Jan Rubeš: On the revolution, Zappa, Dallas – and coaching Jagger
Czechoslovakia’s new-found freedom was underlined in August 1990 by a concert at Prague’s Strahov Stadium by the Rolling Stones, who became the first major Western band to perform in the country. In a now famous video message broadcast before the gig, Mick Jagger told fans – in Czech – “the Stones are rolling to Prague”. The man who taught the rock star the phrase was Jan Rubeš. A Czechoslovak TV employee in those years, he later brought shows such as Dallas and The Simpsons to the country’s TV screens. When I spoke to Rubeš, who now works in film and TV distribution, I asked what he had been doing this time 30 years ago.
“I don’t think there were too many members of the Communist Party in this department [laughs].
“We did classical music, we did concerts, etcetera.
“That was already a time when things were slowly starting to change, with perestroika in Russia.
“I started to also study documentary making, post-graduate studies, at FAMU, and I was dreaming of becoming a film director or maker of TV documentaries.
“So I was slowly preparing for that career.”
For your generation, your English is I think unusually good. Where did you get your English?
“My sister got married in the United States in 1967.
“The year is very important, because it was before the Russian invasion.
“She legally married and at that time the Communists still let me go to visit to my sister.
“There was some deal between Czechoslovakia and the US that families could visit each other, so I didn’t need to get all the bizarre permits.
“She always sent me an invitation and then of course the Communists had to approve the trip.”
Jan Rubeš coached Mick Jagger to say the Stones are rolling to Prague, in Czech.
How old were you when the revolution happened and what are your strongest memories of that time?
“I was born in 1955 so in ’89 I was thirty-something.
“It was like a dream.
“I just the tape from Czech Television [from that time]… part of the ‘movement’ at that time at the Television was the so-called garage.
“OB [outside broadcast] vans parked at that time in the garages of Czechoslovak Television.
“The Monday after November 17, because it was a Friday I think, the employees went to the garage.
“The Monday after November 17, because it was a Friday I think, the employees went to the garage at Czechoslovak TV. On Tuesday there was another meeting and we declared that we wanted a new system, democracy.”
“On Tuesday there was another meeting and we declared that we wanted a new system, democracy.
“And in one moment I was thinking about what was important, because people were already on Wenceslas Square, I think.
“I said, Hey, we are talking here, but we should go with our OB vans to do a live transmission from Wenceslas Square.
“I can play you the tape!
“It was incredible. It started a discussion – Yes, we should do that.
“The technical director from those days said, You never asked for this before!
“That started a discussion. It was one of a thousand points, or moments, that were quite interesting.”
The main reason I wanted to speak to you was because the Rolling Stones famously played here in Prague at Strahov stadium in the summer of 1990. I guess they were the first major international touring band of that size who came here. Before the Stones came to Prague, there was a famous video made in which Mick Jagger says, Kameny se valí do Prahy, or the Stones are rolling to Prague. You coached him to say that – how did this situation come about?
“I told you I was trying to be a documentary director.
“Because of my English, the team, the scouts who were trying to find where the concert should be, etcetera, the team who were preparing the concert asked me to join them when they were searching for a place to hold it.
“We went to Strahov stadium, which was the biggest place a concert could be.
“And I just said in front of one of the guys from the Rolling Stones’ team, It might be a problem, because we lived behind the Iron Curtain and nobody knows anything about the Rolling Stones.
“I said, But if you let me do a documentary before the concert… I work at Czechoslovak Television and we play the documentary and it will help sell tickets.
“They were a little bit nervous, whether it was true or not, and they said, OK, send us the questions and maybe it might be possible, because we’re touring, we have one concert before Prague in Vienna, so maybe we can invite you.
“So that started the process. We sent questions back and forth and they said, No, you can’t ask that, you should ask this.
“In the end they finally agreed that we could come to Vienna and make a documentary about preparing the concert and interview Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
“Another thing was that at that time my wife escaped with my three kids to her new boyfriend in the US and I was alone.
“She loves the Rolling Stones so I was dreaming that if I do a Rolling Stones interview and she send her the tape, she will return.
“I said, If you let me do a documentary before the concert… I work at Czechoslovak Television and we play the documentary and it will help sell tickets.”
“And she did [laughs].”
I presume for you it was a huge thing, meeting Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, members of one of the biggest bands of all time?
“Yes, it was, it was.
“Where to begin… It was really very bizarre, the interviews.
“They said we really had to send, in those days by fax, all the questions, and they always complained.
“For instance, I had one question: How is it possible that Mick Jagger can work with Keith Richards if they are such different personalities? Mick Jagger jogs, he doesn’t smoke or drink and Keith Richards…
“The answer was, That’s not a good question, because they are the same.
“And [laughs] when we interviewed Keith Richards the first thing they put on the table was a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of bourbon [laughs]!
“So they really weren’t the same!
“Then it was amazing when they came. The interview happened in a hotel in Vienna and they came and said, Ask what you want.
“So we were approved.”
