Monique van Ravenstein reviews ‘Red Wave’ by Joanna Stingray

30 June 2021

By Monique van Ravenstein

Monique van Ravenstein reviews Red Wave: An American in the Soviet Music Underground  by Joanna Stingray and Madison Stingray, Doppelhouse Press, 2020, pp. 416, Los Angeles, Paperback ISBN: 9781733957922

Peremen! Red Wave – or the power of soft power

The author’s name did not ring a bell but straight away the book Red Wave, by American New Wave pop singer Joanna Stingray, catapulted me back to a magical time in the 1990s. 

Whilst attending a summer course about Russian media at St Petersburg University, newly found friends introduced me to the underground scene of rock musicians and artists. We gathered in kitchens and, paradoxically considering the underground character of the scene, on rooftops. I stocked up on bootleg tapes for my Walkman on the black market, collecting music from bands like Kino, Krematori, DDT, Mashina Vremeni and of course Akvarium. At night I joined vague parties and concerts in club Monny Khonny and Fish Fabrique. 

By then the doors of the famous Leningradsky Rock Klub, where Stingray’s book begins, had just closed.

A stone’s throw from this illustrious club, in the heart of the beautiful but slightly rundown city centre, lived my friend Sveta. She invited me to her place, a kommunalnaya kvartira. Address: 10 Malaya Konyushennaya Ulitsa. A stairwell plastered with graffiti led to the top floor or “mansarde” as Sveta preferred to call it. Above the apartment door, in spray paint, were three words, “dver v nirvanu” – the door to paradise. This graffiti referred to the time when rock icon Boris Grebenshchikov, lead singer of one of the most famous Soviet bands Akvarium, was Sveta’s housemate. 

At the same round wooden table in the communal kitchen where Boris and his band mates once gathered and played music, we drank tea, strong portveyn and Baltika beers. Sveta’s friends Mikha and Misha bought weak Russian weed which we smoked on the rooftop from emptied Belomor cigarette tubes, looking out over White Night Piter. A magical time in a magical place. Down the rabbit hole.

The same rabbit hole that American pop singer Joanna Stingray found when she first landed in Leningrad, as the city was still called then, in 1984. She had decided to join her sister on a work trip to the Soviet Union, attempting to escape the boring establishment life in Los Angeles during a stagnation in her nascent rock career, and subsequently fell in love with the underground music scene, never letting it go. Her trip was also an act of rebellion against her father who produced an anti-Soviet documentary in the sixties, narrated by Ronald Reagan. Her father had always warned her to never set foot in the ‘evil empire’.  

Stingray turned into a lifesaver for the Russian rock scene. She used her connections at home with US producers and musicians to arrange instruments, visas and recording sessions for her friends from Akvarium, Kino and other bands – the Soviet Union’s unofficial music scene. She also frequently performed on stage with them (although she had to steer clear of the KGB every so often) and became one of them. By 1985 she was writing and recording with them, whilst also smuggling their music into the West so as to produce the groundbreaking album Red Wave: 4 Underground Bands from the USSR. (A great collector’s item designed in yellow and red vinyl!) She fell in love with and eventually married Kino guitarist Yuri Kasparian and shuttled tirelessly between the US and Russia as the self-proclaimed ambassador of perestroika. It reads as a textbook example of the power of ‘people to people contacts’ – soft power but without the political motivation.

This all happened in the eighties and nineties. Since then, in Russia, the winds of change have been replaced by some more sinister ghosts of the past. The Red Wave era of openness and opportunity is history, although some bands still do perform. Joanna Stingray returned to the US, divorced her Yuri, but kept a huge and very special place in her heart for her Russian friends. So much so that now, more than thirty years later, she decided to capture these years in a book bearing the same title as that unique double-album Red Wave. In co-authorship with Madison, the daughter she had with Yuri, she finally documented her perestroika era adventures. They are a delicious read for anyone lucky enough to have spent some time in the Soviet Union during these years. On top of the many ‘madeleines’ à la Russe, there are plenty of wild and wonderful anecdotes bearing witness to the risks she took and the surprises she encountered. 

One of the best anecdotes is the story of the Fender Stratocaster guitar. Just before travelling back to the US, during her first trip, Boris Grebenshchikov gave her the number of a contact in the US with ties to David Bowie’s management. Bowie, who had visited the USSR in the seventies, received some of Akvarium’s recordings and had promised to buy them some instruments. Grebenshchikov had asked for a red Fender Stratocaster and, when Stingray got in touch, Bowie kept his promise. On her next trip to Leningrad, Stingray brought this guitar with her. In order to prevent it from being confiscated at customs, she lied claiming that it was hers and that she needed it for a concert on her next trip. She was allowed to take it with her but, only after the officials meticulously registered all guitar details and insisted she would have to produce it again on her way out. She pondered on this problem afterwards, wondering how she could still gift the guitar to Grebenschikov and leave without this being noticed. To her new friends, this was a piece of cake. They created a mock-up that was indistinguishable from the real thing, right down to the serial number, to show at the airport, and it worked!

By the end of the eighties, thanks to Stingray’s tireless promotion, the West was somewhat warming up to Soviet culture. By 1987, USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev even decided that the Red Wave bands were allowed to become “official”. These Russian bands never really did become big in the West though, most likely because of the language barrier.

‘Red Wave – An American in the Soviet Music Underground’ was released last summer. The irony of history has it that in that same summer the song Peremen (‘Changes’), by Stingray’s very best friend and lead singer of Kino Viktor Tsoi, who died young in a car accident in 1990, made an activist comeback as the soundtrack to the mass demonstrations against Lukashenko’s rule in Belarus and against Putin’s in Russia. 

This immediately underlines one aspect that makes Red Wave so fascinating. Yes, it is a time capsule, a view from within the Soviet rock bubble. But it is more than that. For lovers of Russia, Red Wave is a wonderful trip down memory lane. Stingray brings the Leningrad and Moscow of the eighties to life, with all its shortages and newly won freedoms, the Soviet life in which only state-approved artists were allowed to earn a living with their profession. Everyone else was obliged to work other day jobs, and even the most popular bands didn’t earn a penny with their passion. Stingray also successfully opened up a world that not many people had a chance to witness from the inside: backstage at the Leningradsky Rock Klub and more intimately in the musicians’ communal flats. 

Finally, this book also highlights what a window of opportunity the era of Perestroika was, in hindsight, and how that window has sadly closed again. The historical lack of freedom is now repeating itself in Russia, the temperature between West and East has plummeted back down to Siberian winter temperatures, and so many people yearn for a new Wind of Change. The Soviet Union is long gone, but in Putin’s Russia dissidents are once again being persecuted: human rights defenders, activists, opposition politicians, journalists and artists. At a time when human rights organizations are calling to step up support for civil society and the European Union underlines the importance of people-to-people contacts, this book can serve as a source of inspiration for being active and resilient, refusing to let propaganda and prejudice decide what’s on the agenda.

Ultimately, Red Wave can also be read as a book about the power of soft power and burgeoning activism in Russia. Joanna Stingray’s curiosity and perseverance show the true power of people-to-people contacts.

A note by the reviewer:

The book includes Joanna’s extensive collection of photographs, artworks, and interviews with the musicians. 

Boris Grebenshchikov (Akvarium) about the book: Joanna Stingray’s appearance in St. Petersburg in the early 1980s must have been God’s response to our unconscious prayers. Her naive bravery, curiosity and generosity created a kind of a lifeline for us rockers: she brought in things we needed to play our music, and took out not only our recordings but the very message of our existence. Had it not been for her and her Red Wave, it would have taken Akvarium many more years to have official records on Melodiya and Kino to start touring Europe. This fearless maiden broke through the siege that looked hopelessly unbreakable. She threw a life-saver into our waters and she changed everything. No matter how many times we thank her — it’s never enough.

Check out also:

Red Wave op Spotify: Red Wave: 4 soviet bands. First release of Russian rock music in the US

The music of change: In a special episode of the must-hear podcast Wind of Change Joanna Stingray tells her story to Patrick Radden Keeffe.

Leave a Reply