Tuesday, July 29, 2003

The teeming masses have demanded my account of the Rolling Stones show Sunday on the Letna Plain. (OK, so it was just one reader.)

I should start by pointing out that historically, I've not been a Rolling Stones fan. That bluesy swagger was definitely never my cup of tea. But my friend Arlo called attention to the odd mid-to-late 20s Stones conversion phenomenon that's so common to many in my generation. (I can call him my friend, even though I only met him last week, because he's been living with us since then. He's Alex's cousin.) It's really true: As they approach the age of 30, legions of one-time dyed-in-the-wool teenage punk and alt-rock fanatics, from the ex-DIY hardcore set to early-1990s indie rockers, start settling into the Rolling Stones and Johnny Cash. It happened to me about a year ago when I was in New York City shopping at the Virgin Megastore with my old pal from high school, Chris Radtke. I somehow decided I needed to become more Stones-literate, and I knew Chris, whose bread and butter was once AC/DC, was the one to ask for advice. He'd already converted and preached Stones with missionary zeal. A dozen years ago (I believe that would be 1991, The Year Punk Broke) I would have told you the Rolling Stones represented everything that was loathsome and decrepit about rock music. Radtke aided my apostasy -- call it maturity if you insist -- by recommending Let It Bleed.

So Arlo came to town last week and discovered Prague had been swept by Jaggermania, as Sir Mick had chosen to celebrate his 60th here in Prague with Vaclav Havel. It sort of reminded me of when I moved to Prague in 1996, only to be greeted by a huge fiberglass statue of Michael Jackson standing where the Stalin statue used to be. (I had no idea at the time how bizarre that was.) Arlo pointed out that to see the Stones in the U.S. these days costs at least $100. That's totally crazy, I thought; and I should really cross that off the "gotta-do-it-once-in-my-life" list. (Last year I jumped out of an airplane. This year I saw the Rolling Stones.) So off we went out to Letna Sunday afternoon. The tickets cost Kc 895, or about $32. (Actually, Arlo paid for it; thanks Arlo.)

The show itself was actually pretty unremarkable, plagued by all the problems common to large outdoor rock concerts, like rain and crowds and not being able to see the stage. We arrived at Letna about 4:30 and tried to keep our little spot on the dirt for as long as we could, just sitting around in the sun drinking beer. As showtime approached, the PA played Johnny Cash's version of U2's "One," which was pretty funny for two reasons: A) What I said before about people settling into the Stones and Cash in their, um, old age. B) A huge group of people, including silly old me, were singing along at the top of their lungs, but they were clearly singing the U2 version.

The second openers (I'm skipping those Celtic dudes, Brainstorm) were perfect for the occasion -- Czech dinosaur rockers Olympic. Unlike the Mick Jagger, singer Petr Janda is ridiculously and unashamedly bald. And I found I knew a few of their songs just from cultural osmosis. Notable, though hardly surprising, was the range of ages in the audience. There really were some truly old people out there. And lots and lots of Germans -- possibly more than a quarter of the 80,000-strong audience -- obviously there for the cheap tickets. I almost got into a fight with the one behind me who kept shoving me. I called him an asshole and another thing which I'm not allowed to say ever again. He replied, "Hey, play it cool, man!" (When was the last time you heard that expression?)

The problem with drinking beer, I discovered, is that after you drink a certain amount, it becomes necessary to relieve oneself. (Actually, I've known this for a long time, but it really hit home standing in line at that PortaPotty.) So shortly before the main act started, Alex and I had to abandon our spots, and found ourselves unable to make it back to our group. But no matter. We were never that close to the stage to begin with, and you couldn't see diddly-squat, except for those giant screens, from anywhere.

Havel came out and introduced the band. That was truly special. I didn't understand much of what he said, but I made out the words "freedom," "freedom," "Velvet Revolution" and "freedom." Then lots of lights and the band started. Mick did us all the courtesy of speaking some very bad Czech. "Ahoj Praho, ahoj Cechy" wasn't so bad. But then he said something that sounded like "Mee jsma rad ze mee jsmastady" which is sort of like "Weesma vary gald to beestere."

During "Gimme Shelter" I called my friend David and held up the phone for about five minutes. He was psyched. But then my phone ran out of batteries and we were completely unable to meet up with our group afterwards. We swung by Vladan's place in Holesovice to place a phone call. Luckily he was home. In fact, he'd just been at the concert himself -- seeing and hearing the same show we did, standing outside the gates and watching it through a hole in the fence.

So that's about it. What did I think of the show? It was worth the money, nonewithstanding the fact that I could have heard it for free from outside. They played a slew of songs off Let It Bleed, which was great, because that's the only album I'm familiar with on a level other than background music. The show certainly didn't blow me away or restore my faith in rock and roll, like some concerts do, but I didn't expect it to. Most importantly, when people asked what I made of my life in 2003, I can say I saw Havel introduce the Rolling Stones. And it was much less freaky than jumping out of that airplane.


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