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Joanna Stingray & Madison Stingray
Hannelore Fobo: Introduction.
The 30th of March 2019 saw the book launch of the Russian edition of Stingray in Wonderland, Joanna Stingray's book of memoirs on her travels from Los Angeles to Leningrad in the 1980s. Focusing on the period from 1984 to 1987, it is the first part of Stingray's autobiography on her ‘Russian’ years, with volume two and three forthcoming. The book, co-authored with Joanna Stingray's daughter Madison and translated into Russian by Alexander Kan, a BBC journalist and one of the most knowledgeable persons on the 1980s Leningrad music scene more >> and more >>, was presented at the Saint Petersburg bookshop Bukvoed.
Stingray in Wonderland gives a colourful account of the adventures of a young American rock singer determined to show the world that there is rock music behind the iron curtain. Joanna Stingray shares with the reader her friendship with musicians from the most prominent Leningrad rock bands of that time, in the first place Boris Grebenshikov of ‘Aquarium’ more >> and Viktor Tsoy and Yuri Kasparyan of ‘Kino’ – then underground celebrities, but today legends of Russian music. The list of names read like a ‘Who is Who’ of Leningrad's musical subculture. Besides Grebenshikov, Tsoy and Kasparyan more >>, the names of Sergey Kuryokhin more >>, Seva Gakkel more >>, Georgy Guryanov more >>, Alexander Titov more >>, Grigory and Viktor Sologub more >>, Konstantin Kinchev, and many others appear throughout the book. Numerous pictures ‘from behind the scenes’, most of them taken by Joanna's sister Judy who accompanied Joanna on her trips, make the book particularly attractive to Russian rock fans. It became an immediate success – the first edition was sold out at once.
The following paragraphs are from Joanna's website https://www.joannastingray.com/joanna/
In 1984, while touring Russia, Joanna Stingray 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. Joanna would become the first producer to publish Russian music in the United States when she released a double album entitled “Red Wave – 4 Underground Bands From The USSR” – a compilation of music smuggled out of the USSR by Joanna in 1986.
A frequent traveller in and out of Russia, Joanna was interrogated by both the KGB and FBI (both thought she was a spy) and in 1987, she became an enemy of the Russian State - her visa blocked from entering the Soviet Union to marry Leningrad guitarist Yuri Kasparyan. After months of intervention by the U.S. State Department, she returned to Russia, married Yuri and in the early 90’s became a television host, a recording artist and well known rock personality throughout Russia.
Alexis Ipatovtsev, friends with Boris Grebenshikov and Joanna Stingray since the 1980s, made the following statement about the Soviet period in an interview he gave me a day after the book launch:
Joanna Stingray was certainly able to bring into the country more than just records and posters. She did bring Boris Grebenshikov a poster signed by David Bowie, but also Bowie's more extravagant gift, a red Fender Stratocaster. To safely move through customs border such fantastic goods, Stingray developed a high range of tricks and skilful excuses.
The Fender she claimed to be a her own guitar with which she would tour Europe after her visit to the Soviet Union. Instead, she departed with a mock-up her friends had supplied with an identical serial number. A large amount of Campbell's soup cans signed by Andy Warhol with personal dedications to each of her friends became her provisions to deal with food allergies. In fact, to some of them the art-object was less important than its content. The book tells us that Georgy Guryanov, drummer of Kino, opened his present to taste American tomato soup.
Stingray managed to bring several synthesizers for Sergey Kuryokhin, a Fender P bass guitar for Viktor Tsoy, a white Fender for Yuri Kasparan and a portable four track studio recorder, all of which was of immense help to improve the sound of performances and recordings. In the company of sponsors from Yamaha and from a Los Angeles guitar shop, she delivered a complete sound equipment to the Leningrad Rock Club – not to mention countless smaller presents and gadgets, such as T-shirts from the Interview magazine and punk bracelets. Among the gifts for her artists friends was a special liquid used for monoprint frottage see (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov's works from 1986.
It's no wonder her friends called her ‘Santa Claus’.
But Joanna Stingray also took presents the other way, to the States: She brought Andy Warhol collages by Timur Novikov and Oleg Kotelnikov. Most importantly, she smuggled out the tapes for the double album Red Wave, which she released in 1986 on Big Time Records, a small Australian label with an office in Los Angeles. It was the first vinyl album of independent Leningrad rock groups – Aquarium, Kino, Alisa, and Strannye Igry (Strange Games). The first pressing with the yellow and red vinyl had 5.000 copies, and the total sales amounted to 20.000.
