April 25, 2012

Tsoy Lives!

Tsoy Lives!

Victor Tsoy – founder, lead singer and songwriter for the rock group Kino (“Cinema”), and one of the most famous and most popular figures in Russian rock – was born 50 years ago, on June 21, 1962. He died just two months past his 28th birthday, on August 15, 1990, in an automobile accident, having fallen asleep at the wheel of his Moskvich on a road outside Riga.

Tsoy departed this world at the ideal age for a rock hero. He had been just barely older than several legendary rock idols taken from us when they were 27: Brian Jones, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison.

Time takes its toll, and it is considerably easier to imagine a greying Hendrix, mellowed by age, than it is to consider a 50-year-old Tsoy. Even those who follow these things find it hard to believe that Tsoy would have crossed half a century of life this year.

The fact is that there is not a single other figure in Russian rock – living or dead – who has attained the same sort of cult status. And while Tsoy’s biography is well-known, it hardly explains how it is that the person and legacy of Victor Tsoy continues to this day to play such an important role in Russian culture - even in Russian mass culture.


• • • • •

Victor Robertovich Tsoy was born in Leningrad. His father was an Soviet-Korean engineer; his mother was a Russian-born phys ed teacher. From 1974-77 Tsoy was enrolled in art school, where he played bass guitar in the group “Ward No. 6,” named for Chekhov’s famous story. After he was expelled from art school (it was said for poor grades, but being a rocker didn’t help) he entered a technical institute, where he was trained in wood carving.

As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, Tsoy became friends with Alexei Rybin, and together they formed the group Garin and the Hyperboloids (Гарин и Гиперболоиды), which was soon renamed Kino. The group’s first album, 45 (1982), was recorded with the active support of Boris Grebenshchikov, the leader of Aquarium, which for over 30 years has been one of Russia’s leading rock groups.

In 1983 Kino and Aquarium put on a joint concert and a year later Kino (with participation by Grebenshchikov and his team) released its second album, Boss of Kamchatka (Начальник Камчатки), which led the Soviet KGB to add Kino to its list of ideologically harmful groups. In 1985 Tsoy married Marianna Rodovanskaya, and that year the couple had a son, Alexander.

Over the next year, Kino worked on two albums, This is Not Love (Это не любовь, 1985) and Night (Ночь, 1986), both recorded in more professional facilities and both leading to substantial growth in the group’s popularity. In 1986, Tsoy began working as a stoker in the Kamchatka boiler room, which has since become a place of pilgrimage for his fans, and he also began shooting for Sergei Solovyov’s film Assa, in which he played himself. The following year he played the lead in Rashid Nugmanov’s film The Needle (Игла). Both films were distributed nationwide and in 1988 Kino released what would be its finest album, Blood Type (Группа крови), which laid the foundation for “Kinomania” across the USSR.

Triumphant tours followed throughout Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia, and in 1989 the group released its next album, A Star Named The Sun (Звезда по имени Солнце). An even more active touring season followed in 1989-90, ending with a now famous concert at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.

In the summer of 1990, Tsoy and Kino guitarist Yuri Kasparyan began recording material for a new album, but it was cut short by Tsoy’s sudden death. Tsoy was buried in Leningrad’s Bogoslovsky Cemetery, and in December of that year Kino released its final album. Yet despite the stir caused by Tsoy’s untimely end, the record did not enjoy anything like the success of the two previous albums.

It is noteworthy, that one of Kino’s most famous songs – “We’re Waiting for Change” (“Мы ждем перемен”) – did not appear on any of the group’s albums. It’s universal popularity began with the release of Assa, the final scene of which is Tsoy performing this song first to an empty room, then before a crowd of thousands. [bit.ly/tsoychange] The song is beloved to this day, has been covered by countless bands, and is periodically heard at opposition rallies in Russia and Belarus.

In 2011, after the song was sung at several mass demonstrations in Belarus, it was added to Belorussian Radio’s blacklist. This is all the more curious, given that the song contains not a word about politics, and that it expresses the feelings both of those who are waiting for change and those who vote for “Putinesque stability.”


Мы не можем похвастаться мудростью глаз

И умелыми жестами рук,

Нам не нужно все это, чтобы друг друга понять.

Сигареты в руках, чай на столе,

Так замыкается круг.

И вдруг нам становится страшно что-то менять.


We cannot boast of eyes filled with wisdom

Or hands that are highly-skilled,

We don’t need all that to understand one another.

