Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Russia’s most beloved rock & roll star. When Viktor Tsoi died in a 1990 car crash, it was, to a young person in the Soviet Union, as if Bob Dylan, James Dean and Muhammad Ali all died simultaneously. Yuliya Abasheva was born in Russia the year of Tsoi’s death. Even so, she, like thousands of other Russians who weren’t alive during his career, became a lifelong Viktor Tsoi fan. She explains why for PKM readers.

Viktor Tsoi
(1962-1990)

The 1980’s were the high point of Russian rock & roll and punk rock. Many successful bands regularly performed on the punk scene during the late Soviet era.  Some are still together, producing fine albums and playing concerts in sold-out venues throughout Russia.  Alice, DDT, Aquarium, and Picnic are known everywhere and are still eagerly listened to. But, none of these bands can touch the fanaticm and love that was given to the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) band Kino (Cinema) in its heyday. Kino, by necessity, disbanded in 1990 when its front man, songwriter and singer, Victor Tsoi, died at age 28 in a car crash, a tragedy from which many fans have still not fully recovered.

Viktor Tsoi

Because Tsoi died the year I was born, I was not able to attend any of his concerts.  However, this did not prevent me or any of my peers from becoming devoted fans of his work. I remember clearly the moment I first became acquainted with the music of Kino. I was 9 years old.  My cousin, Olya, came to visit us from Belarus. She brought with her a tape player and a number of cassettes and played them all for me.  They were recordings of various rock groups; many of which I liked. However, from the moment I heard Tsoi sing, I was thrilled to the core of my being.  I literally fell in love with his music, and I immediately realized that I didn’t want to listen to any music but Kino.  This feeling has stayed with me for more than twenty years.


Tsoi was and remains a symbol of the era of perestroika in the USSR, the voice of the young generation, desperately wanting and waiting for change.


The first Kino album I bought, entitled Chyorny (known to fans as The Black Album), was the last album the band produced, released posthumously in December 1990.  It contained a number of great songs, but the one that became my favorite was “Hам с тобой” (“For You and Me”).  From the opening of the bass rhythm with the guitar accompanying Tsoi’s vocals, the song captivated me.  I played it over and over.  The video of the song below shows scenes from the movie, Needle.  We will discuss this film later.  (Check out the Russian payphone.  Thank God for cell phones.)

Hам с тобой (For You and Me)

 

I can’t tell which is the face and which is the mask / And I can’t tell which is the carrot and which the whip./ You cannot leave your pitchfork in the hay / And all the fish swim through the net / You can’t tell the sea from the land. / Or what is copper and what is gold / What you should build, what destroy / And I want to know why am I singing here and who am I singing for?

You and I, under the clear blue sky /For you and me, the forest becomes a blank wall / I am with you: we won’t drink from wells into which people spit / This is the plan for you and me

Here, the stones are like soap / And steel like tin / Strength becomes weakness / Truth is all flattery / And, it is not clear which is the leather and which is the awl / Nor is it clear which is the insult, and which the comeback / And I do not like what happens here. / No, I don’t like what’s going on around here.

You and I, under the clear blue sky /For you and me, the forest becomes a blank wall / I am with you: we won’t drink from wells into which people spit / This is the plan for you and meYou and I, under the clear blue sky

You and I have the black night and waters of the river / Our troubles will not trouble us anymore / Leave now, I am sorry and farewell / This is the plan for you and me.

####

Kino

In my passion for Tsoi’s music, I did the same thing other teenagers of my time did: I collected his albums on audio tape, bought T-shirts with his image on the front, and, in order to find out a  more about him (in those pre-Internet days), I searched for articles in any magazine I could lay my hands on. And of course, I learned to play his songs on the guitar.  These habits are still quite common in Russia even today.  Almost everyone who learns to play the guitar in Russia begins with the songs of Victor Tsoi.

So what is the source of Viktor Tsoi’s popularity? He was already a star during his lifetime, but his reputation has continued to grow continuously over the thirty years since his death.  Today, he is still the most beloved musician in Russia.


