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August 27, 2020

Dmitry Samarov's Playlist for His Essay Collection "Soviet Stamps"

Soviet Stamps by Dmitry Samarov

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Dmitry Samarov is a natural storyteller, and Soviet Stamps vividly shares his coming-of-age as an artist through essays, artwork, and family photos.

In his own words, here is Dmitry Samarov's Book Notes music playlist for his essay collection Soviet Stamps:

Soviet Stamps was a slog from start to finish. I thought I had it done in the fall of 2015, but dozens of queries to publishers and agents fell on deaf ears. Then, a year later I thought I had found it a home, even had a boilerplate contract from the publisher, then the money fell through and I forgot about it for a couple years. After I published Music to My Eyes in 2019, doing the layout and finding a printer myself, I decided to give the cursed old thing another look. I rewrote and rearranged a few chapters, then asked Christian TeBordo to give it a read. He didn't hate it, which gave me the final push to publish the book myself. I still don't know what I think of the thing, but I'm glad it's out of me.

Soviet Stamps by Dmitry Samarov

Soviet Stamps is set of interconnected essays about immigrating to the US from the USSR and beginning to dedicate my life to making art. For the most part music from my home country isn't truly mine; it's the music my parents listened to and that my father sang when I was a child. The first four songs—two by Bulat Okudzava, two by Vladimir Vysotsky—are a fair sample of the soundtrack to my home life. I'm not going to try to translate these songs into English for you because my Russian isn't nearly good enough and much of the color would be lost even if I could pull it off. Suffice it to say that these two singer-songwriters communicated the feelings and frustrations of my parents' generation of Soviet intelligentsia the way Dylan and the Velvet Underground did for their counterparts in the US. Caustic wordplay married to sincere sentiment gave their listeners ballast against the oppressive, all-encompassing grayness of their everyday life. It was a way to fight back. They carried these songs with them to the New World and by countless repetition wedged it deep into my subconscious such that hearing them to this day will stop me short and choke me up.

Abracadbra by the Steve Miller Band was the first cassette I bought with earnings from my paper route. I don't know if I listened to any other song on there except the title one. Soon I was dubbing cassettes and LPs and selling them to used record stores, beginning an endless quest for new sounds which continues to this day. Don't know the last time I listened to Steve Miller, but we all have to start somewhere.

Soviet Stamps by Dmitry Samarov

I used to sneak out of my house with my friend Dan in the middle of the night to wander the streets. More often than not we'd end up at Christie's convenience store to play Spy Hunter. Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn" was the endless loop soundtrack which accompanied the game's doomed car race. I didn't hear the Sarah Vaughn vocal version till much later, but listened to it while writing the book.

That friend, Dan, was obsessed with rap (before it became hip-hop). He'd bounce down the street reciting "The Message" and dozens of others to my annoyance. There's a bit of a tug listening to it now, but it will never be my music. Still, it's a definite part of my history.

Dan's father introduced the two of us to all kinds of music. I first heard Led Zeppelin, the Velvet Underground, and the Stooges on his mixtapes when I was in sixth or seventh grade. But maybe the most confounding music Richard shared with me was Captain Beefheart. At the time the music on the radio was bands like Def Leppard. I had to reconcile that both were music. I still listen to one of those two regularly.

While working at the Coolidge Corner Theatre I got introduced to the Volcano Suns. An older friend who hung around the theater took over from Richard making me mixtapes and the Suns were on more than one. By coincidence that band's guitarist turned out to be the son of the guy running the theater. Through him I met Pete Prescott, the man behind the Suns. I've followed his music ever since.

Nick Cave

I got a fake ID sometime in high school not to buy booze mainly but to get into shows. One of the best was Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at The Channel. Cave remains one of the best live acts I know. One of the few who can make a huge theater feel like a sweaty hole-in-the-wall.

My time in New York was short. I lasted only six months. The reason was I hated Parsons School of Design. I had my heart set on New York for art school but wasn't accepted at Cooper Union, my first choice. Going to Parsons was a mistake, but I saw a ton of great bands when I was in town. Maybe the most memorable was double bill of the Butthole Surfers and the World Saxophone Quartet at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The respective fans of those groups didn't know what to make of one another, but it was the exact sweet spot of my tastes at the time.


I transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in January of 1990 and it wasn't long before I knew Chicago would be my city. Fred Anderson remains an embodiment of the town. A great, generous talent who quietly went about making music with no fuss nor airs. It's a place to work, not to be famous.

My classmate Frank, who played in bands, introduced me to a ton of music including Eleventh Dream Day, Slovenly, and Pavement. Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted and Husker Du's Zen Arcade form the default soundtrack to my memories of my Chicago art school years.

My second wrong youthful move—after art school in New York—was moving back to Boston after graduating from the Art Institute in 1993. I stayed three miserable years. Not for the first time, music saved me. Bands like Blacktop and Kustomized let me come up for air, spelling the heaviness of twelve hour shifts driving cab.

Handsome Family

In 1997 I put all I owned in a rented van and drove back to Chicago for good. It was a Friday and David Lynch's Lost Highway opened that afternoon. I caught a matinee showing before hitting the road.

Dmitry Samarov paints and writes in Chicago. He is the author and illustrator of five books. He sends out a newsletter every Monday. An absurd amount of his work is collected at his website, which is sixteen years old now. Buy his art and books and read some of his journalism.

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