I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Before the plane touched down at LAX, I was already dreaming and scheming about how to return to the Soviet Union. I became like a crazed missionary running around the sandy beaches and Hollywood hills telling anyone who’d listen about these incredible musicians who’d changed my life. I was confident that I would return but wasn’t quite sure how. In mid-1984, Gorbachev, glasnost, and perestroika were still at least a couple years away, so I had little opportunity to just hop on the next British Airways Boeing 737. I needed another sponsored educational tour, and to also raise the money to get there.
I took a job at a travel agency, thinking I could solve both problems at once by earning money while having resources to learn about every tour scheduled to head to the USSR. Finally, I found one and booked myself onto it. While I sat at my small metal desk hiding behind a mammoth old computer and stacks of plastic, dirty travel binders, I dreamed about the looks on Boris and Seva’s faces when I would show up again. They’d said no one comes back, but they’d never met someone like me.
I tried to call Seva to tell him to send word to Boris that I was coming back. After a few brief words, I heard the phone go dead and then hit a continuously busy line. Several days went by before the phone rang again for me.
“Hello. I am calling from New York,” said a girl with a thick Russian accent. “Who are you?” I asked.
“I have just come from Russia.”
“Okay, great,” I said. “But what’s your name?”
“Boris will be waiting for you to return.” She spoke as if she didn’t even hear my questions. “Get pen. I will give you his address.”
It was that easy. She was short on answers, but I was already beginning to understand that specifics often didn’t matter in the Soviet Union. If I took my hands off the driver’s wheel, a plan would miraculously come together.
I dug up the contact information for Luther Gribble, the banker from David Bowie’s team who had met Boris. He connected me to Bowie’s management office in New York, and after sharing my photos and more of Boris’ music, Bowie offered to pay for the Fender Stratocaster guitar Boris wanted! It almost didn’t feel real. Bowie signed a poster to Boris as well, his classic big B and flourished scribble across his uncanny, phantasmagorical face.
My educational tour again started in London, where I met up with Judy. With her big sweet eyes and sensitive deference to the world, Judy was always searching, enamored by psychics, astrologers, self-helpers, and meditation. She got her chart done by a horoscope reader who told her that all her planets were in water and earth, and it would serve her to be around people with planets in fire. She brought them my photo, and they told her I was one of those people with my planets in flames, a strong energy that would be a good influence on her.
“I didn’t have a path or purpose or anything like that,” she told me recently when I asked her about why she kept letting me drag her around with me all of those years. “You had such a clear focus and passion to do something, so I thought I might as well just support you.” She wanted nothing more than to help me with whatever I was doing, even if that meant squeezing into a middle seat for three hours with cheap snacks on our way to our destination.
Cold fluorescent lights and scowling customs guards in dark blue suits and flat hats again met us in the arrival hall. This time, I wasn’t worried about them taking my lipstick or tampons, but I was paranoid about the Stratocaster. They went through my bag, and I could see them take interest in the guitar.
“It’s my guitar, and after I go on this tour of Moscow and Leningrad I’m going to Paris because I have to play a show there, and if you take this guitar away I’m not going to be able to play and a lot of people are going to be furious,” I rambled, feeling the nerves hitting my hands and spine.
The guards ignored me and called over a few other inspectors.
“Seriously, I really need that thing, please don’t take it away—it’s my most important possession and necessary for me to make a living, because like I just said I have this really, really, really important concert in Paris next week after I tour here. Did you hear me?”
Five or six customs inspectors ignored me while they pointed at the instrument and muttered to each other. Finally, they motioned for the customs form I’d received on the flight. I handed it over. They began to write details of my guitar on the back of the form. They described it down to the serial number.
“When leave,” the lead guard said, “bring guitar. Or not leave.” What goes in must come out.
I nodded vigorously, the wheels in my head already spinning into overdrive. How was I supposed to leave the country without the guitar? The thought haunted me all the way to the hotel, where Judy and I told the guide that we were tired and would skip the afternoon touring. An hour later, we scurried out of the hotel as inconspicuously as possible, lugging the large black guitar case between us.
