Vladimir Vysotsky

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Vladimir Vysotsky
Vladimir Vysotsky, 1972.
Vladimir Vysotsky, 1972.
Background information
Born January 25, 1938(1938-01-25)
Origin Moscow, Soviet Union
Died July 25, 1980
Moscow, Soviet Union
Genre(s) Bard
Occupation(s) Singer, bard, songwriter, actor
Instrument(s) Vocals, guitar
Years active 1959-1980

Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotsky (Russian: Влади́мир Семёнович Высо́цкий, Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotskyj) (January 25, 1938July 25, 1980) was an iconic Russian singer, songwriter, poet, and actor of mixed Jewish and Russian descent whose career had an immense and enduring effect on Russian culture. The multifaceted talent of Vladimir Vysotsky is often described by the word "bard" (бард), which acquired a special meaning in the Soviet Union. Vysotsky was never enthusiastic about this term, however. He thought of himself mainly as an actor and writer, and once remarked, "I do not belong to what people call bards or minstrels or whatever." Though his work was largely ignored by the official Soviet cultural establishment, he achieved remarkable fame during his lifetime, and to this day exerts significant influence on many of Russia's popular musicians and actors who wish to emulate his iconic status.


[edit] Biography

A Russian stamp honoring Vladimir Vysotsky, 1999

[edit] Early years

Vladimir Vysotsky was born in Moscow. His father was a Jewish career army officer (Colonel). His mother was a Russian German language translator. His parents divorced shortly after his birth, and he was brought up by his father and stepmother of Armenian descent, whom he called "Aunt" Yevgenia.[1] He spent two years of his childhood living with his father and stepmother at a military base in Eberswalde in the Soviet-occupied section of post-WWII Germany (later GDR).

[edit] Professional Life

In 1955, Vladimir enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Civil Engineering, but dropped out after just one semester to pursue an acting career. In 1959, he started acting at the Aleksandr Pushkin Theatre where he had mostly small parts.

In 1964, director Yuri Lyubimov, who was to become Vysotsky's close friend and mentor, invited him to join the popular Moscow Theatre of Drama and Comedy on the Taganka. There, Vysotsky made headlines with his leading roles in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Brecht's Life of Galileo. The Taganka Theatre company was subject to frequent state persecution for its presumptive ethnic impurity and political disloyalty, which inspired Vysotsky to identify himself as a “dirty Yid” (жид пархатый) in interviews. Around the same time, he also appeared in several films, which featured a few of his songs, e.g., Vertikal ("The Vertical"), a film about mountain climbing. Most of Vysotsky's work from that period, however, did not get official recognition and thus no contracts from Melodiya, the monopolist of the Soviet recording industry. Nevertheless, his popularity continued to grow, as, with the advent of portable tape-recorders in the Soviet Union, his music became available to the masses in the form of home-made reel-to-reel audio tape recordings, and later on cassette tapes. He became known for his unique singing style and for his lyrics, which featured social and political commentary in often humorous street jargon. His lyrics resonated with millions of Soviet people in every corner of the country; his songs were sung at house parties and amateur concerts.

[edit] Marriages

Marina Vlady and Valdimir Vysotskiy

Vysotsky's first wife was Iza Zhukova. He met his second wife, Ludmilla Abramova, in 1961. They were married in 1965 and had two sons, Arkady and Nikita.

While still married to Ludmilla Abramova, Vysotsky acquired a mistress, Tatyana Ivanenko, and then, in 1967 fell in love with Marina Vlady, a French actress of Russian descent, who was working at Mosfilm on a joint Soviet-French production at that time. Marina had been married before and had 3 children, while Vladimir had two. Fueled by Marina's exotic status as a Frenchwoman in the Soviet Union, and Vladimir's unmatched popularity in his country, their love was passionate and impulsive. They were married in 1969. For 10 years the two maintained a long-distance relationship as Marina compromised her career in France in order to spend more time in Moscow, and Vladimir's friends pulled strings in order for him to be allowed to travel abroad to stay with his wife. Marina eventually joined the Communist Party of France, which essentially gave her an unlimited-entry visa into the Soviet Union, and provided Vladimir with some immunity against prosecution by the government, which was becoming weary of his covertly anti-Soviet lyrics and his odds-defying popularity with the masses. The problems of his long-distance relationship with Vlady inspired several of Vysotsky's songs.

