I have a friend named Milos. His varied and somewhat mysterious vocations would take him far away for stretches of time. But during the winter of 2007, he was much present and I would regularly visit him at his loft in the Garment District. It wasn’t intended for residential living and was often without heat at night. He had waxed the wood plank floors and fitted the raw space with African sculpture, sacred icons, and Ethiopian scrolls. Precious objects representing years of hard travel and a certain amount of peril.
In the evenings we would watch films projected on a sheet that he tacked to a wall, films I had never seen before that somehow always made me cry, such as I Even Met Happy Gypsies by the Serbian director Aleksandar Petrovic or L’Atalante (The Passing Barge) directed by Jean Vigo. One particularly cold evening he asked if I had seen the film Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky’s masterpiece centered around the Medieval monk and icon painter Andrei Rublev. I hadn’t. Milos was determined that I see it straightaway, being it was January 29th, the icon painter’s feast day. He explained that the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Rublev in 1988. I was astonished that an artist had been declared a saint.
—Did he produce miracles? I asked.
—Every time he picked up a brush, he answered.
Milos rummaged through stacks of DVDs until he found it. We sat wrapped in blankets in two old chairs with hassocks for our feet. Milos made us mugs of tea, his own blend of herbs, warming our hands. I knew nothing of this film but gleaned from his insistence that I was about to see something unforgettable.
The film opens with a breathtaking prologue wherein a visionary peasant with the heart of Leonardo successfully flies in a makeshift air balloon, beholding a panorama from a perspective that none have seen before, save the birds, or perhaps Icarus and ascending saints. The sequence closes with a dark horse rolling on his back then slowly rising by a glistening pond. Andrei Rublev appears in the first part called The Jester Summer 1400. We see him from above, reluctantly leaving his monastery, questioning the validity of his artistic path. As he tramped through heavy rains I felt his shivering body beneath his coarse robes. Pelted by a sad splendor, I was thinking.
The seasons change, the years go by. The music is holy, the rituals frozen and sad. The wanderings of the icon painter continue as a silvery dust seems to settle on every frame. A long film, the most perfect I had ever seen, so perfect it made me sick. I was struck with the sense of watching a documentary, shot in the onset of the 15th century. A black and white pageant of poetic realism. I huddled in my chair only a few feet from Milos, who would get up from time to time and make us more tea. I became sleepy and for brief stretches, unable to keep my eyes open, I just listened. It was that night that I realized how beautiful the Russian language is—soft, musical, and innately melancholy.
I would open my eyes to the overexposed Russian landscape where ice and smoke brutally unite. Winter expanses invaded and corrupted. Blood spattering nature’s canvas, echoed by a rage of paint smeared on chapel walls. Andrei endlessly tramps tumultuous Russia, confounded by nightingales, images of Jesus in the snow, and the crushed neck of a swan. He sacrifices his brush and speech, seeking unattainable peace, while turning his back on his God given gift.
Milos had seen the film many times yet sat, wrapped in blankets, a few feet away, making certain I didn’t miss too much, as I continued to periodically doze. When the time came, he shook me gently offering more tea. It’s the part about the bell, he said, and I sat up and drank. He had promised this last part would be one of greatness—the creation of a bell brazenly supervised by the orphaned son of a celebrated bell caster. Andrei, now aged, observes the emotional spiral of the young bell caster, even as the new bell tolls. Enlightened by process, the master breaks his self-imposed vow of silence to comfort the exhausted, and weeping acolyte; he reclaims his true vocation and maps out their conjoining fate.
“You’ll cast bells. I’ll paint icons.’’
These words touched me deeply, answering a recurring question. Andrei Tarkovsky chose to trace, through the deep conflict of a religious monk, the internal sufferings of an artist. He created something miraculous—a film that embraces vision—a peasant aviator dying for a dream, a scrappy boy wrestling with his destiny, and a humble monk painfully denying his divine spark.
The film was ending and nothing remained save flecks of the faces of prophets, the red walls of a monastery and the outline of a bell. Thunder rolled and cracked, then a heavy downpour. In the distance four white horses, tied by the river, shook out their manes. Grateful, wrung out, we fell asleep in our chairs. Outside, in the frigid city, it was lightly snowing. I awoke momentarily and caught the scene from the prologue of the dark horse rolling on its side. Then woke again amazed to see the same scene replaying on that slightly rumpled sheet. I imagined that we had slept through the film twice over, which gave the night a mystical longevity.
There are nights in life that are cherished, those of passion or revelation. Or those that haunt due to a terrible merging with certain dreams. This was yet another kind of night, frozen in the warmth of transformative bliss. A night that bears repeating, like a horse rolling over on its back, like a girl, quite mad, crowned as a queen.
Come be my April fool
Come you're the only one
Come on your rusted bike
We'll have so much fun
We'll ride like writers ride
Neither rich nor broke
We'll race through alleyways
In our tattered cloaks
We'll burn all of our poems
Add to god's debris
We'll pray to all of our saints
Icons of mystery
We'll tramp through the mire
When our souls feel dead
With laughter we'll inspire
Then back to life again
So, come be my April fool
Come we’ll break all the rules
April Fool | The song and its muses
April Fool is not a trickster song despite its title. It was written in a light state of joy, celebrating my friendship with Milos, the same friend who had introduced me to Tarkovsky and Bulgakov and expanded my knowledge of Tesla, Gogol and Ethiopian art. When he was back from his travels he would ride over on his beat-up bike that had no lock as he was certain no one would want to steal it. Anyone who would steal this bike he said, needs it more than me. Just an old-fashioned bike, rust colored from actual rust. When he returned from his expeditions he often brought me gifts. Blankets woven in Harar, 19th Century silver crosses and a block of salt from Syria wrapped in ragged linen. We’d talk of a thousand things or just sit on my stoop in mutual silence until he’d nod, hop on his bike and leave. There are many stories I could tell, but these few words can suffice to introduce April Fool, that was written with my bass player Tony Shanahan, for our album Banga. It is a happy song that salutes the rusted bike that eventually disappeared, Nikolai Gogol, who was born on April fools day, Andrei Rubev’s icons, our poetic aspirations and undying friendship.
Film: Andrei Rublev, Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Book: Divided Soul: The Life of Gogol by Henri Troyat
Book: The Overcoat and Other Stories by Nikolai Gogol