“This Decadent Western Thing”: Joanna Stingray on the Soviet Underground Rock Scene




JOANNA STINGRAY IS an American music producer, singer, actress, and writer famous for popularizing Russian rock-’n’-roll culture in the West. In 1984, she traveled as a tourist to Leningrad where she met with the preeminent underground musician Boris Grebenshchikov, the frontman of the band Aquarium, who introduced her to other key players in the Soviet rock scene. In 1986, Stingray produced Red Wave: 4 Underground Bands from the Soviet Union, a split double album that featured the bands Aquarium, Alisa, Kino, and Strannye Igry [Strange Games]. Released by the Los Angeles–based indie label Big Time Records, this was the first glimpse rock fans in the United States and Canada received of the Russian music underground. Stingray became a missionary of Russian rock, collaborating with musicians during her frequent trips to the USSR and promoting their art in the West. In Grebenshchikov’s words, she “took out not only the [Soviet rock musicians] recordings but the very message of [their] existence.”

In 2019, Joanna published a two-volume memoir in Russia: Stingray v strane chudes [Stingray in Wonderland] and Stingray v zazerkal’e [Stingray Through the Looking Glass]. In September of this year, an English-language version, titled Red Wave: An American in the Soviet Music Underground, was released by the L.A.-based DoppelHouse Press. Co-written with Joanna’s daughter, Madison Stingray, this memoir takes the reader on a sentimental journey through the Soviet underground rock scene of the 1980s, as seen through the eyes of a novice American rocker.

I met with Joanna in her house in the canyons of Beverly Hills, where we talked about her latest book, about Russian rockers who visited her in Los Angeles, and about the renewed interest in Viktor Tsoi’s signature song “We Are Awaiting Changes,” which recently spiked in the Republic of Belarus. 

Photos by Kanaplev + Leydik.

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SASHA RAZOR: In your book, you describe your trips to the Soviet Union from the mid-1980s to the 1990s. What did you think of Russia during your first visits?

JOANNA STINGRAY: I first went to Russia in April 1984. I was 23. At that time, I, like most average Americans, was afraid of the Soviet Union, of communism. I was afraid to go behind the Iron Curtain. My father made a documentary in the ’60s called The Truth About Communism. It was shown in high schools here, including my own high school, and it was all about this evil empire. So, yes, I was very fearful of that place. Of course, I was also excited because I was young, and when you’re young and you know that something is forbidden, you want to see why.

It was not easy to travel there in 1984. I went through London via “Intourist,” a Russian tour operator, where they had these one-week trips, staying half the time in Moscow and half the time in Leningrad. After three and a half days in Moscow, I thought, “Oh my gosh, my dad is right. The country is cold, the people look so unhappy, they are wearing dark blues and grays, and it looks like an awful place I’d never want to come back to.” When I got to Leningrad, I decided to call Boris Grebenshchikov. I had met a friend of his here in L.A. who said, “Oh, you’re a rock ’n’ roller going to the USSR, you have to meet the most famous underground rocker over there.” I could not believe there might be any rock in Russia, but I took my album cover of an EP and some of my promo shots and decided to meet him because I thought, “How cool would it be for him to meet an American rocker!” Little did I know that meeting Boris would change my entire life and who I am as a person.

So, you casually went on a tour of Russia in 1984 and then became the champion of the Soviet underground in the West and a prominent figure in the cultural diplomacy between the two countries. Were you aware of your role at the time, and did you do anything to archive and preserve your experience?

When I was in it and doing it, I didn’t realize how important it was, I didn’t see it as I see it now, from afar. I only know that, when I first heard one of Boris’s songs in my headphones (it was recorded on two-track compared to my own record done on 24-track), I realized how much more real his music was. It hit my soul right away. I didn’t understand the lyrics, I didn’t speak Russian. I was just listening to the sound of the music, the haunting sound of Boris’s voice, and the mixture of feelings in this one song — of sadness and hopefulness, of tragedy, but also of light — and that song changed my whole life. I became obsessed with this music culture and wanted to hear more.

