Born in the Ukraine but uprooted to the Boston suburbs after the KGB blacklisted her physicist father, Alina Simone is responsible for several great indie rock albums. Her 2008 all-Russian-language tribute to the too-short career of Siberian punk-folk singer Yanka Dyagileva, Everyone is Crying out to Me, Beware, was called “lovely and mournful” by Billboard, “mesmerizing” by Spin. Released simultaneously with her third full-length album (Make Your Own Danger), Simone’s You Must Go and Win is an essay collection that chronicles the author’s struggles with family, with her homeland, and with the elusive dream of success in the music world.
The inversion of a tell-all rock-star bio, these essays cover the flip side of a life given over to music and art. Simone is a thinking musician, a sort of philosopher-singer. Like so many great narrators, she has one foot in and one foot out of her subjects. Her American eyes can see her Russian family that much more sharply. Her Russian roots put America into perspective. Simone has the kind of relationship to celebrity that Hunter S. Thompson had to his Hell’s Angels—access, proximity, but also enough distance to see the whole thing in context. Distant Ukrainian cousins, misguided music producers, even the screaming women at Siberian strip clubs—they’re all treated with as much compassion as humor.
It turns out that, in addition to being a great songsmith, Simone happens to be an incredible writer of prose. Her essays are often laugh-out-loud funny, always smart and heartfelt. Like indie rock’s answer to David Sedaris, she paints her life with equal parts tragedy and comedy, and just the right amount of self-deprecation.
She also possesses an uncanny ability to turn an extended metaphor, like a younger, hipper incarnation of Raymond Chandler. Her trials and tribulations in the New York music scene are compared to “some kind of twisted Iron Chef competition, in which shame turns out to be the surprise ingredient.” To her emigrant parents, talking about her problems was akin to “pointing out mushrooms from the window of an airplane.” Icicles in Siberia hang “like a row of loaded Kalashnikovs.”
The conflicts faced in this collection are all utterly contemporary: balancing high-art integrity and pop-culture careerism, wanting spirituality in a secular age, a married couple navigating the difficult geography of dueling careers. Photographs, drawings, and homemade comics punctuate the book. There’s even a recipe for borsht. Yet formally these pieces are all done in the most traditional spirit of the essay, the form Huxley called “a device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” For all their endearing and idiosyncratic details—of craigslist weirdoes and renegade Russian monks—these long and roomy essays always have the bigger picture in mind, and always leave the reader satisfied.
Neither side of the recent memoir kerfuffle will be able to resist Simone’s charming and compelling voice. Her life is that interesting, and nobody could write about it better. Like a great old folk song, You Must Go and Win is at times an intimate whisper in your ear, at other times a bold call to action.