Retro Gang Brings Rockabilly to Russia

By Charles Blanchard, Mocow Times, September 27, 2006

Rockabilly band Lexicon Orchestra playing in a Moscow studio. The singer, drummer and double-bassist are HepCats.

During the working week, Alexander Kulikovsky treats Moscow's sick bunnies, gerbils and other domestic pets at a pricey veterinary practice. He wears a long white jacket, and sometimes a stethoscope or latex gloves that reach to his elbows.

But on Saturdays, Kulikovsky greases his hair into a tall flick. He pairs a rhinestone-studded shirt with jeans rolled up at the bottoms and heads for some of the city's grungiest dives. Often he's out till dawn, dancing the jitterbug and Chattanooga choo-choo to Buddy Holly and Bill Haley.

The vet is a member of the HepCats, the only gang of rockabillies in Moscow. Rockabilly, a fusion of country and blues, is an early form of rock 'n' roll pioneered by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Kulikovsky and around 25 others hold 1950s-themed parties in Moscow, research the dress of their musical idols, and parade through the streets at night, intimidating passersby as they strut abreast of each other.

HepCats don't engage in pitched turf wars with other gangs, but they do reject anything they think will make them blend in, including furniture from IKEA. Buying futons and coffee tables from the Swedish retailer would make them victims of homogenizing market forces, they say. They use 1950s slang when speaking English, calling their friends "cats" and describing music as "jiving."

Many members are professionals. One, who favors black-and-white wingtips and gabardine jackets, is a dentist. A few work at the Interior Ministry, and declined to give their names.

Vikor Kopytin, a gang leader, said that when he first heard rockabilly music in the 1990s, it seemed radical after decades of formulaic Soviet rock. "American '50s music created an impression of freshness. Everything from Bazooka bubble gum to Buick Skylarks came across as new and fresh," he said.

Kopytin, 29, and a friend formed the gang as teenagers, when they were listening to Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry records that had only just become freely available in Russia. New members joined after meeting Kopytin in clubs.

The HepCats aren't the first rockabillies in Russia. Pete Anderson, a Latvian considered the patriarch of Russian rockabilly, formed underground bands after first hearing rock music in 1958. He said he was often threatened by the KGB.

"I was lucky enough ... never to be tortured physically. But yes, I was questioned in jail in Riga and Moscow KGB headquarters, and had numerous serious threats from the KGB to be placed in a madhouse," he said by e-mail.

Rockabilly today is under considerably less pressure from the government, and Kopytin's gang even hang out in the bar Real McCoy, in the basement of the Stalinist skyscraper near the Barrikadnaya metro station.

HepCats are working on bringing a rockabilly band from Britain, although they worry the group, whose members are scientologists, will donate their fee to inappropriate causes. And, inspired by the excesses of their heroes, they're trying to spread the message that sexual freedom should be embraced.

"We've always been afraid of sex," Kopytin said. "But it's the beginning of everything -- of you and me, maybe not Jesus, but really everybody."

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