How I became a hippie

When long hair and rock music were freedom

[the following is a part of the first chapter of my memoir. I’m hoping to complete it by next summer but the temptations of writing for Substack and all my music activity may delay the target date]

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Down in the basement of our two-story building lived the family of our janitor, Josef R. He was a railway man; drove trains by day and, along with his wife, looked after the maintenance of the building at night and on weekends. He was responsible for our heat in the winter. Back then, all buildings in Prague were heated by coal, and the huge basement furnace had to be kept running from November through April, at least. Josef’s family owned a TV set before anyone else in our building, and I would sometimes go down and watch a hockey game or a comedy show. But best of all, Josef was a huge “big beat” fan (spelled “bigbít” - what the Czechs called rock’n’roll music) and he took me to my first live show. This must have been in early 1967. I was fourteen, Josef would have been about ten years my senior, but he loved that I could play the guitar and always treated me as an equal, not as “that neighbor kid”.

The rock’n’roll scene in Prague was booming. There were quite a few bands that were starting to get airtime and whose names became famous in the teenage and early twenties crowd. In the 60’s, anyone over twenty-five would have been married and out of the “hip” scene. Band members were usually in their early twenties. The reigning kings of the scene was a band called Olympic. Unlike other indie bands, Olympic had a recording contract with the state record company Supraphone, and most of their songs were originals and sung in Czech. They had major radio hits. As is often the case, their popular success also worked against them: too much success has a deadly effect on your street cred. And so the bands to REALLY see, and at whose concerts you wanted to be SEEN were outfits like Flamengo, The Matadors, George and the Beathovens, Framus Five and one or two others.

One night, while watching TV in their one-bedroom basement apartment, with his wife putting their baby to sleep, Josef told me he had an extra ticket to a Flamengo performance that coming Friday night and would I like to tag along – assuming my parents were ok with it. I instantly rushed upstairs to ask for permission for a Friday night outing with Josef. Father scratched his head: “He’s going to see what, exactly?” “It’s a bigbít band called Flamengo” “Like the bird?” “Yeah, I guess.” “Well, if you’re back by ten o’clock, there shouldn’t be a problem. Let me call downstairs.” Josef confirmed that he was happy to take me and yes, we would definitely be home by ten o’clock.

Most men remember the first time they had sex, or the first time they traveled abroad, or the first time they brought home their own paycheck. Sure, those things are up there in my mind too (well, perhaps not that last one – I was a late bloomer in the “go your own way” department) but that first rock concert occupies a true place of honor in my memory. Neither my first sex tryst, nor foreign travel fired up my imagination the way that first rock concert did. Of course, they were very important. Sex, especially, with its convoluted psychological tentacles reaching into crevices of your mind you didn’t know you had. But the charge of that first rock concert, that rush of energy, the power with which it gripped my imagination - it surpassed everything.

Josef and I go to the venue early. There was a line-up outside, people rubbing their hands and stomping their feet to keep warm. We stood out a bit: I was quite a bit younger than the kids in the queue and Josef was older. The boys all had long hair and flower-patterned shirts, all manner of weird and wonderful head gear, boots or red tennis shoes the likes of which I had not seen before and instantly coveted. I thought all the girls were gorgeous. Everybody smoked cigarettes, nudged each other playfully, giggled and chatted excitedly. Even though I had been born and raised in Prague, these kids’ accents and slang sounded deliciously different. The most frequent word out of their mouth was “ox” (“vole” in Czech) The word could be used in a derogatory way or in an amicable way. It can be an insult, or it can signify approval. “He was a real ox” (insult) “No way, ox!” (surprise) “Don’t be silly, you ox, I love you” (playfulness) More often than not, the word was just filler, the way “like” is in American English. “I already paid for the tickets, ox, don’t worry about it, ox.”  There was a lazy lilt to their speech with every vowel sounding long and open. It was the street language of Prague I had occasionally heard at school, except this teenage version was much more pronounced, almost exaggerated. I instantly loved everything about the crowd. I determined there and then I would walk, talk and dress like them – and this was before I’d heard one note of music.

