And yeah, he always had “that look…” That way of staring straight through you into some faraway, unknowable beyond. It was there when I first saw him, but nothing compared to what he looked like when we said goodbye. That’s the story I’m going to tell you now: I’ll try to keep it short.
I forget how the idea of selling acid at Jim Morrison’s grave first occurred to me, but when it did it seemed like a pretty good one. Turned out it was too – it only took about a week and a half hanging out in Pere LaChaise to finance my next three months in Europe. I bought two sheets of blotter on Telegraph and mailed it a friend in Paris accordionned inside a cassette mailed with a bunch of other cassettes. It was decent, garden variety blotter, and I called it “Electric Warrior” because that was the T-Rex cassette I sent it in. Between the market forces of supply, demand, and relative strengths of the Franc, Dollar and various Kroner at the time, I was able to pull in close to a thousand percent profit and still be offering a good deal to the stream of quiet Scandinavians who flowed through to pay their respects to the Lizard King. When they’d ask “Where’s it from?” I’d say “Berkeley”and their eyes would go wide and they’d repeat the word “Berkeley” like it was Xanadu.
So anyway, it was something like my third day on the job and along with the Norwegians, Danes and Swedes there’s this quiet Russian dude with a guitar, Vladimir, who’s there to pay his respects like the rest of us. Although he wasn’t interested in my product, when he found out I was from San Francisco he got really animated and wanted to hear everything I could tell him about it – the music especially. I guess like a lot of people he thought it was just 1967 forever by the bay with the Airplane and the Dead still playing in the park… I told him about the handful of Dead shows I’d seen, and he got a far off look and said “Just to see Jerry…Y’know? Just to be there and see his fingers and lips moving and hear the music at the same time… Man…” he sighed. “Hey now,” I said, “it’ll happen.” He just shook his head in that way people do when there’s just too much to explain. Vlad was like that a lot.
Lots of people bring their guitars to Jim’s grave, thinking they’re going to play something. But when they get there they seem to understand pretty quickly it’s not right. Vlad though, he just sat down next to the grave, pulled his guitar out of its case and did “Crystal Ship” while the rest of us just sat there stunned. It was like Jim’s voice coming up out of the ground and straight out of this guy’s mouth. Like Mr. Mojo himself risin’ up from the grave.
His case had the tell-tale bills and coins of a busker, and when a couple of Swedes started towards it with some francs he politely waved them off. He was off work, he said. Likewise when he finished and we asked him to do more. He just smiled politely, sweetly even, and begged off. He said we could see him at the Metro station at Les Halles if we wanted to: he was there every day. I gotta say, the guy had class. And a lot of what Hemingway called “the dignity of an iceberg…” that quiet aura about him that let you know you were seeing only a fraction of what was beneath the surface.
The next day I figured what the hell, went down to Les Halles and watched him do a couple of sets. Mostly old stuff: Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, some Neil, of course. His mainstay though, believe it or not, was Donovan. Back then he had the look, or at least the hair. But he also had that far-off quality, that sort of otherworldliness that Donovan had. He was pretty solid through and through, but there were some songs… man. His “Let it Be” came with a sort of emotion that was practically transcendent.
We talked for a bit between songs. He was staying at a hostel and I told him he was welcome to crash at my place for awhile. The guy I was staying with was in Morocco for a couple of weeks, so I had a place all to myself in Saint-Denis. I made the offer without hesitation, there was something about him that let me know immediately that I could trust him. But there was something else too – that hint of something buried deep inside him that cried out for help, or at the very least just needed a friend.
They say that youth is wasted on the young, and I suppose most of the time that’s true. But there are times in youth that aren’t wasted at all, when you’re young and free and friends and lovers are all plentiful and beautiful and smart and funny… you’re living the life and you know it. Every relationship, even every conversation, is meaningful and beautiful somehow, no matter how brief. Those weeks with Vlad and the neighbor girls in Saint-Denis were like that.
It took about a week for him to open up about the KGB. I’ll never forget how he put it, he said “You know how you hippies in America, when you talk about authorities you talk about ‘the man…’ Well in Russia, that is me. I am that man.”
We were drinking wine and playing chess, Babette and Lisbeth dutifully writing in their journals. We all kept journals back then. Anyway, Vlad had been pressing me for details on a Hot Tuna show I saw at the Sweetwater when Grace came in and did a couple of songs. “Wooden Ships,” was the only one I really remembered… (fucking mushrooms – so tough to get the dosage right…) He had a real thing for Grace Slick and hell, who could blame him? I’d told him how she dropped in at the Sweetwater all the time and made some remark about how someday we’d see her together and he went stiff. It wasn’t hard to tell when something bothered Vlad, believe me: you could feel the temperature of the whole room drop. That’s when he told me about being in the KGB.
I was a bit incredulous at first, but then I started to laugh: I couldn’t help it. He was serious though, and so I said “I’m sorry man… I’m sorry. But that’s some pretty fucking deep cover you’ve got going… playing Donovan songs in the Metro… I’d have never guessed it myself.” And he starts to laugh too, because it’s funny. And because he’d made his confession and knew we were still friends.
I started to understand him better after that, and at least some of the ghosts that were haunting him. His time here in Paris, playing and singing in the Metro was, as he put it, his “soul journey…” and it was ending soon. We never talked about it openly, but I knew he must’ve been thinking of defecting. Even with his talents, which were considerable, he knew the odds of actually making it in the music business were slim to none. But more than anything else, defecting would mean never seeing his parents again, and I knew enough about him by then to know that wasn’t going to happen. He also hinted at there being more to his career than simply “being in the KGB,” so it’s possible that defecting to the west might not even be survivable.
Ultimately it seemed like he knew he’d be going back and this was sort of his last youthful hurrah – and I’ve got to say it was a privilege to be a part of it. He was a really fascinating person to me – I’ve always been a sucker for the quiet type – but I could tell whatever it was he kept so deeply hidden, it was in no way malevolent. Whether or not that’s still true, or was ever true to begin with I don’t know. Obviously he’s changed a lot since then, and I’m a little ashamed to say I was a part of that change. Rather a large part too I’m afraid, but we’ll get to that soon enough. Since he seems to be running our country now, I just want you to know that I knew Vladimir Putin very well – or at least as well as anyone could. He was a puzzling and deeply complicated man, but somewhere beneath it all there was a very beautiful person. Of course, back then we were all beautiful, weren’t we?
Sometimes we’d go out, but mostly we’d just stay in with the girls. We’d all smoke hash and listen to music, play some chess or backgammon. We’d drink wine and cognac and chainsmoke Gitanes or Gaulloises and talk about other places we’d been, adventures we’d had… the other people we’d met and things that they’d said. We’d talk until we ran out of words, then retire to our separate rooms with our lovers. His time was running out though, and there was a sadness to the normally happy sound of “Surrealistic Pillow” seeping in from their room. I’d put on a Chopin concerto and make love to Babette and afterwards just lie there spent, staring into the darkness while I ran my fingers through her hair. Grateful for the moment, and thanks to Vlad, grateful for my freedom.
In the darkness I understood though, free as I might be, I was just like Vlad… just with more time. I knew all of this would be ending sometime, and probably sooner than I thought. I forced myself to remember the beauty of that moment – the look of the darkness and the smell of the room… the sound of Babette’s breathing and the feel of her hair and the sheer luxury of just lying there painting pictures in my mind and slowly drifting off to sleep. And I did remember it, just as I remember it to this day. And I highly recommend anyone reading this who’s in love to do the same. Trust me on this.
For spies, like lovers, the truth comes out piecemeal. Turns out what I’d been laughing at wasn’t a joke after all: Vlad was on the job. And the last person some Ukrainian defector is going to think is tracking him was the kid in the subway singing “Heart of Gold.” When he told me I felt stupid for not realizing it in the first place. They don’t just let Russians bum around Europe playing guitar, let alone KGB. As his time ran out Vlad became more agitated: he’d stay in his room and instead of his usual full repertoire, he’d just practice the same five or six songs over and over for hours – and I realized he was working on a demo tape. He acted more and more homesick too, and one time he started talking about his parents and his eyes started to water a bit. He was thinking of defecting, I knew it… the poor bastard was actually thinking of doing it.
By the time he came out with it I’d already had a few days to think it over and I said not to do it. “Put aside everything else – your highest duty is still gonna be to your parents. It’d be different if you hated them, or didn’t care. But so long as you love them and respect them and worry about them, you’ll never truly be happy out here. Even if you end up playing with the Dead and banging Grace Slick on the side.” Vlad smiled and said he knew that, but was searching for some kind of third way, a middle path. Maybe a way of getting his parents out, maybe something else, he didn’t know. What he did know was that he only had a few days left to find it. So, like any responsible international acid dealer, I suggested he drop some acid and see if the answer came to him while he was tripping. We’d smoked hash and drank pretty much every night together, but Vlad had always drawn a line when it came to LSD. This time though, he gave in.
A few minutes after we dropped Vlad asked how long before the effects would kick in, and I said about half an hour or so. I said he’d feel a sort of rising sense of excitement at first – maybe a bit of loopiness of thought…
“Okay,” he said, “then I want to tell you this now. Before.”
“I shouldn’t tell you this at all, but I have to tell someone. And I know you will not speak a word of this to anyone. I just need you to know why all of this is so… difficult for me.”
We’d left the apartment and were walking beside the Marne. He’d stopped and was leaning against the concrete balustrade, looking out over the river. There were a few people around, but nobody too close.
“You see, this man I’m watching – they’re going to kill him. I don’t know how, or when, or even why… but I know he is going to be killed, and that I will be a part of his death. And that will be a first time for me, and I don’t know how I feel about it.”
