A '60s Message from '80s Russia
Even with `glasnost,' the Urbs' anti-Establishment songs were too much for the KGB. PROFILE: DISSIDENT SINGERS
NEW YORK — WHEN Tarmo and Thomas Urb crossed the border from Finland into Sweden last December, they had reason to be concerned. Three times, the Soviet authorities had taken Tarmo to prison - or to mental hospitals, which are much the same. Perestroika or not, the KGB had told them they would never leave the country. ``I saw no future in our artistic lives,'' says Thomas.
They had gotten into Finland when the local KGB chief was away. Their supposed purpose was to make a record - something the Soviet government encourages because of its desperate need for foreign exchange. ``Greed made them make this one mistake,'' Tarmo says.
Now, at the border of the free world, there was a long line of cars, and the guards were checking every one. ``When our turn came,'' Tarmo recalls, ``Thomas looked at him [the guard]. And he looked at us, and waved us on.
``Five more meters, and we were free.''
Tarmo and Thomas were well known in their native Estonia as voices of independence from the Soviet regime. Now, on the 20th anniversary of Woodstock, they are voices of something else as well: the Soviet version of the '60s, in the America of 1989.
They feel that they have something to say to America, just as they did to their own country. The Urbs have no use for the Russian rock scene - considered so significant by the Western press - with its egotism and display.
``Rock music became legal in the Soviet Union long ago,'' Tarmo says. ``But folk singers were not. There is no reason to fight the dragon with the weapon the dragon himself has given you.''
Instead, the Urbs hark back to the medieval troubadours, and the lyric, reflective side of '60s songs.
``We are not entertainers,'' Tarmo says. ``People have fun at our concerts, but they get something much more deep. ... Everything can be influenced if you are truthful and unselfish.''
Tarmo and Thomas are gentle and reflective. But their jaws tighten when they recount Stalin's occupation of their country after World War II.
Soviet textbooks have declared, until recently at least, that Stalin acted at Estonia's request. But from parents and grandparents, young Estonians learn a grimmer version: lands seized, whole families drowned in wells, some 61,000 people gone without a trace.
Tarmo and Thomas lost 96 relatives and family members. Their mother watched while their grandfather's corpse was hauled back from the forest. ``The KGB and [Hitler's] Gestapo dwelled in the same apartments,'' Tarmo says, savoring the ideological twist.
THEN the Kremlin tried to dilute Estonia's identity by sending in Russian workers. (The Estonian language and culture are more Scandinavian than Russian.) Today, Estonians believe that Moscow milks their economy.
By questioning Soviet authority, the Urbs ``put into words and music the aspirations a lot of people were feeling,'' says Fred Plotkin, former performance manager with the Metropolitan Opera who got to know the Urbs in Russia.
Their appeal extended outside Estonia. Young fans would go home from concerts and tell their parents - party or KGB officials - that they were ashamed to be their children. ``Then these officials get on the phone,'' Tarmo says.
In Stockbridge, Mass., where they have been staying, the Urbs have gotten to know Arlo Guthrie, of ``Alice's Restaurant'' and Woodstock fame. ``It came out we have written the same song about the same thing on both sides of the same planet,'' Tarmo says.
He is talking about anti-war songs. Theirs is called, ironically, ``Heroes,'' and is about two veterans of the Afghan war talking in a bar. ``They were sure they were right,'' Tarmo explains. ``But it is a huge lie. Afghan vets come back and are treated as killers.''
The song is brooding, almost nihilistic, like the animated East Bloc films with intricate plots that keep turning in upon themselves, going nowhere. The haunting melody conveys much more than the words literally state.
``In a repressive society, people can't sing as pointedly'' as they can in the West, says Richard Meyer of Fast Folk, a folk music magazine that includes a record in each issue. The publication may contain an Urb offering this fall. ``It's just like [Bob Dylan's] `Blowin' in the Wind.' Everybody at the time knew what it was about.''
Some of the Urbs' songs, couched in terms of hummingbirds and flowers, may strike American ears as naive. But they are quietly affecting, with a political subtlety perhaps hard for Americans to hear.
``In a country of darkness, even a firefly can be dangerous,'' Tarmo says, ``because it makes people see that light exists.''
But the suggestive quality of Tarmo's lyrics is not just to get by the censors. ``It is enough to create a state of mind of truthfulness,'' Tarmo says. ``If you declare truths to show how truthful you are, this is not truth. A selfless state of truth can create truthfulness in others, too.''
One might not guess that Tarmo and Thomas are brothers. With his lanky build and brooding Scandinavian face, Thomas could be a character in a Bergman film. (He was best known in Estonia as an actor.) He speaks economically, yet with wry humor and insight.
Tarmo, by contrast, has the shaved pate of a Tibetan monk. There is about him a virile and arresting benevolence, the centered quality of a man who knows what he is supposed to do. ``Most of my life I have lived in permanent trust,'' he says. ``I let myself be guided.''
He served on a Soviet submarine (``probably the worst soldier ever,'' he says). In the mental hospitals, sympathetic doctors protected him from the higher-ups. In prison, he warded off beatings from other inmates the way Rastafarians protect themselves on the streets of Brooklyn - by appearing to be crazy.
He tweaked the authorities by leading fellow inmates in singing Soviet political songs.
Tarmo and Thomas want to be known as makers of song, not as ``defectors.'' But they know the political questions are inevitable.
They are skeptical regarding the Supreme Soviet's decision to grant Estonia a measure of economic autonomy. They like Gorbachev personally, and they admire the way he has taken on the military and the KGB.
BUT the KGB still basically runs the show, they say. Perestroika serves mainly to attract foreign investment. ``Now the rope is longer, but it is still the rope,'' Thomas says.
It took them seven months to get into the United States from Sweden, and they think glasnost is part of the reason. ``Gorbachev managed to prove everybody is free to leave,'' Tarmo says. ``So countries don't take in defectors anymore.''
Tarmo loves New York, the ``back streets and rainbow colors of people.'' He also loves black music, which seems to represent for him the freedom of expression in the West. When he encountered a black street musician at New York's Port Authority terminal, he ``went crazy,'' a friend recalls.
But Tarmo thinks there is more spiritual hunger in the Soviet Union, for the very reason that it is more dangerous there. People in the US ``think spirit can be bought and sold'' in bookstores and even on TV, he says.
With advice from Arlo Guthrie, the Urbs are trying to avoid the ``money sharks'' in the music business. They've been offered club dates in New York, but haven't accepted. ``I don't like smoking and drinking,'' Tarmo says. ``If people aren't listening seriously, I can't sing. I am not a jukebox.''
Now they are in Los Angeles, along with hundreds of other aspiring musicians, trying to get a few minutes of a recording executive's time. It's a tough row, and Thomas worries about the two children he left behind in Estonia. But Tarmo and Thomas are not complaining. ``We are not coming from Earth into Paradise,'' Tarmo says. ``We are coming from hell into Earth.''