“Where then is our true star? Maybe here, maybe there.” – from ‘To the Cold’ (1965)
Amongst listeners within Russia and countries formerly in the Soviet sphere of influence Vladimir Vysotsky needs no introduction. His immense catalogue of songs, and the distinctive manner in which he delivered them, made him one of the most important cultural figures of his time. Poets such as Yevtushenko, Akhmatova, and Brodsky respected his work, while Soviet-era citizens would eagerly listen to each new recording as it became available, or spend evenings revisiting old favourites. Internet-based videos and playlists may have replaced the home-made discs and cassettes on which his work first found its listeners, but his distinctive voice resonates among those who recall him first-hand, those who have grown up surrounded by his songs, and those who find him through the recommendations of others or through their own curiosity.
The Soviet state took the cultural lives of its citizens very seriously, but Vysotsky’s immense popularity in his lifetime had nothing to do with any official approval. In content and in delivery his songs were far removed from the state-sanctioned idea of musical culture. They owed much more to a tradition of folk storytelling and social observation, in which profound truths were passed on through a character’s experience, sometimes with wry humour or keen irony. In ‘A City Romance’ or ‘A Ballad about Guns’ he is a small-time criminal regarding the ‘respectable’ world from the outside with ironic detachment. Elsewhere, in one of his most famous pieces, ‘The Wolf Hunt’ he assumes the voice of a wolf that, just this once, evades the hunters. “Today is not like yesterday,” he sings, celebrating this victory over those who “joyfully chase down their prey” and must, for once at least, see their prize get away from them.
It is partly on account of this scope that the listener has to locate themselves within the world of the song that they are often invoked as reference points by individuals processing their own thoughts and actions through the lyrics. Thus, in Peter Morgan’s new play Patriots (running at London’s Almeida Theatre until 20th August) the relationship between the television station owner Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Putin is framed by Vysotsky’s music, most notably in the poignant use of ‘Song About a Friend’ late in the story as Berezovsky comes to realise the nature of the man he has helped to usher into power.
An accomplished actor as well as a musician, Vysotsky wrote within a range of different personae, using song as a way of telling stories about other people’s lives. In keeping with the diversity of characters, his lyrics are often rich in vernacular language, and this has sometimes been considered an obstacle for translators as they look to make these texts, with their blending of the literary and the everyday, accessible for those whose cultural reference points are removed from the immediate world that Vysotsky’s characters inhabit.
Now, forty-two years after his death, aged just 42, a selection of Vysotsky’s lyrics is available in English. Thanks are due here to John Farndon and Olga Nakston, whose bi-lingual collection is published by Glagoslav (ISBN: 9781914 337635). Readers will find here Vysotsky’s most celebrated pieces – from ‘Song About a Friend’ and ‘Stubborn Horses’ to ‘I Don’t Like’ and ‘The Wolf Hunt’, along with works of dark humour like ‘A Song About Rumours’ or ‘From Moscow to Odessa’. I met up with John to discuss the project, and why Vysotsky’s work matters as much in the present moment as it has ever done.
Peter Lowe: For so influential a figure, it’s surprising that this is the first English language edition of Vysotsky’s work. How did you decide on which songs to include, and what aspects of his writing to showcase?
John Farndon: He’s such a colossal figure in Russian culture that it was surprising to find how little of his work was really accessible in English. There have been some translations of individual songs, but nothing co-ordinated that could give English readers a survey his work. That’s where the project began. Vysotsky’s catalogue includes around six hundred songs, so settling on a final selection was always going to be a challenge. A wide range of people were asked for their input, and the team at Glagoslav was polled as well. From this, we ended up with around a hundred titles, and I then tried to compile a representative list that would bring together the range of Vysotsky’s song-writing, from his ‘outlaw’ songs, to the more comic ones and, of course, the famous titles that are most associated with him in people’s minds.
Peter Lowe: And to do all this in such a way that those new to Vysotsky could feel they understood his work.