We walked for a few blocks before we dared ask someone for directions. Having the guitar along made me feel incredible conspicuous, and every time someone so much as glanced at us sideways Judy and I were sure they were KGB and would scramble to the other side of the street or around a different corner. By the time we found Boris’ building and wrestled ourselves and Bowie’s gift up the daunting stairs, the only thought I had left about the guitar was that I refused to carry such a heavy and cumbersome item back through any airport with me.
Somehow, I’d find a way to leave it.
Boris opened the door smiling, like he had been casually waiting there for four months in his farmer jeans that I’d given him from the first time and a beige sweater.
“Jo, Judy, welcome back, come on in.”
We hugged and the two of us changed our shoes for tapki, following Boris into his room where Sergey Kuryokhin, Seva, and three new faces, whom I soon learned to call Afrika, Timur, and Alex, met us.
We sat down to tea and sweet biscuits as I handed Boris the guitar case. He opened it, and I saw his face freeze in that angelic expression of his, unable to comprehend what was happening.
“It’s for you,” I said. “A shiny Fender Stratocaster, just like you asked. David Bowie paid for it.”
“I told you I was coming back…”
“Yes, but I didn’t think you would. And I wasn’t serious that you had to bring me this.”
“Boris, I wanted to. I love that I get to help you make music.”
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
News of my return spread quickly through Boris’ friends, so as we sat and talked, several more people I’d never met filtered into the small, dim kitchen and fogged up the windows. They surrounded us, or more accurately, they surrounded the guitar. Even though I couldn’t understand them, I could understand their awe and fascination as they pointed to the pick-ups, the bridge, and the tuners.
“And here’s a signed David Bowie poster,” I said as I unrolled it on the small, leaning table.
“Aaaaaaall right,” Boris nodded his head in ecstasy as he took it in his hands. “It is fantastic.”
“I can keep bringing things you can’t get here,” I said excitedly. My eyes drifted to the guitar, and I stopped. “I have a problem though. The customs guards wrote down the guitar’s details on the back of my customs form. Look, they noted every detail, even the serial number.”
“Assa ye, ye, I wouldn’t worry about that,” the young kid I came to know as Afrika said.
He couldn’t have been older than eighteen, with blond hair, bold eyes, and a smile that reached both his ears and overshadowed his entire, rail-thin body. He came from the south near the Black Sea, his entire being infused with the bright and sunny spirit of those lower altitudes. He spoke English well but would always greet us with “Assa, ye, ye,” followed by a young pioneer’s salute. Despite his perfunctory confidence and the conviction in his voice, I doubted his ability to outsmart Soviet customs control.
“Afrika and Timur will take care of it,” Boris said as he put his cigarette to his pink lips.
Timur nodded, his dark hair and angular face framing his intense, active eyes. I’d find out later that he was in an underground artistic collective called the “New Artists,” known now also as the avant-garde movement Neoacademism for the New Academy of Fine Arts that Timur founded.
“The important thing is that you’ve come at a good time,” Boris continued. “Tomorrow, there’s a festival at the Rock Club. A lot of bands are playing, including mine. You should come.”
“It sounds amazing,” I said, forcing myself to stop worrying about the guitar for the moment. “What’s the Rock Club again?”
“It’s what they call an official music venue that hosts unofficial bands.” I could hear the mockery in Boris’ voice when he said official and unofficial. “It’s owned by the state, and the bands who don’t sign state contracts play there. We don’t get paid because the ticket money goes to the hall, and the equipment is shit.” He cracked a slow, easy smile. “But we get to play live.
“The Rock Club is our home in a way. It’s officially called ‘The Theater of People’s Creativity’ and is part of the trade union system. It’s an amateur theater where regular people can perform, and the KGB can keep their sharp eyes on everyone. It’s run by a guy name Kolya Mikhailov. Everyone loves him, except the KGB. He has to walk a fine line.”
“That’s so interesting,” Judy finally spoke up. I could see her listening to everything and picking at her jeans with her short nails. “But all this sneaking around is going to get us in trouble at some point.”
