Friday Jukebox: Drinking with Jesus
My husband, The Russian, spent the first 28 years of his life in the former Leningrad, whereas I came of age mostly in Southern California. As you might imagine, this divergence makes for some major cultural differences between the two of us, including the lack of a shared pop music background. Although we’re both the same age, we grew up listening to very different songs and naturally developed quite different tastes. Aside from classical music, we don’t agree on much when it comes to our respective musical proclivities.
The Russian has a large collection of what I call Rooskie CD-skies. For whatever reason, Russian pop music relies heavily on the synthesizer. It’s also generally upbeat in a relentless, saccharine sort of way, surprising for a culture that’s elevated angst to an art form. As a general rule, I can only listen to about 1o to 15 minutes of the stuff before I want to gouge out my eardrums. At sometime during his 25 years in this country, The Russian developed a taste for Warren Zevon and Leonard Cohen, presumably because they reflect his darker sensibilities. He’s not known as the King of the Worst Case Scenario for nothing.
While I can’t stand The Russian’s music, he reciprocates by hating mine back. The works of Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell fail to move him. He’d rather listen to cats in heat. I’ve managed to get him to tolerate a couple of girl groups--the Indigo Girls and Cowboy Junkies--but other than that, if he comes home and I’m listening to something on the stereo, his usual question is “what is that noise?”
In the course of our almost fifteen years together, The Russian and I have driven cross-country three times and from Los Angeles to Seattle once. These are long-enough journeys on their own, but without a mutually agreeable playlist they can drag on forever as even the most scintillating pair can’t keep up a decent conversation for 3000 miles. Imagine driving across North Dakota in the darkness, where all you can see are the lines on the highway in front of you and the far-and-few-between headlights of passing cars, yet not being able to blast your favorite tunes and sing along. If there’s a hell, this is how I’ve experienced it.
It was in the search for something we both could enjoy that I somehow stumbled across the Red Elvises. Based in Los Angeles, they were founded in 1995 by Igor Yuzov and Oleg Bernov, two Russian musicians who met in Southern California at a Russian-American peace walk and decided to form a band. They originally described their style as “Siberian Surf Rock,” which captures the eclectic nature of their work. Part rock-and-roll, part Russian folk music, with a dash of rockabilly and a hint of Beach Boys thrown in, they cross the cultural divide in a way that allows both The Russian and me to enjoy them. We now own a few of the group’s CDs, which has pretty much doubled the amount of pop music in our CD collection that we can both embrace.
The first video below is from a Red Elvises’ performance at Rusty’s Surf Ranch, a dive bar on the Santa Monica pier. “Drinking with Jesus,” from their most recent album, showcases their irreverent humor and the way in which they combine Russian and American sensibilities.
The chorus is classic, combining self-pity with the unique grammatical stylings of the Russian-American immigrant community:
Why am I not happy?
Why am I not rich?
Why nobody love me?
Why life such a bitch?
Why indeed? The second video, a performance of “Lara’s Wedding” also filmed at Rusty’s, features my favorite song from the new album, a modernized version of a classic Russian-Jewish folk song.
The upbeat tempo disguises what is, in fact, a sad song about love lost and now married to some other guy:
Today is Lara’s wedding day
And wasted guests all say good-bye
And I am sitting all alone
With a broken heart
And a glass of wine
But even heartache can be dissipated with enough vodka and the chance to “dance like crazy.”
Above all else, the Red Elvises’ music is playful and fun, their lyrics riddled with dark humor, which is why they managed to bridge the cultural divide at our house.