“Childhood Books” by Michael (Misha) Shengaout

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The poet who inspired a generation

“Childhood Books” started as an attempt to translate the ballads of a legendary Russian poet and singer named Vladimir Vysotsky (Владимир Высоцкий). Vysotsky ruled the hearts and the minds of Russians throughout the sixties and seventies. Unfortunately, his own heart stopped beating too soon – he died in 1980, during the Moscow Olympics, at the age of 42.

Great poets don’t just put together words that rhyme; their poetry resonates with the hopes and disappointments of their readers. Kipling was such a poet. So were Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Vladimir Vysotsky went beyond that. His poetry actually gave his generation hope and helped them to find meaning in midst of the disappointing Soviet reality. Russians filled stadiums just to hear him play his old acoustic guitar and sing. Performances in the theater where he was an actor were sold out every night. You could find his poems and tapes in millions of Russian homes, even though his semi-prohibited poems weren’t published and his underground music wasn’t released. People would rewrite his poems by hand and copy any of his recordings that they could get their hands on. His popularity was viral before the term “viral” was even coined. He didn’t need clever marketing to craft his image – he already was larger than life. Vysotsky became nothing more and nothing less than the heart and the soul of the whole nation.

The ballads that inspired “Childhood Books” were his first professionally produced songs to be made “officially” available to the Soviet public, albeit not in the form of an album but as a soundtrack for the film “The Ballad of Valiant Knight Ivanhoe”. As good as this movie was, people cave to see it just to hear Vysotsky’s songs. All of the titles of these songs contained the world “Ballad”: “Ballad of Love”, “Ballad of Struggle”, “Ballad of Time”, and so on. These powerful ballads, just like Kipling’s “If”, reach inside of you, grab you by the heart, and make you wonder just what kind of person you are.

From Translation to Poem to Song

When I tried to translate these ballads, I realized that it is well-nigh impossible to transplant the heart of one nation into the chest of another; after all, foreign-born tissues are rejected by human bodies and human cultures alike! A proper translation of Vysotsky’s work would have to wait for a better poet than I (you may want to check Vadim Astrakhan’s translation project here, also see his rendition of “The Ballade of Childhood” here). So I decided that instead of translating Vysotsky’s poems properly, I would just use them as a source of inspiration and see what I could write. I listened to them for several days until I felt I was permeated with their spirit, charged up with their strength, absorbed their fury, their regrets and hope, their idealism (both lost and found), and their values. Then I put them aside and got down to the business of writing.

The core of the poem was written over couple of days, although I continued making changes over the next seven years. The title of the poem changed from “Roads and Castles” to just “Castles” before ending up as “Childhood Books”. The poem drew most of its inspiration from Vysotsky’s “Ballad of Time” and “Ballad of Struggle”; however, much of its imagery has nothing to do with these poems. For example, the middle section, which describes the first love of an American teenager, just couldn’t have been written by Vysotsky; when I was writing about the ideals of youth, I found myself having a virtual flashback to events that had never happened to me I imagined how my first love might have happened if I had grown up in the US instead of the USSR.

The poem “Childhood Books” describes how our life’s dreams and ideals are determined by what we read when we were young. After all, when we read about noble knights, we imagine fighting evil right alongside with them. By the same token, when we read about fighter pilots, our fantasy puts us right there in the cockpit with them, making us their co-pilots as they risk their lives protecting the skies over London or Moscow. While reading, we may be anyone and do anything. If we’re lucky, the books of our childhood fill our young years with truths and ideals that last a lifetime. After all, if our bodies are what we eat, then our minds and hearts are what we read.

Unfortunately youth, by its very nature, tends to paint everything in stark black and white. No gray is allowed. As we get older, we start expanding our palette of gray shades. Regrettably, we also start compromising our conscience and breaking promises that we once made to ourselves, justifying those decisions by saying that “things aren’t so simple anymore”. This poem is about growing wiser with age without compromising the idealism of our youth.

After the poem, you’ll find YouTube clips of Vysotsky’s ballads and listen to the “Childhood Books” made into a song. Without further delay – here is the poem:

Childhood Books

by Michael (Misha) Shengaout, inspired by Vladimir Vysotsky

Our childhood was ruled
By the books on our shelves,
With the knights of the past
Sacrificing themselves
For the pride and the honor.
So the battles of old
Were making us stronger,
Were making us bold,
You remember, My Friend,
You remember?