Almost everyone who learns to play the guitar in Russia begins with the songs of Victor Tsoi.


He was born on June 21, 1962, to a simple family in Leningrad (now, and once again, St. Petersburg).  His parents were not rich – his father worked as an engineer, his mother taught physical education in an elementary school.  As a young child, Victor demonstrated an advanced talent for drawing, so his mother enrolled him in art school.  It was there that he first developed an interest in rock music.  He received his first acoustic guitar as a gift from his parents.  While still in his teens, he formed his first rock band, Chamber No. 6, which lasted about five years.

Kino came together as a group in 1982.  By that time, Viktor was already friendly with the most famous Leningrad rock musician, Boris Grebenshchikov, leader of the band Aquarium.  BG, as he is known throughout Russia, was very impressed with the songs Tsoi had written, and helped him considerably.  At the time Tsoi was recording his first album, 45, he and Aleksey Rybin were the only members of Kino.  BG arranged for other musicians from his band Aquarium to help in recording the songs.  Later, Rybin left the group and Yuri Kasparyan came on to play lead guitar.  They were joined by Igor Tikhomirov on bass, and Georgiy Guryanov on drums.   Georgiy had a unique drumming style: he only played standing up.      Kino’s debut album, 45–produced by BG–was a huge success, and was quickly followed by three more albums: 46, Chief of Kamchatka, and This is Not Love.

Tsoi and bandmate Aleksey Rybin during the recording of the album 45

Despite his band’s success and his own personal growing popularity, Tsoi remained a simple person. In those days of the Soviet Union, musicians did not receive money from the sale of concert tickets or their recordings, so almost all of them were forced to work at other jobs.  Tsoi worked as a fireman in the boiler room in an apartment building. It was his job to shovel coal into the furnace to keep the place warm. The owners of the building were also generous to other rock musicians, including Alexander Bashlachev, a talented singer/songwriter who committed suicide at the age of 27.

After Tsoi’s death, the basement where he spent the winters shoveling coal became a club known as Kamchatka. It is still in business, located in the basement of the same residential building on Blokhin Street in St. Petersburg.  Today, it is something of a cross between a club and a museum. Concerts are regularly held here with various groups performing Tsoi’s songs, and Tsoi’s guitar and paintings he did are permanently on display.

I love to come here simply to relax and bask in the atmosphere of a place overflowing with history; to listen to the music, to look at the exhibits.  For me, as well as for many other fans of his work, Kamchatka is filled with memories of Tsoi and warmed by the congeniality of his admirers.  Here like-minded people can gather, united by their love of Victor Tsoi’s music.

The Kamchatka Club/Museum from the Outside

The Inside of the Kamchatka Showing the boiler into which Tsoi shoveled coal.

Perhaps the most significant event in Russian rock & roll history occurred in 1986 with the release of the album Red Wave in the U.S.  This two-record album devoted one side each to what were then the four most prominent rock bands in the USSR: Kino, Aquarium, Alice and Strange Games.  It was the first recording to introduce Russian rock & roll to the West.  The initiator and producer of the album was an American, Joanna Stingray, who, at that time, knew more about Russian rock & roll than anyone outside the USSR.  Stingray repeatedly visited the Soviet Union where she made friends with many rock musicians, including Tsoi and BG.  She exported the tapes of the bands that were used on Red Wave illegally from the USSR to America.  The release of this album opened a whole new set of horizons for Soviet musicians.  They got the opportunity to collaborate with Western rock bands, give concerts and release albums abroad.  Grebenshchikov (BG) worked with members of The Band on his album Lilith and with Annie Lennox.  He even appeared on David Letterman’s show.  A little while later, Joanna Stingray married Kino’s lead guitarist, Yuri Kasparyan.  In early 1990, Tsoi would visit the United States, for the only time, with Stingray and Kasparyan.

The album cover for Red Wave

 Besides producing four albums in the Red Wave series, Joanna wrote a book in Russian called Stingray in Wonderland.  It deals with her life in Russian rock & roll and with Tsoi, Kasparyan and BG.

Viktor Tsoi, Joanna Stingray and Yuri Kasparyan

In 1987, Tsoi got his first sceen role in Assa, a 1987 Soviet cult film directed by Sergei Solovyov.  He appears at the end of the film playing a rock musician who is trying to get a gig replacing a friend of his who hurt his hand in an accident (in other words, he is playing himself).  He and his friend go to the office of the club manager who reads them the regulations explaining what steps they need to follow for Tsoi to get the job.  Tsoi and his friend simply walk out of the room, go to the restaurant and Tsoi begins singing this song.  As the song plays, the final credits roll.

Film Poster for Assa

Change!

Instead of heat – green glass. / Instead of fire – smoke / Another day ripped from the grind of the calendar / The red sun completely burned out /The day burns out with it / A shadow falls on the flaming city. /

Our hearts demand change / Our eyes demand change / In our laughter and in our tears / In the pulsing blood in our veins / We are waiting for Change!

Electric lights continue our day / And the matchbox is empty / But in the kitchen, the gas burns like a blue flower / Cigarette in hand, tea on the table, a common scene / There is nothing more, everything is in us

Our hearts demand change / Our eyes demand change / In our laughter and in our tears / In the pulsing blood in our veins / We are waiting for Change!

We cannot boast of the wisdom of our eyes / And the way we move our hands / We do not need all this for one friend to understand another / Cigarette in hand, tea on the table, so the circle closes / And suddenly it frightens us to change anything

Our hearts demand change / Our eyes demand change / In our laughter and in our tears / In the pulsing blood in our veins / We are waiting for Change!


There are always fresh flowers lying on Tsoi’s grave at the Theological Cemetery in St. Petersburg.


It was Tsoi’s next appearance in a movie that caused the biggest surge in Kino’s popularity.  This was the film Needle, directed by Rashid Nugmanov.  It dealt with the subject of illegal drugs; a topic previously prohibited by Soviet censorship.  Tsoi played the leading role.  At the request of the director, he behaved as naturally as possible; as if he were playing himself.  The film became a cult classic in Russia.  For his role in the film, Tsoi was named the best actor of the year in a poll conducted by the newsreel company “Soviet Screen.”  (Yes, we Russians still had newsreels then.)  The soundtrack to the film included the song “A Star by the Name of the Sun,” which Tsoi wrote during the filming.  To this day, it remains his most popular song, and one of my personal favorites.

Movie poster for The Needle

“The Star Named the Sun”-Kino:

Zvezda po imeni “Solntse” (A Star By the Name of the Sun)

White snow, gray ice / On the cracked ground. / Patchwork quilt on top of it / The city surrounded by a circle of road. /

Clouds float over the city / Cutting off the heavenly light. / Over the city hangs yellow smoke. / A city two thousand years old /Living under the light of a star / By the name of the Sun.

And two thousand years of war, / Wars for no special reason. / War is the work of the young / Its cure for wrinkles.

Red-red blood – / In one hour, it’s absorbed into the earth / In two, flowers and grass begin to grow, / In three, she’s alive again / And warmed by the rays of a star / By the name of the Sun.

And we know that it will always be so, / The fate loves the people /Who live by other laws / And those who are doomed to die young.

He does not know the words “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.” / He remembers neither ranks nor names / Yet is able to reach for the stars / Not knowing that this is a dream. / And he will fall, singed by a star / With the name of the Sun.

The song as it appears in the closing credits of the film The Needle:

Kino performed its last concert at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 24, 1990.  Seventy thousand people attended.  A month and a half later, Viktor Tsoi was killed in a car crash, coming home from a fishing trip to Latvia. He died at the peak of his talent, leaving the lasting legacy of his songs.

This is my favorite song from that last concert.  Sorry, no subtitles, “Стук” (“Knock”)

Strands of wire, the current in my hands / The telephone says in all its voices / Bye, your time’s expired / And the coat on the nail, the scarf on the sleeve / And the gloves in the pocket whisper / “It can wait until the morning,” until morning…

But a strange sound knocks and bids me: “Get on the road.” /Maybe it’s my the beating of my heart, maybe a knock on the door /And when I turn around on the doorstep, / I will say only one word: “Believe.”

