The Cars were unhappy.
The new wave/rock band had barely emerged out of Boston in the late 1970s when Electra offered them a record deal. Their first album — simply titled “The Cars” — appeared in 1978 and went on sell millions of copies, remaining on the Billboard charts for 139 weeks. History would recognize it as being way ahead of its time (its synth-pop sound belongs more in the mid-’80s), and Rolling Stone ranks it as one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
All of this sat well with the band except for Electra’s choice for the album cover. The Cars themselves had submitted a black & white image of the band, created by their drummer. Instead, and without telling them, Electra splashed a stock photograph of gorgeous young woman with a wide smile behind a clear steering wheel. With one arm over her forehead and one on the wheel, the woman is either grinning or laughing about something, her impossibly white teeth offset by the sheen of the red lipstick.
While the band felt the cover was “way too slick” for their music, and even today express their distaste for “that big grinning face,” Electra had it right. The Cars’ debut album is one of the most recognizable rock albums in the world, all thanks to the woman with “that big grinning face.”
Many, many women have adorned countless record covers — most being either stock photographs or hired models who have little to zero relationship with the musical act they are representing. In some cases, a few may have been or later become a band member’s girlfriend.
Few have been Russian novelists. Yet that is exactly who Natalya Medvedeva was — besides modelling her pearly whites for The Cars.
Born and raised in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Medvedeva emigrated to the United States in 1975. Her vibrant looks made her a natural for various modelling jobs, including a stint at Playboy magazine. She soon became disillusioned with it, finding the modelling world to be far harsher and crueler than her bleak upbringing in the Soviet Union. She quits modelling altogether to write poetry, which brings her into the sphere of other Russian emigrants, including the political dissident Eduard Limonov, founder of the National Bolshevik Party. The two marry, and move to Paris.
Her intellectual talents are much more respected in France, and Medvedeva quickly becomes a feature writer for the magazines ‘Figaro Madame’ and ‘L’Idiot International,’ as well as having a scathing book of essays published about her experience as a model titled ‘Otel Kalifornia.’
It is her novels, however, which bring her the most acclaim as one of Russia’s best “new novelists.” Both her ‘Mama Ya Zhulika Lyublu’ (Mama, I am in Love with a Swindler) and ‘Moya Borba’ (My Struggle) are typical examples of novels condemning the Soviet lifestyle of the 1970s, but these are the first to be written by a woman. Her work receives high critical praise in Europe as a “fusion of beauty and repulsiveness, romance and debauchery, innocence and experience.”
She followed these with ‘La Reyu Znamenem’ a novel written in verse, ‘Liubov’s Alkogolem’ (Love with Alcohol), ‘A U Nikh Byla Strast’ (And Among Them was Misery), and ‘Zhizn v No future’, a play about bohemians, beauty, and suicide. (As one can see, Medvedeva was as cheery a Russian writer as her male counterparts).
Her success was not easy for her husband, who referred to her in print as a “bipolar, alcoholic nymphomaniac,” and the two divorced in 1994. While Limonov is left to his cult of protest in France, Medvedeva returns home to Russia. Here she continues to write, and starts to date heavy metal guitarist Sergei Vysokosov, who convinces her to sing for his band. She agrees, as long as she can read her poetry between sets. This turns out to be a bigger hit than either of them expected. The band is ditched in favour of her poetry, and Vysokosov trades in his guitar for a flute.
Medvedeva becomes something of a Russian Patti Smith, touring clubs and hotel coffee shops. Or she would have. She passed away in her sleep of a heart attack in 2003. She was 44.
The Moscow Times mourned the loss of a cultural icon, with writers and poets expressing their shock and sadness at losing one of their own. “She was a bright spot in our lives,” novelist Vladislav Vasyukhin stated, believing Russia would now “be a lonely place without her.” The tributes and obituary were accompanied by a single image of Medvedeva: her smiling behind the steering wheel on the Cars debut album.
Mike Selby is
Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook