This month let me introduce you to another Russian rock’n’roll legend. His story is an important one, not just because of his status in Russia but because his story is an excellent example of someone living the rock’n’roll life to the full.
Alexey “Lex” Blokhin is a larger than life rockin’ icon who is loud, brash, with a chequered past and is not ashamed of it. His colourful life includes a term of imprisonment in a United States prison. He has, as the saying goes, ruffled a few feathers along the way and has acquired many friends and a few enemies; his story below will show examples of this. He has certainly mellowed since his wild and crazy days in the 1990s, but one of the great things about Lex is – he still brings an element of the “wild and crazy” into his performances on stage. Regular readers of this column will know that I like my music on the wilder side and Alexey certainly comes into this category. He’s a great character who has contributed so much to Russian rock’n’roll. His status as a performer is unquestioned; he’s been a rock’n’roll star in Russia over a long period of time. His story tells us not only about him, but about the history of Russian rock’n’roll music over the last generation, as well as being a fascinating insight into Russia generally during this period of time.
On 13th June I booked him to perform for us at the premier Moscow venue of the Esse Café in Moscow. As usual he gave a larger than life, rockin’ performance. He is a rock’n’roll star and is not backwards in letting everyone know it. His performance at the Café was terrific. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the Café. His speciality is vocals and keyboards.
I spent some time with Lex, discussing his rock’n’roll life and below are the results. He didn’t tell me much about his life in prison whilst serving a sentence in the USA, except to say that the experience improved his English language skills ! I’ll let him tell you his story.
“Thankyou for your interest in my rock’n’roll story, Richard ! My musical story begins when I was a young boy in the old Soviet Union (I was born in 1973). My parents had good musical tastes. Back then in the USSR “Western” music was frowned upon so LP’s were rare. But my family had tapes of jazz and pop music of that time. In my early childhood I heard Abba, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, Cliff Richard and many others. My Mom, who’s 82 now, still prefers Cliff Richard over Elvis.
I started studying piano from the age of 4 years old. In 1980 I entered a children’s music school and began singing in the children’s choir. The music classes took place in the evenings, in the same school building where I was studying in the daytime. At the school I attended as a boy, they had pianos in every classroom (this was not all that unusual in Russia at that time). Every break between classes I played those pianos. So my schoolmates became my first audience. I got lots of practise and besides the girls were really diggin’ me! I also started composing my own songs in the Russian language.
I discovered real rock-n-roll at the age of 13. Or was it 14? I don’t remember the exact wheres or whens, but it must have been a good day ‘cause I haven’t been tired of this music yet !
At the age 15 I visited the USA for the first time in my life. For a boy who’d grown up in USSR that was quite a shock. Big cars, big buildings, bright lights and friendly people, as opposed to the way that the Soviet mass media portrayed them. And music! All kinds of it: traditional and modern, rock, jazz, country, blues – loads and loads of delicious food for the soul. When I came back I brought with me dozens of tapes.
At 15 I joined my first rock’n’roll band. They needed an accordion player to be able to re-create the sound without using electricity. I promised that I would buy an accordion later and meanwhile we started rehearsals with me on piano. Eventually I stayed on piano. The band was called “Gavayskie Ostrova” (Hawaii Islands). We were wearing bright-colored shirts, mostly handmade by our Mums. Back in those days one couldn’t get a decent Hawaian shirt in the Soviet Union. The band played mainstream rock-n-roll, with some twist music thrown in.
By that time many things in the USSR started to change. The Cold War was rolling to an end. So loudly dressed school kids who played “capitalist” music attracted the attention of Soviet TV and radio. I shouldn’t say that we became popular, but we sure got known. Despite this, “Hawaian Islands” never made a decent record.
I have to point out that we didn’t play music for a living. All of us lived with our parents and prepared to go to colleges. In Russia military service is compulsory for all males who turn 18 and lasts for two years. One of the ways to avoid getting into the army was to go to college. That’s how the Government encouraged more people to get higher education. Such stimulation is now lost in modern day Russia, but that’s a whole other story.
So “Hawaian Islands” went on hiatus, as we were getting ready for our colleges. The band never got together again, and of all it’s members only I continued playing music. God knows whether that was a wise decision or not.
It was the last year of Soviet Union. Of course we didn’t know that, but there was that spirit in the air. Everybody just became sharper, edgier, more emotional, more aggressive. I also was an “angry young man” by that time. And I wanted a new band which would play faster, more energetic music. And that band was formed in April. We called it “Crazy Man Crazy” after Bill Haley’s song. Later the spelling was changed to “Krazy Men Krazy”. Of course that sounded incorrect, but who cares? We were all rebels, weren’t we? The band started playing traditional rockabilly with a lot of “pumping” piano. Later on we inclined towards a more neo-rockabilly sound and even used some elements of psychobilly. We composed our own songs. That’s when I started writing songs in English
“Krazymen” started making money big time, as I thought in those days. Contrary to Hollywood movies we don’t have snowy winters all year round. In the Spring of 1991 we started playing on Moscow streets. That’s how the band got cash and a following amongst Moscow youngsters. Electricity was not used so I just sang. Sometimes I played rhythm guitar, occasionally bass or drums when anybody in the rhythm-section was absent at the time. Besides this, “Krazymen” played regular “electric” gigs with me on the piano. We played whenever and wherever we could, for any audience who would care to listen. Pretty soon it paid off. We were chosen as a backing band for the English rock’n’roll singer and piano player Dave Taylor during his visit to the USSR. Later on we went to Finland. The very first abroad tour in my life was not a big success, but hey, that was not too bad for a band that was less than a year old.
