Glen Emery - one of the architects of Prague's "left bank of the 1990s" whose bar inspired Nick Cave

Glen Emery

My guest for One on One this week is Canadian native Glen Emery, who was one of the first foreign entrepreneurs to begin operating in the Prague pub trade shortly after the Velvet Revolution. In the early 1990s, Prague had a reputation as a new "left bank", as thousands of young American and other Western ex-pats descended on the city attracted by cheap beer and the exuberant atmosphere that surrounded a society which was busy letting its hair down after forty years of communist oppression. One of the focal points of this new Bohemian scene was Jo's Bar, which Emery opened in 1992 and which had a well deserved reputation as a hotbed of unrestrained hedonism.

Emery was also one of the owners of the notorious Repre Club in Prague's famous Art Nouveau Obecni dum building and the nearby Thirsty Dog pub whose crazy atmosphere was famously celebrated in a song by Nick Cave. When I met up with Glen in a slightly more sedate contemporary Prague café, I started by asking him what he remembered of the euphoria that had engulfed the Czech capital when he first moved to the city in the summer of 1990:

"There was stuff going on all around the place. Everyone was partying. We used to go down to Mustek where it was basically a free-for-all. The police were nowhere to be seen. Right after the revolution they kind of went into hiding so there were no cops and chaos reigned. It was very anarchic, but in a good way. It wasn't like people were out robbing the shops or robbing each other. They were just having a good time. On Mustek, people would sort of set up shop and sell anything from beer to becherovka to porn mags to chewing gum and everything in between. So we'd go down to Mustek, grab a beer and stand around and just watch the goings-on. It was like a circus every night. I remember one night this couple came out and I didn't really notice them at first, but then a crown gathered around them. They put down a picnic blanket and started making love right there on the square. They were hi-fiving each other and switching positions and then they finished up, packed up their gear and left to uproarious applause. That's the sort of thing you don't see every day."

You didn't come to Prague with very much money and yet you ended up owning and running a bar. How did that come about?

"I realised that there was a big hole in the market for an ex-pat bar. So I thought to myself that I should open one. So I went looking around and I got a hold of some finance. I went to the banks and I ended up getting a loan and then I found a space. It all happened very quickly. By February of 1992, I was looking for a place; by April of 1992 I had found a place on Malostranske namesti and I started reconstructing it. We opened on November 6th, 1992."

Jo's Bar - as this pub was called - subsequently became very famous (or even notorious) and was cited by major international publications like Newsweek. What are your abiding memories of that period?

"There are endless stories. There was a lot of nudity and weird stuff going on in the back room. But the general feeling I have about Jo's Bar now has to be put into perspective. Today we're both sitting here with our mobile phones in front of us, and you think to yourself 'Jesus Christ! How did I get along back in 1992 without a mobile telephone?' But of course you did manage somehow and one of the ways in which you did this was that you would go to places like Jo's Bar because you knew you would meet five or ten of your pals every time. You didn't have to call anyone. You would just go there and you would meet people. So it was kind of a meeting place and a big hangout for a lot of ex-pats. But also so many strange things happened there. There was all sorts of nudity and sex and fights - you name it. It was sex and drugs and rock'n'roll taken to the extreme and it was happening every night. So it was a pretty wild time. But it was euphoric too. Prague was basically reinventing itself after the revolution, both politically and socially. A lot of young people were also coming through the city - myself included - and they were reinventing themselves too. It was kind of like a rebirth. The bar was brand new; the country was brand new. It was an interesting period and an interesting part of history."

The one word I would use to describe that wild period, which probably ended around 1998 or so, is "decadent." Did you ever get the impression sometimes that what was really going on was that rich, spoiled Westerners were simply coming to Prague and using the city as a playground? Or was there more to what was happening back then?

