Only the Music Remains

Sergej Babkin at the Ost Klub: the dignity of the performers saved an evening of botched planning and boorish fans

On The Town | Grigory Borodavkin | March 2011

I had gotten word a month in advance that Sergej Babkin would be giving a concert at the Ost Klub on Feb. 23, so the anticipation of seeing him live grew with each passing day.

I had to get a ticket as soon as possible; if I didn’t, I would miss one of the most revered and talented young artists on the Russian scene today. The fact that the event was in the iconic Ost Klub – a hot spot for acts from "the orient to the occident" – also worried me, as the place holds no more than 200 people.

Shifting obligations left my plans up in the air till the last moment, and with a sense of futility and still no tickets, I decided to take my chances and just go.

So I was pleasantly surprised when the girl at the door welcomed my friends and me with a smile and the question "Are you here for the concert?"

"Yes" we muttered, afraid to get too optimistic. She held out the entrance stamp and one by one, we handed over the €20 euros and got the club’s logo inked on our wrists in dark blue.

I hadn’t been to the Ost Klub for a couple of years. Two of my musician friends had performed there back in my teens, but since then I mostly did my drinking in dodgy Irish pubs near Schwedenplatz, with whisky cokes at €2 a pop.  So going there was a bit of déjà vu all over again, the whole place a temperate crimson, vaguely familiar images and posters on every wall and a mini-playroom intact under the stairs.

Beers in hand, we easily secured a table in the lounge, and my surprise at the small crowd kept growing. At first I wrote this off to the concert’s having been postponed. But as the hands on my watch crept closer to starting time, I grew increasingly uneasy. Several times I had to get up and walk around the club to see if anyone I knew was hiding somewhere in the shadows, or if the owners had built an addition I wasn’t aware of…

I returned to my friends bewildered and anxious. What was going on? Concerts at the Ost Klub had always been lively, energetic, packed. A guy with long hair wearing a faded hoodie whose name I can’t remember clued me in. Most of the regulars had gone to the newly opened Russian theater, with tickets sold out months in advance.

After having a shot of vodka, we moved into the concert room – Sergej was about to perform. Standing by the stage, the room half empty, our disgruntled mood gave way to excitement – in any case, we must surely be surrounded by the most hard core fans – and we found ourselves applauding as he took the stage.

Here, once again, we had it wrong. During the second song (one of my personal favorites by the way)  a rumbling behind me wrenched my gaze around, to discover a group of drunk and rowdy street tuffs, for whom going to the Russian Theater would have been a stretch. In the middle of the song, Sergej stopped playing and, with admirable self control, asked them to quiet down. Running a hand over my face, an elusive sense of shame swept over me, and I prayed they would just shut the hell up and leave. They didn’t. Having no regard for the performers or anyone else, they persisted in doing everything in their power to ruin the evening.

At one point, during the most bitter and tragic of Sergejs songs (lyrics such as "My hands are asking for glass" or "Hearts bursting with spades"), a couple started slow dancing awkwardly in front of the stage, somehow amplifying the ambience of despair. Everyone else just kind of shook their heads and pretended they didn’t exist. It was a strange; somehow the dignity with which the artists were handling the situation, blocking out the negativity and giving the performance all that they had, consoled us.

After each and every song, those of us who knew the meaning of words like "art," "metaphor" and "sobriety" burst into applause so passionate, my metal watchband would pop open on my wrist, as I wiped tears away from my cheeks, secretly hoping something bad would happen to these idiots who had tried to ruin it.

With the concert drawing to a close, the things that didn’t matter seemed to dissolve in the background. Nothing but the music remained. As badly as I felt about the atrocious reception some had given this gifted artist and the organization of the concert so riddled with flaws, gratitude and serenity had taken over. Standing by the door that leads backstage, I half-accidentally managed to shake Sergej’s hand and express my thanks in person.

On our way to the U-Bahn, humbled by the music, we sat together in silence, grateful that an inner peace had somehow been restored.

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