Cigarettes in our hands, tea on the table,

This is how the circle is completed.

Yet suddenly we are too terrified to change anything.


Director Sergei Solovyov recalled shooting the movie’s final scene in Moscow’s famous Gorky Park: “I myself was there, waving my arms in that ten-thousand-strong crowd in Gorky Park. And I am ready to take a blood oath that not a single person in attendance knew what sort of change he wanted, yet there was no one who did not want it… It’s problematic, of course, to yell ‘Change!’ without knowing what exactly you want.”

This sentiment is still relevant today, 25 years later, when the greatest problem facing Russia’s waking civil society is fragmentation and the absence of a unified understanding of the changes that need to take place.

The final scene in Alexei Balabanov’s recent film, Shipment 200 (Груза 200) – one of the most powerful and difficult Russian films since 2000, is a clear reference to the final scene in Assa. “Shipment 200” is a military term that refers to the transport of zinc coffins filled with soldiers who died in Afghanistan, and in this brutal provincial film it turns into a metaphor for all of Russia.

While the majority of the film plays out before a soundtrack of hits from Soviet “official” pop (эстрада) that we heard on our radios in the USSR of the 1980s, the ending takes us to an underground concert of the group Kino, when it is just getting its start. The film’s hero, Valera, who is responsible for most of the tragedies in Shipment 200, light-heartedly discusses with some new acquaintances the arrival of the era of easy money. Meanwhile, the first song from Kino’s first album plays in the background.


Дождь идет с утра,

Будет, был и есть.

И карман мой пуст,

На часах шесть.

Папирос нет,

И огня нет,

И в окне знакомом

Не горит свет.

Время есть, а денег нет,

И в гости некуда пойти.


It’s been raining since morning,

It isn’t gonna stop.

And my pockets are empty,

At six o’clock.

No cigarettes,

No lighter,

And all my friends’ windows

Are dark.

I’ve got time but no money,

And no one to visit.


In 2007, such a hopeless ending was taken as more realistic than the perhaps excessively hopeful ending of Assa, and Tsoy’s earlier song sounded more relevant than the mature “We Want Change,” notwithstanding the maximal simplicity of its music and lyrics. Yet the ending to Shipment 200 is relevant today as well, at a time when reports are coming from throughout Russia about police tyranny, while in neighboring Belarus they still have the death penalty.

In just the two snippets of songs cited above, it is clear just how far Tsoy traveled, albeit with great ease, between the first and second halves of the 1980s. His earlier songs are more honest and soulful; his later ones braver and catchier. The early ones were recorded in near-amateur conditions and sound more like singer-songwriter tunes with guitar than like rock music. The sound of the later recordings is professional – even to this day they does not sound dated, even though Kino was approaching the unstable border between rock and pop.

In Blood Type, the cheap drum set from 45 was replaced by a Yamaha RX-11 drum machine; to this day, the drum riffs are so recognizable than you can guess any song from the album in just a few beats, even if you only hear their rhythm seeping out from the headphones of your neighbor on the metro. The record, which was a sensation in 1988, and which since has been repeatedly voted the best ever in Russian rock, spread across the country like wildfire, without the help of any sort of centralized system of distribution – it was simply copied from cassette to cassette, from hand to hand.

There is not a single accidental song on Blood Type, although the catchiness of two or three songs clearly overshadows what they are trying to express. Nonetheless, the album is a harmonized whole. While Aquarium, which has released one album after another, has always allowed itself to experiment and does not fear making a mistake, for Tsoy Blood Type was an exam that could only be passed with highest marks. The result is 11 songs, not one of which is like the one before it (for example the unexpected Rakhmaninovian piano solo in “I Am Leaving” - “Я ухожу” - after the title song, which is a standard rock song). And “Blood Type,” which opens the album, has been adopted by several generations of Russian youth as their guiding hymn.


И есть чем платить,

Но я не хочу победы любой ценой -

Я никому не хочу ставить ногу на грудь.

Я хотел бы остаться с тобой,

Просто остаться с тобой,

Но высокая в небе звезда зовёт меня в путь.


I can pay

But I don’t want victory at any cost –

I don’t want to put my foot on anyone’s chest.

I’d rather stay with you,

Simply stay with you,

But a star high in the sky is calling me to another path.