Leningrad's Underground Culture at the Beginning of Perestroika
The years from 1984 to 1987 were of particular importance for Leningrad's underground culture more >>. They mark the passage not only from magnitizdat albums to vinyl records, but also from private performances more >> and exhibitions more >> to public ones reaching a larger audience. The first large exhibition of Leningrad‘ most important avant-garde group ‘The New Artists’ took place at the Leningrad Rock Club in December 1985 more >>.
Boris Grebenshikov and David Bowie, Times Square, New York, 1987
At the end of 1987, restrictions started to be lifted on travels to the West. In December 1987, Boris Grebenshikov met David Bowie in New York, and in August 1988, the ‘The New Artists’ had their first large international exhibition at the Kulturhuset, Stockholm, which openend with a concert of Sergey Kuryokhin's Pop Mekhanika more >>.
We could hardly imagine the expansion of ‘subculture’ activities without Gorbachev's reforms known as perestroika – ‘rebuilding’ or ‘restructuring’ the Soviet system: In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded Konstantin Chernenko as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Yet it was a gradual transition towards a political system allowing more individual freedom. Different people recall different turning points. In his interview from March 30, 2019, Alexis Ipatovtsev defines the 12th of October 1986 as the decisive moment – the day of the season's opening at the Rock Club attended by Joanna Stingray, who had just come back from the United States. Ipatovtsev thinks that after the release of Red Wave some months earlier, the Soviet authorities were already preparing something against her.
I once spoke with somebody in a bar. The guy was about 20 years younger than me. And I said… He knew that I had been doing this Desyat Strel, Ten Arrows record, and he said, “But anyway, why do you say it was magnitizdat album? It was in ‘86,” he said, “It was Gorbachev already.” I said, “Yeah, it was Gorbachev, but perestroika hadn’t started yet.” He said, “What do you mean? It’s everywhere, it’s on Wikipedia: Perestroika started in March '85.” I said, “No, I can tell when perestroika started. It started on 12 October, 1986. It was the day when Joanna Stingray kissed me in the Rock Club, and I was instantly arrested after that.”
They released me temporarily, and then I told Boris, who was supposed to play… It was the day of the season’s opening at the Rock Club, and I told Boris, “Look, what should I do? They took my passport, they took my recording equipment. They said they were going to take me to the KGB for an interrogation at night, after the concert. And they took my passport.” And he said, “Well, pray.” I said, “I’m not even baptized, but I’ll try.” But then, when he came on stage, he said, like, “You know, a lot of people…” He paused… “You know, we were supposed to play tonight but we won’t, because too many of our friends were arrested today.”
I was, like, he is saying this from the stage to the audience that is infested with guys linked with the KGB, those who arrested me sitting next to me. And then I couldn’t believe my eyes. People started to jump screaming, “KGB, get out!”, and I think 10% of the audience or a quarter left immediately. […] The 12th of October 1986 was the first time I saw a public demonstration in this country. more >>
Incidentally, the Reykjavik Summit, the meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, took place on the same day, more specifically, on 11–12 October 1986. Although the Reykjavik Summit did not lead to an agreement, it paved the way for the INF Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed on 8 December 1987.
For Joanna Stingray, cold war also continued for another year: at the beginning of 1987, she was declined a Soviet visa, missed her own marriage and visited Leningrad several months later almost conspiratively on a shore excursion from a cruise coming from Finland. American politicians intervened on behalf of her, and Stingray was allowed to re-enter the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1987, when she finally married Yuri Kasparyan. The book ends with Joanna flying back to the States alone – a real cliffhanger.
Points of Contact
Just as incidentally, one might say, Stingray in Wonderland was released shortly after the INF Treaty was formally suspended by Russia’s President Putin on 4 March 2019. It came in response to U.S. President Trump's announcement on 2 February 2019 of a 180 days suspense of the treaty, prior to a full withdrawal. The official relations between America and Russia are now at the lowest point since the end of Cold War.
The success of Stingray in Wonderland shows that Russia's politics of isolationism is not being accepted wholeheartedly by its people – at least not by those Russians asking themselves whether their contemporary culture will remain a local affair, at a time when America's pop culture is setting the trend. They are by non means indifferent to how the West perceives them: During the Saint Petersburg book presentation, Joanna Stingray was asked about the impact of Red Wave on the American audience.
It certainly made an impact in 1986. News about the upcoming release of the first Soviet Rock album even appeared in the German magazine Der Spiegel, which printed pictures of the album cover and a very stylish photo of Stingray. For obvious reasons, none of the musicians could travel to the U.S to promote the album or Stingray's video-clip, but Stingray gave many interviews and sent copies of the record to Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
The release of Red Wave might have affected the Soviet Union even more. Joanna Stingray writes:
If Aquarium's first album on Melodiya – ‘Aquarium‘, in January 1987 – wasn't the direct result of Red Wave, then its release was doubtlessly precipitated by Red Wave. According to Alexis Ipatovtsev, the decision was taken around September 1986.
It is a well-known fact that in Russia, official recognition of ‘fringe’ culture often takes a detour via the West. Yet in this specific case, it is hard to speak of fringe culture: Ipatovtsev wrote me that ‘Aquarium’ was reprinted several times, with the number of copies exceeding one million already by 1989.
In short, Red Wave is is the incredible story of a cool young American telling not-so-cool and not-so-young Soviets that their ‘crazy’ children are extraordinary. And because she‘s from America and because there is Gorbachev, they will eventually listen to her – implicitly admitting that America had remained the benchmark for Russia throughout the Cold War.
Isolationism might be acceptable in America to some degree, simply because the country appears to be the natural leader of the world. But many Russian writers, musicians and visual artists are uneasy with the official Russian rhetorics of ‘we’ against ‘them’ and similar patriotic propaganda inherited from the Soviet times. When they cannot ignore it, it creates psychological stress. As I argued in my article ‘Empire and Magic. Sergey Kuryokhin‘s “Pop Mekhanka No. 418”’, it may lead to such schizophrenic attitudes as that of cherishing and loathing Western culture at the same time more >>.
Stingray in Wonderland brings some relief from this stress. It meets the nostalgic feeling about a time when hostility towards ‘the enemy’ ceded to mutual recognition, when Boris Grebenshikov met with David Bowie – in other words, when the rhetoric of ‘us’ against ‘them’ turned into a ‘we’ feeling that expanded towards universal understanding. In the 1980s, Joanna Stingray brought this ‘we’ feeling to Russia and back to America, and her enthusiasm defines the tone of the book. She put her heart and soul into creating Points of Contact, to quote the title of Evgenij Kozlov's painting from 1989, depicting the relation between the USA and the USSR (CCCP) through the symbols of opposite sexes and yin and yang.
Stingray in Wonderland – Chapters 23 and 24
Stingray in Wonderland offers many interesting aspects about Leningrad's subculture, but is not yet available in English. For the purpose of my research about the Leningrad 1980s, I asked Joanna to allow me to publish an excerpt from her English manuscript, to which she generously agreed. She also gave me the permission to use pictures from her archive.
From a total of forty-seven chapters, I selected chapters 23 and 24, both relating to Joanna's visit to Leningrad in October 1986. They complete material already published on our website referring to the same period or events – my interview with Alexis Ipatovtsev from 31 March 2019 more >> and (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov's documentation of the Pop Mekhanika concert at the Leningrad Palace of Youth on 20 October 1986 more >>.
Chapter 23 more >> discusses the situation after the ‘illegal’ release of Red Wave, and chapter 24 more >> Stingray's performances on stage, among them the Pop Mekhanika concert on 20 October 1986. It also mentions the first official release of an Aquarium album by the Soviet State label Melodiya, the circumstances of which I analysed in the introduction to my interview with Alexis Ipatovtsev more >>. Ipatovtsev himself speaks of the consequences of the release of Red Wave more >>.
One of Kozlov's pictures taken prior to the Pop Mekhanika performance the Leningrad Palace of Youth sees Joanna Stingray standing next to Viktor Tsoy, the charismatic frontman of the Kino band.
(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov: Pop Mekhanika 1986. Joanna Stingray, Viktor Tsoy. more >>
It is amazing how much Joanna Stingray and Viktor Tsoy resemble each other in this picture. With their facial features and contours, their postures and the way they look into the camera, they look like sister and brother. No other picture I have seen makes the obvious so obvious.
Inspired by his photograph, Kozlov created the ‘Portrait of Joanna Stingray’ in 1989. In his portrait, Joanna Stingray is wearing a space suite, which leads us to Alexis Ipatovtsev's comment quoted above ‘Each of you coming at that time was perceived as a messenger from outer space’. Joanna is, however, not wearing a space helmet. Unlike David Bowie's ‘Major Tom’, this space traveller was not getting lost in cosmos in a tin can, but safely landed on earth.
Hannelore Fobo, 10 June 2019
(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov
|Uploaded 10 June 2019
Last updated 14 June 2019