Again, I will go to the station, again I will board the train. /Again the attendants will hand out napkins and tea. / Again, I will not sleep over the groaning of the wheels / In my mind, I hear the word, “Farewell.”

But a strange sound calls: “On the Road.” / Maybe it’s my the beating of my heart, maybe a knock on the door / And when I turn around on the doorstep, / I will say only one word: “Believe.”

####

Viktor Tsoi Mourning wall

Soon after Tsoi died, a strange thing happened in Moscow: a blank plywood wall on a back street of the city was suddenly covered by pictures of Tsoi and the lyrics of his songs.  It became a living memorial to Russia’s most popular rock star.  It still exists.  People come from all over the country, some from abroad, to write on the Wall, post pictures or letters, leave flowers.  Every year, on August 15, the anniversary of his death, people gather and there is an impromptu concert of his works; nothing is planned.  It all happens spontaneously.  People of all ages come, from children to grandparents.  As you will see in the video, the first performer is a young girl; not much older than I was when I first heard Tsoi’s music.

Last year, my sister’s boyfriend, Damir Mukhamedzhanov (a production editor at a Moscow TV station), went there and filmed the tribute.  An unedited version of that video is shown HERE

There are always fresh flowers lying on Tsoi’s grave at the Theological Cemetery in St. Petersburg.  They are brought by loyal fans; sometimes by me.  I come here not just to honor his memory, but to stand and think about my own life; its joys and sorrows, all of which are connected, in one way or another, to his songs; songs of despair and hope and love. It is almost impossible to be alone when you come to this place.  The stream of visitors to Tsoi’s grave seems inexhaustible despite the fact that thirty years have passed since his death.

Tsoi’s grave in St. Petersburg

I will now try to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this article: “How do you explain such popularity?”  It seems to me that answer can be found in the words of Viktor Tsoi himself. In a 1987 interview, he said the following: “Almost everything can be forgiven to those who are honest.  Say, for example, if we [Kino] play our music in an unprofessional manner, or sing our songs in an unprofessional way – and we have made countless mistakes of this kind – our fans will overlook this, but, if we do not try our best to be honest our fans will never forgive us.”  I think that’s the whole point. The songs of Tsoi are honest songs, and the honesty inherent in them is what most appeals to the listener.  When I encountered Tsoi’s music, I was a nine-year-old child. The meaning of his texts was not always clear to me.  Understanding came later – therefore, the love that arose for his work at such an early age can be explained by my intuitive instinct, which told me that what I was listening to was real, sincere, honest.

As a final song, I will leave you with one of the rare songs Tsoi sang in English, “Blood Types” (“Gruppa Krovi”):

Blood Types

by Viktor Tsoi

It’s such a warm place,
But there on the street,
Where our footprints are waited for,
Stardusted boots
Sparkle and shine.
Here are the shepherds and upholstered chair,
Dazzling dreams below the bright sun, orb,
The trigger untouched
When it was the right time.

My blood type mark is on the sleeve,
There’s my ordinal number marked on the sleeve,
Wish me now some luck in the fight,
Sayin’ now, sayin’!
I won’t stay in this field of green,
I won’t stay in this field of green,
Wish me now to be lucky,
Sayin’ now, sayin’!
… Be lucky!

I am able to pay, but I never want
A triumph at any price,
I never want
Someone’s chest lying under my foot.
I would rather stay here with you,
Just to stay here with you,
But the star which is high in the skies
Still gives me the route.

My blood type mark is on the sleeve,
There’s my ordinal number marked on the sleeve,
Wish me now to be lucky,
Sayin’ now, sayin’!
… Be lucky!

Tsoi was and remains a symbol of the era of perestroika in the USSR, the voice of the young generation, desperately wanting and waiting for change. He and Kino personified freedom and a departure from the gray Soviet reality and its innumerable prohibitions, thereby leaving its mark not only in the history of Soviet rock, but also on the history of Russia.

http://www.pleasekillme.com

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