By the end of the summer, the Soviet Union collapsed and things started getting more crazy day by day. Suddenly everybody was obsessed with making money. I was no exception. I got an evening job, at one of the Moscow restaurants where I played requests. I worked in turns with Denis Mazhukov, who is now the Russian King of Rock’n’Roll, as he calls himself.
At the college I was among the worst scholars but it didn’t bother me much. I played music every night either on the job or with my band. Krazy Men Krazy became quite popular and gathered a considerable following. Crowds gathered at the shows, even though back then there was no such thing as the Internet.
From 1992 to 1995 “Krazy Men Krazy” recorded five albums, three of them exclusively in English. All of them were issued on tape and still are in circulations among fans. In 1994 the compilation of English-language material was issued on CD and to this day this is the only record left.
In 1995 I finally graduated. Needless to say, I never thought about an accounting career and wanted to keep on playing music. By that time I got tired of my band’s neo-rockabilly sound. It was the year when I heard the record of Louis Prima. I tried to change the band’s course towards jumpin’ jive, but my bandmates were not very enthusiastic about it. So at the end of the year I quit the band and started forming my own jumpin’ jive and neo-swing outfit. After several name changes the project was called “Ruby Stars”. The band existed for a year and a half. It was very hard to keep the line-up steady. The general economic situation in Russia was worsening and it influenced showbiz. Sometimes there were ten people on stage and other times I had to play the bass line on the synth with my left hand and beside me there was only a drummer and a sax player. “Ruby Stars” started recording an album but never completed it.
In 1997 I got a proposal to go to the USA as an interpreter for a group of businessmen. I planned to make some money for my music recording process from the trip and also to see the country. After my two week duties were done, I spontaneously decided not to come back.
In the States I spent almost five years. Those were crazy but eventful years. I was in jail for cheque fraud. I played bass in an Uzbekistan restaurant, I learned Spanish and Italian. I built houses, washed cars, made jewelry, moved and assembled furniture. I did a lot of things. The only thing I didn’t do in the USA – I didn’t play rock’n’roll. Although eventually I ended up playing keyboards and sometimes bass for electronic, ethnic, hard rock and even punk bands, but none of them was a real rock’n’roll band.
By the beginning of the century 21, I was quite tired of being an immigrant. I didn’t have a steady job nor my own home. And my friends in Moscow wrote to me how good the life was over there. For some time I was uncertain, should I return to Russia ? But then it happened, the destruction of the World Trade Center in September 11, 2001. As I watched the fire from my roof in New York City, I made my decision. On November 4, 2001 my voyage came to an end.
Upon my return I formed a new band by the old name “Ruby Stars”. We played mostly rock’n’roll hits along with some songs of our own. All in all the second incarnation of Ruby Stars wasn’t very successful, although we once played at a private party for the Russian government (yes, I saw Pres. Putin quite close-up). I sensed that the band lacked some kinda “punch” about it, something that people could remember.
In 2003 my old friends and colleagues decided to form a neo-swing band and invited me to be a front man. I gladly agreed. This band got the name “Lexicon Orchestra”. Initially the spelling was supposed to be “Lex’ Icon Orchestra” but my bandmates dropped the idea. I sang and played keys with “Lexicon Orchestra” for three years. Those years left mixed impressions for me. On the positive side, the band played good music, the kind that I liked. We were playing gigs, going on tours over Russia and abroad, a lot of private parties. The management was good, and we got paid well. We played some songs in Spanish and Italian and for Russia it was a new style.
At the same time there was a certain tension between me and some band members. They thought that I was acting like a star and showed off. But isn’t a front man supposed to show off? A candid, bland singer won’t attract any audience. There also was an issue of creativity. I wrote some songs especially for the band, and at first we played them at our gigs. But later all my songs were dumped in favor of more and more covers and jazz-standards. And to make things worse, very frequent gigs and rehearsals caused problems with my vocal chords.
Things got worse and worse until in the beginning of 2006 I quit the band and got a day job that had nothing to do with music. I started working on TV, translating English and Spanish-language films and series into Russian. But I didn’t plan to give up my music career. My day job gave me the necessary time to start a new band. I called it “Lex & Team”, sometimes it’s referred to as “Lex E Komanda” in Russian.
What can I say? Finally my dreams came true. I write songs and play them, still I haven’t forgotten good ol’ rock’n’roll hits. In my songs I used elements of different styles from salsa to folk songs but the base of them all is traditional swinging rhythm.
My band plays quite often all over Russia and abroad, but not too often so we don’t get weary. Besides I play a lot as a session–man with many Russian musicians or with foreign performers when they come to Russia. Right now I’m working on an album where my best songs for the last 25 years will be presented in a new sound.
My favorite rock’n’rollers: Gene Vincent (only early records), Johnny Burnette, Freddy “Fingers” Lee, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis (only early records), Elvis (not seventies), Bill Haley (only early records), Brian Setzer, Mark Harman, Steve Whitehouse
Favorite swingers: Louis Prima, Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, Dean Martin
Favorite rockers: Slade, Asia, Deep Purple, ELP, Beatles & Sir Paul McCartney, Mick Green.
Rock’n’Roll is still the way of life for me. If someday you’re in the vicinity and have nothing to do, come see my show on a Saturday night. I promise you won’t ever regret it!
Thankyou for your story, Alexey ! Catch some of the Lex Magic yourself, at www.lexmusic.su