Mick Jagger as you say is often seen as the kind of straight one in the group while Keith Richards is the personification of rock’n’roll. Did either of them make a greater impression on you? Or how did they seem to you as people?
“I think that they were also a little bit nervous, because we were strange people from a different country – they had no idea where they were going.
“As I said, they were maybe afraid that not many people would come.
“But the concert was of course sold out immediately and it was an incredible success.”
Footage from that interview process is on YouTube. How do you feel today looking back at that film?
“I think it was really the creative peak of my life as a director; I didn’t make many things.
“Another one was before that. I did a documentary or report when Frank Zappa came to Prague.
“It was in January 1990 when he visited – he came from Moscow.
“So that’s another film with, for me, a celebrity.”
Was that the time when Havel, or Havel’s people, famously asked Zappa to be some kind of representative, or a roving ambassador or something like that?
“I wasn’t there. I know there was this discussion, but maybe it happened later.
“You know, Václav Havel was great and very friendly so maybe, because he loved Frank Zappa, he said, You are the one…
“I remember one of my questions to Frank Zappa.
“When we interviewed Keith Richards the first thing they put on the table was a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of bourbon.”
“I knew there was no minister of culture in the United States and, because we also introduced him to the our minister of culture, I said, Hey Frank, do you have in the United States a minister of culture?
“He said, No, if we had a minister of culture he would be a minister of junk, because we have no culture [laughs]. He was very straight.”
Tell us about the actual concert of the Rolling Stones, where you had over 100,000 people at Strahov for the biggest event ever of its kind, at that time, in this country?
“I think it was. Another story is connected with this, because the day before the concert the guys who I knew called me and said, Hey, did you ever speak in front of 100,000 people?
“I said, No, but I have no problem doing that.
“They said, OK, come to Strahov, we’ll give you a special pass when you get there. So I said, What will I do?
“They gave me a microphone before the concert and said, You should announce where the emergency exits are.
“They said, You can’t say the words ‘Rolling Stones’.
“The support band was Vladimír Mišík and they said, You can only mention Vladimír Mišík, but you can’t say Mick Jagger, you can’t say the Rolling Stones, you should say where the exits are.
“So that’s what I said, in Czech, in front of 100,000 people. Nobody saw me – I was so small [laughs].”
What goes through your mind when you’re standing in front of that huge crowd?
After this, what were you doing in your work, say for instance in the 1990s?
“Things changed in Czechoslovak Television. My background was in production and in the end the general director of Czechoslovak TV, Ivo Mathé, was also a production guy.
“We had training to organise things and Czechoslovak TV had to be totally reorganised.
“We had to fire so many people because of over-employment. It was really a terrible institution – bureaucratic and Communist.
“Now people say that Czech Television is bureaucratic. It’s actually a wonderful, clear institution [laughs].
“But in those days it was terrible.
“It’s quite interesting that most of those in management were from a production background.
“I started with my colleagues in the music department, as the head of the music department.
“And in, I think, 1992 Ivo Mathé came to me, because he noticed that I speak some English.
“He said, I need somebody for foreign acquisitions.
“Frank Zappa said, If we had a minister of culture he would be a minister of junk, because we have no culture.”
“I said, Ivo, no, I’m dreaming about a career as a documentary director and I want to do this.
“He said, OK, take it for one year and then you can do what you want. But I need somebody now.
“So I agreed and I got stuck there for 15, 20 years [laughs].”
In the 1990s how did it work with the acquisition of films from the West? It must have been a whole new ball game for you guys.
“It was very interesting in the beginning, because in those days there was only one television station, there was no commercial station.
“So at my first TV market – at MIPCOM, MIPTV– we were the only one and everybody wanted to sell us programmes and we felt wonderful.
“Then commercial TV came and things started to be more difficult.
“The day before the concert they called me and said, Hey, did you ever speak in front of 100,000 people?”
“But of course because Czech Television was still different from a commercial station we were still buying, let’s say, art movies, interesting series, so they always needed us.
“It was interesting but when I went for the first time to the market and I saw what was available I couldn’t believe how the people during the Communist regime could go to this market and see all the great movies, TV series that were available and they couldn’t buy them.
“We started to broadcast Dallas.
“Czechoslovak TV as a public broadcaster, because there was no commercial station, started to broadcast Dallas [laughs].
“It was such a funny story – so many new things.
“One story I must mention is that there was an ABC programme called Beatles Anthology.
“When I went for the first time to the market and I saw what was available I couldn’t believe how the people during the Communist regime could go there and see all the great movies, TV series that were available and couldn’t buy them.”
“It was a wonderful documentary series about the Beatles and we acquired it.
“Then I can a phone call from the US and they asked if we wanted to censored version or the uncensored version.
“I said, Hey lady, you’re calling to the Czech Republic, we are after the revolution and we have no censorship in this country, so send me the uncensored version.
“I said, By the way, how does the censored version look?
“She said the LP where Yoko Ono and John Lennon are naked – we can’t use it in the US.
“I said, Send it to me, we’ll broadcast it with this [laughs]!”
Jan Rubeš shot this film about Frank Zappa visiting Prague early in 1990.