It seems incredible, even for those of us who actually remember the time and can cite the liar’s muscle of memory: In the 1970s and ’80s, just a shadow of an eyelash ago, the Soviet Union was largely closed off to Western pop culture and consumer influence. We took this for granted, though we do recall seeing immigrants newly arrived from the USSR stumbling around ordinary grocery stores in tears, awed by the Disneyland of products and choice.
This era of isolation and restriction extended to pop and rock music, as well. While our world was exploding with MTV, the Ramones, and Madonna, rock ‘n’ roll music and style was a mysterious and delicious rumor in the Soviet Union, whispers and secrets heard on shortwave radio and via smuggled tapes or vinyl. With Western albums, tapes, and 45s almost impossible to obtain, an entire universe might be inferred from one glossy photo of David Bowie seen in someone’s cold-water flat, or extrapolated from an acoustic cover version of a Beatles, Chuck Berry, or Sex Pistols song learned fourth- or fifth-hand. True, there were state-sponsored pop musicians, whose work was released by the country’s only legal record label and who performed at carefully regimented concerts. But anything that might challenge authority, denigrate state-sanctioned ideals, or make the West seem attractive was kept behind closed doors, shared discreetly via cassette and reel-to-reel tapes, performed on homemade instruments in clandestine venues.
Yet many of the Soviet Union’s young people were seduced by the idea of rock ‘n’ roll. In their isolation, and in illegal and quasi-legal events in bedsits, basements, and abandoned warehouses, people in the Soviet Union attempted to make their own noise—informed by the idea of Western rock, but shaped largely by Soviet ideas of Dada, constructivist and avant-garde art and music, created in defiance of the state.
In the mid 1980s, a young woman from Beverly Hills named Joanna Fields set about investigating the world of Soviet underground rock. As Fields herself points out, there was an ironic aspect to her mission: in the early 1960s, her father directed and produced a legendarily fear-mongering anti-Soviet documentary, The Truth About Communism. By the time she was 23, Joanna Fields was an aspiring new-wave singer with some minor success in the United States and found herself itching to visit the gigantic, mysterious land that her father had worked so hard to condemn. She jumped on a few state-approved tours and soon found that by making up some simple excuses she could sneak away from their carefully regimented schedule, which she did, discovering, with the luck and determination of a great detective, a thriving culture of underground artists and musicians in Moscow and Leningrad (the book mostly details her adventures in Leningrad). Fields returned, again and again, to her new friends and their remarkable, strange, electric world—so often that, in an effort to evade visa restrictions, she rechristened herself as Stingray in 1987. Eventually, she began to bring the music and the culture she had fallen in love with to music bigwigs in the West. Even more improbably, she found herself becoming a major music personality in the Soviet Union.
Red Wave is a warm and conversational autobiography detailing Stingray’s many rock ‘n’ roll adventures in the Soviet Union and Russia in the years before, during, and after glasnost. At one point she gets followed and interrogated by the KGB; at another, her plans to wed a legendary Soviet rocker get derailed by Cold War dynamics. Co-written with Stingray’s adult daughter, Madison, the book is a valuable document about a lost world, peopled with courageous artists risking their freedom for the ideas of expression, art, and rock ‘n’ roll. Joanna Stingray is by no means a great writer (though she is consistently readable), and she makes virtually zero effort to trace or contextualize the geopolitical history unfolding around her. Instead, Fields shows us how history affected young creative people who grew up in a deeply restrictive and closed-off culture. What Red Wave lacks in narrative detail or literary skill, it more than makes up for in heart, charm, and the fact that it is the firsthand tale of a rare adventurer and explorer who risked her life and freedom to venture into a closed, dangerous world in the name of art and love. It is also a terrific reminder of what it was like to travel in the time before interconnectivity.
True, Red Wave suffers from Stingray’s inability to describe the music made by the exceptional artists she encounters. Certainly, she gives us a picture of what they were like as friends and collaborators and of their consistent willingness to sacrifice for their art. But we are left with little idea of what anyone actually sounded like, aside from some general comparisons to well-known Western artists. For instance, although Bowie is mentioned by many of the artists as an inspiration and the Soviet rockers clearly draw stylistic clues from punk, a Western listener would find the music of the pre-glasnost Soviet musicians more in tune with the left-leaning edge of hard 70s FM rock or pop (artists like the Tubes, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, or Frank Zappa), or UK or European art rockers like Gong or Can. Red Wave could also have benefited from a discography, or an appendix featuring short bios of the main artists she interacted with. To be completely honest, Red Wave is not even the best or most detailed description of underground musical life in the Soviet Union (for that, I would suggest What About Tomorrow?: An Oral History of Russian Punk from the Soviet Era to Pussy Riot by Alexander Herbert).
Nonetheless, Red Wave is still an essential narrative of a fascinating and under-documented period in music and art. Stingray draws vivid, emotional, and chatty accounts of the extraordinary underground stars of the time—people like Boris Grebenshikov, Sergey Kuryokhin, Viktor Tsoi, Yuri Kasparyan, Aquarium, Kino, and the Pop Mechanics. There may be better places to learn the details of the history of Soviet-era underground rock, but no better place to get a sense of the human hopes and hearts that were at stake. In Red Wave, Joanna Stingray doesn’t necessarily want to write a history of this scene, but rather set her own history within the scene. And it is her story: We root for her and her friends to overcome bureaucracy, oppression, isolation, deprivation, and the heavy footsteps of the KGB.
Today, the former Soviet Union is home to one of the most creatively healthy rock scenes in the world, thanks to fascinating and challenging acts like Glintshake, Lucidvox, and Nytt Land. Yet the forefathers and mothers of these artists, and the amazing battles they fought just to be heard, remain largely in the shadows. In a readable and personable way, Red Wave helps shine some light into this remarkable corner of rock history.