Ruben vs. Arthur
Their voices destroyed an empire — and captivated the hearts of a new nation. But the poet-singers did not think too much of each other.
November 7, 2017 | by Ani Avakian-Kurtz
“So what do you think of Meschian's songs?” the interviewer asks again. Ruben Hakhverdyan cringes. He won’t resist this time. “To tell the truth,” he says, “I don’t like them.” “And why not?" The singer’s eyes circle in his sockets. “You know what? His songs give the impression that the man is upset not by the condition of his people but because of his own inadequacy.” And, as he says this, Ruben casts his head toward the interviewer. His eyebrows dart up to say: Are you satisfied?
We don’t know how we got here. But we do know that the story began almost a half century earlier, in the underground of a a tiny soviet republic. The story had two heroes. One was the architecture student Arthur Meschian, proprietor of the rock group The Apostles. The other was the theatre student Ruben Hakhverdyan, with his gypsy guitar. It was the 1960s. The boys were still young. They wore leather jackets and they sang at clubs and protests until the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991. And Armenia was free.
But that’s where the trouble began. Arthur gave up the scene. Ruben took over. He sang children’s songs: his My Little Boat became our Alouette. He sang love songs: his Autumn of our Love became our Strangers in the Night. He sang patriotic songs: Mountain Wind became our Country Roads. He sang songs of protest: his Ox became our Blowin’ in the Wind. Every season of life came to be defined by a Hakhverdyan song. In Good Morning, Mrs. Arus a woman runs her fingers through barley as she considers the family who abandoned her. Sure enough, she became our Eleanor Rigby. And we loved the man who invented her.
Ruben Hakhverdyan - Khosker (The Words)
But Armenia was not well. Within a year of independence, war besieged the new republic. Our borders were sealed. The electricity went out. Bread lines wrapped around city blocks. It’s true the war was won in the end. But corruption and poverty now plagued the land. These were apocalyptic times — we called it “the dark and cold years.” And once every few years, we needed Arthur Meschian to step back onto the stage. He did. And each time his beard had grown whiter, his gaze even more somber. He looked to be a monk — maybe even, with age, a prophet. And he painted for us vast Dali-esque landscapes — barren, biblical deserts full of “talking masks,” “glass curtains,” “burning bridges.” We saw, dancing on the stage, the metaphors of our national disappointment and the possibilities of our salvation.
These were so powerful that most of us did not even consider that Meschian had not written them. He borrowed almost all of his lyrics from poems others had written. Still, if you attended his concerts, you felt that you were in the presence of something profoundly original. Maybe these words had been written before, but they had never before lived:
My unfinished song.
My final motherland.
Who shall we believe in now?
Where is the church of our soul?
We won the war,
But it turns out we lost.
Arthur Meschian - Aha yev Verj (And That's It)
Protests were raging in Armenia. We had our first political prisoners. Assassinations were being staged. The ruling party was replaced, only to rule with greater force. Sometimes Ruben sang for them. Then he didn’t. He wrote the anthem to another party. Then he changed its words — and then changed them again — to reflect his disintegrating views. So it was clear that Ruben wasn’t doing well. We watched him climb the steps of Yerevan pubs and slur on cheap TV talk shows and limp onto the stage of mass rallies to rage against the authorities. He was collapsing like his country was collapsing, and he said many mean and vile things.
Still, he had always warned us not to like him. In Call me he had confessed to being the brute in a party suit. He knew how to behave in your castle. He wouldn’t mind talking to your father about the war, or complimenting your mother’s pastries. Go ahead, he sang —
Call me to your castle, but don’t forget,
That these cold walls I cannot stand.
And if you love me, really, for who I am,
I will beat you and curse you to the end.
Meanwhile, Arthur Meschian lived his life in noble silence. It was said he was in Boston, but then he returned to take up the post as Yerevan’s head architect. He did not involve himself in politics, unless it’s politics to become Yerevan’s head architect. And there is no doubt he built many fine buildings. Most recently he built the new wing of the Matenadaran, the archives of the ancient Armenian illuminated manuscripts.
That is where a journalist found him. And that is where Meschian responded, for the first time, to some things that had been said about him. He used the word adequate more than once to describe how he felt in life. And he concluded: “Guys, leave me alone. This is my concert. I live with this concert. This is my life. This is my situation. This dust on my shoes. This is my daily life. I don’t belong to you. You are not my type. Stay far away from me.”
So do we praise Meschian for his purity? And do we hold against Hakhverdyan the fact that he became so involved in the destiny of his people that he rotted as we rotted? Do we prefer the distant narrator, who sees (some would say watches) the process unfold? Or the wretch of a man — the remnants of a genius — as he collapses into the experience of his dark city.
Because he invented it. He sang not of biblical metaphors (however exquisite), but of the complicated evenings, the feeble gestures, the grotesque sounds of Yerevan — down to the last creak coming from his Bolshevik grandmother’s bedroom.
No, we are not Arthur Meschian’s type. We are here with Ruben. Our disease is his disease. He is a sick man. He is a brilliant man. He will disappoint us. And he will die one day on one of these street corners, quite casually, with no symbol in sight — and no evidence, certainly, of becoming a song.
Ani Avakian-Kurtz is a writer living in Yerevan.