Notes From Underground
It's raining, December, well after midnight, and inside Rusty's Surf Ranch, the Russians have stormed the floor again. They come in a torso-wriggling, leg-jiggling wave. They are smoking, laughing, shouting to the music. The girl with the perfect pale skin and streaked red braid circulates through them, strewing laughter and mischief; right now, she's dancing with the towering man. The man obviously knows her - they all do. He's more serious about his steps than the others. Shifting his weight. Dipping his head with awkward but undeniable grace. Occasionally, he looks up at the Red Elvises onstage, as if making sure they're real, and there. Which they are - blazing dyed hair, bass balalaika the size of a steam shovel, gonzo glasses and all.
"Yeah, it's strange," muses Oleg Bernov several days later, balalaika stowed and hair freshly re-dyed. "When we played Russian music, Russians rarely came. But now that we're the Red Elvises, it's 'Hey, those are our boys!'"
What the Red Elvises play now is hard to define. Elvis, for starters; they do a thundering "Blue Moon" that generally ends with singer/guitarist Igor Yuzov in the audience, poised over (or on) a table, his entire skeleton shuddering, not merely mimicking but channeling The King. They also do blistering surf tunes, country stomps, tango, klezmer. They sound like committed career musicians who, as one Yuzov lyric goes, "belly-danced in Istanbul/To songs by ABBA and Nirvana."
And they perform with the practiced abandon of street musicians. Which is what Oleg Bernov has been ever since he arrived here seven years ago from Vologda, northeast of Moscow. First he hooked up with fellow expatriates who had already formed Limpopo, a dance band specializing in ethnic Russian music, and became a fixture on the Venice Boardwalk. "We made a living pretty fast," Bernov remembers. "We played parties, weddings. We won International Star Search" (in late 1993). And then, he says, they stagnated.
So, having reunited with a childhood Vologda friend, guitarist Zhenya Kolykhanov, Bernov returned to the Boardwalk, and the Third Street Promenade, to play rock & roll. "Just for fun," he says. Yuzov, another Limpopo veteran, joined them, followed by drummer Avi Sills (recently arrived from far-off Austin).
Then people started to watch.
The street has trained them well. Onstage, the Elvises run a relentless circus of movement, costume changes, synchronized hand gestures and leg kicks. The energy they generate can galvanize 50 fans in Rusty's or a few thousand on the Santa Monica Pier, where the Elvises stole an evening from El Vez this summer and recorded a videotape they've recently licensed to PBS for national broadcast.
At the core of their considerable appeal is a goofy naivete, the sense that they are four repressed Soviets let loose on the playground of capitalist pop. And Oleg Bernov is canny enough to know it. "We have a huge advantage not growing up in the capitalist system," he says. "We came up with a product, learned how to sell it. So many other musicians here are trapped in the system. They run from band to band, look for club dates, the record deal. We just played on the Promenade, refined our craft." On the Promenade, "If you're bad, no one cares. If you're good, you get immediate feedback. Besides," he says, delivering what feels like a polished gullible-Soviet line, "this is a great place for street performers. It's illegal to rain here."
When I point out that it's raining as we speak, he says, "Yes, well. Illegal to rain on weekends." Then he laughs. "The truth is, it's not that complicated being a capitalist. You just be true to yourself."
On the back of their 1996 Grooving to the Moscow Beat CD, the Elvises proclaim themselves "the legendary legends of Siberian surf music." They do not proclaim themselves the best party band in Los Angeles, but they may well be. They're also a rarity here these days - a neighborhood band, spawned in this place and unmistakably of it, equal parts flash and shrewdness and wild-eyed hope. Their third CD appears in the spring. In February, VH1 will run a documentary on street performers featuring the band. A movie deal may be looming for the Red Elvises' story. There's a Web site (www.redelvises.com).
Most of all, there's the live show. On that December night, I stand at the bar and watch my wife and her sister and the Russians and the bartenders grin to the goofy lyrics ("My darling Lorraine/you dance insane"), glance up during the interludes of startlingly soulful soloing from Kolykhanov and - mostly - carom around the dance floor like dreidels perpetually re-spun. And I suddenly remember watching some TV special about the birth of rock & roll with my father, who had a regional hit single in the late '50s.
The show talked about parental fears and teen rebellion. And my father stirred and said, "No. That's wrong. We weren't rebelling. We couldn't even imagine why anyone was objecting. It was just the happiest sound we'd ever heard."
The Red Elvises appear at Teasers in Marina del Rey, Thursday, February 12, and at Rusty's Surf Ranch, Saturday, February 14.
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