Friday, November 23, 2012

REWIND: Not Enough Time, Part Three.

Part Two, yesterday


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.

“It’s Prague!”

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 for¬gotten.

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.

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