The doors opened at 6:30. Seating wasn’t assigned, and Josef’s age and tall stature got us seats in the second row. The room filled up quickly, the buzz was electric. Stagehands were setting up and testing equipment: amplifiers and speaker cabinets, microphones, a drum set, guitar stands…I was in heaven. Only much later did I realize how primitive the equipment was compared to amps and mics that British and American bands used. Just before seven o’clock, the MC appeared. He was about Josef’s age, but his attire was even more outlandish than the audience members: all colors and feathers and beads, badges and trinkets, hair down to his waist – I had never seen people like that and had no idea they existed in Prague at all. “Ladies and gentlemen, lovers of music, friends, brothers and sisters. It’s great to see you all. You know it already: you are in for a phenomenal evening with a band that has just cut its first record and that will shoot past Olympik on the charts in no time” Deafening shouts of “yeah!” and loud applause. “My friends, lovers of life and lovers of peace, put your hands together and let them know how much you love them…FLAMENGO!”

Here I was, fourteen years old, a skinny kid in dress pants and a grey sweater, a boy who had been taking guitar lessons for a few years, had written a few poems, had discovered the anguish of orgasm, had held a girl’s hand, had done well at school - though not to his full potential because of distracting thoughts and feelings he couldn’t even put a name to. Here I was, sitting among young adults wearing outfits so hip they hurt, every one of them exuding an air which was easy going, in-the-know, and confident. I knew immediately what it felt like. It felt like FREEDOM. I had never thought I wasn’t free Suddenly, surrounded by a crowd these street-wise young hippies, I was not a child anymore.  I was about to listen to a real rock band. I looked like a dweeb, but I sensed I was among my people. This was MY crowd.

The band ran onto the stage: the drummer grabbed his sticks and counted off the first song. I knew the music would be loud. One of the reasons you went to a rock concert was to immerse yourself fully in the music and the vibe – and hear the songs at a volume they were meant to be played at. But this was not just loud – the sound wave from that first chord felt as if it would lift all of us out of our seats and toss us back ten yards. Everyone leapt to their feet, including Josef whom I had only known as a serious young man with a job and family, the janitor, train engineer and building furnace stoker. The rock beast grabbed him and shook him just like it did everyone else. Song followed song, a cloud of cigarette smoke filled the room – everyone smoked, even the band members took puffs between numbers. The venue wasn’t licensed, but I saw people sipping from flasks. I didn’t spot any pot at that first concert. Perhaps I just didn’t know what to look for (or what to smell) but I’m quite sure that alcohol was the drug of choice, perhaps along with prescription amphetamines. Drugs made the scene eventually but by then I had long left Prague. After an hour of deafening racket, inhaling smoke and the damp sweaty air, the audience swaying and dancing singing along with the music, the band took a break. We went out to get some air. It was frosty outside, a nice break from the smelly sauna inside. My ears were ringing. “So, what do you think?” Josef grinned. “Pretty great, eh?” “That doesn’t even begin to describe it,” I said, “the best thing I’ve ever seen or heard. I’m going to practice my butt off. I want to play just like those guys.” “Sounds like a plan,” said Josef, “but I’m sure your dad will still insist you practice your Bach etudes.” “I don’t know that I have the patience to go back to that!”

The second half of the show was more subdued. Sitting in the second row, I could observe the guitar player’s hands and realized I knew a lot of the chords he was playing. The band played more ballads, softer tunes that showcased their skills. To end the concert, Flamengo picked up the pace again and their second encore was the Rolling Stones’ anthem “Satisfaction” which everyone in the audience knew – by which I mean, everyone knew the melody. People tried as best they could to imitate what they heard on records…but whatever it was, it wasn’t English. We could all hum the guitar riff and say “satisfaction”. As for the rest, even the lead singer was probably making up the lyrics as he went, trying to make them sound “English”. That was the extent to which we were cut off from the western world. Although we were culturally and historically a part of it, we were politically amputated.

Josef and I took the streetcar home. As we were entering our building, Josef said: “I’ll let you know next time I have tickets!” and he trotted down to the basement, as I ran upstairs to our apartment. I barely said hi to my parents, ran to my bedroom, grabbed my guitar, and played the intro to Satisfaction over and over, swaying back and forth, eyes closed, dreaming of colorful shirts and peace sign pendants, trying to figure out where I would get a pair of red sneakers.

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[For anyone interested in the Czechoslovak rock music scene of the 1960’s, I recommend you peruse https://www.psychedelicbabymag.com/2016/09/1960s-1970s-psychedelia-in.html]

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