Note: I wrote this essay 10 years ago but never found a published home for it. In honor of Vaclav Havel, and because this is kind of a Christmas story, I’m giving it a home as the inaugural post of Civilization Party’s re-launch. Enjoy and Happy Holidays.
I was sitting on the pavement in Malostranske square trying to reckon why I had let tram 22 pass me by. The tip of my nose was numbing up, I had a sprained left ankle, and my right ankle was about to go on strike. A light snow flurried down over Prague, and a cozy room off of the Ujezd awaited me down the tram line. So why had I just sat there, ass on the ice-cold concrete, as the apple-red tram hissed its doors shut and clacked away? My eyelids rolled shut and the long, dark, Bohemian day re-played itself like a jerking Jan Svankmajer cartoon. Was I cracking up from the cold, the strain of limping without a crutch, the overwhelming beauty of this medieval town? From being alone during the holidays? What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I even move enough to carry myself home?
Then the music stopped.
That was it! I wasn’t moving because there was live rock n’ roll thundering out from that building across the street. Cut-rate Sabbath sludge. Cut-rate Sabbath sludge that had just ended.
But hearing rock n’ roll, no matter how lousy, coming from the inside of any building never fails to make me feel I’m sorely missing out. The kickdrums and fuzzboxes were now silent, but they’d already worked their sleazy magic on me. Suddenly bone-deep exhaustion didn’t matter anymore. Enchanted, I headed for the club entrance.
Obvious efforts had been made to draw a tourist crowd into the Malostranska beseda; signs pointing up the stairs in German and English announced: Live Music! Every Night! Jazz n’ Pop! But a cloud of Czech voices enveloped me as I climbed a scarred plaster stairway and emerged into a small, smoke-choked lobby tended by white-haired men and women in somber Sunday suits. They enthusiastically sold me a fifty-cent ticket and offered to take my coat and scarf.
The two adjoined main halls roared with people bathed in thick curtains of smoke. The vaulted plaster ceilings were chipped, oily and tired, the lace curtains the color of used cigrarette filters. Bright, greasy chandeliers glared down on the little tables covered in checkered cheesecloth, empty Pilsner bottles and overflowing ashtrays.
I imagined the space being used as some sort of Worker’s Edification Facility in Soviet times, where young Czechs could whoop it up Saturday nights with a lecture on tractor repair or schoolchildren’s concert of folk songs. Tonight it looked and felt more like an oversized Knights of Columbus hall in Cleveland or Cincinatti—but with just as many young people as chain-smoking, baggy-eyed adults. And with a ravenous energy in the air.
I took a seat with my bottle of orange Fanta and elevated my injured ankle in the opposite seat. The lights dimmed.
Seven paunchy middle-aged men shuffled out onto the stage in sweats and sacky sweaters, with a dredlock here, a Bob Marley T-shirt there, and a bright Guatemalan scarf there. It looked like a PTA work day in Berkeley.
Amid healthy applause, they struck up a toothless reggae number with Czech lyrics. Two girls dressed in oversized T-shirts and ripped jeans raced out to the dancefloor and flopped around frantically. Then came a Czech salsa number, also received lovingly by the audience. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t stop picturing this band as the first, noontime act at a Potato Festival or Onion Festival in some Midwestern town. Nobody would be listening to these guys, nobody. This was the most inoffensive, wallpapery quasi-world music I’d ever heard. But in the filmy darkness of the hall, audience members were inching towards the edges of their seats.
At this point I chidingly reminded myself these people were no longer culturally isolated rubes. Pop radio in Prague now offers the uniform Western European top of the pops fare, which, bland as it is, updates this developing democracy with what the music industry is firehosing at the rest of us. Czech teenyboppers know whether they can take J-Lo or leave her.
The ones in the Malostranska beseda were obviously leaving her. More bodies invaded the dancefloor during the 20-minute “salsa acid jazz” jam. Females, regardless of age, wore their hair in moussed mullets or Aqua-Netted Fawcett flips, and dressed overwhelmingly in miniskirts, high heels and 1980s-style jerseys (with no detectable air of ironic retro-cool). Boys were professor’s aide types in spectacles and reindeer sweaters.
After waiting through a burst of extended applause, the band decided to stop fucking around. The keyboardist grinned and whipped out a set of Peruvian pan pipes.
I winced. Jesus, not pan pipes! Were people really going to stand for this?!
But surprised, youthful squeals of recognition rang out from every corner of the hall when the song kicked in. There was a universal scraping-back of chairs and a stampede to the dancefloor. I was looking at a whipping, crazed fury of flip-curls and reindeer sweaters. They were dancing like it was their last night on earth. A 40ish woman who looked like Amy Sedaris in Strangers With Candy pogo’d up and down by herself in front of the amplifier.
