Ilmārs Šlāpins is a philosopher, publicist, editor, world music DJ and writer. He has published ten books, including translations, non-fiction and poetry. Temple is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.
I woke up quite early, stretched, went to the shower, brushed my teeth, reluctantly looked in the mirror and noticed that my temple had started to turn grey.
I’ve never really liked the color of my hair, the shade of greyish straw and school canteen tables. Somehow getting older didn’t even enter my mind, I’ve always felt too young, I’ve always been with people older than me or, in contrast, got on well with those younger than me. My generation – born in 1968 – has vanished somewhere, it is still impossible to identify it as a historically significant age group. It has simply dissolved.
The only thing I could think of in relation to my grey hair was the effect it would have on my musical choices. At twelve, you listen to what is played on the radio; at seventeen, you listen to what your friends recommend; at eighteen, you listen to what nobody else listens to; at twenty-five, you listen to what is good, but in fact it is what the experts recommend; at thirty, you once again listen to what you listened to when you were young; at forty, you listen to the first thing you like, because you no longer have the time or energy to follow the rest that’s out there; and at fifty, you listen to what’s on the radio. And the radio plays shit.
I remember sometime in the early 1980s, when the tasteless pretentiousness of Soviet musical culture was still in full bloom in Latvia, I used to go to the black market, where they sold music that wasn’t played on the radio. Alongside old books, collector coins and medals, there was something much more valuable – music copied from records bought from sailors on reel-to-reel tapes. One day I noticed a man standing off to one side, a man I had never seen before, with a grey, clean-shaven face, with only a few tapes on a sheet of cardboard laid on the snow at his feet. The names of the bands and albums on the boxes did not mean anything to me, but the title “NEW ROCK” scrawled in red letters seemed intriguing.
“What the hell does that mean?” I asked.
He said: “That’s how they’ll play from now on.” And, after a moment’s reflection, he added: “Well, in the future.”
In some strange way, I found it convincing. I bought a tape and went home. I took the tram to the station, then the train, my bus had already left, so I had to walk. You probably have no idea how long the journey home is when you have a tape in your bag with music you have yet to hear. Every now and then, I would take it out of the bag and look at the playlist, which was printed on a typewriter and glued to the back of the box. I used to copy the song lists in longhand in a separate notebook, because who knows what could happen, the box could get lost, it could break, and music without the song list wouldn’t make any sense anymore. And I liked lists. I must know what I’m listening to, what it’s called, which song it is in the sequence. It’s all very important. The list is important.
On the first side was Journey with “Frontiers”. When I got home, I immediately went to my room and put the tape on. The opening sounds – those iridescent synth cadences – were instantly entrancing. At that time, many old rock bands (I didn’t know then that by the early 1980s Journey was a rather old band) were trying to freshen up their sound with trendy electronics. This fascination was in fact driven by the advent of cheap and small analogue synthesizers. They were no longer just pieces of equipment in university electronic laboratories, taking up half a room. In 1982-83, it was like a huge wave rolled over the bands leaving electronic timbres in its wake. Even hard rock dinosaurs like Uriah Heep, even they made a feeble attempt to sound more modern, rhythmic, and play at a disco tempo of 120 beats per minute. It was terrible, listen to anything, but don’t listen to Uriah Heep albums from the first half of the eighties!
Journey’s “Separate Ways”, with its distinctive opening cue sequence, became something of an icon of 1980s stadium rock. I don’t really remember the rest of the album, just that some of the songs were okay. I rewound, put the other side on and got confused. Perplexed, I kept looking at the “NEW ROCK” text on the side of the box and listened.
No, there was no electronics, at first I thought there was, but there wasn’t, the music just sounded kind of cold and mechanical. A shrill, raw rhythm of drums and guitar. It sounded as if someone was hitting a plywood box. And I’d never heard such a funny way of playing the guitar before, in fact the guitarist didn’t let the strings pull out the melody, but made a parallel rhythm structure, strumming fast and driving the song forward. The singer, in a cracked voice, was pulling off something scratchy. Was this what the new rock would be like now? Was this supposed to be the bright future? Was this how it would be played from now on? It was sad, no, of course I tried to listen again and again, the song titles and the lyrics that I could catch suggested some important idea, I tried to catch it. After all, the album was called War and it started with the song “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. I couldn’t fall in love with them, not at first sight, not at second sight. The tape remained somewhere on the shelf and I forgot about it.
