Glenn Gould, Object of Desire
I had no idea Glenn played Schoenberg's Piano Concerto in Leningrad during his tour of Russia in 1957, or Rachmaninoff's No. 3 at Star City for a select group of bureaucrats and cosmonauts and their families. Yet here I was looking at two vinyl records with crude jackets that claimed to be historic Glenn Gould recordings. How awesome is that, my friends? Incredible find in this thrift store in Moscow. I said to the guy, the owner, who looked like Dr. Zhivago as biker, big moustache, tank belly and tattoos, I said, bootleg, da? And he looked at them, opened them up, turned them around, squinted, said, you want the vinyl? I have CD copies, I make as many as you want.
Vinyl. It had to be the vinyl. They weren't cheap, but what the heck, I bought them, 50 US. He jacked me because he thought I was American at first, but I didn't care. Rare Glenn Gould? Unknown Glenn Gould? He showed me the Russian imprint on the label: NATION. Cyrillic letters -- Nahseeya. Government, he said. Limited issues for the communist party apparatchiks.
He held up the fifty to the light. Guess there are a lot of forgeries floating around Moscow.
This is good? he said.
He gave me a chair and a shot of vodka, played a bit of the Leningrad vinyl. Old sound, but the sound of Glenn Gould to me. I'm no expert, but my Aunt Betty is. She's a piano teacher back in Toronto, went to the conservatory with Glenn.
He had an interesting store, full of stuff, old soviet era radios and tape recorders, ugly heavy gear, and lots of east bloc record players and records and tapes like you wouldn't believe. Books, magazines, posters, vids, kitsch jewelry, anything that could be sold. Musical instruments too. There was so much stuff, so much junk, I just went into a blur. Army surplous rock and roll. Limited issues for the apparatchiks. Sign me up, man. I could sit here all day.
You want Trini Lopez? he said.
I gave him my hotel number, left the store with my booty. Back at the Nevsky, I had a nap, left the TV on, sound low. It helps. I went in and out, my circadian rhythm all screwed from the flight. Yuri Gagarin the first spaceman was smiling at me, a documentary about the Soviet hero, black and white flicker, secret art deco cities, and theatrical Shostakovich booming behind a female narrator. Boom boom. Actually, someone was knocking at the door.
I clipped the sound, rolled off the bed. It was a woman, a blonde, not bad. A prostitute? I had been warned.
You know Glenn Gould? she said,
looking at me intently.
I just opened like a door to her, I don't know why. Next thing, she was in the room telling she had recordings, lots of them, the unknown recital masterpieces from the 1957 tour. My heart was pounding.
I have tapes, she said.
I'm looking at her, the mouth, the cleft in the front teeth, the forest eyes. I guess Zhivago put her onto me... so let's call her Lara.
I'm interested, I said. How much?
And of course I did, the sucker tourist from Toronto. She had a classic Lada, an iron bucket on wheels. We had to go about an hour out of town to a lake where she had a cottage. A dacha in the woods. You know, it wasn't bad, on par with my Aunt Betty's place on Lake Simcoe. A bit of wilderness close to town.
She had style, young gal style. Head scarf, blue tunic jacket, pants and boots, and a punk spike bracelet. She smoked, but then all Russians smoke. There was a rough edge to her, like she was stuck between the old world and the new. She couldn't have been more than ten years younger than me, yet I felt old and out-of-it. She knew more about Glenn than I did.
I saw him a couple of times when I
was a kid, I said as we walked through the trees to the dacha. He was just a
I laughed. My admiration of Glenn didn't extend that far.
Her obsession became clear when we entered the cottage. It wasn't the shelves of records and books and other family stuff, but the way she could play the piano. Fantastic, my friends. An old German upright and Rachmaninoff just rolled from her hands like Richter at a memorial service. And that was just a taste.
Try it, she said. Play.
I made a butting motion with my head.
One, two, three, I said.
She smiled. I was drinking a "sputnik", which is green tea with vodka, my new favorite drink. She smiled and I smiled too, as I realized she didn't bring me here to sell me records or tapes or her grannie's samovar. She was a player, an incredible one at that.
She played some Beethoven but when she slid into Schoenberg, that was when I realized her teacher was Glenn Gould. Restraint rather than bombast, inner depth rather than theatrical flash. The way she put her hands on the keys, the pull-off style, the staccato and the caress, this was pure Gouldian mystic mechanics. My eyes were closed -- and did I know the difference?
I know what you're thinking: I'm either lying or it was just a player piano, and she was faking the moves. She got me drunk and god knows what else. I said it, man -- an idiot with three fists.
You're good, I said. You could do forgeries.
She looked hurt.
What I mean is, uh, you're really
good, I said. I've never heard anyone as good, honestly.
I was at the window, looking at the lake. Spring was coming, buds appearing, despite the scuffs of snow. A jet passed slowly overhead in the low overcast, probably going into Moscow Domodedovo. Had we driven south-east of the city? I wasn't sure. And I was thinking, I should be a writer, sell this story somewhere... the movies, somewhere.
My grandmother was Natasha van Meegeren, a cosmonaut... you have heard of Valentina Tereshkova? Chaika? The Seagull? The first woman in space. There were seven woman in the first team. My babooshka, my grandmother, was one. She met Glenn Gould when he played at Star City... later at Potemkin 2, another secret military facility. Glenn Gould was in this dacha. You see this photo?
Yes, I'd been looking at it, the framed one. Nice looking blonde in a uniform.
