I don’t remember Russian lullabies and my mother swears I never took to baby talk or songs. The only Russian songs I know are by Alla Pugacheva. She is like the Russian Taylor Swift of the 70s. I grew up enamored with her sad Russian love songs and ballads about multicolored roses. When we landed on American soil, the soundtrack which accompanied my parents through immigration was a mixture of Abba and Boney M, ironically, neither of whom were American.
I hear Abba’s Money, Money, Money and instantly I am dancing in a cousin’s basement in 1980. Wood paneling hugs us and plaid itchy couches line our butts but we were off the plane and the immigration high is never quite reached again. I’m not sure why of all Abba songs, this one got my family dancing in their vodka shoes, but even as a six-year-old, I recognized happy music as it tangoed with hope. Today when I hear the familiar disco beat, it reminds me of the time when money was a lyric rather than a dream sucker.
My introduction to The Beatles came on a cassette tape we listened to so often in the car, it developed a skip in the song Girl. Right in the middle of the drawn out, “Oh Giiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrrrrrrrlllllllllll,” there was a hiccup. My mind still wants to sing this error because it seems so boring without it. We had Rubber Soul on one side and Revolver on the other and we played them on a continuous loop; the whole family agreed on the music. These albums evoke a feeling of peace, which was short-lived in our Honda Accord.
When I worked at the donut shop in Staten Island as a teenager, the radio dial was set to Classic Rock, rather than a more traditional soft pop. There I got my fill of Steely Dan, Styx, Crosby Stills and Nash, and the like. I’ve developed the musical taste of a 40-year-old man in 1986. Incidentally, this would make my musical age 70.
As musical taste morphs over times, you gather new music to expand your pallet. But old songs remain the golden nuggets, which like old friends, hold the keys to unlock memories. While modern songs create new memories, it’s rare to hear a new song which makes you feel nostalgic.
Gogol Bordello did this for me. They are a gypsy punk band whose lead singer, Eugene Hutz also starred with Elijah Wood in Everything is Illuminated. They are music representative of the immigrant generation. From the first song I heard (American Wedding), I felt a kismet connection and not just from the random Russian words and phrases decorating the songs. Their music was a combination of party, anger, sadness, and jubilation and it seemed to connect my inner Soviet, my inner Jew, and my gypsy, inner dancer.
With their rhythm, melodies, lyrics, and a familiar accent, their music penetrated deep into my soul, where I danced in celebration of finding a music of my people, the immigrants! Eugene has said he lives on the yellow line that weaves in the middle of the highway. The first time I heard this comparison, I thought, “Eureka!” This is the precise description of when you can never go home again. Even if you leave your home when you are young, it still lives, even distantly, within a sacred place in your heart.
Gogol Bordello’s songs overflow with the struggle of not having freedom. Invisible angst is woven into the tempo; when the drummer beats, it’s with the energy of someone whose life has armed him with passion. In America, if you’re a rock star, you’re a celebrity; in Russia, if you’re a rock star, they put you on the KGB watchlist.
In Gogol’s music, I hear cultures blending and history transcending time. Melodies and beats overtake me and force me to dance. Eugene Hutz and I share a starting point in Kiev, but neither of us can go home again. Our energies converge at concerts, where we’re both refugees a decade apart, carrying matching satchels of collected displacement and rocking hard through life (with a side of pickled herring).