In the autumn of 1986, a few days after turning eighteen, I was conscripted into the Soviet Army. I brought with me only a notebook with carefully handwritten song lists of the most important albums and the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. That was my New Testament. I had memorized most of the lyrics in case I lost the notebook or someone took it away – in the same way they took away my clothes, made me part with my hair, and appropriated the cookies and jam sent to me from home. But no, the notebook was left behind. I carried it with me for a long time. Before falling asleep, I recited the lyrics. For six months we underwent training in the Belarusian army unit, where we were made to run on skis through the Belarusian forests in the park of the former estate of Count Radziwiłł until we had blisters on our feet and frostbitten fingers. After that, I was sent to Afghanistan in a huge cargo plane with about fifty terrified soldiers, all hunkering down on the metal floor.
As the plane landed at a Kabul airfield, I was first struck by the chillingly dry air and the brilliant white sunlight. It was only like that in the middle of the day, though, in the morning it was purple and soft and it was dusty grey in the evening. The mountains in the distance were incredibly colorful and decorative, like in the paintings of Nikolai Roerich. Blue, purple, pink, indigo. I used to look at these paintings in books when I was a child and I thought it was a fantasy. That it was the artist’s special touch, a figment of his imagination, that he was drawing landscapes of some imaginary earth and non-existent planets. But no, it all turned out to be real.
When I filled in a questionnaire at the army recruitment office, I had indicated that I played drums. Well, I had played in an ensemble at school, I had also entered a children’s music school, but dropped out in my first year because of the use of solfège. At the very first parade in honor of comrades killed in action, I was given a drum to hang around my neck and two sticks. “Go ahead and play!” The dead, the only ones who had died in our liaison section since the beginning of the Afghan war, were three idiots who had gone for a swim in a pond during a break from barracks construction work and left their weapons on the shore. So they were shot, buck-naked and pristine, with their own submachine guns by some Afghan boys who happened to be passing by. I remember that I couldn’t play any marches in that parade, I just went with the universal three-beat rhythm of “We Will Rock You”. It was also the last time I was allowed to show off my musical talents.
But in the mornings, just after the purple sunrise, the army unit’s wake-up signals sounded and the radio center duty officer put on the only tape that had come into his possession in some miraculously roundabout way. The strange thing was that this recording, which played practically every morning for the next year, was Chance by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Every morning would start with the sarcastically cheerful “Lies (Through the 80s)” about the bright 1980s when everything would be different – cars would go faster, we would reach Mars, we would pay for everything with credit cards and so on, but the rest was about how we wouldn’t amount to shit because there is war and children are starving to death in Africa. But at that moment the company commander was ordering us to go on our morning run – in the rarefied high mountain air, the new recruits were staggering along the trail farther and farther outside the boundaries of the army unit into some dangerous territory where mujahideen fighters and scorpions were lurking from rock ledges, our kirza boots were chafing our feet, our half-naked bodies were swaying feebly on the rugged hillsides in the rhythm of the awkward trot, while the ever frisky and agitated Major ran after us, cheering us on with pistol shots in the air – just above our freshly shaved heads. The soldiers hated him and cursed him silently in their Tajik, Uzbek, Kazakh and Ukrainian languages. Back at the barracks, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band was still playing.
Three months later, I was shot. The hung-over major’s hand shook during morning PE and a bullet hit me in the temple. I have always loathed PE and cross-country runs.
Okay, okay – he didn’t shoot me dead, the bullet hit me in the temple and slipped past. I came to in the hospital with a bandaged head, a contusion, and mild memory loss. A few months later, in Alma-Ata the army administration, smelling of formalin and cigarettes, told me the official version and made me sign the report: that a unit of soldiers had been ambushed by the mujahideen while we were on a reconnaissance mission. There had been one wounded and one dead. I was awarded the medal “For Merit in Combat” and allowed to go home.
“Okay, but who died?” I asked already at the door.
“The company commander. Killed in action,” replied the clean-shaven lieutenant, without looking me in the eye.
Soldiers must have done him in, I thought. Rustam, Aziz, Sarkhat, Rafik, Nariman, Zholan, Nikolai, Serhiy, Fyodor. I didn’t remember any of them by last name. And I never saw them again.
Ten years later I was packing up my things and took down an old shelf with tapes. One box had ended up wedged between the shelf and the wall. NEW ROCK, it read. I also read the name of the band – U2. Their next album made them world famous. While I was in the army, U2 had become the most influential rock band of all times, nations, and countries, selling and making millions.
“That’s how they’ll play from now on,” the salesman, whose name I never asked, told me at the illegal market behind the Institute of Physical Culture. I only remembered it now. Looking in the mirror at my temple, which had started to turn grey.