And then Boris introduced me to other bands, and their music hit me in a very similar, dramatic way. I never thought of doing anything specific about it. I was doing it for myself, but I was transformed by it all. Each time I came back to the United States, I became almost like a missionary without even realizing it. With everybody I talked to, I would be telling them about these rockers, and everybody would laugh, saying, “There is no rock in Russia!” It was the same thought I had before I went. My sister went on many trips with me, and we started to take a lot of photos and videos. Then, after I did the Red Wave album, I knew I wanted to make music videos. Thank goodness I have all of that because without it I couldn’t have written the book. So, I would bring these photos and videos and show them, and that’s what made people go, “Oh my gosh!”

In your book, you also describe your unwanted interactions with the KGB and the FBI, and you even publish excerpts from your FBI file (the Russian KGB archives still remain closed). Can you talk about how you see the broader role of these institutions in influencing and shaping the process of rock music exchanges between the two countries?

I’ve learned a lot about the things I didn’t know at that time through writing my latest book. For example, what’s interesting about the KGB is that it was not always consistent. Some years, they didn’t like rock ’n’ roll, they thought it was a decadent thing from the West, and they wanted to squash it. Other years, they thought, “It’s not going to go away, so let’s just oversee it and let it happen.” In 1981, they opened the Leningrad Rock Club because they understood that rock music wouldn’t go away, and they thought it was smarter to be a part of it somehow. I came there in 1984, and that was one of the crackdown years. And of course, the first time I went to the Rock Club, I was arrested on my way out.

What I also learned about Russia overall by being there is that we, as Americans, were so afraid of this big evil empire that we thought everyone there was on the same page, and that it spoke with one voice. I learned very quickly that, similarly to the United States, the USSR was so big that it always had its disconnects. Many times, when things would happen to me, and I would get in trouble in Moscow, no one in Leningrad would know about it, and vice versa, because there was no communication! Then there was also a competition within the organization, between the Moscow and the Leningrad branches of the KGB, and even between the government and the KGB. You end up learning that some of the old guards in the government would just flip out about rock ’n’ roll as this decadent Western thing and demand to get rid of it, and then the KGB would fight back!

What about your personal encounters with the FBI?

Yes, I had to deal with all of that. And that’s another interesting lesson I learned from Russia during that time. I remember how baffling it was to realize that the KGB and the FBI acted as if they all have been trained at the same school. That’s what it seemed like to me! Their focus was so narrow that they did not grasp onto anything except these big red flags. I could just tell by the way they would finagle to meet with me and not come out and say, “We think you’re a spy, and we need to interview you.” Neither one would do it, and so instead it would be one of those circular conversations. They would ask me every possible question except for the one they wanted to know the answer to. I know it must have looked like a red flag: an American girl going in and out of Russia every three months. There is no bigger red flag, I get it! But when I was trying to explain it, even right before Red Wave came out, I couldn’t get through to them. It was just unbelievable how both the KGB and the FBI could not understand that. And it was also very frustrating because I was fearful of both. Either one could’ve stopped me from going to Russia, and it was my whole life.

You were and still are close to the preeminent Russian rock musicians of the era. You were married to Yuri Kasparyan of the band Kino, one of the greatest Russian guitar players. The frontman of Kino, Viktor Tsoi, after his tragic death in 1990, became the only cult music icon who is venerated by the younger generations. Tsoi was also a man of many talents: poet, musician, actor, and artist. You knew him closely. How did he define himself? Did he even think about these definitions?

I don’t think that Viktor ever consciously planned anything he did in life. It was all created very organically inside him and just came out of him. He was just a very creative person, he made art, and he made music and poetry. What made him and others in the underground so organically expressive was the fact that there were no boundaries, they didn’t owe anybody anything. There were no time limits or time frames, nothing like that, and so they could do exactly what they wanted to do. They were some of the freest artists I’ve ever met in my entire life.