A frizzy-haired boy in a cardigan jogged up to my table and offered his hand. I could only point to my elevated ankle and make a “breaking in half” gesture. He understood, waved his departure, and made haste for the dancefloor again.
The youngsters mopped themselves off and headed to the bar while the moms and dads stuck around for a slow jam. The singer howled out a pop ballad Julio Iglesias-style while the couples mingled flab, slumping back and forth on each other like pairs of hot gingerbread cookies.
I was worried. Would this attack of the Quiet Storm kill the pace of the show?
No chance, comrade! Czech Salsa-reggae-acid-jazz struck again and then all ages were on the floor. Call-and-response shook the dancehall. I thought the building was going to collapse. Big clapping, then half the audience started clapping on the off-beat, polka-style. Or was it American Gospel style? I couldn’t tell. Everything was all over the place and it didn’t matter. Young dance partners made up their own improvised salsa steps and swung each other around madly in some improvised Slavic jitterbug.
Everyone knew every word to every song. Did these guys get radio play? It seemed unlikely. They’d be laughed at in the States, laughed at! They were skilled musicians, wedding-reception perfect. Just…cheesy. Predictable.
After two encores the band finally took leave from the shouting, stamping audience. The chandeliers blinked on, pelting us all with hard, tired light. I didn’t want to leave the Malostranska beseda, but my ankle was in pain. I gimped back out to the lobby, collected my anorak from the doting septegenarians, and descended to the snow-covered tram stop.
The band’s keyboardist was on tram 22 that evening, hauling his gear back out to the cement Soviet-era tenement blocks on the edge of town where American and German expatriates hadn’t jacked up the cost of living. Outside, snow-frosted church spires and arching cupolas sailed by, preserved by poverty and the attendant lack of development.
What exactly had I just witnessed in there? Was it condescending for me to think that the normal measures of music critique didn’t really apply here? Rolling Stone wouldn’t have a single star to spare for these guys and the British music press would have disemboweled them before proceeding to ignore them.
There were unique factors to take into account. Sure, the Czech Republic was quickly Westernizing, but how much of the middle-aged musicians’ lives had been spent under the Soviets, and what had they been exposed to since the Velvet Revolution in the late 1960s? Czechoslovakia had had a sort of pop music; there was a entire museum dedicated to it around the corner from my rooms, and Milan Kundera had bitched about it in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, saying it represented the infantilism of the modern world. Since I’d never heard any Czech pop I couldn’t deduct how, or how much, Western standards had informed them.
But I’d seen something I hadn’t seen, perhaps couldn’t see, in the West: the long-obscured function of music—not so much to entertain us as to make us all musicians, to make instruments of the audience. But this can only happen if the audience is willing.
“Performers,” writes punk rock historian Jon Savage in his 1992 book England’s Dreaming, “are only as interesting as the emotions they generate, or the situations that they catalyze: the audience gives them their power.”
The Sex Pistols’ accountant, Andy Czezowski, said of that band: “Whether they were good or not was irrelevant. I wanted to be excited and they filled a spot.”
As a teenager I attended four years of religious boarding school where dancing and rock music were strictly forbidden. At my Christian college, popular music was allowed, but for some reason dancing was not. I was obsessed with dancing at every single show I managed to escape to.
But I soon learned that in the rock n’ roll Cool-ocracy, exuberance was not done. I didn’t understand but, desperate to appear as beautifully miserable as everyone else, I taught myself to spend shows standing stock still with arms folded suspiciously across my chest, like the clinically depressed adults who regulated my existence.
My liberated peers turned wary eyes on rock n’ roll, expecting to be disappointed, gypped, ripped, lied to, told what they believed in a dead language of hipster clichés. There was no need for tear gas or truncheons or rubber bullets with them; cynicism had conveniently installed a de facto Big Brother right into their spinal cords.
Kill the urge to dance, and you have essentially killed the right to dance. Kill the urge to dance and you have denied to large groups of people something essential, the right to speak out from the core of your physical being. In that sense, perhaps, this former Eastern Bloc society was far more advanced than ours. The show at the Malostranska beseda was not about the band. It was about the audience, and nobody could have understood it any other way. The ironic curtain of Cool had not yet descended here.
The doors of tram 22 slid open and I left the keyboardist behind to hobble through the snow and find my rooms along the banks of the Vltava. Maybe, I thought, the original Bohemia could export a new Velvet Revolution to us Westerners, smuggling it out via Pilsner bottles. God knows we could use it now.