Monday, July 16, 2012

Notes from the Underground: Vladimir Vissotski

Vladimir Vissotski

This album opens with the intensity of a Soviet border guard screaming at you because you’ve not got the right signature on the right page of your passport.  Indeed, if it were possible to bottle intensity the label would read, Vladimir Vissotski.  Russia’s peerless underground, tortured soul, Vladimir Vissotski was adored by millions of his countrymen and women for his artistic integrity and raw but empathetic lyrics. The same qualities saw him ignored and hounded by the State Art Establishment. In his powerful vocal rasp he held the repressed frustrations, secret joys and anxious hopes of countless Soviet citizens.

Born into a difficult period of history-- his country was at war, so were his parents—he knew life on the edge from an early age. The dramatic was his natural way; he stood on chairs and made precious announcements and recitations for adults from the age of 3.  Smart as a whistle too. Vladimir earned straight A’s in school and after graduation moved immediately toward the stage.  His acting ability was instantly recognised and by the late 50’s/early 60’s he was getting regular roles in film and in the theatre. They were regular but not very serious or weighty and in 1963 he managed to make a homemade tape of some his songs.  They were so authentic as to cause commentators to claim they were ‘traditional anonymous folk’. The tape, and subsequent ones, became what we would consider today, ‘cult’ hits. They were passed, like Khomeini’s sermons, from hand to hand all across the Soviet Union. 

The songs told tales of criminals, the broken spirits of those in the gulags, sailors and society’s misfits. Very often they poked fun at the government and elites and included wry and social comment.  Official Communist media spurned him as ‘anti-Soviet scum’ and refused to make a recording of his songs, though he was by far the best-loved and most listened to singer in the USSR. He continued to sing wherever he was welcome, whether in someone’s flat, or in a factory.  And he kept on acting. Many of his performances are still considered some of the best in modern Russian cinema and theatre.  He also toured extensively across the Soviet Union, finding an especially warm reception in Central Asia where the authorities lauded him and gave him an award. Finding it impossible to ignore him, the State record label, Melodiya, finally issued one record of his songs in the mid-1970s but did nothing to promote him. 

Around the same time he was getting attention from fans in Europe and even the USA where he toured in the mid and late 1970s. Though he had no official ‘permission’ for many of these tours, the Soviet authorities did not pursue him, and Vissotski for his part refused to be labelled a dissident.  In one French interview he declared himself to be "not a dissident, just an artist", who's never had any intentions to leave his country where people loved him and his songs.  It is said that Breshnev himself, used to listen to Vissotski’s music, which probably saved the singer’s skin more than once.

His rough and tumble life and living constantly in the shadows at home meant he had repeated fallings-out with theatre and film directors. He drank heavily and by the late 70s was being kept in a prescription-drug fog by an avaricious circle of hangers-on and Drs. Feelgood.  While on tour in Uzbekistan in 1979 he collapsed and was declared clinically dead but recovered and went on to perform sporadically until he finally succumbed to the big sleep in 1980 at the age of 42.  His friends and family refused an autopsy, fearful of being indicted for criminally procuring and administering drugs.

Vissotski sings in a grand Russian style with an aggressive baritone but one that is agile enough to take the voice of a whole cast of characters. His songs are often conversations between people  and full of wry humor.  There is a latent Slavic cynicism in many of them.  Sometimes referred to as Russia’s Bob Dylan, his impact is probably even more impressive than his American colleague.  Not only popular song, but theatre and cinema not to mention popular culture have all been shaped by Vladimir Vissotski.

Track Listing:
01 The Monument
02 Meet The Bride
03 Dialogue In Front Of The TV Set
04 Comrade Scientists
05 A Long Drawn Out Jump
06 Skull And Crossbones
07 Of The Sea
08 Two Scruffy Ships
09 Evening Storm
10 Chances
11 I Walked Out Of A Fine Deal
12 The Ballad Of The Short Neck
13 Condemned To Life
14 A Soldier's Song
15 Chastushki (4-Verse Limericks)
16 The Chess Crown Contest_ 1. Training
17 The Chess Crown Contest_ 2. The Match
18 Who's Racing After What
19 The Ballad Of The Departure For Paradise
20 And The Candles Are Melting


iggy said...

You have given me yet another chance to meet a legend of whom I have never even heard. Thank you so much.


ajnabi said...

Hi Iggy, Thanks for stopping by! And for leaving a record of your visit. I hope you enjoy them! Vlad may take some getting used to but ifyou put your mind in the right frame its great.