I interviewed Viktor in 1988, right after he did Assa [an art-house film directed by Sergei Solovyov], and I asked him about his acting, whether he was planning to become an actor. And he said, “No, things just came into my life and became interesting. It was all in front of me, and I just did this.” So, he was presented with an opportunity, and he said okay to Assa, and then he said okay to The Needle [a cult thriller directed by Rashid Nugmanov]. The main reason he did The Needle is because the youth in Russia did not have their own homegrown superheroes who could defy gravity and be godlike. He said their heroes were people like Schwarzenegger and Bruce Lee. So, he thought that, if he were going to take part in a film, he might as well try to fill that gap.

Viktor became famous because of that specific time frame with glasnost. Everything changed after Assa. That last scene of only three or four minutes is so powerful that it changed everything in Viktor’s life. And just when you thought he could not get any higher than that, The Needle took him to an even higher level, because there he was acting in a film with a more controversial story that portrayed people who used drugs. Everything about The Needle touched the younger generation that was just so bored with the typical Russian films, and so that took him to an even more fantastical place.

The only performance in America by Kino with Viktor and Yuri took place in 1990 at the Sundance Film Festival, before the screening of The Needle. Do you remember the reception? What did people think about it?

Yes, I do remember that performance, and it was interesting because the audience had just finished watching The Needle. It was a room packed full of all the top Hollywood people, and they loved the movie. After the screening was over, and the lights didn’t turn on, they were all shocked because all they could hear was two people getting ready with their guitars. This was something the audience did not expect. Viktor and Yuri played the acoustics, the sound was not great, no one understood the lyrics, but the power of Viktor’s songs moved everyone. I remember being in that hall sitting with Rashid [director of The Needle] and Natasha, Viktor’s lover at the time, and we all saw how the crowd was cheering for Viktor and Yuri. Nobody in that room actually understood how big Viktor was in the Soviet Union, nobody knew how people lived by his words. Still, it was a great moment to see how the Hollywood audience embraced his music.

In your book, you also describe interesting connections between Russian rockers and Western artists. For example, you write about how David Bowie wanted to purchase your life story. You also mention how Sergey Kuryokhin went to Frank Zappa’s house in Laurel Canyon, and you discuss the two art exhibits by Russian artists you organized in Los Angeles and New York. Can you briefly talk about who came to visit you in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and how these visits were organized?

As you know, no one could just travel in and out of Russia then, not until 1988. When I was giving interviews for the Red Wave launch, both to the music press and to political journalists in the United States, it was such a bittersweet experience for me, because none of my artist friends could come here. The first time somebody came over, it was Afrika [the nickname of artist Sergei Bugayev], who was at my second art show at the Bergamot Station. And it was so nice that people could see one of the artists and feel his eclectic energy. It made them enjoy the art even more. Yuri Kasparyan was also here, and I remember that CNN was so excited to interview him. It was one thing to interview me to get my perspective as an American of what it was like in Russia, but it does not give you the full picture if you can’t interview the people themselves, so thank goodness they ended up coming. Of course, Boris Grebenshchikov was also here. He had a Western record deal. Out of all the musicians, he understood the West better than anybody else because his English was excellent. He wrote poetry in English and was a voracious reader.

Also, Sergey Kuryokhin was here, and so one day, I drove him to Frank Zappa’s house, where he spent the day, and I managed to get a polaroid photo of the two of them. They were similar kinds of artists, Sergei and Zappa. They both didn’t fit in the box. They had the sort of brains that must have been moving all the time, busy with one thing and then with another. And they made the kind of music and performances that nobody else would think of, putting things together like oil and water that should not go together. I was just so happy, because all these years I knew how important it was to make these Russian musicians known, and that they deserved to meet Bowie, to meet Zappa. They were their equals.