Doctors patched our scratches,
Mothers patched our coats,
But we kept on our matches
And fights till it hurt,
We were knights in white armor,
We were aces of skies,
Books like nothing thereafter
Could get us to fly.

So we climbed up the hill,
Often scared and cold,
And we never admitted
Inner terror untold,
And the foes were defeated,
And the pledges were said,
And we lived on the pages
Of the novels we read.

You remember, my friend,
How we used to defend
The ideals of ours
The childhood has lent?
How we used to be sure
There is black and there’s white,
That there is a simple cure
For every possible plight.
You remember, My Friend,
You remember?

You remember denying
Compromises of soul?
You remember first lying?
It was seemingly small…
But it led to forgetting,
Pledges were taken back,
So you slowly, but surely,
Started losing the track.

All the games that we played,
And the heroes we prayed,
All the poor defended,
And the beauties we saved,
All new planets discovered,
And ordeals disdained,
All the majesty cherished –
Thrown out all the same.

You remember the girl
Living right down the street?
You remember cold ice
In your chest when you’d meet?
You remember first asking
Her out for a date,
Being scared and hoping
That she would consent?
That good old Volkswagen
Which dad let you drive,
The ice-cream, the parking,
Your kisses, your life?
Our hearts were still loving
But love was doomed from the start
Our minds were rejecting
This romantical part

We trashed our feelings
To serve common sense,
We moved to big cities
And the race would commence.
But we’d vaguely remember
And always would miss
That “bug” with bumped fender
And the joys of first kiss.

Where’s that girl from next door,
Whom you kissed in that car?
Did she marry for money
Sacrificing her heart?
Do you think she remembers?
Or you think she forgot,
How to love with no reason,
With no doubt or back thought?
Oh, My Friend, do you think
She remembers?

Do you think she remembers
Simple pleasures of life?
Do you think she is dead inside?
Or you think she’s alive?
Anyway, doesn’t matter,
Days of past won’t return,
Friends of childhood are scattered,
Dreams of young days are gone.

But, Friend, you can make a try
Resurrecting the flame
Though it won’t be as high
And it won’t be the same,
You will feel so much better
You will feel young again.
So don’t let your heart settle
Turn the wheels, light the flame

1995 – 2002

“Childhood Books” made into a song

Several years after finishing this poem I found myself writing and producing songs for a debut progressive rock album, Primary Elements, by the band called Six Elements. At that time it occurred to me to put “Childhood Books” to music. However, writing the music was every bit as difficult as writing the poem itself. I wrote the first melody and threw it away. A friend of mine, Tal Babitzky, wrote another melody, but it didn’t work out. We were almost ready to give up when I decided to seek some musical inspiration the same way that I found my poetical inspiration: I listened to those ballads again and again for several days, soaking in their mood and spirit. When I felt that I finally absorbed as much as I could, I put those ballads away and wrote a completely new melody. Even so, you may still hear the harpsichords, rhythm, and the general feeling of the Vysotsky’s melodies in this new song. Listen to it in the player below (apologies for the low resolution audio!):

Songs by Vysotsky

In the early seventies Vysotsky was commissioned to make a soundtrack for the movie about Robin Hood (“The Arrows of Robin Hood”). However his songs were pulled out of the film at the last moment. They ended up being used in 1980 in a completely different movie, albeit about the same time period, called “The Ballad of Valiant Knight Ivanhoe”. Unfortunately Vysotsky died several months before this happened. Here are the YouTube clips from the original film “The Arrows of Robin Hood”. Unfortunately in these movie clips he sounds a bit faster than he should, so I am also providing clips where his voice sounds correctly. Also, please check Vadim Astrachan’s translation and rendition of the “Ballade of Childhood” here.

“Ballad of Struggle”

This one is a clip from the film “Arrows of Robin Hood”, but it sounds a bit faster than it should:

This clip is the collection of still shots, but it plays back at the correct speed.

“Ballad of Time”

This one is a clip from the film “Arrows of Robin Hood”, but it sounds a bit faster than it should:

This clip is the collection of still shots, but it plays back at the correct speed.

Vadim Astrakhan’s project

Vadim Astrakhan has translated some of Vysotsky’s poetry and recorded a CD with his translated songs. Here is the translation of the “Ballade of Childhood”, Vadim Astrakhan singing:

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