The Rolling Stones' Czech Invasion

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On the afternoon of the show, the five members of the Stones were received by the president at his official residence, Hradcany Castle. "I didn't make any special preparations for the meeting," Keith Richards said. "I knew that your president was a straightforward and pleasant man, and this was confirmed. He's also a very funny guy. What did we talk about? We just made small talk. It's hard to have a conversation with someone you're meeting for the first time in your life, especially when you're surrounded by cameras."

Jagger came a bit more prepared. "I haven't read his plays, but I know his essays and some smaller things, including his brilliant letter to President Husak," he said. "I also know one of his recent books, a long dialogue that was just published in our country. In it, he asks whether he will catch a second wind in his writing or whether he's doomed to repeating himself, and he says he doesn't know. So I told him I thought the problem was solved now. The second wind has come with his presidency, and he doesn't have to worry that it won't come again to Havel the writer.

"But there wasn't really much conversation," continued Jagger, sipping a mineral water. "These official events are a bit unhappy occasions. The day before, we met Mrs. Havel in a restaurant, and that was the right way to do it."

For Jagger, the highlight of the visit was the group's appearance with the president on the castle's balcony, a place from which the Czech people are used to hearing news, both good and bad, of great import. But on this day, the Stones just waved hello to the people crowding the courtyard below, and the fans responded with an enthusiastic cry, a small taste of what was to come later in the evening at the stadium.

The Strahov Stadium is the largest in the world, with a capacity of 300,000. Early on, the concert's organizers had agreed to use just one-third of it for the Stones show, limiting ticket sales to about 100,000. Two days before the concert, it wasn't clear whether the show would be sold out. Tickets were priced at 250 crowns each (about $10), a modest amount by Western European and American standards. But for the Czech budget, that price represented about a tenth of the average monthly income.

"Are the tickets too expensive?" Jagger asked. "We won't earn one thin dime, and even if the tickets were priced double, we would still be losing money. That's a problem with doing concerts in Eastern Europe — the tickets are too expensive for you, and we're losing money."

In the end, the price was a bargain for tourists, and tickets were also sold in Hungary, Austria, Poland and Germany. About 10,000 fans came from Hungary alone — an ironic reminder of the times when thousands of young Czech music fans would make their way to Budapest almost monthly to see bands that could not play in their own country.

The huge stage set, built by a team of British and Hungarian workers, with some assistance from Czech scaffold builders, looked almost minuscule on the stadium's immense field. But the crowd, which finally numbered about 107,000, made up for that. The audience gave a lukewarm welcome to Czech singer Vladimir Misik and Etc., one of the bands that had suffered through the unpleasant experience of the past regime. The response was a little more enthusiastic for the Dan Reed Network, the American band that preceded the Stones. Then, at 9:30 p.m., a thundering overture and fireworks announced the arrival onstage of the Rolling Stones, playing "Start Me Up."

After 135 minutes — during which spectators managed to get wet from the rain and then dry again from the heat of the crowd — the show was over. The Rolling Stones had played a great concert, keeping a promise Keith Richards had made earlier. "We really care about this concert," he'd said. "We'll try to play the best we can."

The dreams of three generations of Czech music freaks had come true.

At 1:00 a.m., as I rode from the stadium to the subway, which was kept open past midnight for the first time in its existence, a cavalcade of cars with a white BMW in the middle passed me. President Havel had been held up for a while after the concert. He had to send a cable to the group, which had departed immediately for London, once again using his plane. The message he relayed to the Stones said that as he was listening to them, he realized that their music deals with many of the same things that he's been fighting for, with his life and his work. And that, perhaps, was the best critique of the night.

This is a story from the October 4, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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