PRINT October 1990


Czechered History

It’s been a long time since the Rolling Stones have mattered enough to rock the body politic. Once, through music and otherwise, they seemed to be saying something serious, even in their habits of consumption—as in the 1967 marijuana and uppers bust that made Jagger and Richards symbolic foci of a new generation’s new life and of the establishment’s reaction to it. Attacking the heavy sentence (later overturned), a London Times editorialist was moved to ask, “Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?,” adding his brick to a romantic construction inside which everything the band did had weight. But then came the long grind of the Stones’ career as grown-ups. Subsequent drug charges—Richards’ 1977 arrest in Canada, say, this time for heroin—were just another predictable drag.

And now this startling photo-graph, distributed internationally by Agence France-Presse in August. On the 18th of that month, the Stones played Prague, at the specific invitation of Vaclav Havel, Czech fan, playwright, and president. The band donated the night’s earnings to a local charity. The concert’s slogan: The tanks roll out, the Stones roll in.

The photo is surprising, and then it’s not. It isn’t so odd, after all, that these 40-something multimillionaires should hobnob with heads of state. Jagger in particular is a famous socialite. Still, the picture disorients, for reasons having everything to do with who these people are and little to do with its commonplace form.

A ballet of references is encapsulated here: most powerfully, through Havel, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the Prague Spring, which seemed to promise a social easement perfectly in tune with those years’ libertarian mood—until it was crushed by Russian tanks (the same now rolling out). But the memory of that spirit also incorporates Western rock. In the ’60s, a parcel of ideas about revolution and change somehow attached itself to popular music of even quite commercial kinds. People in Czechoslovakia were fully aware of this reckless medium; and so, today, there beside Havel are two of that music’s most important figures. Both he and they have “come through” in their different fashions. The intellectual turned politician represents a delayed realization of the dream of ’68, a late revolution, though a paradoxical one, for it seems to involve an embrace of what has usually been thought revolution’s opposite: the capitalist free-for-all. And the singer and guitar player—really against the odds, all things considered—have become wealthy. They’ve also given up almost all their clout as cultural spokesmen. But if they’ve trashed their old symbolism, they’ve ironically renewed it as well, for they still represent a sort of freedom, if now of an entirely practical kind.

In some way the picture is poignant, full of the reversals of history and of abandoned and readdressed promises on a variety of scales. And it tells a faceted story about the political empowerment of artists, the ending remaining unclear. But hell, it’s also funny. Everyone seems pleased with himself. The statesman gets to look cool and the rock stars get to look important. Are the three of them remarking on how far each has come—an unimaginable distance—and feeling triumphant? Does Havel believe the Stones are what they were then? Did he think he was getting Public Enemy? And if he does see the Stones as no more than the great party band they ore in the ’90s, would he say that was enough?

David Frankel is a senior editor of Artforum.