A Taxi Driver on Music
By Dmitry Samarov / Art by Dmitry Samarov
Whenever anyone asks what kind of music I like, I freeze up. That question’s too personal to answer when it’s asked by some stranger taking my cab from one bar to the next, and too vague to answer when asked by those whose opinions I value. Music’s haunted me my whole life.
When I was five or six, like most offspring of the intelligentsia in the Soviet Union, I was made to play a musical instrument. Mine was a piccolo flute. I don’t have much memory of it aside from some very fuzzy traces of taking the thing apart and putting it back together again. Its case had a blue velvety lining, I’m pretty sure. About a half year after starting to play, my teacher left and it was determined that I was “too talented” to stay with such a minor instrument. The replacement that was chosen for me was the violin. I had a music folder with a flap that’d tie closed with a ribbon, and my father would pull on one of the laces and have me repeat tying it over and over on the way home from class. That’s how I learned to tie my shoes and it’s the only positive association I have with that instrument. I hated the awkward, uneven way it had to be held and the screeching it made when played badly. Nails on a chalkboard’s the sound of angels next to that of a misplayed violin. It’s an unforgiving and neurotic sort of instrument. I hated to even open its case.
After we moved to America in 1978 I went through a succession of unfortunate violin teachers. Unfortunate for the fact that they had to deal with me and my temper tantrums and my all-out effort to play as little as possible. My poor mother, whose unfulfilled musical ambitions were apparently sated by living vicariously through my torment, had to deal with a lot as well. I broke two bows flinging them against the wall; it got me out of playing, at least for the afternoon. I think she even tried taping and gluing them back together. I begged to quit every one of the eight years she made me play. The last teacher I had was a Russian woman who played for the Boston Symphony. I’d never met a woman who wore a thicker patina of makeup. Seeing her once without it was sort of horrifying. I can’t say whether she was as uninterested in teaching me as I was in learning from her; it was probably a dead heat. In any case she never put up much protest when I’d call a half hour before our lesson and cancel so that I could blow the $40 my mother gave me on video games and pizza. One of my most successful scams.
At fourteen my mother finally gave in and let me stop. I still occasionally get nervous when hearing it played. I wasn’t done with music, just with that particular torture device. I spent my first paycheck from my paper route in 1982 on two cassettes:The Rocky III soundtrack and Abracadabra by the Steve Miller Band. In sixth or seventh grade my best friend’s father helped broaden my horizons. Suddenly I was balancing what I heard on ‘80s Top 40 radio with the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, and the Stooges. Nothing like alternating Pyromania with Trout Mask Replica to make a strange kid even stranger. The music coming off my folks’ record player was Vysotsky, Okudzhava, and the Beatles’ Greatest Hits. There was also my father singing the Soviet songs of his youth. There always seemed to be a soundtrack of one kind or another and much more non-verbal communication growing up than the other kind. At least that’s the kind that got through more often.
Independent Boston record stores like Nuggets and In Your Ear were regular spots for spending whatever money I had, whether earned or stolen. I’d buy records, dub them onto cassette and trade them in for new ones. It was an endless cycle. I still have a crate filled with these cassettes. Many are too warped to play but they’re as close to a diary of my teenage years as I’ve got. The movie theater I worked at in the late ‘80s was run by a man named David Kleiler, whose son was in a band called the Volcano Suns. This was likely my first personal contact with a person who made music that I loved. Up until then the idea that the people making the records I bought were people you could talk to never crossed my mind. Through David Jr. I metPeter Prescott. We’d talk about movies. He told me once that Scorsese’s New York New York was the best film ever made about the musician’s life. I still try to track him down at whatever record store he’s working at in Boston anytime I’m visiting my family.
I went to New York, then Chicago for art school. Going to shows remained at least as important as visiting the Met or the Art Institute. After graduating and moving back to Boston, I started driving a cab. Going to the Middle East, t.t. the bear’s, and other clubs likely saved me from offing myself. As Peter said, “Boston’s a good place to be in a funk.” I returned to Chicago in 1997 but bands like Come from that time in Boston are still close to my heart. I’d drawn people playing music before but sometime in the late ‘90s it became a regular part of the concert-going routine. It was a way to listen better, to bring the sounds closer, to carry it more into my own world. The intent of these sketches has never really been to nail a likeness but rather to show a bit of what it was like in the room with those people on stage on that night.
I’ve had the good fortune to work with many amazing musicians on record covers, flyers, and assorted other projects. I count many as friends and prefer their company to that of visual artists for the most part. Two or three years ago my pal, Tony Fitzpatrick, who I was driving around nearly every day at the time, summoned me to his studio. Lou Reed was there and needed a ride back to the Trump Hotel. I spent the whole ride downtown silently searching my mind for something to say to the man that wouldn’t sound completely sycophantic. What do you say to Lou Reed? I murmured something like, “Thanks for the music,” as he was getting out of the cab. I think he thanked me.
A few years back I traded a large drawing for guitar lessons with my friend, Bill MacKay. It was odd to hold an instrument again and make sounds come out of it. It was good because it’s an instrument whose sounds I actually enjoy. I stopped practicing for lack of time but hope to take it up again one day. Bill tells me I’ve still got some free lessons coming from time to time. One of these days I’ll take him up on that.
My mother’s always told me that I could’ve chosen either music or painting. Who knows if that’s so? All I know is that I can’t paint or draw without music playing and that when someone asks what kind of music I like, I get defensive. More times than not I don’t answer at all. It’s too personal. If it’s asked in the cab, I tell ‘em I don’t listen to music on the radio, then grit my teeth and try to endure the horrible dance music they insist on for the rest of the ride.
The Russian-born Dmitry Samarov is a prolific painter, watercolorist, and sketch artist, and is the author of www.chicagohack.com, an original blog brimming with the cab driver’s art and his dry, empathic, often hilarious stories. Samarov’s first book, Hack: stories from a Chicago Cab, was published by University of Chicago Press in October 2011.