It’s a starry night in southern Russia. An elderly man is sitting hunched over on a park bench. He wears a drab windbreaker and loafers. He is thin and bald, with practically almost no front teeth. He looks like a cross between Steve Jobs and Ivan the Terrible. “The world is a single organism,” he says. “If something is out of order, the whole body aches. For example, I’ve got a toothache, and all of me cries: ‘Oh! It’s the same here.’”
This is Pyotr Mamonov, once a cult figure in 1980s underground rock as part of the band Zvuki Mu, which worked with famed producer Brian Eno. “I have never seen anything like it. This man is simply possessed,” Eno once said of Mamonov. Music critics claim that Russian punk grew out of Mamonov’s shows. On stage, his magical grace and raving temperament created a genre of absurdist one-man theater that played to packed audiences for years.
But those tumultuous days are in the past: Now Mamonov seldom leaves the remote village in the Moscow Region where he has been living off the land for the last 15 years with his wife, meditating on life in between farming. Mamonov is now seeped in Orthodox spirituality, and he has minimized his contact with the outside world. “When I was 45, I found myself in an impasse and I kept thinking about those important issues: What are we doing on this Earth? And then I came to faith: the Lord revealed Himself to me. I realized why I was alive,” Mamonov says seriously.
He is still remembered by the public, though, and his rare concerts in Moscow play to full houses. Mamonov performs, among other pieces, songs from his “pre-Christian period,” explaining that the songs are intended to show people how not to live. In fact, you can hardly even call them songs. The old man plays two chords on an expensive Gibson as if he is holding a cheap battered guitar in his hands, accompanying them with ironic texts that verge on sarcasm. The critics facetiously describe this genre as “Russian blues.” His concerts are attended not only by loyal music fans but also by film buffs: Mamonov is currently better known as an actor and an Orthodox “holy fool” who speaks his mind without any inhibitions. In 2006, when he received Russia’s Best Actor award for his performance as a repentant hermit in the film “The Island (Ostrov),” Mamonov appeared before a fashionable audience in a knit cardigan, jeans, and sneakers, and lamented the crowd’s indifference to the real problems of Russia.
“Do you expect Putin to solve these problems? Putin is a wimp, an intelligence officer, what can he do? We should do it ourselves,” Mamonov said, much to the embarrassment of the show-biz stars in attendance.
Mamonov was born in 1951 in the center of Moscow, the son of a translator and engineer. He formed his first band in the mid-1960s, riding the wave of Beatlemania. He soon became a wildly popular Moscow hippie. His popularity owed much to his taste and talent for titillating the public. Mamonov would behave first as a chimpanzee, then as a huge reptile, tying himself up in all sorts of knots and mimicking epileptic fits. Mamonov’s fans aptly described his act as “Russian folk hallucination.” In the 1980s, at the peak of his musical popularity, Mamonov’s life, as he admits, revolved around two things: “women and booze.” At those times, he was rarely completely sober and was always ready to pick a fight, sometimes ending up in intensive care. After recording the album “Zvuki Mu” in London in 1989, he withdrew from society and disbanded the group.
In 1988, he became a popular actor after playing a paranoid drug lord in the cult Soviet film “The Needle (Igla),” which starred Viktor Tsoi, the frontman of the iconic rock band Kino. He won international acclaim for the 1990 musical film “Taxi Blues,” which garnered an award for best director at Cannes. He continued to work with that film’s director, Pavel Lungin, in late 2000s to produce two more films, “The Island” and “The Tsar,” which collected many prizes at Russian and international film festivals. And while in “The Island” he, in fact, played himself, in “The Tsar,” he played Ivan the Terrible, famous for his brutality. He recently appeared in the year’s most successful Russian film, “Chapiteau Show,” which won a prize at the Moscow Film Festival.
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