In early 1989, Martin and Paddy told me that they were going on a town twinning trip to Czechoslovakia in late May and did I want to come? The town twinning organisation in Harlow was very active and had formed links with Havirov. I always assumed that the towns were twinned because they was founded at around the same time (and possibly because they shared the first two letters). All travel was provided free through the association. It was specifically a trip for union members and pensioners. Despite having to miss a Tye Green cricket tour to the Midlands, I jumped at the chance.
We had a great time. Beer was 8p a pint, Paddy went on lots of trains and Martin was asked if he liked porridge for his briefcase. We visited a school with a Russian tank outside the main entrance. I stayed with a very pleasant family (Marcela, Zdenek and their two children) in a small flat. Later in the Summer, the Czech contingent came to Harlow and Marcela stayed in my flat. I cleaned places in that flat I didn’t know existed before she arrived. She invited me back to Havirov by myself in October during my half term holiday. This was before “The Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia so this was not very straightforward. A visa was not easy to obtain and I had to report to the local police station every day.
I flew to Prague and waited in the airport for six hours before my connecting flight to Ostrava. My suitcase did not appear on the carousel in Prague and I eventually saw it an hour later standing forlornly by itself in a corner after, presumably, a thorough inspection. During the six hour wait I read “If This Is A Man” by Primo Levi which was not the cheeriest six hours of my life.
The flight home was even more complex. These days when I need to have everything planned to the tiniest detail three months in advance, I can’t believe that I did this. I flew from Ostrava to Prague on a Saturday and the flight home was not until Sunday. I had been assured by my hosts in Havirov that it would be quite straightforward to get a taxi driver to drive me to a hotel and book a room. It seems that most hotel owners when confronted with a short fat bearded single man in his mid thirties, at around the time when there were quite a lot of (peaceful) demonstrations taking place in Prague, were not willing to take the risk and let me have a room. We must have driven to seven or eight hotels before I was finally offered a room. I then explored Prague.
This was many years before Prague became the stag/hen capital of Europe. It was very beautiful. In the evening, I witnessed hundreds of people demonstrating for reform. This was towards the end of October 1989. The Berlin Wall fell on November 9th. The Velvet Revolution lasted from November 16th 1989 – November 29th 1989. At one point, I saw about 200-300 people standing in a group and singing while face to face with a large number of silently menacing police. At another time I was part of a group of hangers-on who were herded by police down one street only to be confronted by more police at the other end of the street herding us back the way we had come from.
I’m slowly getting round to Rickie Lee Jones, don’t worry. During the day in Prague, I wandered round the city. (Shamefully, I went for an Indian meal around 6:00 pm. Can that be true? It’s what I remember.) At one point, having crossed the Charles Bridge, I spotted Strelecky Island which is in the middle of the River Vltava that runs through Prague. There was a small bridge across to the river and I sat on a seat and looked at the Prague skyline and the Charles Bridge, thinking about my hosts in Havirov, wondering about my chances of getting home and planning a lesson on quadratic equations for Monday morning. I had a Walkman with me and for a wonderful 45 minutes I played “Flying Cowboys” by Rickie Lee Jones. It was a wonderful moment and one that I had forgotten about until yesterday.
Rickie Lee Jones has released 17 records and I am astonished to find that I own 10 of them plus a double anthology. I saw her once in London with John and Helen and she was great. Wikipedia states that Rickie Lee Jones “is an American vocalist, musician, songwriter, producer, actress and narrator. Over the course of a career she has recorded in various musical styles including rock, R&B, blues, pop, soul and jazz.”
“Flying Cowboys” was her first record for 5 years. During that time she had married and given birth to a daughter. Promotional copies of “Flying Cowboys” were packaged with an interview with her and this is the source for a passage that is extensively sampled on British electronic group The Orb’s 1990 hit “Little Fluffy Clouds”. She was asked “What were the skies like when you were young?” She replied “They went on forever. We lived in Arizona, and the skies always had little fluffy clouds in them, and they were long and clear and there were lots of stars at night. And when it would rain, it would all turn beautiful, the most beautiful skies as a matter of fact. The sunsets were purple and red and yellow and on fire, and the clouds would catch the colours everywhere. That’s neat ’cause I used to look at them all the time, when I was little. You might still see them in the desert.” This recording was used without her permission and eventually The Orb paid $5000. Which I think is fair enough. Sampling is just a hip name given to stealing. Anyway, I won’t pursue that argument.
The music is wonderful, thrilling, dazzling, beautiful, varied, excellent. Here are a selection of quotes from the review of the record. “She embraces adulthood and real life without sacrificing her cool, bohemian edge.” “It has the breadth of an important book and the emotional impact of great rock ‘n’ roll.” “It has a seductive rhythmic flow, down-home surrealistic lyrics, intelligent production and sensually, elastic, extraordinary singing.”
One of the songs is “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” written by Gerry and The Pacemakers. “We know that crying’s not a bad thing/But stop your crying when the birds sing.” Her singing here is so deeply emotional it is heartbreaking.
To my ears there are three standout tracks. “The Horses” is a song to her very young daughter. “We’ll be riding on the horses/Way up in the sky little darlin’/And if you fall, I’ll pick you up/Pick you up”.
The title track has a repetitive corkscrew guitar line with her free form talking over the top before launching into a very strongly sung chorus. The song climaxes with her almost screaming “When I was young” and then a beautiful trumpet draws the song to a close.
The song I can still remember listening to on Strelecky Island is “Away From The Sky”. It starts with a heavenly choir singling wordlessly and a gentle acoustic guitar. Rickie Lee starts singing quietly and the intensity of her voice increases as she sings “Gone from the rodeo/Gone from the tundra, gal/It’s after the fair/That’s when I see you there.” Her singing is quiet and restrained apart from occasionally emphasising one syllable. Its at a funereal pace and all the more exquisite because of it. The instrumentation is just Rickie Lee on acoustic guitar accompanied by an electric guitar and synthesiser. I think the beauty of the song is that it’s basically a quiet acoustic number but the occasional emphasis of key words and phrases tugs at the heart.
This was 31 years ago, two years before I met Roo. I was single, by myself behind “The Iron Curtain”, unable to speak any Slovak, not really sure how or if I would get home, sitting on an island listening to the most exquisitely beautiful music. And I think these are strange days.