Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotsky (Влади́мир Семёнович Высо́цкий) (January 25, 1938 – July 25, 1980) was a great Russian singer, song-writer, poet, and actor, whose career has had an immense and enduring effect on Russian culture. He was generally recognized as one of the most popular cultural figures of the Soviet era, if not the most popular man in all the Soviet Union. His popularity was based not only on his popular music and acting skills, but because his songs struck a chord with the Soviet peoples who were tired of the "official" version of life as portrayed in the works of socialist realism. Though his work was largely ignored and suppressed 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.
The multifaceted talent of Vladimir Vysotsky is often described by the word bard that acquired a special meaning in the Soviet Union, although he himself spoke of this term with irony. 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."
Vladimir Vysotsky was born in Moscow. His father was an army officer and his mother a German language translator. His parents divorced shortly after his birth, and he was brought up by his stepmother of Armenian descent, "aunt" Yevgenia. 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-World War II Germany (later GDR).
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 Alexander Pushkin Theater, where he had mostly small parts.
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.
In 1964, on the invitation of director Yuri Lyubimov, who was to become his paternal friend, he joined the popular Moscow Theater of Drama and Comedy on the Taganka, or Taganka Theater. He made headlines with his leading roles in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Brecht's Life of Galileo. 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 Soviet recording industry. Nevertheless, his popularity continued to grow with the advent of portable tape-recorders in the USSR, as his music became available to the wide 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 incorporated social and political commentary into often humorous street vocabulary. His lyrics resonated with millions of Soviet people in every corner of the country; his songs were sung at house parties and amateur concerts.
Vysotsky fell in love with a French actress (of Russian descent), Marina Vlady, who was working at Mosfilm (the Soviet film company) on a joint Soviet-French production at that time. Marina had been married before and had three children, while Vladimir had two. Fueled by Marina's exotic status as a Frenchwoman in the USSR, and Vladimir's unmatched popularity in his country, their love was passionate and impulsive. They were married in 1969. For the next ten years the two maintained a partially long-distance relationship, while Marina made compromises with 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 USSR, and provided Vladimir with some immunity to 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, including "07" and "She Was In Paris."
By the mid-1970s Vysotsky had suffered from alcoholism for quite some time and was also struggling with addiction to morphine (and other opiates). Many of his songs from the period—either directly or metaphorically—deal 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 disks in the late 1970s, which, however, constituted but 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 (Mesto Vstrechi Izmenit' Nel'zya) 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, it is believed, contributed to the deterioration of his health. He died in Moscow at the age of 42 of heart failure.
Vysotsky's body was laid out at the Taganka Theater, where the funeral service was held. He was later buried at the Vagankovskoye Cemetery, Moscow. Thousands of Moscow citizens left the stadiums (as it was the time of the 1980 Summer Olympics) to attend the funeral. Although no official figure was released, it was later estimated that over one million people attended Vysotsky's funeral, almost as many as the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005. The Soviet authorities, taken aback by the unexpected outpouring of public support for an underground singer, and concerned about the country's image during the already highly controversial Olympics, ordered troops into Moscow to prevent possible riots. In the years to come, Vysotsky's flower-adorned grave became a site of pilgrimage for several generations his fans, the youngest of whom were born after his death. His tombstone, too, 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 more 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.
Shortly after Vysotsky's death, many Russian bards wrote songs and poems about his life and death. The best known ones 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 popularity in Russia is often compared to that of Bob Dylan in America, but as a voice of the people oppressed by the communist regime, his significance was greater.
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 gives tribute to Vladimir's talent and rich persona, yet is uncompromising in its depiction of his addictions and the problems which 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)
The poet accompanied himself on a Russian guitar, with an intense voice singing ballads of love, peace, war, and every-day Soviet life. His voice and music 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. Vysotsky's lyrics and style greatly influenced Jacek Kaczmarski, a Polish songwriter and singer who touched similar themes.
The songs—over 600 of them—were written about almost any imaginable theme. The earliest were Street songs. These songs were based either on the city romance of 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 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, but almost never as himself. When singing his criminal songs, he would borrow the voice of a Moscow thief and when singing war songs he would sing from the point of view of a soldier. 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 performed his role play so well that until informed 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."
Many film soundtracks, especially those featuring the singer, incorporated Vysotsky's songs. One of the most notable examples is Vertikal.
Not officially recognized by the government as a poet and singer, Vysotsky performed where and whenever he could—in the theater, in the university, in village clubs and under open air. It was not unusual for him to have several concerts per day. He used to sleep little, using the night hours to write. In his last years, he managed to perform outside the USSR and held concerts in Paris, Toronto and New York City.
With some exceptions, he had no chance to publish his recordings with "Melodiya," which held a monopoly on the Soviet music industry. His songs were passed on through amateur recordings on magnetic tapes, resulting in an immense popularity; cosmonauts took his music on tape cassette into orbit. His writings were all published posthumously.
Musically, virtually all of Vysotsky's songs were written in a minor key, and tended to employ from three to seven chords. Vysotski 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 guitar, thus it became a staple of his sound. Because Vysotsky tuned down a tone and a half, his strings had lesser tension, which also colored the sound.
His earliest songs usually were 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" (Zvyezdi), "My friend has left for Magadan" (Moi droog uehal v Magadan), and most of his songs about criminals.
Around 1970, Vysotsky began writing and playing exculsively in A minor (guitar tuned to CFACFAC), which he continued right up to 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]|
Vysotski 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 favorites was to play an alternating bass with his thumb as he plucked or strummed with his other fingers.
Oftentimes, Vysotsky would neglect 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 one whole step (Vysotsky would sometimes tune as much as two and a half steps down) is prone to intonation problems.
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