Alex Abramovich


25 April 2022

Tune the Guitar thus

The first Siege of Sevastopol – a belated response to Russia’s first annexation of Crimea – took place in 1854-55. Tolstoy wrote about it in Sebastopol Sketches. Mark Twain referred to the battles in Innocents Abroad. Poems were written, paintings painted; eventually, movies were made. In 1856, Henry Worrall, a musician and artist, published ‘Sebastopol’, a ‘descriptive fantasie’ for the parlour guitar. ‘This piece is intended as an imitation of military music,’ he wrote. ‘The Harmonics in single notes imitate the Bugle. The Harmonics in chords imitate a Full Military Band at a distance.’ Readers were instructed to retune their instruments:

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24 March 2022

Yellow Submarine

Bootlegged Beatles tapes began floating around the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s, but when a group of students gathered on Red Square to celebrate May Day 1967 by dancing the Twist, Khrushchev called the militsiya out to disperse them. Only in the 1970s did the Soviet establishment grudgingly recognise rock and roll as anything more than a ‘cacophony of sounds’. Under Communism, Russian rock bands were forced into two categories: ‘official’ groups, who registered with the Ministry of Culture and were ‘urged to write and perform songs on topics such as space heroes or economic achievement’, and unrecognised ‘amateurs’ who were scorned, scolded and threatened with jail for social parasitism.

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7 March 2022

Fliers on the Metro

My father, Igor Abramovich, once told me that when he was nineteen, in 1956, he went down into Moscow’s Metro with fliers protesting against the invasion of Hungary. Seeing that Muscovites now are doing similar things, I gave him a call.

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28 February 2022

Иди Hаxуй

‘You’re occupiers. You are fascists. Why the fuck did you come here with your guns?’ This is the widely shared video of an anonymous woman confronting Russian soldiers in Henichesk, in southern Ukraine. ‘Take these seeds and put them in your pocket so, at least, sunflowers will grow on your graves.’ That’s my loose translation of a few lines I’ve seen rendered more literally, if more obscurely (‘so at least sunflowers grow when you all lie down here’). The translators are doing an excellent job, catching almost everything, though the full range and depth of Russian obscenities – which overlap with Ukrainian obscenities – is notoriously hard to convey written down, even in the original. In the 1870s, Dostoevsky described a conversation consisting, entirely, of one ‘unprintable noun’.

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7 January 2022

Conversations with Schrader

For years, Paul Schrader was revered for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, for his other collaborations with Martin Scorsese, and for films he’d directed himself: Affliction, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and Mishima, among others. Then, he hit a lull. Dying of the Light, a spy movie with Nicholas Cage, was taken away from Schrader and butchered in post-production. ‘These people tried to kill me,’ he said, a few years ago. ‘I fell into alcoholism, depression. I thought that was it.’ Approaching seventy, Schrader might have retired. Instead, he made his own cut of Dying of the Light from workprint DVDs. Then, as if to clear the air, he made another movie with Cage: Dog Eat Dog. Manic, violent and slightly unhinged, it looked much more like a Paul Schrader film, though the script was written by somebody else. He followed it, almost immediately, with First Reformed, casting Ethan Hawke as a pastor coming to grips with climate change and the end of the world as we know it.

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25 August 2021

The Rolling Stone who stayed still

Charlie Watts was dignified, in a world where dignity was never valued. Gifted, musically, in a way that none of the other Stones (Mick Taylor excepted) really were.

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28 April 2021

Rather be Humpty

Shock G was the Donald Fagen of hip hop: a piano player, most comfortable behind his instrument, thrust into the role of a front man. His birth name was Gregory Edward Jacobs, and most of his audience knew and remembered him as Humpty Hump – a sign of how uneasy he was in his skin, with even his onstage persona hidden behind other personas.

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8 April 2021

Gang of Four 77-81

Some songs are like sculptures; almost physical objects taking up space in a room. Gang of Four’s songs are like that: weighty things. They flaunt the materials (wood, wire, vocal chords) used in their making. They are caustic and smart and concerned with the questions a sculptor might ask: how many elements can be stripped away before the object (in this case, a rock song) stops being itself? The early work, by the original line-up of Dave Allen (bass), Hugo Burnham (drums), Andy Gill (guitar) and Jon King (vocals), has been rereleased in a Matador Records box set, Gang of Four 77-81.  

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9 February 2021

Cape Man

Danny Ray, who died last week, spent forty-odd years as James Brown’s valet and body man. Off stage, he was in charge of the band’s uniforms. On stage, he was Brown’s master of ceremonies and ‘cape man’. It was a job that didn’t exist until Ray joined Brown’s entourage, in 1960 or 1961.

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30 October 2020

Guitar Hero

I hadn’t thought much about Eddie Van Halen since 1984, an album that was all over American radio the year I turned 12. But since his death earlier this month I’ve been thinking about him a lot, thanks to Greg Tate, the cultural critic and a co-founder, in the 1980s, of the Black Rock Coalition. ‘The Rolling Stone obit doesn’t even mention Eddie Van Halen’s Indonesian mother,’ Tate wrote on Facebook. ‘One very very baad baad man on the axe, no doubt, needless to say, but you know we couldn’t resist pointing out the de-bi-racialization of the Van Halen brothers by the white rock coalition media.’

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