“I know, but this is exactly why we came,” I told her. “We want to see these guys live. Just think how incredible it will be! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Almost no one else in America knows this exists.”
“Except David Bowie,” Seva said with his gentle laugh.
I didn’t care about getting in trouble. Making it to Boris’ with the guitar had made me confident that the KGB weren’t paying attention to me, and somehow that made me assume that because I had an American passport my government would swoop in to save the day the minute there was any possibility I could be sent off to a seedy Siberian gulag. In hindsight, I should have been more careful, but I’m lucky enough that I can say if I was more careful, I wouldn’t be writing this story.
The next day, Boris again sent one of his friends to meet Judy and me before the concert and to lead us to the Rock Club. We were used to the drill by then—no English in public, move quickly, keep your head down and your eyes glued to the dirty pavement that lined the wide roads. This time, Boris warned, the KGB agents would very likely be at the concert. Judy and I had to be inconspicuous, he’d said, staring at my platinum hair. I barely heard him. I was so crazy about these guys that Stalin himself could have airdropped into the venue, and I still wouldn’t have left.
After twisting through a few long streets, we arrived at the front entrance of the Rock Club. From the outside it didn’t look like anything special, with store facades on the street level and shadowy apartment windows up above. What made it stand out were the hundreds of people standing waiting to get inside. There were rocker types with wild haircuts and silver rings, students linking arms, guys in suits that I immediately presumed were the KGB, and ladies in office attire with glasses and kitten heels. Everyone was jostling and pushing like at a metro stop.
As Judy and I tried to elbow our way forward, I locked eyes with a guy about my age with bleached blonde bangs the same color as my hair. We both paused long enough to recognize the similar peroxide highlights, and for the moment I stared at him, I felt the entire crowd disappear around me. My heart started ringing in my ears like a dinner bell that reminds you how hungry you are. A moment later, the crowd rushed back into my senses, and he was gone.
As I stood scanning the sea of round, indistinct faces, one of Boris’ friends found us to take us backstage. Boris, his band, and various wives and girlfriends were getting ready. Clothes lay in piles tossed over metal chairs, makeup falling to the ground in black and pink clumps. For a moment I felt like I had left the USSR behind – I could have been anywhere in the world, backstage at any concert, and no one would have guessed the difference. Boris’ friend showed us a door at the end of the hall and said we should leave from there when the concert was over, a secret passage directly out to the street that would avoid the fans and the undercover authorities.
We left Boris and the rest, all half-dressed and passing around bottles, to find our seats. The hall had a beautiful neoclassical interior with a tight stage and bodies cozied up to strangers. People were absolutely everywhere, seated and standing and folded into little alcoves around the sides. There must have been some three hundred in total. I suddenly realized what a star Boris and the other performers were.
His band was technically illegal, but it had evidently become very popular underground since they started recording and clandestinely distributing their music to the culturally underfed public. Somehow, they’d climbed high enough to command an audience of hundreds of people at a club that the government was forced to acknowledge as quasi-legal. I felt a thrill in my chest, knowing that out of all those rock n’ roll pilgrims I had had the chance to make a connection to their messiah.
The first band was a group called Zoopark, fronted by Mike Naumenko, and the crowd immediately surged forward with an intensity for which I was not prepared. Judy and I braced against each other as people leapt from their seats, threw their hands in the air, and started dancing. To my ears, Zoopark sounded like the rock n’ roll I recognized, just with Russian lyrics. Mike looked like any American rocker from the 1970s, down to his mirrored aviator sunglasses. I found out later he was one of the first rockers to write lyrics in Russian, along with Boris. I never saw much of him playing after that night; people told me he had a severe drinking problem. To be honest, there were very few Russians I met who didn’t seem to have a drinking problem.
I noticed the same surge of euphoria in the crowd when the band Strannye Igry (Strange Games) followed, a new wave ska-type band with trumpets, trombones, and tubas, probably six or eight members all in a line facing the audience with choreographed movements as they played. As I watched them, I was reminded of a marching band at an American football game, minus the padded shoulders and sparkling buttons. Their sound was undeniably rock though, a cross-cultural phenomenon I realized everyone came to love regardless of geography.
After the set finished, I noticed a man in a suit a few rows ahead of us. He was dressed in a boxy gray combination with thick-rimmed glasses, standing casually while the hoard of red-faced Russians jumped around him and repeatedly turning around to look at Judy and me. He had to be with the KGB, I thought. He turned around again.
“Are you Joanna?”
I didn’t answer.
“Boris told me all about you.”
I turned away as if I didn’t hear him as paranoia set in. Was he actually Boris’ friend? How did he know me? Who else around here worked for the KGB? Did Judy and I need to leave? There was a sick, strange excitement that came with knowing the KGB were curious about me, because it validated how important Boris and the other undergrounders were and how lucky I was to get to be so close to that greatness.
I was suddenly distracted again as the lights went down and the next band rushed onto the stage, their tall silhouettes already sending the crowd into an even bigger frenzy. I made out a tall, romantic, Asian-looking singer with an angular face and a beautiful animated voice. His name was Viktor Tsoi, and his band was called Kino. He stood still, long arms by his side, and tapped his heel to the beat while looking straight into the moving belly of the audience. His undemanding posture gave him a firm command of the stage; there was no wild running or convulsing like some singers did. In standing still, he forced people to pay attention to him, to listen to the music and get carried away themselves by it all.
Every note he sang was strong, steady, and textured with the shared experiences of humanity. On a slow, pulsating song called “Tranquilizer,” I felt hypnotized. On another song, I couldn’t understand the lyrics, but the melodies were addictive, and by the time the third chorus hit I found myself singing along. Vedeli noche, guliali fsiu noche do ootra – Saw the night, walked all night ’til morning – I had no idea what it meant at the time, but I couldn’t stop singing.
It took me a while before I noticed Kino’s drummer, a tall stunning guy who played dramatically standing up, and then the guitar player. I realized with a start it was the blonde man I’d stared at in the street before the show. I could feel that movie-magic happening again as the rest of the room disappeared and my pounding heart replaced the drumbeat. He was gorgeous. I couldn’t resist watching him through the set, later discovering his name was Yuri. To me, he was Michelangelo’s David: lean, muscular, and powerful.
After Kino, Judy and I cheered as Boris and his band Aquarium finally pushed onto the stage. He told me he’d stolen the band’s name from a beer joint on Kupchino Street. This was the first time I heard him with the full Aquarium line-up, a drummer, guitar player, keys, violinist and bass player, and Seva the cellist. I had seen the keyboard player Sergey Kuryokhin, The Capitan, perform live in the basement show during my first trip, and I soon learned that in addition to playing in Aquarium he was also a producer for many of these underground groups and a highly respected classical pianist in his own right. In almost every video I took of the bands over the next few years, Sergey would be there in the back, his frantic magical hands and his roguish smile filling up the corners of the frame.
As always, it was Boris who caught my eye. He sauntered onto the stage with the white Fender Stratocaster hanging off his body like a piece of shining armor. All night, he traded off using it with his guitar player Sasha Lapin, and seeing it onstage made me feel proud, as if I made a very small contribution to this subtle revolution happening before my eyes.
Aquarium’s set had me in chills for the entire hour. The crowd was insane over Boris, their biggest hero. The way the guitar hung from his shoulder was like watching Atlas carry the whole damn world: he looked miraculous. Aquarium played a hard driving rock song followed by a more bluesy folksong and then a stripped-down lyrical ballad. The entire crowd sang along in unison to an anthem called “Rock n’ roll Myortv,” meaning “Rock n’ Roll’s Dead.” At several moments, I had to pinch myself that I was in the Soviet Union – the alleged inhospitable and melancholy archenemy – and in love with its rock bands.
When the final ovation died down and the crowd began slowly shuffling to the exits, Judy and I ran backstage to congratulate Boris. In the middle of our conversation, someone interrupted and pulled Boris aside with nervous eyes.