By the way, there was this one consistent thread to all of my visitors. Viktor, Boris, Sergey, Yuri, they all had this fascination with the Guitar Center and its rooms full of equipment. They could spend the whole day in this one room with hundreds of guitars on the wall. They did not have access to good equipment in the USSR. Being in the Guitar Center, where they literally had 200 guitars to choose from, that was “a kid in the candy store” kind of dream for all of them.

Many Cold War narratives in the West feature a great deal of objectification and exoticism. Your book is entirely different, and you seem to understand and genuinely fit into that time and place. What do you think enabled you to be so open to a foreign culture and develop this genuine connection?

I am just an ordinary person who ended up in an extraordinary place with extraordinary people, and, through that, I did something extraordinary. Everything that I did was because of the extraordinary people around me. I feel that everything fell into my lap, from the underground rock in Russia, to my own career, to doing a movie. For example, Sergey Kuryokhin, who had no tolerance for anything but excellence, brought me in, and he wrote songs with me and for me, and he brought me on stage with Pop-Mechanics. It was never me. You never asked Sergey anything. Sergey ran the world.

As to why, I don’t have an answer to this day. I didn’t have exceptional talent. I was an okay singer, I was an okay lyricist when I first came there, and I wasn’t a great musician. But all of them found something in me, as if they could look into my soul better than I myself could, and they saw some magic that I could not see. I don’t think it was because I was a Westerner. There is this quote by C. S. Lewis that I like: “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing.” And my book turned out the way it did because I was standing there. All I can say to what is going on in the world right now, here and in Russia, is for people to go stand somewhere else. It is important because you are going to see and hear something different. I was lucky to be standing in that place at that time.

You also discuss the process — or, rather, the spiritual act — of songwriting and describe how you worked with Boris Grebenshchikov and learned from him. Now, Viktor Tsoi’s song “We Are Awaiting Changes” has become the soundtrack of the Belarusian protests 34 years after it was written. Hundreds of thousands of people play this song in their cars, apartments, and on the streets. There is even a place in Minsk renamed as the Square of Changes, where spontaneous concerts occur daily. Do you have any insights into his creative process? How did he manage to write something so timeless, so complex, and so inspiring? Do you think Viktor would be happy knowing that people are using his music in the protests?

I know that Viktor did not write his songs for political reasons. For him, it was all about an inner search. In my last interview with him in 1988, I asked him about the lyrics of “Blood Type” [Gruppa krovi]. He did this interview in English, and he said to me, “It’s difficult to explain, even in Russian.” And he said, “People are trapped inside, everybody has different things, and I just want people to break out and try to do something you’re afraid of, to find something.” Because the most important part of freedom is the freedom of spirit. Other things do not matter that much, like what your government is, what restrictions you have, what horrible things surround you, you can still find a way. And this was the main thing about Boris’s lyrics and Viktor’s lyrics, the idea that you can find a way to find freedom within yourself, freedom of purpose, freedom in so many different ways.

But sometimes songs take on a life of their own. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev quoted “We Are Awaiting Changes,” and it is now a part of the history exhibit at the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg, which I saw when I visited a year ago. This song became so much bigger than what Viktor was writing about. And that’s okay. That’s what real poetry does, what real art does. So, it’s not a political message, but that being said, if his song motivates people in Belarus, I think he would be happy because they are standing up for themselves, and it’s helping them to go out and stand up for something they believe in. So, in that sense, I think he would be proud. Viktor died at the pinnacle of his fame, and when he died, he still had this pure energy, a pure essence for people to connect to. There’s nothing I love more than just hearing Viktor’s songs everywhere, all around the world, from Moldova to South Korea to Belarus. I love it because it keeps him alive.

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Sasha Razor holds a PhD in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures from UCLA. Her dissertation focused on the screenplays of Russian prose authors in the 1920s and 1930s.

 

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