John Farndon: One of the challenges with Vysotsky’s writing is that he says things that a Russian audience would understand at once but that those outside of the culture may need to have explained to them. This is sometimes a question of particular words and phrases, and sometimes on account of events, characters, situations. We wanted to have lyrics that worked without an excess of explanation or clarification. And the translations also had to be accurate whilst also continuing to work as song lyrics. Vysotsky once referred to his works as ‘poems on a rhythmical base’, and it was important for the translations to respect that.
Nearly all of Vysotsky’s songs are ‘in character’, where he’s singing as someone. Very few are overtly personal, but the thing is that he inhabits each character so completely as to be utterly convincing in what he says. And as a result these are not so much song lyrics as mini-plays. That’s why the music is often quite ‘plain’ so as to focus the listener on what is being related as swiftly as possible. We’ve included the music for some of the songs in the book so that people can see that for themselves.
Peter Lowe: As a renowned actor he has a great sense of ‘performing’ each song. It’s fascinating that he was famous for playing the role of Hamlet (in Boris Pasternak’s translation) on stage and wrote a song ‘My Hamlet’ (1972) about the character and his situation.
John Farndon: And every performance of a song was a variation on the others. The lyrics were constant, but songs were frequently performed in different ways. As a result of this, there is no ‘definitive’ version of a Vysotsky song, because each rendition was its own moment, was special. That’s why he was always keen for other people to perform his songs, as long as they didn’t imitate him in doing so. He wanted each version to be its own.
Peter Lowe: He was never an ‘official’ artist in the Soviet system, so all of his work is, in a way, bootlegged rather than recorded professionally. The emphasis was on seeing and hearing him play live, wherever one could, and the tapes that people made at these concerts became sought-after reminders of what he had sung.
John Farndon: His concerts were always arranged to try and evade the restrictions the authorities would put in place. He would turn up in a town and play concerts promoted by word of mouth, before the authorities had noticed what was going on and had a chance to put a stop to it. People would record these and then share the bootlegs as tapes or sometimes as home-made discs. Even listening to the recordings afterwards had a social aspect, as people would often invite others over and play the tapes in their apartments with the windows open so they could be heard by those below.
Peter Lowe: It’s a very different concept of the singer / songwriter than you find in the West at this time. It must have been difficult for the Soviet state to know quite how to handle him.
John Farndon: He was something a genie in a bottle as far as the authorities were concerned. They didn’t want to crack down on him as his songs were not obviously subversive in nature. Suppressing him would have made him a cause célèbre, so he was, perhaps, cautiously tolerated. He was never ‘official’, so his songs were never conforming to the taste or goals of the state. Instead, they resonated with those looking for a different sense of self than was offered by the system in the 1960s and 70s. And they shaped much of the mentality that eventually found its expression in the reforms of the Gorbachev years. He was also highly influential amongst those living in the Soviet Union’s satellite states, for whom his sense of being an outsider really resonated.
Peter Lowe: In this current, difficult moment, what can Vysotsky’s words contribute to our understanding of Russia and its culture?
John Farndon: Now is not an easy time to be thinking about Russian culture, but Vysotsky’s voice is still necessary. His words and phrases are part of the Russian language, even if he is, himself, not as well-known amongst the Russian populace today as he once was. Those who remember him, though, see him as a beacon, as someone who ‘saw us through dark times.’ And that’s a very important thing for us to remember today.
Peter Lowe: Thank you.
Ironically, for an artist whose work circulated on home-made records and bootlegged tapes, the internet has become a fascinating, if often random, archive of Vysotsky’s work through which the interested listener can wander from one recording to the next. If the lack of an accessible English language starting point was once an obstacle, though, this new book gives all of us a helping hand. Reading this collection of lyrics has certainly introduced me to one of Russia’s most distinctive voices and the work of a man whose songs still mean so much to so many people. With his sympathy for the contradictions and the shortcomings of human nature, Vysotsky is a reminder that the best Russian culture is so often found on the margins, positioning itself at an angle to the orthodoxies required by those in power. He deserves to be much better known and appreciated amongst English readers and listeners than he is, and this selection of his work is a great place to start.