July 25, 2015

I'm Vysotsky: The Legend of Russian Songwriting

I'm Vysotsky: The Legend of Russian Songwriting

July 25 marks the 35th anniversary of the death of legendary Russian songwriter, singer, and actor Vladimir Vysotsky. Below, fellow songwriter Yury Kukin recalls what it was like being in the presence of a legend.

We met in Moscow, in the wings at a joint concert of singer-songwriters [April 5, 1966] hosted by the Polytechnic Museum. It was all very simple – a short conversation over a handshake.

“I’m Vysotsky.”

“Kukin. I know your songs.”

“And I’ve heard yours.”

In January 1967, Vladimir Vysotsky arrived in Leningrad to give a concert at the Vostok song club. Three of us went to meet him at the Moskovsky train terminal: me, Boris Poloskin, Anatoly Yakhnich, plus Misha Kryzhanovsky came separately.

Volodya [Vysotsky] came out of the train car with Oleg Strizhenov, who was rather drunk. “Just listen to how Oleg reads Gorky’s fable!” Vysotsky said to us right there on the platform.

And so Strizhenov read for us: “…not to his death did he fall, but to his untying!..”

(Interviewer’s note: Gorky’s “Song of a Falcon” goes “… not to his death did he fall, but rather laughed…”)

We drove off with Vysotsky to the Astoria Hotel, where a suite was reserved for him, while Strizhenov headed off toward Oktyabrskaya Hotel on his own two feet.

An elevator took us up to the correct floor. Volodya liked his rooms, and was amazed by the bedroom alcove – he’d never had a hotel room with anything like it.

We had brandy and snacks with us, but Vysotsky refused to drink.

“I won’t have any,” he told us, “but don’t let that stop you. I love it when people drink around me – I get such a kick out of it!”

So we drank, we sat, we talked. “Yura, I’ve also written a song about the races,” Vysotsky told me. “And listening to you, even started writing fairy tales!”

(He must’ve heard my song “The Little Old Gnome.”)

“Sing for us, Volodya!”

He had a guitar with him, an expensive, recently-purchased performance instrument. But instead he accompanied himself on the one we’d brought with us, a simple little thing.

“In a kingdom where all is peace and quiet…”


I performed with Vysotsky several times, both here in St. Petersburg and in Moscow.

There was a concert at the “Mailbox 936” research institute, organized by Viktor Solomatin, who was an engineer there. When we were young, we used to play together in the Dixieland in Petrodvorets. So he asked me to perform there – “with Vysotsky.”

“I’m game,” I said. “And I’ll talk to Volodya.”


His response was uncompromising:

“I will play first – I’ve got a rehearsal right after!”

“So you’re telling me you’ll stoke up the audience, and then leave me to finish the job, is that it?”

On stage, he announced to the audience that, since he was in a hurry, he would sing for exactly 80 minutes. There was a glitch with the microphone, and he was asked to hold off for ten minutes.

“Fine,” he said, “but that’ll cut in to the 80 minutes.”

He suggested that the performance be structured as a concert of requests. “Since I’m in such a hurry,” he told the audience, “you tell me what to sing, and I’ll sing.”

Someone from the audience called out: “‘Sail’!”

“There’s no more ammo for the guns…”

I also sang for 80 minutes. It’s always hard to perform after Vysotsky. But after the concert people came up to me and said, “It’s fine, at least you talked to us. But Vysotsky, he did the whole thing mechanically – like a grammophone!”

Translation by Eugenia Sokolskaya. Source: http://otblesk.com/vysotsky/kukin-.htm

Image source: http://x3m-slider.org.ua/stories/online/content/vladimir-vysotskii-vladimir-visotsky-biografiya

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