The day after Russian rock star Yuri Shevchuk flew into New York for his band’s North American tour, he woke up at 4 a.m. and waited for sunrise.
As the Chrysler Building rose in front of his 35th-floor hotel room, he thought about the city all around him.
“The darkness moved away and the skyscrapers remained,” said Shevchuk, 55, in an interview several hours later, as he drank black instant coffee. “I thought: Are they the light or the shadows of darkness? Do they represent pride and ambition or something organic?”
Poetic flourishes have characterized Shevchuk’s career ever since he founded rock band DDT in 1980. Its popularity took off during perestroika as Shevchuk’s evocative lyrics and growling voice drew in the reformers, common folk and intelligentsia. He has been at the civic forefront ever since, frequently criticizing the Kremlin.
“I have never had a close relationship with any government, be it the Soviets, Yeltsin or, now, Putin,” he said. “My favorite saying is, ‘An artist’s master is god, not the czar.’”
DDT will present two programs. The band’s large-scale, video-art enhanced “Otherwise” show will be seen at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York on Jan. 27. The smaller venues the band is playing in Toronto and Chicago will have “Solnik,” a show inspired by Shevchuk’s poetry. Booklets containing English translations will be distributed.
“It will be like Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall,’ with every song accompanied by video art,” said Shevchuk, whose brown hair, shaggy cut and glasses bring to mind a middle-aged, scruffy-looking Russian John Lennon.
“The songs are about who we are, how we live, the relationship between an individual and power, an individual and his country, an individual and love,” Shevchuk said. “The Hamlet questions.”
In 2010, Shevchuk directed similar questions at Putin during a meeting between the country’s cultural elite and its then prime minister. Their debate was broadcast on a state-controlled television channel where DDT rarely appears these days due to censorship, Shevchuk said.
“I want to live in a free country where everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, and I told Putin that,” said Shevchuk remembering the incident. “He agreed with me.”
During the past three years, Shevchuk has attended political protests and organized charity concerts to support human rights and political prisoners. DDT’s concerts raised more than 1 million rubles ($33,000) last year, he said. In September, the band took part in a St. Petersburg concert supporting Pussy Riot, after its three members were sentenced to two years in jail following the controversial “punk prayer” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Despite his support, Shevchuk said he is conflicted about the episode.
“For many people, the church is the only place where they can cry about their difficult, even tragic lives,” he said. “They are not heard anywhere else. And you can understand why these people were outraged.”
Despite the government’s crackdown on the opposition and its anti-Western initiatives, Shevchuk is hopeful about Russia’s future.
“I like what’s happening in our country,” he said. “We have a whole new generation of young people who don’t think that personal enrichment is the meaning of life. They want to stay in Russia and make it better, richer so that they can be proud of their country.”
DDT’s remaining performances are in Chicago tomorrow, Toronto Jan. 25 and New York Jan. 27.