An American in the Soviet Music Underground
Published by: DoppelHouse Press
The inspiring and poetic memoir of the young New Wave musician whose improbable Cold War heroics opened the clandestine world of Leningrad punk and rock to the West.
Wild and vivid — a rollicking memoir of romance and rock ‘n’ roll in an era of upheaval and transition. From Los Angeles to Leningrad and back again, Joanna’s story is borne along by her infectious, headlong enthusiasm. It’s quite a ride.
—Patrick Radden Keefe, creator of the Wind of Change podcast and author of Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
Joanna Stingray was only 23 years old when she first set foot in the USSR and started meeting now-legendary musicians and artists of the Soviet underground like Boris Grebenshchikov, Sergei Kuryokhin, and Viktor Tsoi. By 1985, she was writing and recording with them, and smuggling their music to the West in order to produce the groundbreaking album Red Wave: 4 Underground Bands from the USSR. This is her testimony of youthful fortitude and rebellion, her love story, and proof of the power of music and youth culture over stagnancy and oppression. The book, written with her singer/songwriter daughter, Madison, includes Stingray’s extensive collection of photographs, artworks, and interviews with the musicians.
“A memoir by an American who almost single-handedly introduced Soviet rock to the free world. [...] Enchanted by the likes of Boris Grebenshchikov, whose samizdat cassettes were massively successful and earned him a reputation as the Soviet Union's answer to Bob Dylan, she looked for ways to spread the word [and] produced a 1986 compilation, Red Wave, which presaged the thaw of glasnost and perestroika that inspired more cultural exchanges. [...] With the end of the Cold War, Stingray remained in Russia, becoming a popular musician in her own right and introducing US and UK acts to Russian audiences. Stingray, who wrote this memoir with her daughter, Madison, nicely captures her daring amid an atmosphere of liberation and fear, and she's a study in moxie and enthusiasm.”
“’You are the mother of Russian rock!’ a fan shouted as Stingray promoted her new autobiography at a Moscow bookstore. […] The California musician aroused the suspicions of the KGB and the FBI as she bravely championed the Soviet underground in the 1980s. The Red Wave LP, released in America in 1986, introduced western audiences to Russian rock and helped end the Kremlin’s censorship of homegrown groups.”
“Rock is for young people. It’s an opportunity to open up a road into the future and breathe deeper. And all thoughtful people understand that it’s not just young people fooling around. They are captivated by this music. If some of our rock bands like Aquarium and Kino were released in the West on the Red Wave album in June 1986, why shouldn't they have been released in Russia?”
—President Mikhail Gorbachev, 2019, reflecting on his decision that led to the Red Wave bands being allowed to become “official” by 1987
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 Aquarium 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.
—Boris Grebenshchikov (Aquarium), 2018
Book One: 1984–1987
Interlude: Interview with Boris Grebenshchikov
Book Two: 1988–1996
Rock 'n' roll through the Iron Curtain
Joanna Fields was born in California brought up to mistrust Communism, so as soon as she could, in 1984 she went to the Soviet Union. She met underground rock musicians like Boris Grebenshchikov and his band Akvarium, banned from releasing music or playing official concerts and thought someone should get their music out to the West. Joanna has now written an account of her tape smuggling years as she shuttled across the Iron Curtain and released a groundbreaking double LP called Red Wave, featuring four underground bands and music that many in the West simply thought didn’t exist. Of course she needed a code name. She chose Stingray.
Joanna flew the Los Angeles–Leningrad route nine times in two years. Armed with the support of David Bowie, who had become interested Aquarium’s work, Stingray signed a contract with the American recording company Big Time Records. She smuggled out contraband audio recordings of Leningrad rock groups in the guise of new cassettes, releasing them in America as a split double album called Red Wave: 4 Underground Bands from the USSR. “It was very hard to produce that record,” Stingray recalled later, “because Americans were afraid of Russia; they were afraid of the Soviet Union. And when I tried to get help from people, they reacted with an uncanny fear. So I had to do practically everything myself.” For 1986, the appearance of 15,000 vinyl Red Wave albums was a cultural revolution. In reality, it turned out to be the first legitimate compilation of Russian rock that people in different countries could listen to. American record stores were filled with the sounds of Aquarium, Kino, Alisa and Strannye Igry, and Soviet cooperators began selling the collection in music kiosks. [...] It is hard to overestimate the benefit of Stingray’s public awareness efforts for the international promotion of Soviet rock at the time.