“The KGB are backstage,” Boris whispered as he came back to us. I felt a sudden anxiety, not for myself but for Boris and the rest of the musicians. Had we jeopardized them by being there? “You need to leave right away.”
We raced down the hall towards the door that Boris’ friend had showed us earlier, two deer trying to avoid the headlights of the KGB. At least we had a sure way to escape. Judy and I looked at each other as we ran side by side, giggling nervously at the close call, reaching out our arms and coming face to face with what felt like a brick wall. We pushed harder. Oh my god, I thought frantically, the door’s locked. Without saying a word, Judy and I turned back around, slowing down as a man came out from one of the other dressing rooms.
Taking the lead, I quickly turned right down another hall, searching for some way to get us out of there. We ended up in the main auditorium again, so we scurried down some steps and tried to blend in with the last concertgoers heading to the main exits. Moving through the tail-end of the crowd I realized I had lost Judy. I kept moving towards the exit, searching every elated face in hopes of seeing my sister’s familiar button nose and blunt bangs. In a couple of seconds, I reached the doors, thinking, At least, I’m home free.
Like two phantoms, these guys in suits rose out of the cigarette smoke and grabbed me on each arm, dragging me left away from the open doors and warm night air. Hundreds of people were moving around us, not daring to stop or say a word. These guys wore no uniform or special insignia, and they looked like they could be gangsters for all I knew. In a state of disbelief, I watched the shadows pass by as not a soul stopped to intervene or acknowledge me.
The three of us hurried down a stairwell, their long thick fingers still wrapped around my arms. They took me to a dim room with no windows and two chairs staring wretchedly at a hard metal table. It reminded me of a movie. They pointed to one of the chairs, and I sat down, shaking. Immediately they started firing questions at me, no introductions or explanations or English.
I kept repeating, “I don’t speak Russian, I don’t speak Russian, I don’t speak Russian.” They raised their voices, faces pulled tight into disturbing, bitter scowls.
“I don’t speak Russian, I don’t speak Russian, I don’t speak Russian.”
I tried to tuck a piece of platinum behind my ear and out of the way, praying they would think I was just a student with crazy hair on a long-term study abroad semester who happened to have fallen in with the Rock Club scene.
“What. Is. Name?” one asked in halting English. I clammed up.
“Your name?” His voice got louder. “Your name?” Nothing.
“What is name?!”
I knew if I gave them my name, there was a good chance I’d never be allowed back in the USSR I kept seeing Boris’ face in my mind and knew that if I said the words “Joanna Fields” that then and there everything would vanish into the thin, clammy air. In my desperation I opened my mouth and boldly blurted, “Tell me who you are, and I will tell you my name.”
“Who bring you?” One of the guys lit a cigarette, his eyes cold as the hot smoke filled his mouth and nostrils.
“Why here?” The other added. I stayed silent.
“Do you know Viktor Tsoi? … Mike Naumenko? … Boris Grebenshchikov?”
“No.” I said. “I don’t know those names.”
“Who are you?”
I didn’t know what to tell them. My mind was so twisted, and my heart was running up my spine and into my throat. Practically choking on it, I heard myself spit out, “I am an American citizen. You can call the Embassy if you want to know my name.”
The two guys looked at each other. They didn’t seem to know what to do with me, with my scared eyes and angry, bold attitude. They said a few words to each other and then looked at me again.
“Go.” One of them said, dropping his cigarette to the floor and pointing at the door.
I left quickly, following the empty hall back to the main door and rushed out into the street. I could feel the adrenaline shoving my heart against my ribs, but I was so happy to be around other people again as people drifted from the club. Not knowing what to do, I began walking up the street to burn off the energy that was making my hands tingle with nerves.
A young woman fell into step with me and whispered, “You’re being followed by the KGB. Walk around the city and lose them. Then come join us at the party.” She recited the address quickly, then vanished like some grumpy fairy godmother before I could ask her about my sister.
