a year in stories::fifteen

Keep forgetting to post things in here. I have three film reviews and one essay about North Korea so I’ll just post them here without saying much about it.

Jurassic ParkTo the Wonder, and The Place Beyond the Pines all up over at Manarchy Magazine. I especially really like that one about Jurassic Park, which is more like an essay about my childhood and dinosaurs than it is a film review, but it’s one of my favorite essays I’ve written.

And then there’s an essay about not so recent events in North Korea now. It’s about all that business like a month ago when everyone thought we were going to war with North Korea. Essay is here.

This story came to me all at once when I was eating mashed potatoes about an hour ago. Just that title: All my Heroes are Russian Folksingers. No idea where that came from but I really like this one, an alternate history book about art and revolution in the 20th century.

All my Heroes are Russian Folksingers


Never does a boy forget his first love and never does a girl remember, but I do.

His name was Alyosha Dragunov and he died before I was born but his songs crept over decades and across an ocean to find me in my car that Saturday night when my elder sister’s boyfriend’s brother was driving us who cares where. My sister’s boyfriend was Russian, or his parents’ were. He spoke it too and I could tell him and his brother were singing along but I was in the backseat, pushing my head further back until all I could hear was music, the noise of my sister and her friends drowning out or me escaping far away.

It was a terrible recording, kind of like Woody Guthrie Bsides, but the basement was Siberian, or that’s what I imagined then. For me then, Russian was sort of a white wasteland of winter, and while I know that’s not true, whenever I hear Alyosha, I’m brought back there in tears of overwhelming nostalgia for beauty I never knew. That scratchy recording, turned scratchier by the volume we listened at, but through the static and lofi came this voice, so tender and ravaged by love and loss, or at least that’s what it sounded like. I didn’t know the words but they knew me and they danced their way into me.

There were only five songs and the Russian boys know them all by heart but only I was crying when we stopped the car. We were somewhere, a party maybe, and we were being dropped off because the brother was just the driver and I was along for who knows what reason.

My sister and I are twins but we’re the kind that don’t get on well. If all twin pairs are psychically linked it’d make sense for us, because anytime I think of Kristine I get pissed. I love her and whatever but I sort of really hate her.

But there I was crying. Not bawling or anything but just crying. My sister and her boyfriend left me there with the brother after she said something obnoxious and rude. He was sixteen and I was thirteen but those three years are lifetimes at that age.

Why do you cry, little bird?

Who was that singing?

Ah, Dragunov?

When he said that his accent was thick and I couldn’t really tell where the consonants or vowels in the word were but then he switched back to normal unaccented English and he told me all about Alyosha, about how his parents died before he was grown and he grew in an orphanage, how he never got over the pain of his parents’ departure till he met a woman, a beautiful aspiring ballerina who brought him from the sullen edges to the brightest suns and then cast him back into darkness when the revolution came and swallowed her whole as the countryside turned iron. From there came his songs and his politics grew with the revolution but turned sour when the trees were exchanged for factories and the fresh air for smoke as he was more Whitman than Lenin and he wrote of a land of beauty and love lost forever to the hands of man. At different times he was a fugitive and a friend of the state and very nearly a prisoner but for some harrowing escapes and he continued making his songs underground, in attics, and the records were handed off from person to person across the countryside and it would be many years till many knew Alyosha’s name but all those first thousands who heard him picked up a guitar and remade Alyosha’s songs and spread them like wildfire along with their own words. And so it was at the height of Stalin’s reign that Sovietism collapsed because of music and words and a man who never wanted to be famous, who just wanted love, who finally found it as he stood in St Peter’s square for the first time before a crowd, for the first time face to face with all those who had loved him, who found hope in him, and he wept so long that he couldn’t play or speak and so others took up his words, took up his chords, took up his songs and there he died, his very soul in the mouths of millions and millions of Russians, finally free.

Is all of that true, I said.

Why not? he smiled and ejected the CD and handed it to me, told me he had more and that he’d give me more when it was time for us to be picked up. Go on, he said, Join your friends. Sing and be happy, for tonight you might die, with only your words to remember you.

When I went home that night I had a little CD case full of Russian folksingers from the 20th century and I didn’t sleep that night, crying into my pillow, headphones stuck to my eardrums, blowing them out.