—Russia Beyond, “Red Wave: How Soviet rock made it to the US"
Business and cultural pioneers don’t set out to light the world on fire but end up doing so through ingenuity and determination. While we often think of globalization as factories and container ships, the exchange of goods and ideas between nations starts with one person finding something people in another nation would value. Joanna Stingray was that one person who brought Soviet rock music to America and did so in remarkable fashion.
The history of Russian rock music could have been very different without Joanna Stingray. As a 23-year-old California clubber, she spent a week in the Soviet Union in 1984 and fell in love with the Leningrad underground rock scene. Joanna was friends with rock musicians, recorded songs with them, shot their videos and brought them clothes and instruments from the West. Her video footage, capturing young icons of Russian rock like Viktor Tsoi, Sergei Kuryokhin, Timur Novikov and Boris Grebenshchikov, is rare evidence of the golden era of the Soviet underground.
—The Moscow Times, “Joanna Stingray, a California Girl in the U.S.S.R.”
Eight trips later she had ‘smuggled’ enough tapes of Kino and other groups out of the Soviet Union to produce an album, Red Wave–a kind of Greatest Hits of Socialist Rock. At first the Soviet press denigrated Stingray’s tales of the “brave little American miss helping the oppressed Soviet musicians” as a self-serving fantasy. Now, though, inspired by glasnost if not by greed, Soviet officialdom has cut a deal with her to produce 10 albums of “unofficial music” for consumption in the U.S.
Stephen Stills and I performed in Moscow in the late 1980s, and we did our best to encourage and help local Russian bands. It was there that I met musician and songwriter Joanna Stingray, who showed great passion about how music could 'change the world'. She instinctively understood the power that rock and roll music brings to people. The audience in Moscow craved the music and what it represented.
— Graham Nash (Crosby, Stills & Nash), 2020
Joanna was like a tornado. Just imagine someone could drag Tsoi, Kuryokhin, and Grebenshchikov into her vortex and as a tractor pull the Russian underground to the West. A breath of fresh air and bright hopes — it's all Joanna!
—Yuri Kasparyan (Kino), 2019
The book you’re holding in your hands could be called “Joanna’s Adventures in the Bolshevik Land”. It might seem that a young American girl went to the snow-covered USSR in search of impressions and discoveries. In fact, Joanna Stingray went to Leningrad in search of herself. And there she found not just herself but a few other very important people in her life. She became their prophet in the West. But Soviet people traditionally trusted prophets only from outside of their homeland. The Red Wave stirred by Joanna came back and brought well-deserved attention to its heroes. These memoirs strike you with their openness, lively straightforwardness and, most importantly, their honesty. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know how it really was.
—Konstantine Ernst, CEO Channel One Russia, 2019
That the lyrics are in Russian and the production quality is primitive detracts little from the music’s power and appeal. For Joanna, rock ‘n’ roll is a universal language that transcends cultural boundaries and borders between nations.
The music on Red Wave – which ranges from the ska-tinged pop of Kino to the brooding, introspective songwriting of Grebenshchikov – was recorded mostly in cramped living rooms transformed into home studios with borrowed two-track and eight-track equipment. The lyrics, sung in Russian (a translated lyric sheet is provided), are not overtly political. But veiled reference to politics shine through, as does a keen awareness of progressive Western rock.
As one of the first American musicians to break through the Soviet scene, and one of the few women to be seen as an equal amongst Leningrad’s pantheon of rock superstars, Stingray’s perspective on the development of late Soviet rock is probably the single most important source for researchers who want a birds-eye view of late Soviet youth culture, and Stingray’s stories are as entertaining as they are relevant and illuminating.
— Alexander Herbert, author of What About Tomorrow?: An Oral History of Russian Punk from the Soviet Era to Pussy Riot
Thanks to a resourceful Los Angeles singer and songwriter who heard—and liked—their brand of Russian rock, the bands are now playing to a faraway audience. [...] The album is the brainchild of Joanna Stingray a.k.a. Joanna Fields, 25, who has been exploring the Soviet Union’s unofficial and unheralded rock world since 1984.