With the adrenaline still sparking at my heels and the address repeating over and over in my mind, I walked a few more blocks before turning and noticing another agent in a gray suit. He put his head down, and I almost laughed at his overt method of stalking. I was just a dumb twenty-four-year-old, and even I could spot the rat on my tail. I ducked around a corner and walked a few more blocks.
When I checked again, he was still there, pretending to be fascinated with the cement under his shoes. It was turning back into a bad movie—he was very obviously following me, and I was very obviously trying to outmaneuver the man. I put my hair up in a hat I’d had stuffed into my coat pocket and wandered dizzyingly around a few more blocks. When I checked again, he finally seemed to be gone. In hindsight, I think that they were trying to scare me more than anything else.
I finally showed up to the party out of breath, on edge, and exhilarated. As I pushed my way into the room, the first person I saw was Judy, listening happily to a group of musicians as they laughed over something, and acting like an only child. After the harsh reality of the night, I was more amused than anything else. I told the packed room what had happened, realizing by their entertained expressions that this was a common occurrence more than a traumatic event. It was part of Russians’ lives, particularly those in the arts scene, and they had long since grown accustomed to it.
In the back of my mind though I was still starting to change my care-free attitude about security and surveillance, not to protect myself but to protect these people who stood welcoming me into the party with warm, open arms. This was the first obstacle of many that I would encounter that would threaten my time in the Soviet Union.
Boris and Sergey both hugged me tightly. “All fine?” Boris asked. Sergey’s eyes were angry, unable to conceal his distaste for the KGB.
“Yeah,” I told them. “I mean, it was terrifying, but all fine.”
At that party I met Viktor Sologub, who went by Vitia, and his brother Grygori, or Grysha, who played the bass and guitar respectively in the band Strange Games I’d thought was so cool. Vitia’s English was pretty good, making up for the few words his brother could speak with me. Vitia was a rare Russian who neither drank nor smoked, a tolerant and protective soul who watched over his brother and looked out for his friends. He talked very quickly with a certain urgency and nervousness about him, his eyes always watching the corners and back walls and all his energy thrown into checking and double-checking everything.
“That Strat you brought Boris was krypto!”
“Thanks,” I laughed. “What would you want if I could get it?”
“Wow,” Vitia said. “A Fender P Bass. Gray.”
“Ok, I can try.”
“You got that, really?” He went on. “A gray Fender P Bass.”
“I got it.”
“Maybe write it down so you don’t forget? Fender P Bass. Gray.”
As the party continued, I lost the nervousness of my KGB incident and found myself face to face with one amazing person after another. There was Sasha Titov, the bass player in Aquarium with his sharp nose and curly hair, and jazz critic Alex Kahn with his low voice and focused eyes. Nearly everyone spoke some level of English, or if not, Alex or Boris would help translate.
Most of the time it was Alex at my arm considering the translations, as Boris was surrounded by all the Aquarium wives and other women lounging at his feet and laughing at his measured, easy talk. I’d come to see this at every tusofka—“spending time doing nothing”—in the future, with Boris on the couch and the women around him on the floor looking up and smiling with adulation and flirty devotion. It was so obvious they had crushes on him, and I remember thinking it couldn’t be fun to be an Aquarium band wife.
At one point in the party, Boris introduced me to a guy in a gray suit and glasses who looked strangely familiar.
“This is Arkady, one of our best poets,” Boris said proudly.
I blushed; it was the guy from the concert whom I’d ignored after he said hello. “Oh my gosh, I was so rude at the concert. I thought you were KGB. I’m am so sorry.” He and Boris laughed.
Off in the corner I noticed Viktor and Yuri – the guitarist with the blonde bangs who’d slipped a time bomb into my heart – of Kino. Beside them was Igor Tikhomirov, the smiley, curly-haired bass player that I would nickname Mickey Mouse as I got to know his happy, amiable attitude in my future visits. After a few minutes I tried to casually work my way over to them, interrupting the conversation to repeatedly tell them how incredible they were.
