April 10, 2014 by cosmoakacitizensmith
Vladimir Vysotsky was Russia’s Bob Dylan. He wrote complex and satirical lyrics and added them to traditional-sounding songs. But writing in the repressive atmosphere of the Soviet Union, he was castigated and ignored by the Communist establishment, despite being a well-regarded film actor.
Such was the power of his music, however, that when he recorded on primitive home tapes it spread far and wide in the Russian-speaking world and beyond. At the time of his death in 1980, he was regarded as an iconic national poet and songwriter. This stature has grown considerably since then. He is regularly voted amongst the greatest of all Russians in polls along with first-man-in-space Yuri Gagarin, Tolstoy and others. Yet in the English-speaking world he is hardly known at all.
His death is surrounded by mystery. He was so wealthy from doing concerts outside the official, state-controlled gig circuit that he could hire his own doctors to proscribe him drugs. Like Michael Jackson, he died from a lethal dose. Conspiracy theories about his death abound to this day.
Despite not understanding a word of Russian, I love listening to his music. I was delighted a few years ago to find online a website of his songs with English translations by Serge Elnitsky and I decided I was going to learn one of them. The song Moscow-Odessa is a strange one. In Russian it sounds like someone telling a story to music and getting more demented in his delivery. In translation, the lyrics tell the story of someone trying to get a flight to a hostile environment but it’s continually delayed, like a bizarre frustration dream.
What is the song about? Is it a satire about the inadequacy of the state-run airline? An existential rant about life’s let-downs? I wasn’t sure. It was only when I read last year about Edward Snowden getting stuck in Moscow airport after leaking the NSA documents showing the US was spying on each and every one of us online that Moscow-Odessa started making some kind of sense:
I need to go where snow-drifts are waist-high,
Where thunder rolls and chilly winds are blowing
While somewhere else there might be sunny skies,
And life is good — but that’s not where I’m going.
One more announcement comes: delayed till eight!
And passengers obediently say, “wake me”…
But, damn, I can no longer bear to wait;
I fly off to whatever place will take me.
Anyway, I found the song quite hard to learn, as there are no choruses or repeat sections, but I managed to get enough of it in my head to attempt a performance. I gave it a go in Amsterdam on the first night of a tour, but I was knackered and forgot some of the verses.
A week or so after getting back, I got an email from Dr. Marlena Zimna who runs the Vladimir Vysotsky museum in Poland. She said she’d heard I did a cover of Moscow Odessa and asked me if I’d consider sending a copy for the museum for a forthcoming exhibition of the singer’s work in English translation. I said I’d be honoured – but how on earth did she know I covered the song? I only played it once in Amsterdam!
She said that she had been searching on Youtube and found the very performance, which you can watch here. My flabber was well and truly gasted! So to cut a long story short I sent the recording off to her, along with some other of my CDs, and they will feature in the exhibition. As I said, I feel very honoured!
The current situation in Ukraine, where the port of Odessa is situated, adds only to the mystery of this song for me. And here’s my version: