Biography for a Man

"Romero was playing at a show in Riga when his pants slowly began to fall down, which he didn't notice. Eventually, his pants were down on the floor, and he was playing his sax wearing just his boxers. Then he wanted to change position, got tangled in his pants and fell over right on my drum kit."

This anecdote by Mitya Melnikov, drummer in the band Leningrad, gives the reader of the recently published book "Muzyka dlya muzhika: Istoria gruppy Leningrad" or "Music For a Man: A History of the Band Leningrad," a good impression of what a typical show played by the band is like. The book, written by music journalist and long-time observer of the band's career Maxim Semelyak, is largely based on interviews with Leningrad's former and current members, as well as others involved with the group at various stages. This approach creates a multifaceted and subjective portrait of arguably the most controversial and unusual group on the Russian music scene of the 2000s.

Fronted by Sergei Shnurov, nicknamed "Shnur," the band achieved cult status in the late 1990s in its native St. Petersburg, puzzling and fascinating many with an improbable hybrid of experimental rock and criminal chanson, spiked with a lot of profane language.

The band's name -- St. Petersburg's name during the Soviet rule -- was itself provocative and, at the same time, calculated. "When I learned that the band was called Leningrad, I respected that as a careful calculation," Oleg Gitarkin, a prominent St. Petersburg underground musician, recalls in the book. "This word possesses some kind of wild energy. Lenin himself possesses energy, and 'Leningrad' has twice as much of it; plus it's very stylish."

In its first few years, Leningrad remained a cult band, playing primarily smaller venues in Moscow and St. Petersburg, while people on both the mainstream and underground scenes often didn't know what to make of it. "We were prominent, on the one hand, but, at the same time, people didn't know what attitude to take toward us," Shnur explains in the book. "We're not protesting against anything, and what is most conspicuous is our profanity."
Sergei Shnurov, frontman and driving force behind Leningrad, often courted controversy with his lyrics.
True, the use of profane language is something that has been present in Leningrad's lyrics throughout the group's entire career, alongside topics such as heavy drinking, chaotic sex and asocial behavior, antagonizing those who are unable to recognize the band's ironic approach to all their topics.

The foul language led to Leningrad's shows being banned in several major cities, including Moscow. As is often the case, this only boosted the band's popularity. "Leningrad made the use of obscene language in songs normal," Mitya Borisov, a promoter of the band in its early stages, concludes in the book.

Of course, it wasn't just for their use of foul language that the band earned wide popularity in the early 2000s. It attracted more diverse audiences than any other artist at that time -- from juvenile delinquents to top managers of large corporations, who started to invite Leningrad to perform at corporate parties, putting the group among the country's highest-paid artists.

"I like money a lot," Shnur is quoted as saying in the book. "Especially large amounts. But when I'm offered a [expletive] huge amount and told, 'You'll have to be someone other than yourself,' I have to turn them down. I cannot be anyone but myself." This may sound like a little bit of posing to some people, but most of the accounts given in the book agree that Leningrad as a pop music phenomenon has always been independent of show business and driven only by Shnur's creative energy.

Semelyak's book takes the reader through different stages of Leningrad's career, not always painting the band in a favorable light. Nik Rok-n-Roll, a respected domestic underground artist, comments: "[The late frontman of punk-rock band Clash] Joe Strummer once said that dirt cannot be washed off with dirty water, and this is exactly what I see in [Leningrad]. Being provocative doesn't really suit Shnur."

At the same time, the book doesn't intend to give the reader anything "hot" or sensational, especially when it comes to the private life of Shnur and other band members. For example, Shnur's relationship with young actress Oksana Akinshina, which was eagerly discussed in the yellow press a few years ago, gets nothing more than a brief mention.

Overall, people interviewed for the book express different, often conflicting ideas about the band, which gives the reader a chance to draw their own conclusions based on the firsthand accounts. And this is probably the most legitimate approach toward writing a biography of such a controversial group as Leningrad, whose career is still far from over, despite a notable decline in popularity over the last few years.

"Muzyka dlya muzhika: Istoria gruppy Leningrad," or "Music For a Man: A History of the Band Leningrad," is published by Amphora.

Vladimir Kozlov is a Moscow-based journalist, novelist and filmmaker.