songwriter (if I may use that term) the way he was most often experienced in Russia – in somebody’s warm, cramped, inviting, booklined home on an old, soft sofa, with several people hunched over a tape player to hear the man sing. People on both sides of the pond have, from time to time, tried to describe Vysotsky as the Russian Bob Dylan. That’s always irked me. It just doesn’t fit. Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan and you can’t define anyone else using him as a measuring stick. Any more than you can force Vysotsky into a framework built on another artist. But that’s just a little aside. As I say, all of this was still very vivid in my memory when summer 1980 arrived. By then I was living in Washington, D.C., and I was working at a bookstore in Georgetown. I’d make my way to a metro stop at the Pentagon from my apartment in Alexandria, and from there I’d zip into Georgetown to work. One morning I was standing on the platform waiting for the next metro train to approach and I was doing what everyone was doing – I was reading a newspaper that I held out before me. I hesitate to say which newspaper because one might expect it to be the Washington Post, although I’m pretty sure it was the New York Times. Anyway, there was a piece on the front page below the fold telling that Vladimir Vysotsky had died. Boom. That didn’t make any sense, I’ll tell you. The guy was 42.

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I knew Vysotsky as a singer and a writer of his own songs, and that’s what most everyone knew and loved him for. What was less obvious to some – especially a young foreigner wet behind the ears – was that he was also one of the great, charismatic actors of his time. Vysotsky’s Hamlet at Yury Lyubimov’s Taganka Theater is one of the great legends of the Russian stage. It is no secret that when Vysotsky died, Lyubimov lost just a little of his mojo at the Taganka and, before too long – four years later – he found himself in exile in the West. Vysotsky, like everyone else at the Taganka, drank like a fish. The difference was his genius. Lyubimov would fire or discipline other actors for showing up to work drunk, but he let Vysotsky get away with anything. It was almost a love affair. In fact I think Lyubimov’s worship of Vysotsky’s talent and charisma was very reminiscent of romantic love. It certainly sounds that way based on the memoirs and documents that have emerged in recent times.
But to get back to my original comment about our still being too close to Vysotsky to get a real grip on him. I began with that because the sculpture of the singer/actor that stands at the Petrovskiye Vorota plaza in Moscow just doesn’t capture the man for me. I see it as a kind of pop version, one that corresponds to the myth that lives and grows in the public’s mind, but which doesn’t get past the surface of the artist. I guess that’s okay, too. But I tend to respond better to art that is more daring and adventurous. This likeness by sculptor Gennady Raspopov and architect Anatoly Klimochkin seems to picture the performer soaking in the love of the masses. At the same time, his gaze is directed upwards; each of us can decide for ourselves what may or may not have attracted his attention up there. The statue was erected in 1995 and, if I’m not mistaken, it was the first monument raised to the great man, just 15 years after his death (caused by alcohol poisoning). I usually walk by the sculpture with a bit of a shudder and a thought or two of regret that I’d like to get closer to whatever made this man tick, but it’s not going to happen because of this piece of street art.

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