They responded by repeatedly telling me how incredible Boris’ guitar was. As we spoke, I noticed Viktor was the exact opposite of how he appeared on stage. Gone was the stoicism, the coldness, the dark, passionate energy that radiated off of him, replaced by a warm and personable joviality. Even with his talent and fame, he exuded a mellow vibe that made it so easy to talk with him.
Viktor’s English was more than passable, and he helped translate for Yuri in our conversation. They said they’d heard I was an American rocker and asked about my music. In turn, I asked about their band, who wrote the songs, and how long they’d been together. It was a fairly predictable, languid conversation, but I felt like a cartoon character with my heart beating out of my chest.
Yuri captivated my attention, his chiseled jaw and clear eyes convincing me that I was in love with a man with whom I couldn’t even communicate alone. In my mind, the language barrier only added to the romance. He would laugh at my compliments, gently touch my arm, and stare at me for long stretches even as Viktor continued to talk between us.
“Joanna, what are you doing tomorrow?” Viktor asked.
I felt a pit appear in my stomach. “Unfortunately, I have to go home, back to America.” After a long pause, I told them, “But I’ll be back.”
The next morning, I went to Boris’ apartment before heading to the airport. He took me up to the building’s roof, the safest place to avoid unwanted eavesdroppers.
“Careful of the rail,” he said as I held onto the edge’s barrier. “It is rotten.”
“Is that safe?” I asked nervously.
“I don’t believe so,” he said with a smile. He knew that to put his head in the clouds required a little risk.
“Boris, I hate to ask you this, but what about the Stratocaster? The customs guards really wrote everything down and told me to be sure I left the country with it.”
“Don’t worry,” he said in his leisurely way. “Let’s have tea and everything will be fine.”
Back in Boris’ apartment, I kept making a show of glancing at my watch. “Boris, the guit-”
Just as I opened my mouth, the apartment door swung open and Afrika and Timur bounded in, carrying a guitar case.
“Oh my god, thank you,” I said. “I’m so sorry I have to take it back.”
Afrika saluted me. “Assa ye, ye!” He handed me the case and I popped it open.
Inside was a guitar with a handmade wooden body, painted a shiny white. The neck, electric pick-ups, nobs, and whammy bar were all about the same size and color as the one I’d brought in. The serial number was in the same spot as the original, and as I grabbed my customs form and checked the original number, I saw it matched it digit for digit.
“You made a knock-off?” I asked, shocked.
“Assa ye, ye,” Afrika said nobly. “Everything is the same as what it says on your customs form, except for quality. And how are the customs guards going to figure that out?” He made an exaggerated shrug. “They won’t!”
“This is amazing.” I didn’t know what to say next.
The guitar sat in front of me like the Stratocaster’s younger, awkward brother, a bunch of funny materials making up its gangly, bright body. For the first time I realized how consequential innovation was in the Soviet Union. As an American, I’d never known true hardship or censorship and had figured I always had to play by the rules. Not these guys. When they wanted something, they figured it out. I looked up at them standing around me, a glint in their eyes and amused smiles on their young, feral faces.
“So, what do you want me to bring back next?”
Red Wave: An American in the Soviet Music Underground is available for purchase here.
Joanna Stingray is an author and musician from Los Angeles, California, who lived for many years in Russia. In 1984, while touring in the Soviet Union, she met and befriended Boris Grebenschikov, a revered musical poet (who many Soviets called the ‘Russian Dylan’) and soon became the first American producer of underground Russian rock n’ roll when she released the double album Red Wave — 4 Underground Bands from the USSR, a compilation of music smuggled out of the USSR by Joanna in 1985.
Madison Stingray expresses herself as a storyteller. She has written songs, poems, short stories, and now two full length books, the common theme of all her work being a strong female narrative and an attempt at human solidarity. She graduated from Georgetown University magna cum laude and received her Master’s degree in Archaeology from the University of Cambridge in England. Growing up, the Leningrad Underground Rock days were stories that became her fairytales, and her contribution to putting those adventures in print is to inspire others that extraordinary things can happen to anyone who fights for something. Her first album,”Stingray — In Your Eyes” is out on iTunes, Spotify and others.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee