Sometimes while writing, you must follow your muse’s orders to the letter, and when the piece is finished, you’d like to know what she was thinking.
Accordingly, what do a Central European city, an Australian rock singer and Southern Indiana pub owner have in common?
It has been almost eight years since this article was written in 1997, and a decade and a half since the Czechs and Slovaks embarked on a post-Communist experiment that has led them, as separate and independent countries, into European Union membership.
For the surviving members of INXS, perhaps the world’s biggest rock band for a brief period in the 1980’s, the eight years since singer and front man Michael Hutchence’s 1997 death by suicide have been lackluster, to put it charitably.
With no new projects, and without a permanent replacement for Hutchence, the group completely disappeared from the transitory world of pop culture, and this absence had the odd but not unwelcome effect of burnishing its earlier achievements, to the point that critical perspective seemed at long last ready to in INXS’s direction.
Alas, the band, now desirous of a comeback and a fresh round of fame, has chosen the unfortunate vehicle of a “reality television” show to select a new lead singer, who will record a new album and go on tour. Needless to say, I’m expecting the worse.
The other central character in “Not Enough Time” is yours truly – brewery and pub owner, dedicated European traveler, and recently reinvented blogger, who seems to have survived well enough after a decade of much joy and occasional madness. I’ve still not forgiven Hutchence for choosing the route he did …but that’s life, and I’m enjoying mine.
To the discerning wanderer, the act of traveling serves to reveal many variations of reality, existing both inside and outside the individual.
Perhaps the least interesting of these expressions, which embody moments floating nebulously somewhere in time, are those manifested by scribbled notes on the back of snapshots, simple expository comments like “Here we are in front of the Eiffel Tower.”
The most challenging and enduring of these expressions are those offered in long, often drunken and chaotic conversations with friends, at first when safely back “home,” and then later, long after the fact.
It’s when one tries to explain what it feels like to be standing atop the Acropolis, feeling the heat of the Greek sun, and hearing the echoes of 25 centuries drifting up through the pollution and traffic noise, or seeking to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak the same language, and making do by using beer coasters and scraps of bus fare tickets to construct multi-lingual metaphysical systems.
It is unfortunate that those who travel solely to achieve fleeting leisure and recreation of the sort typified by the balmy beachside jaunt stand a fine chance of missing the whole point of travel (although not of recreation, a quite different topic), which is to alter one’s consciousness by comparing and contrasting differences, both internal and external, and placing one’s own life into another context.
The process never ends so long as the individual continues to evolve; you’re different than the last time you went there, and your responses will vary according to how you’ve changed during the interim. Sitting on a deck chair on Carnival cruise lines and sipping a frozen rum drink is relaxing, but it is unlikely to conjure an epiphany, and as with the potential for an orgasm during the act of sex, for one to lack from the very outset the slightest chance of experiencing an epiphany during a particular travel encounter is to reduce it to a merely physical exercise.
It is to deny the chance for transcendence, and why go to the trouble if there’s no chance for transcendence?
Certainly, experiences that raise one’s consciousness cannot be forced into being; an element of luck is involved, and one must be in the right place at the right time. Some times it happens, and some times it doesn’t, but if it does, it can be like an epileptic burst of brute gale force that drills into your skull and sends you sprawling, and after you’ve gotten up and brushed the dust from your trousers, you’re obliged to spend a few moments reflecting on the impact.
For me, traveling in Eastern Europe during the Communist era was like that, and there are times, even eight years or more later, when I’m not sure any of it ever really happened. Some things that I’m sure actually did happen have, in retrospect, turned out to have less to do with the geography or history of the area than with some aspect of myself at the time, some part of me, some specific way that I was thinking and reacting during the moment.
Eastern Europe has changed quite a lot since the 1980’s. To my surprise, so have I, but like some programmed response, it doesn’t take much to trip a wire and have the whole experience come back to me, demanding attention.
So it was that in late November of 1997, I reacted with a mild and disinterested shrug upon learning that Michael Hutchence, the charismatic lead singer for the Australian rock band INXS, had died, but after a few pints of reflection over a period of days, his death began to disturb me.
