LOST IN THE TEMPLE OF LOVE

Sergey Chernov knocked on the battered door under the archway. We waited. A couple more knocks. Nothing.  Then, as we were discussing what to do, the door opened a crack and a wisp of scented smoke curled out. Against a dim glow,  a face appeared. A bulky bearded wizard-like figure peered out. Sergey spoke to him in Russian.  The figure looked at me, smiled, held the door open and said: 

“Welcome to Heaven”.

We entered. For me, a borderline neurotic when it comes to domestic arrangement, it was more like Hell.  Every surface was covered with a cacophany of books, pictures, records, photographs, lamps and arcane twisted organic artwork in a dark interior which bore no resemblance to an apartment.  The atmosphere was heavy with incense, there were no windows, little furniture  and almost no evidence of ordinary life.

I had been in St Petersburg with The Real Tuesday Weld for a concert and TV show and had stayed on for a couple of days with my friend Sergey Korsakov of Cardboardia .  We were doing research and interviews for a project I am involved with about samidzat recordings from the soviet era.  Sergey Chernov another friend and a journalist for the St Petersburgh Times had set up this meeting with Nikolay Vasin, a character of some note in Russia where he is known simply as “The Beatles Guy“.  In his youth in the early sixties, Nikolay had come across an illegal recording which turned out to contain a Beatles song.  It changed his life irrevocably.  He had an epiphany.  Since then he has devoted virtually his whole time and meagre resources to the Fab Four and John Lennon in particular.  He calls his apartment “The Temple of Love” and he is its priest.  
As we entered, he retreated to an armchair in the corner. We found a seat where we could amongst the chaos of his collection.  Every single item was in some way Beatles related: hundreds of items of memorabilia and tribute, homemade miniature shrines and shelves creaking under the weight  of documents and recordings.  Our conversation, alternating between Russian translated by the Sergeys and broken English began.  I can’t really call it an interview.  Whilst I was able to steer Nikolay back to the period and subject we are researching, it was clear he was far happier  talking about the Beatles.  Now don’t get me wrong, although I’m not a massive fan I am quite interested in them myself so his anecdotes and memories of various near-encounters with Paul McCartney, trips to foreign fan conventions, peculiar meetings  with people tangentially associated with the band and deep analysis of their lyrics were fascinating.  They are a band of course who have spawned an unparalleled amount of fandom and they did have a significant cultural effect*** in the Soviet Union, but without doubt there is no fan to compare to Nikolay.

As fascinating (albeit in a poignant way) as his reminiscences was his mystical take on the music and the effect it has on his life.  He spends most of his time in The Temple of Love listening to the band (Beatles music was playing for the duration of our visit).  His main passion is to talk to people about them. At one point he asked us if we wanted to see his ‘family album’.  My understanding is that this is a feature of many traditional Russian homes – a book of photographs of a person’s family and forbears.  As Nikolay had mentioned his mother several times, I was intrigued to see his.  However when he opened it, we were startled to find it was completely filled with images of McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo and especially, John Lennon. These were often personalised and worked on with odd illustrations into a kind of outsider art.

As he showed us the album, he declared several times:
John Lennon’ is my Daddy’.  

It was clear he didn’t mean this literally although tellingly from a psychological perspective, his own father seemed to have been a difficult, absent figure in his life.  I was rather at a loss as to what to say. Eventually I ventured:  

“You must have been very upset when he died”
He looked at me with surprise:
“He isn’t dead”
This time, all I could manage was 
Er, oh.”
He closed the album:
“He has been living secretly in Northern Italy since 1980”

He waved toward a wobbling shelf of CDrs behind him.
“And he has made 34 albums since..” 

At this point, Sergey Chernov asked if he could use the bathroom and was directed through the kitchen. He returned a little while later looking slightly stunned (he told us afterwards that there was absolutely no sign of any cooking implements or food but didn’t want to talk about the loo).

We didn’t get to hear any of the secret Lennon albums.  I got the impression they weren’t available for anyone but a committed devotee and we never got to the bottom of why Lennon had been in hiding.  Pressing him on the subject seemed upsetting in some way, so we returned to the music itself.   Nikolay said (and I believe him) that when he is in the Temple listening to the Beatles he feels completely happy and filled with love but that when he hears it elsewhere, even at a friend or fellow fan’s place, it doesn’t have the same effect.

It had been a fascinating if unsettling visit but it was time to leave.  I genuinely liked Nikolay and thanked him. He gave us each a warm hug and some parting words of Beatles related wisdom.  As he hadn’t asked anything about what I did, I mentioned I had made a Beatles mashup if he would like to hear it.  He would.
As the first bit of All You Need is Love” played out on my laptop, he smiled beatifically and nodded with encouragement.  But when a beat and a sample from another song kicked in, a pained expression fell across his face.
He looked up at me and indicated I should stop the music (we were at about bar 16).
“You ruined it’  he said sadly.
He was probably right.
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***Leslie Woodhead’s recent “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin: The Untold Story of a Noisy Revolution” has much more on the importance of the band in the ex-USSR if you want to know more about the subject.  

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Speaking of The Temple of Love, I’d almost forgotten this old song about Cupid and Psyche, or was it Laura and Petrarch? Or me and that person I met in the launderette?