Alyosha was my first love but not my favorite. He may be the most influential Russian to have lived in the 20th century, the man who accidentally toppled a totalitarian state with just his voice trapped in bedroom recordings, but he’s certainly not the best. It’s often said, though, that could the Nobel Peace prize be given to the dead, he would top the list every year since. It’s hard to know what Stalin would’ve done had his regime lived on, but they say the dissolution of the Soviet state stopped the Fascist Wars from becoming a world war as Alyosha’s message spread west and Adolf Hitler’s grab for power fell apart under the Russian Jewish singer, Tsilia Zaslavsky, who took up Alyosha’s words and message and carried them into the heart of Berlin in 1935, during the rearmament. She sowed dissent and peace and clarity in a time of fanaticism and racial bigotry that’s so easy to forget all these years later, but Germany in the 30s was not the Germany of the 40s that we’ve come to know so well. By the time Hitler moved for Danzig his empire was already collapsing from within. Tsilia was the most wanted person in all of Germany, and also the most beloved. By 1940, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and even Germany itself were already ousting Hitler. It’s said that in his old age even he listened nightly to Tsilia’s recordings, bemoaning all he had lost because of the beautiful Jewess from Minsk.

Tsilia, another important artist, but still not my favorite. I find her, actually, quite shrill, though the lyrics are beyond what anyone has written in any language, poets and novelists included. The way she so simply stated what we had always known but never seen. To listen to her words is to understand yourself, your friends, and your loves for perhaps the first time.

But these two were enough to turn my heart always eastern, always watching Russian, always cheering them on as their folkartists turned towards Maoist China, already in it’s sixtieth year with Chairman Mao so old it was hard to believe it was yet him living. But Ivaanjav crawled through the spiderweb of totalitarian China in the late 90s and by Mao’s death in 2002,we were seeing a free China for the first time, I guess, technically ever. There were elections and Ivaanjav, who’s actually ethnically Mongolian though raised in a small farm area just north of China’s Russian border. He spent his youth wandering by rails all over Russia, collecting songs and styles from the many masters then singing and playing. Unlike many Russian folksingers, he didn’t play guitar but rather a morin khuur, adapting the freeplucking style of Leon Trostky’s grandaughter, Sofia–herself an accomplished artist and leading political figure–to the morin khuur. He broadly expanded and united the many different styles of Russian folkmusic by forcing it to adapt to him and his Mongolian heritage rather than forcing himself to adapt to its constraints, and, still, there are many who don’t consider him a proper Russian folkartist, despite everything he’s done in that tradition.

I would like to say that it was the message of peace and promise of beautiful days ahead that caused me to study Russian and guitar but it was really Aleksandr Z, my absolute favorite of them all. Unlike most, he had no political affiliation or outlook. He was a return to Alyosha’s early days of nostalgia, which was peculiar to hear in a man so young. I thought then, that first night, when I was still thirteen, that I’d marry him one day, since he was only nineteen then and that wasn’t so old. He was every bit as beautiful as Alyosha, and though the recordings were more polished his voice sounded more fragile, more on the precipice of disaster. It took me so long to learn what the words meant but he broke my heart every time. Born so long after Alyosha, but in many ways, his true successor, his was an aesthetic so pure and simple that it captured everything of Alyosha’s early years but transcended them, connected them to the modern world, and then cracked this hypertech world apart, letting flowers and sunshine through.

I saw him for the first time on youtube, playing alone in his hotel room in Iceland when volcanic ash smothered the sky. It was his first song to be sung in English and I was watching it live.

Hello, he said, his voice thick with Russian spilling over the Anglosounds. My name is Aleksandr and this is my first time speaking English in public but I hope you like it. It’s called Iceland at the End of the World.

He was beautiful, frail and thin like a teenage girl, with long blonde hair spilling over his face. But his arms were so strong, so in control of his instrument as his fingers danced, plucking his twelvestring, his voice careening in a way so perfect, in a way never captured yet by him on his recordings. I felt the world ending and those eight minutes disappeared into me and I kept watching it for the rest of the night, memorising the words, the hand movements, the chords till I could play it maybe half as well, which was a huge accomplishment for me.

I turned the camera back on me and sang it back to him, as if he was on the other end, but I sang it in Russian, because if he could sing it for me in my language, I could do it for him in his.

The hits piled on and the comments rolled in, many of them negative, as always, but even more positive, with most of the positive ones written in Russian.

And then there was a message from him and a response video and when I learnt his new song I played it for him again, and he responded, but this time asked me to write for him. He asked it in Russian, believing, maybe, that I was and i cried through hours of smiles as I frantically tried to write a song for him, anything that would make him smile, make him proud of me. Millions of views on each video, but none of those people mattered to me. No, there was only Aleksandr, and I longed to touch him but knew I couldn’t write about that.

And then the crows cawed outside my window. Twelve of them hanging out in an oak tree, and one idea became ten words became a stanza became a melody became a song. My first song. My first song for him and my first song for me. So nervous, especially to sing it in Russian, which I decided I would.

I turn on the camera, my hands so sweaty I don’t know if I’ll be able to play, my face hot, and my feet wet from their instant sweat. I cleared my throat.

Hello, Aleksandr . . . and everyone else, I guess. This, um, I did what you asked. This song is for you. I wrote it in Russian. I hope you love it.

One deep breath in, then out. I wipe the sweat from my eyes, smile, and pluck that first chord.