In a stadium in Prague, 20 years ago today, a hundred thousand people, including my father and me, saw something we were not supposed to see. For decades it had been forbidden. The music, we were told, would poison our minds with filthy images. We would be infected by the West’s capitalist propaganda.
It was a cool August night in 1990; the Communist regime had officially collapsed eight months earlier, when Vaclav Havel, the longtime dissident, was elected president. And now the Rolling Stones had come to Prague.
I was 16 then, and to this day I recall the posters promoting the concert, which lined the streets and the walls of the stadium: “The Rolling Stones roll in, Soviet army rolls out.”
Soviet soldiers had been stationed in Czechoslovakia since 1968, when their tanks brutally crushed the so-called Prague Spring. My father was 21 at that time, dreaming of freedom and listening to bootlegged copies of “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” But it would be more than two decades before he would get to see the band live. During those years, you had to tune into foreign stations to hear the Stones. Communists called the band members “rotten junkies,” and said no decent socialist citizen would listen to them.
I only knew one Stones song, “Satisfaction” — but I knew it by heart. I had heard it for the first time on a pirated tape my father had bought on the black market in Hungary and smuggled into the country. It put an immediate spell on me. I was hugely impressed by the rough, loud guitar riff, so unlike the mellow sound of Czechoslovakian music. (The Communists frowned on the bass and the electric guitar, but they severely disapproved of the saxophone because they said it was invented by a Belgian imperialist.)
And I’d never heard anything like Mick Jagger’s cracking, sensual voice, singing about personal desire. Czechoslovakians had been urged for four decades to sacrifice their inner dreams to the collective happiness of the masses. People who went their own way — rebels — often ended up in jail.
That night in August, waiting for the Rolling Stones to come on stage, we felt like rebels. The concert was held in the same stadium where the Communist government used to hold rallies and organize parades. My classmates and I had spent endless hours in that stadium, marching in formations that, seen from the stands above, were supposed to symbolize health, joy and the discipline of the masses.
Now, instead of marching as one, we were ready to get loose. “We gotta get closer,” my father whispered into my ear as we tried to make our way through the crowd.
I sensed that everyone was nervous. They were accustomed to being lied to, to having promises broken. They didn’t quite believe that the Stones were really coming to play live. I could see that my father didn’t either. “We might see their photographs or a movie instead,” I heard some people saying, pointing to huge video screens installed inside the stadium. I started to have doubts myself. We had been waiting for five hours.
Suddenly the lights dimmed. Drums started to pound, and the screens turned on as if by magic. “Oh my God, it is really happening,” whispered a woman standing close to me. She was expressing something more than just the thrill of a concert. She was saying that the Communists were truly gone. That we were finally free to do as we pleased.
The Stones stormed the stage playing “Start Me Up.” Mick Jagger’s lips were all over the screens. The faceless crowd of passive souls disappeared. People went wild, out of control. They were jumping, clapping, shouting, dancing and singing along, surprising themselves. I had never before seen such a display of genuine emotion from my countrymen.
Two and a half hours later, when the concert was over, people were crying and hugging one another. My father cried and hugged me. From that point on, no one would tell him how he should think, how he should feel. He had seen the Rolling Stones with his own eyes. And it felt so good.
Eduard Freisler, a writer.