Of course, Tsoy did not exist in a vacuum, and others surely wrote similar songs. Yet he was the only one among Russian rockers who succeeded in capturing and expressing the spirit of his times such that his songs were sung by practically every teenager in the country. And for Tsoy, as well as for Russian music, Blood Type was a breakthrough of such a magnitude, that the next album, A Star Named The Sun, sounded like merely a worthy continuation of it.

Still, among the album’s nine songs, at least two were super-hits: “Pack of Cigarettes” and the title song, “A Star Named the Sun,” which to this day is sung more often among friends around a guitar than the songs of dozens of groups which have appeared over the past three decades. And the last song, “April” (“Апрель”), after a series of triumphal songs about “a place to step forward,” and “the whole world” which is “making war on me,” surprises with the simplicity of its melody and the honesty of its words, making it memorable from the first hearing. In a word: a perfect song to sum up the work.


А он придет и приведет за собой весну

И рассеет серых туч войска.

А когда мы все посмотрим в глаза его,

На нас из глаз его посмотрит тоска.

И откроются двери домов,

Да ты садись, а то в ногах правды нет.

А когда мы все посмотрим в глаза его,

То увидим в тех глазах Солнца свет.


And he comes and he’ll bring Spring behind him

And scatter the army of grey clouds.

And when we look into his eyes,

His melancholy eyes will look back at us.

And house doors will open,

So you should sit, don’t try to stand.

And when we all look into his eyes,

In those eyes we’ll see the light of the Sun.


The Black Album (Черный альбом), assembled by Tsoy’s associates after his death, is more in keeping with modern recording standards, yet it really did not write a new chapter in the group’s history. “All of [Tsoy’s] last three albums,” said Boris Grebenshchikov, “constantly said one and the same thing. And it’s not because he had nothing else to say, but because that is what needed to be said. And in the final album, this is said with maximum simplicity: ‘My Sun, look at me – my palm has turned into a fist.’ There could not be anything simpler. Period.”

Actually, the album gifted Kinomaniacs with at least one more hit: “When Your Girlfriend is Sick” (“Когда твоя девушка больна”), which reminds us that Tsoy was successful not merely with youthful songs of pride like “My Friends” ("Мои друзья”) and catchy songs like “White Day” (“Белый день”) but even with authentic love songs. Tsoy devoted an entire album – This is Not Love (Это не любовь) to such songs, yet not a single one of them struck a chord as deeply as did “When Your Girlfriend is Sick.”

What is more, between 45 and Blood Type were the albums Boss of Kamchatka – which featured luminaries like saxophonist Igor Butman and keyboardist Sergei Kuryokhin, and Night (Ночь), on which the group had already begun to sound professional, yet had not yet found their sound. Along with a pair of super-hits – “We Saw the Night” (“Видели ночь”) and “Anarchy” (“Анархия”) – the album includes the ballads “Game” (“Игра”) and “Night” (“Ночь”), among the best of Tsoy’s lyric songs. The hopeless line, “I have no idea, how I will make it through another day” (“И я не знаю, как мне прожить следующий день”), performed in a pleasing major key, has a powerful impact, even today. Night was Kino’s first album officially released in the USSR on LP.

There is another modern Russian film, in which the personality of Victor Tsoy plays an important role. It is the tragicomedy Shapito-Show (Шапито-шоу), which was a sensation at the most recent Moscow Film Festival. The film is comprised of a series of short stories, the last about the adventures of the unlucky producer Sergei Popov. Accidentally meeting one of the plethora of Victor Tsoy impersonators, Popov makes it his mission to give the public a resurrected Tsoy.”* [A fragment of his speech and a new song in the style of Kino can be seen on YouTube bit.ly/tsoyimpersonator.] The venture goes down in flames: the New Tsoy’s concerts are all but empty. Youth continue to sing Tsoy’s songs, but they have no idea what he looked like.

It is significant that this sort of swindle arises in connection with the personality of Tsoy. It would be unimaginable in regard to any other deceased rocker, be it Mike  Naumenko, Yegor Letov or Yanka Dyagilev. What is more, there seems to be no end to Tsoy impersonators, and the catchphrase “Tsoy Lives” can be heard even from the lips of those who are less than enthusiastic about his work.

Which brings us to the wall. Tsoy’s Wall on the Arbat – the outside wall of a building near the popular Moscow pedestrian mall – is filled with inscriptions in honor of Tsoy and has become a true place of pilgrimage. So much so that Tsoy Walls have shown up in other Russian cities, and even in Belarus and Ukraine.

When people gather before them to sing Tsoy’s songs, it truly does seem as if he is still among the living. 

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