I’d been hearing those stories about the Krestovik gang for a while, annoying legends of the working class suburbs. If one of them asked a girl to go out and she dared to say no, she might simply disappear. The Krestoviks hang out at the major intersection, a place known as the “crest”, or the cross. That’s where their name came from: the Crossers. They always looked for someone to beat up — hippies, homosexuals, new kids on the block, Jews — whoever came by.
But I didn’t care then because I was singing with a great band, fully immersed in a rock ‘n’ roll craze of the late 60’s. We rehearsed for hours, not even drinking until we were through. We played great stuff — Led Zeppelin, Santana, Jimi Hendrix — learning songs by ear from the records we bought on the black market. They were hot commodities, 50 to 60 rubles each, one third of an average monthly salary.
Every Friday and Saturday night we played for dances in Lyubertsi cultural Center, or the Palace of Culture, and got paid monthly, 75 rubles each It was unique: playing rock ‘n’ roll openly, with no trouble, and getting paid on a regular basis.
The colossal gray Palace of Culture had tall fat columns, heavy portals with hammer-and-sickle insignia, a glamorous marble stairwell, and other attributes of a distinguished style of architecture we called “Classical Stalinism.” This marvel sheltered a 1000-seat concert hall converted into a dance floor and a plenty of rooms for activities such as sawing, music lessons, dance classes, woodworking, etc.
Lyubertsi was a gloomy, spooky-after-dark town — a series of faceless five-floor apartment buildings, narrow dirty streets, and endless clotheslines with drying sheets and underwear. Kerchiefed babushkas sat on little benches by the flats, scanning every passer-by with drilling inquisitive looks. Just walking past on my way to the Palace of Culture was a dreadful experience.
Traveling to gigs together with Stepanyan, the band’s inflammable lead guitarist and Jimi Hendrix fanatic, proved to be a wise decision. One night on the bus a pig-faced thug approached us. “Boys, give me 14 kopecks!” – a well-known prelude to extortion of more money or a serious beating up.
Both Stepanyan and I had long, black, curly hair, and wore shabby blue jeans and that infamous pensive look. My colleague was also equipped with huge beautifully curved nose. It was clear: we were two Jews on the bus, even though my friend was Armenian, and two rotten hippies as well.
As we consolidated our ranks for a showdown, the hoodlum laughed unexpectedly and pointed his fat, hairy finger right at my comrade’s pale face. “Gee! I know you! You are Stepanyan, the great guitarist! And you,” he stuck his finger now in my face, “you are the new singer in the band!”
We exhaled, relaxing. The thug kept on blowing bubbles of idiotic laughter. “It was a joke! I don’t need your 14 kopecks, boys!” His pig-face grew friendly now. The bus felt silent as Stepanyan and I looked at each other shaking our heads. Our new friend got oft on the next stop. This time rock ‘n’ roll saved us from trouble; much more often, however it was trouble.
The powerful trio I sang with — guitar, bass and drums, — was a part of the big combo with an extended brass section. Every night the full-sized band played two sets of jazz-rock instrumentals. Usually after these two sets the brass section got really exhausted from excessive drinking. It was natural, because their drink of choice was pure alcohol mixed half-and-half with tap water. They always asked us to do whatever we wanted in the third final set. That was our starring moment, because all we wanted was to rock ‘n’ roll to death!
And we did it as loud and wild as we could in front of several hundred shaking and screaming fans. Fortunately Krestovik gang didn’t mind our music, and the progressive director of the facility chose not to pay attention to the third politically incorrect rock ‘n’ roll set.
I proudly recall that I put on a strong performance during my very first late night appearance with the hand. After a friendly half-glass of vodka bon voyage from my older band colleagues, I jumped and shrieked on stage at my very best. We cranked up Led zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, and after I finished the first ‘verse I noticed the people in the room had stopped dancing and were starring at me in amazement. The next night dance attendance doubled, which was attributed –everybody agreed on that — to my triumphant debut in the third set. I also suspect my success had something to do with Led Zeppelin genius, which had never before been publicly exposed in Lyubertsi. But happiness in this life rarely last long – my quick fame was to be buried in shambles.
That night our brass section had drunk, too much even by their own inscrutable standards. During the first break, the band-leader, a trumpet player and jazz survivor of the ancient beat generation, stared at me after failing an honest attempt to get off a dusty old coach in a dressing room. His look was dull and unfocused; a half-empty glass in his hand was frozen in motion. He struggled to recover his facility of speech.
“Fuck it!” he produced at last, giving up his attempt to become vertical, and then, attacked by hiccups, “Boys, I can’t do it, hick. Go and kick their asses with your shit. Hick.” Stepanyan and I looked around. Others members of the brass section weren’t in much better shape.
We looked at each other. “Let’s improvise!” After hearing the word “improvise”, the horn player, in a last ditch effort of standing up, bellowed and handed me his glass of “half-and half”. I finished that sacrifice in one gulp.
A minute later we were on stage, and I was jumping around again, popping out my eyes, shaking my hair, and screaming with hear-rendering intensity the song destined to be my swan Song: Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
“Woman, do you need louououaaave?”
But it wasn’t a beautiful woman who received the call and jumped on stage wringing her hands and squealing in ecstasy. Oh, no! It was a well-respected 72-years old Jewish gentleman, the director of the facility. Under his leadership the Palace of Culture had earned a red banner and honorable third place in the all-Russia socialist competition for palaces of culture. Now our director was ruined and desperate because that very night the district Comsomol organization (Young Communists) had sent a special committee to evaluate how well the institution was doing on the cultural front. And there I was jumping around with my long hair and beard and shabby blue jeans –and screaming in English! ‘I was an alien element, an agent of rotten capitalism!
“Get the fuck out of here, now!” the director screamed. He pointed his finger right in my face, shaking, raging, and cursing non-stop.
I was expelled from the Palace, discharged dishonorably from the cultural frontier. The whole band, including the brass section, begged for clemency on my behalf, but the director was adamant.
“He must fuck off!” – that’s all my band-mates heard from him ever since. The man was normally very polite and restrained, but he was still screaming and cursing sporadically a few weeks after Led Zeppelin disaster.
I was banished from the rock ‘n’ roll paradise in Lyubertsi, a wretched alien in the land of victorious proletariat.
I learned more about being an alien many years later and a thousand miles away from Russia. My American “green card” red in a science-fiction fashion: “resident alien.” It’s like a snail shell — you carry your alien-ship wherever you crawl.
But 22 years ago getting on stage with my friends just one night before my expulsion from Lyubertsi Rock ‘n’ roll Paradise I wasn’t aware of this business. Two exhilarating weeks with the band passed as one day. It was Friday night, and people filled up the dance floor — a good crowd.
But after a few songs something strange started to happen: two rough looking muscular Krestoviks climbed on stage in the middle of a song. They asked the drummer to let them play his set, and he gave it up right away without a word. The bastards proceeded to screw up the song, and I was mad!
Everybody else in the band behaved as if nothing unusual was happening. The bass player moved up closer to me and said: “Stay cool and sing.” I took his advice. He was from Lyubertsi. The place had been packed with frantically dancing people, but now the dance floor became practically empty. Most of the crowd stood quietly with their backs up against the wall. Something else was happening. A dwarf by the name Kolya hobbled in the middle of the room.
The next instruction came from Stepanyan:” We have to do “Myasoedovskaya Street” now. Don’t ask!” I knew the song, a criminal underworld all-time favorite, an obligatory part of every Russian restaurant band’s repertoire.
I took a deep breath, and we started a song. In the middle of the room on the dance floor, a giant circle formed with Kolya in the center of it. Tough-looking athletic guys with low foreheads and short hair ran in a circle with their hands on each other’s shoulders. The Rites Of Power.
They ran faster and faster, a gray circle in the middle of the dance hall decorated with plaster five-pointed stars and hammer-and-sickles Kolya the dwarf swirled in the center of everything, stretching his little hands up to the sky, a triumphant and menacing King of the Dance. We kept on playing.