I didn’t understand why.
Certainly, I shouldn’t have been bothered. Like many others, I’ve grown jaded and weary with regard to the rituals of grief that follow the passing of public figures, people none of us ever really knew while they were alive, especially rock stars and similar icons of disposable pop culture.
Granted, I understand that in our society of rootless ephemera, where none of us really believe in anything except money, USA Today’s trend of the nanosecond might as well be celebrated as an eternal truth. Pamela’s and Tommy’s “stolen” sex video is as good as anything else we have to hold aloft as an 11th Commandment; with nothing better to do, we might as well pretend that we personally knew the celebrities who died before their time, who overdosed on heroin, crashed their toys, and hanged themselves in hotel rooms halfway across the planet.
We might as well join the queue for the teary tributes to these abstract entities, who we insist in some way enriched our lives, as though they may have been the only real friends and siblings that we ever tricked ourselves into believing existed.
An earlier generation remembers the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I remember the day John Lennon was murdered. Now, our lonely nation turns its eyes to Elton John and remembers the day, the month, and the calendar year, that Princess Diana died.
I’m cognizant of an obvious cheapening, and it is a form of non-participatory sport that I’d prefer to avoid.
The less meaning in our lives that we’re permitted to have apart from the patriotic imperative to support the national economy by buying things we don’t need, the more that we look for something to believe in: Celebrities, rock stars, the prattle that passes for dialogue on television talk shows, the insipid and scarcely alchemized liquid posing as beer behind prophylactic sheets of aluminum.
To wail and moan for fallen icons makes it possible for consumers to feel – and to feel around in their pockets for the credit card to buy the commemorative video, the pay-per-view, the Franklin Mint’s numbered and registered plate.
All this cynicism … and yet … damned if it didn’t affect me when I began to think about Michael Hutchence dying, because in the end, he WAS different for me than all the rest of the fallen celebrities. For one, Hutchence was 37 when he died. He was born in 1960, just a few months before I was born.
In short, the same age as me. Before Hutchence, the dead celebrities always were older than me, and now they’re often younger, but he was my age.
But I wasn’t suicidal – people my age have so much to live for, don’t they? Or, had it escaped me that 25-year-old men do indeed kill themselves … and even if they don’t, I was no longer 25?
No, not 25 at all.
Furthermore, it slowly dawned on me that although we never came close to meeting, the Aussie and the Hick, our paths somehow managed to cross in a place far away from both our homes, and in a way that left an indelible impression on me, first on an old bridge spanning a famous river, then by the gray and nondescript wall of an ancient cemetery, and finally in a colorfully festooned square, all within the boundaries of a pristine, crumbling, captive city known as Prague, Czechoslovakia, circa 1989.
Actually, we may have missed each other in the city by as much as a year, but is doesn’t matter, because Hutchence left me with musical and visual calling cards that persist in the memory, and now that he’s dead, I’ve been denied the possibility of tracking him down ten years from now in the alley behind Jim Porter’s, where he just appeared with INXS during their 30th anniversary tour of the only small venues that would still book them, and interrupting his quick getaway to thank him for providing me with an integral memory of a vanished place, and by extension of someone – me – whose past unfortunately is about as dead as the prospects for a revival of the May Day celebration in Prague’s Strahov stadium, where the memory of U2’s 1997 Pop Mart appearance takes precedence over the legacy of the droning speeches of bumbling old men like Gustav Husak.
In retrospect, it didn’t require the far-off death of some chronological classmate I never had to plunge me into a state of morose self-examination, although his messy end provided an appropriate exclamation mark to a sentence previously written and barely understood.
At some point in mid-November, with rehearsals for the INXS “Lose Your Head” tour underway in Australia to hopeful reviews, I began rummaging through a pile of papers on my desk. At the bottom, lonely and hidden, yet oddly expectant, was my first passport.
The passport was issued in 1984, a full year before I embarked on my first trip abroad, and it expired in 1994, just prior to my sixth journey to Europe. Since this first passport was renewed, and my government has seen fit to award me with a new document to ease my entry into countries that agree to harbor an American for a specified period, there have been six more European excursions.
It has taken this many trips to remove some of the surface sheen of the little blue booklet, so that it begins to show the desired wear and tear intended to set its experienced bearer apart from the newbie travelers.
It’s a matter of prestige, baby.
After flinging away the file folders, business cards and meaningless scraps of paper to await filing on a different corner of the desk, the old passport was free to resurrect distant memories by means of faded rubber stamps that had been thoughtlessly inflicted on the once virgin pages by supremely bored border guards, who since have been made redundant by geopolitical decisions that whisked them from grim, cold comfortably bureaucratic postings on fortified Warsaw Pact borders and dropped them, headfirst, into telemarketing positions in cubicles wedged precariously between a rock and a hard place.
Unfortunately, before any of these thoughts were able to take shape, I opened the passport and looked at the photo laminated inside the front cover.
I was shocked. It wasn’t me. Couldn’t have been me. To be share, a pair of brown eyes stared back at me, gravely, with solemnity, perhaps even arrogantly.
They looked to be attached to someone who was very full of himself, and at the painfully inexperienced age of 23. The eyes were deliberately ignoring the photographer’s pleas to smile for the camera, and something within me stirred in remembrance: Smile? Hell, it’s a passport picture, not a family reunion snapshot; do you want the Europeans to look at me like I’m some kind of bleeding idiot?
Mr. Chase, the photographer, was momentarily taken aback.
The brown hair was short and unkempt, and the visible cowlicks had defied the best efforts of the comb, if indeed such efforts had even been made. Incongruously, the scowling face sported an absurdly silly wisp of a mustache that would have benefited from a sturdy coat of Groucho Marx’s vaudeville greasepaint.
This was no one I knew – or was it?
In 1989, during my third Europhile’s pilgrimage, I was in Prague. It was my second visit to the Czech capital, which to all appearances at the time was irrevocably Communist, and to have suggested to anyone that a largely bloodless revolution would occur by the end of the year as part of the monolithic Soviet Bloc dominoes crashing to earth all along the non-Cuban international landscape would have marked the speaker as an enemy of the state – both in Czechoslovakia, and also in America, where the military/industrial complex hummed merrily along at the behest of the Cold War mentality that I so desperately sought to disprove by visiting places like Prague.
I’d been there before, but only briefly. My friend Barrie and I had spent three days in Prague in 1987, fresh from the Soviet Union and Poland, and these hours were a whirlwind of beer consumption and subsequent forced marches to our assigned youth hostel barracks in an unfinished sports club seemingly halfway to Plzen, leaving us little time to learn anything of substance.
However, it was a valid introduction to a city where vast tracts of the urban landscape still had the appearance of the 18th and 19th centuries, where small, winding streets led to dank basement pubs populated by working men conducting conversations in low voices, their remarks spices by clinking half-liter mugs of traditional draft pilsners, and where a storefront on Wenceslas Square that would have been occupied by a trendy designer shop anywhere else in the world – and is today – was filled instead by the Automat Koruna, a stand-up eatery, dirty and dirt cheap, where half-liter mugs of local beer went four to a dollar, unless the money had been changed on the black market, which was dutifully manned by virtually every waiter in the city.
Then you got six, maybe seven.
Among my vague, alcohol-soaked recollections of 1987 is one in which Barrie and I were walking through a vast square with a statue in the middle. Virtually every building in the square, including at least two churches and the town hall, was entirely cloaked by impenetrable scaffolding.
Old Town Square. According to remarks on the map, it was considered one of the most beautiful in Czechoslovakia, and perhaps in all of Europe, but it was impossible to make a judgment given the area’s bandaged and mummified appearance.
Besides, owing to the sloth of Communism, the square probably had been under repair for decades, and would be for decades to come. We forgot about it, and went off in search of another pub – itself perhaps the best in all Europe; who would know until it was visited?
Shortly we came to the venerable Charles Bridge across the Vltava River, and all I could think about was the majestic Vltava section of “Ma Vlast,” the Czech national tone poem written by the beloved 19th century composer Smetana, who is buried on a nearby hilltop overlooking the river.
We left town and resumed our journey westward. Time passed, and eventually I found myself in Europe for the third time.
Very little about Prague had changed when I returned in 1989; the city still seemed to be a time capsule in a myriad of senses, both good and bad, but when I returned first thing to the bridge and set my sights on the incomparable skyline of spires along the river, and the looming presence of the Prague Castle perched atop the opposite bank, the familiar soundtrack recording of Smetana’s Vltava refused to play.
Instead of the expected soft rippling of orchestral strings imitating the flow of the river itself, I heard a snappy synthesized cadence, and the words and music of a light pop ballad that might not have attracted my attention if not for the visual content of the accompanying video, which had played on MTV for months prior to my trip, and that always compelled me to lecture bystanders about the beauty of Prague.
“There, look!” I would scream, pointing at the television, and everyone in the room would melt away in search of phone books to read.
The song was “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS, the band’s only #1 hit in the United States. The video had been filmed in Prague some time during 1988, and it featured Hutchence and his band mates in dark and serious poses that were meant to convey at least part of the city’s very real, dark and nervous Cold War feeling, beginning on the Charles Bridge, then down the street from the Jewish Cemetery, and finally ending with the camera at the corner of the glockenspiel on the Old Town Hall for an incredible closing pan of the fully renovated and stunningly beautiful Old Town Square, with nary a scaffold in sight.
Viewing the video today, it strikes me in much the same way as my old passport photo does: Youthful, pretentious, and innocent (at least in relative terms) in roughly equal measure. There was no deeply philosophical significance to any of it, and yet I could not extricate the sound and the sight of INXS’s creation from my mind as I walked the streets of Prague in the summer of 1989 – and I haven’t been able to avoid thinking about it since, although now Smetana’s tone poem has returned to its rightful place in the canon, and can again be summoned on demand.
Where has all of it gone?
Prague is free. The city’s store shelves now are brimming over with international brands of toothpaste, the beer dispensed in its taverns grows colder and dumber each year, and once again the buildings on the Old Town Square are hidden, this time not by scaffolding, but by crowds of tourists who make it impossible to walk over the Charles Bridge in midday, and who have no memory of the cheap eats at the Automat Koruna, long deceased, to be replaced by a trendy boutique entirely without sausages, dumplings and draft beer.
Just overpriced clothes, handbags and hip-hop blaring from the sound system.
Hutchence is dead, and with him INXS. His scandal‑plagued final years, coupled with his band's decline in popularity, have ensured a healthy degree of post‑mortem savagery on the part of the media and those whose lives are defined by the mass mailing of e‑mail jokes. What did this drug‑ and sex‑crazed has‑been do for anyone lately, except provide Britain's tabloids with headlines? Not a lot, I guess, but in spite of it all ‑‑ and most importantly, in spite of my cynicism ‑‑ he gave me a pleasant memory of a vanished time, and I still enjoy much of his music. That's enough for me. It's more than most ever get.
As for myself ...
That's the hardest part. The young kid trying to bore holes through the camera with his eyes has ceased to exist in every bit as much a way as Czechoslovakia's socialist system and the chances for an INXS reunion tour date at the Phoenix Hill Tavern, but I don't really know how to gauge the distance or decide whether his disappearance is good or bad, worth recapturing, or best forgotten.
When I'm depressed, over‑worked, exhausted and painfully aware of my shortcomings, I want desperately to take back a piece of that time, to pull the covers up over my head and to live again out of my backpack. When things are going well, I'm thankful for the experience without wishing to relive it, knowing that the years since have given me so much more knowledge, so many more friends and loved ones, and so many reasons for wanting to live in the present, to seek the future with confidence, and not to dwell in the past.
One desire has remained constant throughout the years that have passed and the changes that have occurred, and that's the desire to travel and to willingly undergo the process of self‑examination that is inexorably linked to it.
We return, then, to the notion of travel.
You might choose to return to the place where you started, but if the path of the voyage is followed with diligence and commitment ‑‑ and with a bit of luck ‑‑ you'll find that you're not the same person you were when you set out, and that sometimes you even end up with a song, or a city, to prove it.