by Dalton Sharp
The early evening crowd at Toronto’s Cameron House pub is packed so deep it’s pushing out the front door. The usual torch and twang. Eugene Zhilinsky spots me immediately, the nerd in the middle of a music show reading a comic book. We’re meeting along with his collaborator Kimberley Whitchurch to talk about Rock Testament, the book I’m conspicuously holding.
The back room of the pub is empty save for a necking couple and a woman sleeping in a booth. In the front, a new band has taken the stage. A girl with the saddest voice in the world croons. It’s fitting to talk here – Rock Testament is a riff on the mystery of music and the people it attracts.
Set in Jerusalem circa 32 A.D., the story centres on David Ro, a street profit proselytizing the revolutionary power of a new sound – rock n’ roll. “Words don’t matter! Not even in music – you can even sing in tongues!” says a follower. “Awop-bop-a-loo-mop Alop-bam-boom!”
“All of my life I was listening to music”, says Zhilinsky, a Russian-born architect renderer who lived in Jerusalem for twelve years. He plays piano and bass, but chose a career in architecture over music. “I’ve always made friends with musicians.” Many of the characters in the book are taken from sketches he drew at parties with the DooLee Band. They call their sound Drunk-and-Brass. “I have no idea what that means. It’s some modern musical term. It sounds like Rock Steady and Ska, but a little bit different.”
Time is elastic in Rock Testament, and reality…in flux. Rock n’ roll exists alongside Roman soldiers. Bands jam with actual instruments, the ancient kithara, as well as invented ones, the kumkumahr, shaped like something from Dr. Suess. “You always have to have some mystery, because otherwise it’s going to be carnet des voyages, otherwise it’s going to be travel sketches at best.”
Jerusalem has had a profound influence on Zhilinsky. “It made me forget all about St. Petersburg! The first time I walked around there I thought, ‘wow! This is real ancient history. This is 1001 Nights, this is Lawrence of Arabia, and here I am in a white suit!” His friends can’t understand why he left the sun swathed city for Toronto, a work addicted city of naked branches and slush, but he credits the move for finally getting the comic out. “Only here did I make something with a completion to it.”
With Rock Testament finished he posted on Facebook: “Would anyone like to proof read my book?” “Sure”, thought Whitchurch. They had first met at a Dr. Sketchy’s gallery show opening. They both had drawings in it. Dr. Sketchy’s is a burlesque model sketching group. Whitchurch, an accomplished caricaturist and illustrator herself, admired his drawings of Frenchie Fatale and Paralee Pearl. “I thought ‘who did this? I have to meet this person!’ It turned out to not be proof reading. I rewrote everything,” says Whitchurch.
She realized the writing needed a complete overhaul. “The language wasn’t as good as the art…the art was great and I love Eugene’s work which is why I agreed to proof read it in the first place, but when I actually read it I thought ‘whoa’, this is not proofreading. If you let me do it I can help you and he agreed. He for some reason trusted me.”
They went through the comic frame by frame. Over three sessions of two to three hours Whitchurch asked him to explain everything, and she would change it, usually on the spot. She spent another couple of hours alone editing the travel notes. “After the first session Eugene wrote to me and said ‘writer’s credit’. Which was very very very gracious, because I know that most people are very possessive about their work, understandably, but I think he was kind enough to know that what I was doing was more than editing”
The collaboration worked so well, they’re continuing to work together on a new story which will connect a series of Zhilinsky’s Toronto sketches. “Eugene asked if I would like to collaborate from the ground up on something and write, and I really like his work, so sure! Especially because this is going to be a Toronto based project, and I love Toronto.”
Their partnership is the type of chance connection David Ro would love. The character is based on a real friend of Zhilinsky’s by the same name. “He was a musician, and then he decided to teach people relaxing and move to India. And he was staying there a pretty long time. He was saying that he wouldn’t leave India, he was feeling pretty happy there, but once when he was sleeping in a jungle he woke up because elephants were looking at him…and that made him decide to come back.” Ro hasn’t seen the book. “Nobody knows where to find him and where.”
Zhilinsky describes David Ro as a common type in Jerusalem. Modern day profits are everywhere in the city he says. He calls it Jerusalem Syndrome. “When they come over they become crazy, they become prophets, they start to preach. I feel like it was always like that. The story about Christ is just a matter of success.”
David Ro’s message in Rock Testament is as slippery to grasp as the man in real life. Zhilinsky smiles, “you never know if he really believes what he’s talking about, but when you start to believe him he unexpectedly makes some sharp twists…and he’s gone.”
Rock Testament is available at The Beguiling and Another Story Bookshop. Website: editions-tchai.org/
Kimberley Whitchurch website: www.kimberleywhitchurch.com/
by Dalton Sharp