I said “Oh.” and just stood silently. There wasn’t really anything I could say. I definitely understood the gravity of it though, and kind of wished he’d mentioned it before we’d dropped the acid.
“And every day when he goes by I think to myself I could tell him. I could stop the whole thing if I wanted to. But in reality I know I can’t. No matter how I did it, they would find out. It would mean my death.”
“So I just wanted to tell you that. And that I know this is only going to be the first. If I go back to Russia, there will be more. It will probably never end. And that’s why all of this is so hard for me, and so strange.” His eyes begin to well up and he shook it off. “This… this will change me, I’m sure of it. But I just wanted to tell you, these last days, with you and the girls… they have been my happiest. They may always be my happiest. You are a crazy hippie, but you are a very good friend…”
“Aw shit Vlad…”
We walked along in silence. I didn’t want to, but couldn’t help rethinking, and judging a bit, the poor guy walking next to me. He was as much a captive of his own talents as he was the agency he worked for. When I say he sounded just like Donovan, believe me, he did. And I know it sounds funny, but you’ve never heard “Diamonds and Rust” until you’ve heard it sung by Vladimir Putin. I pictured him there in the subway, back against the tiles, guitar case open in front of him, singing “Let It Be” and finally understanding where all the emotion behind it was coming from.
He was good, sure, but pretty much everyone trying to make it was good. If he had any kind of real shot it was as an impressionist. Every guy with a falsetto thinks they sound like Neil Young, but Putin actually did. He had an incredible range: from Art Garfunkel highs all the way down to Leonard Cohen lows. And when he’d play “Ne Me Quitte Pas”you might not think you were listening to Jacques Brel himself, but somebody damn close. It was difficult, practically impossible, to think of such a voice as an accomplice to murder, but then I felt a chill run through my veins when I realized he was in fact very much on the job… because the one thing he didn’t sound like was Russian.
Now there are rules about acid, particularly about being with someone on their first trip. You don’t have to have the whole “safe space” with Indian rugs, incense and favorite music and all that crap, but there are certain things you should probably avoid. So when we just started coming on and Vladimir said, “Oh Man Dude Look, We gotta go see that!” My first thought was, “No, we probably shouldn’t…” But he was insistent, so I went along with him into the theater thinking, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
What’s the worst that could happen? Those six little words… I think we all know what I’m talking about. We can all point to times in our lives where we’ve said, “What’s the worst that can happen?” only to have the worst that could happen actually happen and turn out to be way worse than we could’ve possibly imagined. For me that would have to be going and seeing Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” with Vladimir Putin in 1983 while we were high on acid and he was going through a transitional phase.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, “The Wall” is a highly disturbing and psychedelic film of a musician’s journey from innocence through madness into a sort of dictatorial fascistic dystopian hellscape, and the biggest mistake of my life was letting Vladimir Putin see it high on acid. The second biggest mistake of my life was letting him see it again right after that… and you can probably guess what the third biggest mistake of my life was.
We didn’t talk much on the way back, or much at all after that night. I don’t need to tell you the experience changed him profoundly, nor the direction in which those changes took him. He spent one last night in Saint-Denis with Lisbeth, and I took the above picture the next morning. I was trying to be as cheerful and goofy as I could, but as you can see he was having none of it. I doubt he slept much, if at all. He left sometime during the day and never came back, and I never saw him or heard from him again. My friend came back from Morocco a week later and two weeks after that I spent my ill-gotten gains from Pere LaChaise traveling through Italy and Greece. I tried to put Vlad out of my mind, but it was impossible to do it entirely. Before I left back for the States I spent a few last nights in Paris with Babette. It was bittersweet, and romantic in its own way, but just as I’d foretold that night staring into the darkness, it wasn’t the same.
So that’s my story… my confessional. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why our nation is in the fucked-up state it’s in, with a so-called President and ruling party firmly under the thumb of a single man in Moscow… (And if you don’t believe me, you just wait…) I’m not gonna take any responsibility for the caricature of a man that is Donald J.Trump, or any of the scum-sucking ruble-drunk traitors in the GOP that support him. I do feel somewhat responsible for the character and motivations of Vladimir Putin, however, and since he seems to be the man currently pulling their strings, for that I’m deeply sorry and solemnly promise that I will never do it again.
If there’s one bright spot in all of this I can offer you, it’s this: After Bill Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991, there was a memorial concert in Golden Gate Park, and everyone who he’d promoted through the years played that day. The Grateful Dead, Santana… members of the Airplane/Starship… Neil even got back together with Crosby Stills and Nash for the occasion… Everyone was there. I knew if there was still a spark left of the Vladimir Putin I’d first known back in ’83… he’d be there too. And if there was even a trace of his old hippie heart still beating inside that oligarch chest, then there may indeed be a ray of hope left for us.. And I’m proud and happy to tell you that I did, in fact, see him there… I’m pretty sure.
But you know: fucking mushrooms… It’s so hard to get the dosage right.
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