Natasha babooshka, she said. A
lieutenant in the Soviet Airforce. Beautiful, yes?
The Iron Curtain, the Soviet Coma, the empty space on the map. She said she could prove it, and I thought well, this just makes my records more valuable. But what happened to Glenn Gould's love child? Her mother? This is where it gets crazy. It was already late afternoon, the light was low and she wants to take me across the lake in her speed boat. There was something she wanted to show me, something important, it wouldn't take long. The boat was small, like one of those Italian jobs you see in Venice, bench seat and steering wheel like a car. It had a familiar look about it, almost a ringer for the one in that photo my Aunt Betty has of her and Glenn at Lake Simcoe.
The lake was long, several klicks. You couldn't see the end, although you could see the banks. It was like a disappearing ribbon, and the faster she drove the more it disappeared. An illusion, caused by the gentle eastward turn. Here and there, docks, cottages, forest, bits of snow... at one point a dog ran parallel to us, flickering through the spruce trees... flickering, like a memory. It was strange. I thought it was a wolf, but it might've been a collie or retriever. Then, from the mist, a large statue appeared, winged and faceless on a distant promontory, a memorial maybe or somebody's idea of art. The dog vanished and we roared on, and I was thinking, I'm in love.
At the end of the lake there was a canal, and a concrete landing near what looked like an abandoned industrial site. A wasteland drained of trees and vegetation. Old Soviet hammer and sickle graffiti on the rust stained concrete, crazy with ruin and not a soul in sight.
What is this place? I said.
There were six steps from the boat landing to the dock, seven if you count the landing. I always count the steps in case I have to retrace them in the dark, something from my childhood. You learn or you die. Was this one of these situations? How cool was it to be hanging around an old Soviet rocket factory even if no one gave a damn anymore and it wasn't so secret? The paranoia of the place was still happening, I could feel it. The sagging chain-link fence, the crazy power-line towers, the rusting railway tracks, the demon locomotives and rail-cars stacked with meaningless machines, the shabby military vehicles with their red star insignias parked and forgotten, stacks of pipes... two or three monster flatbeds, big enough to haul an intercontinental ballistic missile or two... and the huge sheds or shops that seemed to go on forever... the place was an industrial nightmare.
It wasn't hard to get in there, and I just followed like a tourist who took a wrong turn in the museum. There was nobody around and we passed into the yard easily through a detached part of the fence. Actually I saw some cattle in the distance eating weeds and what looked like a black horse running back and forth. This should've been comforting but it wasn't. I was glad to get inside.
You know those adventure stories you read as a kid, think are so great? They got nothing on this. Think of a huge prehistoric cavern, only on another planet. She led me through the dim chambers with a mixture of pride and generational cynicism. This was just some old guy bullshit yet, um, space and the planets and the galaxies beyond were cool. Giant rocket engines and cylindrical fuel tanks rusting away among the gangways and cranes like a stalled sewage pumping station. I'd been in a pulp mill once but believe me, it was a toy compared to this. The massive scale, the intricacy, the psychopathic purpose of it all was numbing, and I felt like an explorer ant inside of a sleeping clock. One movement and we were gone, so to speak.
Then we came to the space suits. They were hanging on a long rack, like a gallery. Something about the cosmonaut style reminded me of the Michelin Man.
My grandmother was number 7, she said.
Number 7 was missing. Natasha van Meegeren. The harness was there but not the suit.
Meant to ask, is she still alive? I said.
She was matter-of-fact, said,
Natasha is one of the lost cosmonauts. 1964, Vostok 7. They covered it up, said
it was a dog.
So it was a son, not a girl. We moved on, came into the auditorium, which was like a small movie theatre. Zhivago was there, ripping gear out of the control booth.
Hey McGarrett, he said, jovial as could be, I want you to hear this... sit over there, please. I said, you're the reason I'm here? In the middle, please, he said. Best sound.
The lights dimmed, and over the house monitors there was a crackle. Old gear. Then a piano, with a bit of a flutter, like an old movie sound track. The opening bars were familiar, like some van Cliburn schmaltz, maybe Liberace. Zhivago scuttled along the row, dropped into the seat on my left. Lara was sitting on my right.
This is so cool, whispered Zhivago.
It was Petula Clarke's Downtown, Glenn's old 60's hit parade fascination, played slow and theatrical, extemporized and stretched out.
I leaned towards Lara, said, this
is Glenn Gould?
It was a live recording and at the end, the crowd went nuts, applauding and shouting. In this abandoned theatre, it was eerily real, a recaptured acoustic from the forgotten past. And I'm sitting there wondering, is this the truth? Glenn and Natasha... Glenn and Aunt Betty... me, Zhivago and Lara, my brother and my niece. It was just a thought, a sick thought from a shrink's casebook of sick thoughts, but what the hell, would it just not solve everything?
McGarrett, said Zhivago. What is this worth? Make me an offer --
It was a forgery, of course, but I went along with the charade. These chumps couldn't even get their dates right. "Downtown" was sixties, so how could he have played it in the fifties?
Then I'm thinking, no need to be petty. After all, isn't all performance a forgery? Glenn felt it was an art onto itself, an honourable profession. He wrote an essay on it.
Yes, I brought Lara back to Toronto with me. Good move. When we go to parties, I often introduce her as Glenn's granddaughter, and when she's asked to play the piano, by god they believe it.
Media Court | © 1998-2013 | Lawrence Russell