«Long Ago, When It Didn’t Matter»

At a point in their lives, children try to carry out the plans that their parents have established for them

Country Evgeny Margulis


In the early 2000s, marketers for the music industry discovered that musical taste in individuals takes shape by the age of fourteen, after which time it does not change. It’s possible, in adulthood, to fall in love with classical music or opera, though only on the condition that one was exposed to it as a child. In this lies the secret to the longevity of hit songs — they live as long as the generations that love them. “Shanghai Blues,” for example, will last. Though on this, Evgeny Margulis has said nothing.

Once, at the dinner table, my grandma assessed my fate. Since I have a Jewish surname, I would most certainly become a good doctor; when I became a doctor, they would most certainly put me behind bars. Because of my character, they would always be able to find a reason. And who is the most important person in prison? The doctor! That’s where I’d be useful and where I’d have great success.

My grandma wanted for me what we all want for our kids: that they are always safe. In these matters, we fall back on our past experiences and our worldview. Grandma always kept her radio on. It was an old, wired one, with an ugly speaker, hanging on the wall — the kind that isn’t made anymore, and probably can’t even be found. She was afraid of missing the announcement that war had begun.

At a point in their lives, children try to carry out the plans that their parents have established for them. However, life is more complicated than it seems; things can change radically with one single event.

Music had always only been a hobby of mine; in my studies, I was pursuing medicine. While in school, however, I met Makar, and I realised that medicine was a hobby, and music my life.

I often stayed with my grandma, and I constantly heard Soviet songs coming from the speaker. I didn’t like them. My father used to have a radio receiver that allowed you to pick up different music. In between the wellknown stations, there was one that was always blocked in the USSR: “Voice of America,” which featured a show called Jazz Hour. There, for the first time, I heard the Beatles, and I realised I wanted to become them.

These days, I listen to the radio in my car. Not music, because the stations are all alike. When I drive, I listen to talk radio gibberish. Abroad, I only listen to Soviet music; I bring along around fifteen hours’ worth of music from the ‘50s, maybe the ‘60s, as well as some Kino, and some silly music, like Bunchikov and Nechaev. When you’re on a road trip, the radio frequencies change according to the provinces you are driving through. I don’t like searching for stations, and the music is the same on all of them anyways. Plus, there are so many great songs in Soviet music that we never knew existed, because somewhere along the way we turned our back on our own music. We didn’t love our homeland or our music, but now, it’s all coming back. I relish Soviet songs.

From the ‘60s on, we’ve always looked to the West. It was our school, breeding beautiful scumbags. I’ve said it before, somewhere — I had the worst luck. My classmates always used to leave for the summer. I usually went to the village of Kholshevki, or to the Young Pioneers summer camp. By the time school started, I had nothing to show off but mosquito bites, whereas they had vinyl and newspapers like The New Russian Word, since, due to diplomatic immunity, customs never inspected their luggage. All the damage, the anti-Soviet literature and music, came through them.

Everybody was happy. My classmate, Valery Cherevkov, with whom I still keep in touch, even brought me back a pair of jeans. He was fond of Japan, since his father was a Tokyo correspondent for Pravda. My first pair of jeans — the brand was Big John — cost one ruble and fifteen kopecks, money I saved from school breakfasts. That same money was later spent on a bottle of Port wine. I don’t recall the brand, only that it was one ruble and two kopecks, and that with the remaining fifteen, we bought a pound of bologna.

Place, time, and company determine a whole lot. If I’d been born in the outskirts of Moscow, like Butovo or Kapotnya, the devil only knows how things would have turned out.

Recently, I watched an excellent film dedicated to Motorhead, in which Lemmy Kilmister says, “Regardless, you are only going to love the music that touched you when you were young.”

There was a scene in the movie where he is going round music stores buying records. He’s only buying old mono Beatles records. He says he’s not interested in stereo; he only wants the old mono sound.

I remember how I felt as a kid when I first listened to Alexander Galich. I didn’t understand a single word. That is to say, I knew what some of them meant, but together they didn’t make much sense to me. I still remember this song that struck me:

“I’ve never crammed in master classes on materials’ resistance,

In the world of science, my worth is close to nonexistent

But here’s what I’ve grasped:

To buy mineral water, vending machines are of assistance

Plain will cost a penny, cherry only three.

To take part in such commerce, you were free

An hour quickly passed, all the drinks were drained

One glass after another, it was a pouring spree,

Although, for the people, there’s no gain.”

And I still love Galich wholeheartedly, and I still listen to him. To me, he’s number one, since he was there first, even before Vysotsky. It’s the same with the Beatles, with Chubby Checker and with the Rolling Stones. They are all part of my childhood memories. And, frankly, I don’t care what’s fashionable at the moment. What continues to matter to me is what I have always loved wholeheartedly.

Our problem is that we’ve become old. Naturally, we prefer things from the past. Our children are different; our grandchildren will be even more so. But now there’s the internet, and you can record anything, record any piece with any musician, just by writing to him. Fifteen seconds after your songs hits the Internet, you can become insanely famous. Times have changed. Here’s an example, if you remember «Gangnam Style.» Where is that guy now? Fifteen minutes of fame, but now everyone wants to be like that. And that won’t work for us.

For my son, music is just a background thing. In my opinion, he is a born mathematician.

I remember at one point, he approached me: “Dad, I want to play ‘Shanghai Blues’ by the campfire.” I said to him, «You know, most professionals can’t play that piece. And you want to hammer out a piece like that by the campfire with your goons, a bunch of nerds like you? Go and learn. I’m not going to teach you, but I’ll introduce you to a friend who lives nearby, he can teach you to play.»

And I brought him to my buddy Lyoshka Belov, nicknamed White, a superb blues guitarist. I remember in the ‘70s, we snuck into the Successful Acquisition show by climbing up a drainpipe. And for six months, Danka took lessons with him. Of course, he didn’t learn how to play the guitar, because on the first day he said to Belov, «There are 274 chords, and I already know them all.» He knew the math of it, diminished sevenths, augmented fifths. He quickly lost interest in the guitar, and he and White just chatted, on my dime!

He wasn’t really interested in music. He was interested in maths. In fact, he is very well educated. He graduated from School 57, then Moscow State University, and then Boston University.

I don’t even know what music he listens to. I have no idea. Sometimes I think he’s a Martian. No, of course he’s not just some helpless nerd, with a different shoe on each foot. He has a great sense of humour. He’s quite similar to me. But he’s also completely different.

He is thirty, a member of the generation I like to call the Coca-Cola kids. The devil only knows! We sure weren’t like that. Though we weren’t like our parents either.