Are we still too close to Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) to see him properly? It’s been a hell of a long time since we lost him – he died during the boycotted Moscow Summer Olympics. I well remember hearing the news. I had returned from a six-month residence in Russia seven months earlier and Vysotsky’s music and his presence were still very alive in my mind. I owned two French-made LPs of his songs recorded in France and I absolutely loved them. Still do, in fact. The quality of the recordings was so much better than the primitive arrangements and mixes you got on the few available Soviet 45s and LPs. More to the point, however, my friend Vladimir Ferkelman in Leningrad owned many of the famous reel-to-reel samizdat tapes of Vysotsky singing his songs at parties, at home and at concerts, so I had had the opportunity to experience the singer-songwriter (if I may use that term) the way he was most often experienced in Russia – in somebody’s warm, cramped, inviting, booklined home on an old, soft sofa, with several people hunched over a tape player to hear the man sing. People on both sides of the pond have, from time to time, tried to describe Vysotsky as the Russian Bob Dylan. That’s always irked me. It just doesn’t fit. Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan and you can’t define anyone else using him as a measuring stick. Any more than you can force Vysotsky into a framework built on another artist. But that’s just a little aside. As I say, all of this was still very vivid in my memory when summer 1980 arrived. By then I was living in Washington, D.C., and I was working at a bookstore in Georgetown. I’d make my way to a metro stop at the Pentagon from my apartment in Alexandria, and from there I’d zip into Georgetown to work. One morning I was standing on the platform waiting for the next metro train to approach and I was doing what everyone was doing – I was reading a newspaper that I held out before me. I hesitate to say which newspaper because one might expect it to be the Washington Post, although I’m pretty sure it was the New York Times. Anyway, there was a piece on the front page below the fold telling that Vladimir Vysotsky had died. Boom. That didn’t make any sense, I’ll tell you. The guy was 42.
I knew Vysotsky as a singer and a writer of his own songs, and that’s what most everyone knew and loved him for. What was less obvious to some – especially a young foreigner wet behind the ears – was that he was also one of the great, charismatic actors of his time. Vysotsky’s Hamlet at Yury Lyubimov’s Taganka Theater is one of the great legends of the Russian stage. It is no secret that when Vysotsky died, Lyubimov lost just a little of his mojo at the Taganka and, before too long – four years later – he found himself in exile in the West. Vysotsky, like everyone else at the Taganka, drank like a fish. The difference was his genius. Lyubimov would fire or discipline other actors for showing up to work drunk, but he let Vysotsky get away with anything. It was almost a love affair. In fact I think Lyubimov’s worship of Vysotsky’s talent and charisma was very reminiscent of romantic love. It certainly sounds that way based on the memoirs and documents that have emerged in recent times.
But to get back to my original comment about our still being too close to Vysotsky to get a real grip on him. I began with that because the sculpture of the singer/actor that stands at the Petrovskiye Vorota plaza in Moscow just doesn’t capture the man for me. I see it as a kind of pop version, one that corresponds to the myth that lives and grows in the public’s mind, but which doesn’t get past the surface of the artist. I guess that’s okay, too. But I tend to respond better to art that is more daring and adventurous. This likeness by sculptor Gennady Raspopov and architect Anatoly Klimochkin seems to picture the performer soaking in the love of the masses. At the same time, his gaze is directed upwards; each of us can decide for ourselves what may or may not have attracted his attention up there. The statue was erected in 1995 and, if I’m not mistaken, it was the first monument raised to the great man, just 15 years after his death (caused by alcohol poisoning). I usually walk by the sculpture with a bit of a shudder and a thought or two of regret that I’d like to get closer to whatever made this man tick, but it’s not going to happen because of this piece of street art.