[edit] Later Years

By the mid-1970s, Vysotsky had been suffering from alcoholism for quite some time. Many of his songs from the period deal – either directly or metaphorically – with alcoholism, insanity, mania, and obsessions. This was also the height of his popularity, when, as described in Vlady's book about her husband, walking down the street on a summer night, one could hear Vystotsky's recognizable voice coming literally from every open window. Unable to completely ignore his musical phenomenon, Melodiya did release a few of his songs on vinyl in the late 1970s, which represented only a small portion of his creative work, which millions already owned on tape and knew by heart.

At the same time, Vysotsky gained official recognition as a theater and film actor. He starred in a hugely popular TV series The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed about two cops fighting crime in late 1940s Stalinist Russia. In spite of his successful acting career, Vysotsky continued to make a living with his concert tours across the country, often on a compulsive binge-like schedule, which towards the end of his life was needed to maintain his growing dependence on narcotics - first amphetamines, then opiates. These contributed to the deterioration of his health, and he died in Moscow at the age of 42 of heart failure.

[edit] Death

Vysotsky's grave

Vysotsky's body was laid out at the Taganka Theatre, where the funeral service was held. He was later buried at the Vagankovskoye Cemetery in Moscow. Thousands of Moscow citizens left the stadiums (as it was the time of the Olympics) to attend the funeral. Although no official figure was released, it was later estimated that over one million people attended Vysotsky's funeral,[2] almost as many as that of Pope John Paul II in 2005. The Soviet authorities, taken aback by the unexpected impact on the masses of the death of an underground singer, ordered troops into Moscow to prevent possible riots. Vysotsky was posthumously awarded the title Meritorious Artist of Soviet Union.

[edit] Legacy

In years to come, Vysotsky's flower-adorned grave became a site of pilgrimage for several generations of his fans, the youngest of whom were born after his death. His tombstone also became the subject of controversy, as his widow had wished for a simple abstract slab, while his parents insisted on a realistic gilded statue. Although probably too serious to have inspired Vysotsky himself, the statue is believed by some to be full of metaphors and symbols reminiscent of the singer's life. One of the most obvious symbols is the angel-like wings that wrap the statue's body. The angel wings are supposed to symbolize Vysotsky's importance to all oppressed peoples; they are wrapped around his body to represent the fact that he was never allowed to fully spread his talent and flourish during his lifetime due to the oppressive regime. Another symbol is the two horse heads, which might refer to his landmark song "Koni Priveredliviye".

Shortly after Vysotsky's death, many Russian bards wrote songs and poems about his life and death. The best known are Yuri Vizbor's "Letter to Vysotsky" (1982) and Bulat Okudzhava's "About Volodya Vysotsky" (1980).

Every year on Vysotsky's birthday, festivals are held throughout Russia and in many communities throughout the world, especially in Europe. Vysotsky's impact in Russia is often compared to that of Bob Dylan in America, or Brassens and Brel in France..

Years after her husband's death, urged by her friend Simone Signoret, Marina Vlady wrote a book about her years together with Vysotsky. The book pays tribute to Vladimir's talent and rich persona, yet is uncompromising in its depiction of his addictions and the problems that they caused in their marriage. The book was written in French and translated into Russian in tandem by Vlady and a professional translator. It is widely read in Russia by fans seeking to understand the man who gave them so many beloved songs.

The asteroid 2374 Vladvysotskij, discovered by Lyudmila Zhuravleva, is named after Vysotsky (orbit image).

[edit] Circumstances of death

There is fairly convincing evidence that part of the blame for Vysotsky's death lies with the group of associates who surrounded him in the last years of his life.[3] This close circle were all people under the influence of his strong character, combined with a material interest in the the large sums of money his concerts earned. This extensive but non-exhaustive list includes: Valerii Yanklovich - manager of the Taganka Theatre and prime organiser and of his non-sanctioned concerts, Anatolii Fedotov - his personal doctor, Vadim Tumanov - gold prospector from Siberia, Oksana Afanas'eva (Yarmol'nik) - his principal mistress the last three years of his life, Ivan Bortnik - a fellow actor, Leonid Sul'povar - head of division at the Sklifosovski hospital responsible for much of the supply of drugs.