"The Czechs were being decadent too. It wasn't just us. There have been some pretty major paradigm shifts in this culture and each one has put a little bit more fear into the eyes of the average Czech person. I think the first thing that happened was the advent of all those fashion magazines and publications that tell you how to live your life - the Elles, Cosmopolitans, GQs, etc. That was the first thing that changed Czech society. Then the big thing was the introduction of 'splatky' or hire purchase schemes and then mortgages. This resulted in all the subsequent fear that they had in their lives - to be able to pay back the car, the house, the flat, the vacation, etc. That started happening in 1995, 96, 97 and - as you say - by 1998 the decadent lifestyle of the Czechs and the foreigners had pretty much disappeared. We still get up to a little bit of that stuff, but not like it was back in the day. But really, back then when you went into the Repre Club at 4am on a Tuesday night and there were hundreds and hundreds of people going mad, they weren't all foreigners. A lot of them were locals. I think it's the entropy that is inherent in human behaviour - we'd all like to be decadent if we could. And back in those days we were able to be decadent, because it didn't matter."

In the 1990s, there were occasional stories of protection rackets run by Ukrainian and Russian mafia types who were targeting fledgling businesses in Prague. Did you ever experience anything like this?

"We had a few little things happen here and there, but never anything really serious. Typically, in this town the Ukrainian mafia extorts money out of Ukrainians, the Russians out of Russians, the Vietnamese out of Vietnamese, the Serbians out of Montenegrins and so on. But as far as it went for me as a North American, I only had a couple of little skirmishes with what I'd call petty criminals - one guy was Yugoslavian; the other was Ukrainian or something... Basically we just let our big bouncers loose on them, who beat them up and I never saw them again. But if there were real serious mobsters around, I never saw them. I don't recall any of the foreigners I knew who were running bars saying that they had any problems with the mafia. I know it happens with Yugoslavians and other nationalities that are here, and it's usually by their own countrymen. But it hasn't happened to us."

In the early 1990s you actually ended up running the Repre Club, which was a pretty crazy nightclub in Obecni dum - one of Prague's most prestigious buildings...

Obecni dum
"Yeah, we took it over and we must have spent about two weeks just cleaning. It was unbelievable how disgustingly dirty it was. We pretty much exclusively hired Bosnian refugees who were on the run from the war to clean the place. We had about 25 to 30 Bosnian Serbs, Croats and all sorts. They were a big hotchpotch who all had one thing in common, which was to get the hell away from the conflict in their homeland. We hired a lot of them because they were really good workers. We put them to work for about a week or ten days just cleaning the kitchen and the front of the café, which we then opened immediately. We had a 300-seat café with a martini bar upstairs. We put a pool hall out the back and then downstairs we had that nightclub, which was going gangbusters every night."

Was it not totally inappropriate to have a business like yours in such a famous building as Obecni dum or the Municipal House as it's called in English, which is considered by many to be one of the architectural jewels of Prague?

"Actually, in retrospect we did nothing [bad to that building]. Looking back was all really funny because they tried to charge us for some damage to the place - nothing serious just some broken door handles and things here and there. But the whole place was kitted out with these beautiful Art Nouveau chandeliers, stained glass windows, etc. And I was trying to make sure that nothing got damaged because it was all historically preserved stuff. And then they did the reconstruction and of course those guys ripped everything out, everything got stolen - the Czechs stole everything - and then they paid gazillions of crowns to some new guys to make models of it all. But it's all gone. All the cool stuff that was in there is gone. And they replaced it with stuff that is nowhere near as nice as far as craftsmanship, style or quality goes. It gets me upset thinking about it. We did quite a lot for that building. We cleaned it up. We tried to look after it and then at the end of the day the Czechs just ripped everything out and gutted it. And then rebuilt it with inferior-quality stuff."

Your Repre Club and the adjacent Thirsty Dog Pub were only open for about 18 months before they were closed down by the city so the premises could be reconstructed. Despite being open for such a short time, both establishments are still talked about today as focal points of all the crazy things that were going on in post-communist Prague. Is that reputation justified?

"It was quite a roller-coaster ride. We even had quite a lot of famous people come through. Allen Ginsberg did some poetry readings there. We had Nick Cave hanging out in our bar. He even wrote a song about it called The Thirsty Dog for his 1994 album Let Love In. Joey Strummer from The Clash also played in our club. We ended up having a big party for him and we all got drunk on archive wine. So it was quite an exciting time."