Vysotsky's associates had all put in efforts to supply his drug habit,[4] which kept him going in the last years of his life. Under their influence he was able to continue to perform all over the country, up to a week before his death. Due to illegal (i.e. non-state sanctioned) sales of tickets and other underground methods, these concerts pulled in sums of money unimaginable in Soviet times, when almost everyone received nearly the same small salary. The payouts and gathering of money were a constant source of danger, and Yanklovich and others were needed to organise them.

Some money went to Vysotsky, the rest was distributed amongst this circle. At first this was a reasonable return on their efforts, however as his addiction progressed and his body developed resistance, the frequency and amount of drugs needed to keep Vysotsky going became unmanageable. This culminated at the time of the Moscow Olimpiad which coincided with the last days of his life, when supplies of drugs were monitored more strictly than usual, and some of the doctors involved in supplying Vysotsky were already behind bars (normally the doctors had to account for every ampule, thus drugs were transfered to an empty container, while the patients received a substitute or placebo instead). In the last few days Vysotsky became uncontrollable, his shouting could be heard all over the apartment building on Malaya Gruzinskaya where he lived amongst VIP's. Several days before his death, in a state of stupor he went on a high speed drive around Moscow in an attempt to obtain drugs and alcohol - when many high-ranking people saw him. This increased the likelihood of him being forcibly admitted to hospital, and the consequent danger to the circle supplying his habit. As his state of health declined, and it became obvious that he may die, his associates gathered to decide what to do with him. They came up with no firm decision. They did not want him admitted officially as his drug addiction will become public and they would fall under suspicion - although some of them admitted that any ordinary person in his state would have been admitted immediately.

On Vysotsky's death his associates and relatives put in much effort to prevent a post mortem being carried out. This despite the fairly unusual circumstances - he died aged 42 under heavy sedation with an improvised cocktail of sedatives and stimulants - including the toxic chloral hydrate - provided by his personal doctor who had been supplying him with narcotics the previous three years. This doctor, being the only one present at his side when death occurred, had a few days earlier been seen to display elementary negligence in treating the sedated Vysotsky. On the night of his death, Arkadii Vysotsky (his son) who tried to visit his father in his flat, was crudely refused entry by Yanklovich, even though there was a lack of people able to care for him. Subsequently the Soviet police commenced a manslaughter investigation which was dropped due to absence of evidence taken at the time of death.

[edit] Music

The poet accompanied himself on a Russian seven-string guitar, with an intense voice singing ballads of love, peace, war, everyday Soviet life and of the human condition. He had the ring of honesty and truth, with an ironic and sometimes sarcastic touch that jabbed at the Soviet government, which made him a target for surveillance and threats. In France, he has been compared with French singer Georges Brassens. In Russia, however, he was more frequently compared with Joe Dassin, in part because they were the same age and died in the same year; however, their ideologies, biographies, and musical styles are very different. Vysotsky's lyrics and style greatly influenced Jacek Kaczmarski, a Polish songwriter and singer who touched on similar themes.

The songs—over 600 of them—were written about almost any imaginable theme. The earliest were outlaw songs. These songs were based either on the life of the common people in Moscow (criminal life, prostitution, and extreme drinking) or on life in the Gulags. Vysotsky slowly grew out of this phase and started singing more serious, though often satirical, songs. Many of these songs were about war. These war songs were not written to glorify war, but rather to expose the listener to the emotions of those in extreme, life threatening situations. Most Soviet veterans would say that Vysotsky's war songs described the truth of war far more accurately than more official "patriotic" songs.

Nearly all of Vysotsky's songs are in the first person, although he is almost never the narrator. When singing his criminal songs, he would adopt the accent and intonation of a Moscow thief, and when singing war songs, he would sing from the point of view of a soldier. In many of his philosophical songs, he adopted the role of inanimate objects. This created some confusion about Vysotsky's background, especially during the early years when information could not be passed around very easily. Using his acting talent, the poet played his role so well that until told otherwise, many of his fans believed that he was, indeed, a criminal or war veteran. Vysotsky's father said that "War participants thought the author of the songs to be one of them, as if he had participated in the war together with them." The same could be said about mountain climbers; on multiple occasions, Vysotsky was sent pictures of mountain climbers' graves with quotes from his lyrics etched on the tombstones.

Many film soundtracks, especially those featuring the singer, incorporated Vysotsky's songs. One of the most notable examples is Vertikal, a movie about mountain climbers.

Not being officially recognized as a poet and singer, Vysotsky performed wherever and whenever he could - in the theater (where he worked), at universities, in private apartments, village clubs, and in the open air. It was not unusual for him to give several concerts in one day. He used to sleep little, using the night hours to write. In his final years, he managed to perform outside the Soviet Union and held concerts in Paris, Toronto, and New York City.

Despite Vysotsky's anti-establishment bent, the Soviet leader Brezhnev (who himself was alleged to be a fan of Vysotsky) allowed Vysotsky to perform live on Soviet television. This was the first time anyone or anything so cynical towards the regime was allowed on Soviet TV. One of the songs he played was "I do not like," which he would later perform on American television in an interview with 60 Minutes.

With few exceptions, he wasn't allowed to publish his recordings with "Melodiya", which held a monopoly on the Soviet music industry. His songs were passed on through amateur, fairly low quality recordings on vinyl discs and magnetic tape, resulting in his immense popularity. Cosmonauts even took his music on cassette into orbit. — His writings were all published posthumously except for one poem printed in 1975.

[edit] Musical style

Musically, virtually all of Vysotsky's songs were written in a minor key, and tended to employ from three to seven chords. Vysotsky composed his songs and played them exclusively on the Russian seven string guitar, often tuned a tone or a tone-and-a-half below the traditional Russian "Open G major" tuning. This guitar, with its specific Russian tuning, makes a slight yet notable difference in chord voicings than the standard tuned six string Spanish (classical) guitar, and it became a staple of his sound. Because Vysotsky tuned down a tone and a half, his strings had less tension, which also colored the sound.

His earliest songs were usually written in C minor (with the guitar tuned a tone down from DGBDGBD to CFACFAC), using the following chord shapes:

Chord name Fret numbers (bass to tenor string)
C minor [0 X 3 3 2 3 3]
A sharp 7 rootless [X 0 5 5 3 5 5]
A major [X 5 5 5 5 5 5]
E major [X X 6 X 5 6 7]
F 7 rootless [X X 7 7 5 7 7]
D minor [X 0 8 8 7 8 8]
F major [2 2 2 2 2 2 2]

Songs written in this key include "Stars" (Zvyozdy), "My friend has left for Magadan" (Moy drug uyekhal v Magadan), and most of his "outlaw songs".

At around 1970, Vysotsky began writing and playing exclusively in A minor (guitar tuned to CFACFAC), which he continued doing until his death. The main chord shapes he based his songs on were:

Chord name Fret numbers (bass to tenor string)
A minor [X X 0 4 4 3 4]
A major [X X 4 4 4 4 4]
D minor [X X 5 5 4 5 5]
E 7 [X X X 4 3 2 2]
F major [2 2 2 2 2 2 2]
C major [X X X 0 2 3 4]
A 7 rootless [X X 4 4 2 4 4]

Vysotsky used his fingers instead of a pick to pluck and strum, as was the tradition with Russian guitar playing. He used a variety of finger picking and strumming techniques. One of his favorite was to play an alternating bass with his thumb as he plucked or strummed with his other fingers.

Often, Vysotsky would neglect to check the tuning of his guitar, which is particularly noticeable on earlier recordings. According to some accounts, Vysotsky would get upset when friends would attempt to tune his guitar, leading some to believe that he preferred to play slightly out of tune as a stylistic choice. Much of this is also attributable to the fact that a guitar that is tuned down more than 1 whole step (Vysotsky would sometimes tune as much as 2 and a half steps down) is prone to intonation problems.

[edit] Singing Style

Vysotsky had a unique singing style. He had an unusual habit of elongating consonants instead of vowels in his songs. So when a syllable is sung for a prolonged period of time, he would elongate the consonant instead of the vowel in that syllable.

[edit] Filmography

Vladimir Vysotsky in Two Comrades Were Serving

[edit] Bibliography

  • Wladimir Wyssozki. Aufbau Verlag 1989 (DDR) : Zerreißt mir nicht meine silbernen Saiten....
  • Vysotsky, Vladimir (1990): Hamlet With a Guitar. Moscow, Progress Publishers. ISBN 5-01-001125-5
  • Vysotsky, Vladimir (2003): Songs, Poems, Prose. Moscow, Eksmo. ISBN
  • Vysotsky, Vladimir / Mer, Nathan (trans) (1991): Songs & Poems. ISBN 0-89697-399-9
  • Vysotsky, Vladimir (1991): I Love, Therefore I Live. ISBN 0-569-09274-4
  • Vlady, Marina (1987): Vladimir ou Le Vol Arrêté. Paris, Ed. Fayard. ISBN 2-213-02062-0 (Vladimir or the Aborted Flight)
      • Влади М. Владимир, или Прерванный полет. М.: Прогресс, 1989.
  • Vlady, Marina / Meinert, Joachim (transl) (1991): Eine Liebe zwischen zwei Welten. Mein Leben mit Wladimir Wyssozki. Weimar, Aufbau Verlag. ISBN

[edit] Discography

[edit] Lifetime

  • Алиса в стране чудес / Alice in Wonderland (1977) [2 vinyls]
    Musical play, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland,
    with Klara Rumyanova, Vladimir Vysotsky, Vsevolod Abdulov.
    Lyrics and music: Vladimir Vysotsky

[edit] Posthumous Releases

[edit] France

[edit] Germany

  • Wir drehen die Erde (1993) [CD]
  • Lieder vom Krieg (1995) [CD]

[edit] Russia

  • Песни / Songs (1980) [LP] Melodiya
    • Collection of songs published shortly after his death. [Melodiya Stereo C60-14761.2]
  • Sons Are Leaving For Battle (1987) [double LP] Melodiya
    • War songs. Archive recordings from between 1960-1980. [Melodiya MONO M60 47429 008/006]
  • На концертах Владимира Высоцкого / At Vladimir Vysotsky's concerts
    • 01, 02, 03, ... 21 (1986–1990) [12" vinyl]
  • Marina Vlady / Vladimir Vysotsky (1996) [CD] [Melodiya]
  • MP3 Kollektsiya: Vladimir Vysotsky [SoLyd Records]
    Concert and Studio recordings
    • Disk 1
    • Disk 2
    • Disk 3
    • Disk 4 (period 1979–1980) (2002) [CD: MP3 192 kBit/s]
  • Platinovaya Kollektsiya: Vladimir Vysotsky (2003) [2 CDs]

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ http://spintongues.msk.ru/Vysotsky-Bio2.htm "Nina and I could not get on somehow, and when we separated we decided that our son would stay with me. Vladimir came to stay with me in January 1947, and my second wife Yevgenia became Vladimir's second mother for many years to come. They had much in common and like each other which made me really happy."
  2. ^ http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/filmography.html?p_id=181746&mod=bio
  3. ^ http://1001.vdv.ru/books/vysotski
  4. ^ http://1001.vdv.ru/books/vysotskij/023.htm V. Shekhtman: "I arrived at the theater. Vladimir gave me two small containers and said: off with you to Anatolii Fedotov! Anatolii was not at his place, I returned - "Vladimir, Anatolii is not there". He rings, Anatolii answered .. "Come on, go again". Once more I went and came back. In my presence in the toilet he - wham! injected the narcotic! - went on to finish the play ..". 13 of july its "Hamlet". Oksana Afanas'eva: "Vladimir performed, I awaited him. Did he send anyone? Perhaps.. At that time we were all in a state of "high alert", ready to hurry-off somewhere at a moments notice. But I - much less than the guys. They procured all that stuff ..."

[edit] External links

[edit] English sources

MY LIFE ON STAGE (autobiographical reminiscences)

[edit] Russian sources

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