Karel Gott and the stories we tell


Kevin Loo watched the recently released 'Karel' documentary to finally learn more about the Czech music legend.

The few weeks between Christmas and mid-January feel like a dead zone. The excitement and festivities of the holiday season have already faded into memory, with the promise (or dread) of a new year rearing its head around the corner. It's a calendar purgatory where the only comfort to be had from the cold outside is hot drinks, blankets and Netflix.

And so it was that after the inevitable hour-long scroll through options fuelled by indecisiveness, I found myself watching the documentary 'Karel'.

The name Karel Gott is larger than life for Czechs. A superstar in an era when the concept of superstars was still being invented. Under the communist regime as his career was, his star should not have shone nearly as bright as it did.

For foreigners living here, the name Karel Gott is something of an enigma. We know the name, that's for sure, but the man behind the golden voice? For me at least, the name ‘Karel Gott’ was an ironic musical meme at worst, and a mere cultural curiosity at best.

Karel Gott's origin story tells of humble beginnings. From the small city of Pilsen, to rejected entry into arts school, to prowling the night jazz scene of mid-20th century Prague. His undeniable talents and charms as a singer were soon noticed by influential figures in the Czech music industry, and soon enough legions of (mostly female) fans were screaming his name.

Known as the ‘Sinatra of the East’, he managed to navigate the turbulent times of communist rule by working in Germany, while never turning his back on his motherland. Along the way, he collaborated with some of the eastern bloc’s most talented artists and became a cultural mainstay of the Czechoslovak experience (and thanks to a certain cartoon bee, Germany’s too).

To have a career spanning seven decades is a true miracle. Even today, his songs chart quite highly on streaming services, especially around Christmas time.

The documentary revealed to me a humble, dedicated artist with a genuine love for country, family and music. There is some controversy regarding his career, and the film addresses it somewhat - it’s no secret that for many in the arts community, Gott’s success during communism was an ideological betrayal of Czech freedom and statehood.

However, the full story of his life, from the joys of youth searching thrills in bars and clubs to his final days as a loving father and husband was genuinely touching. Here was a man who truly lived life to its fullest given the opportunities he had.

In these days of a global pan(dem)ic, hysteria and socio-political crises, Karel Gott’s legacy got me thinking about the stories we tell ourselves. How our personal dreams and goals can get entangled in history writ large, whether we like it or not. On the brink of a new year, the melancholy of the hurt and confusion we’ve all experienced recently was put into larger focus.

Watching his relationship with his young daughters Charlotte and Nelly also brought into sharp relief the importance of intergenerational communication and mutual understanding. To see these Gen Z children carry the stories of their father into the 21st century through their own pursuit of arts and music moved me. Their AirPods and social media experience could not be further removed from the history of Nazi and communist occupation of times gone before them, but still the stories they have heard will no doubt shape them to become the adults they will be.

So what kind of stories can we tell ourselves in this time and age? And what stories do we tell our children? No doubt, this is a time of worry and uncertainty. Did we do our part for the betterment of public health? Did we catch the virus ourselves, and what was it like? Was our global community fractured beyond repair? Or will it just be a momentary bump on the road to international harmony and understanding?

These are the questions I can’t wait to answer when my daughter is old enough. Just as Gott grew to a ripe old age filled with memory and wisdom, will I be able to proudly share the way I wrote my own story in this third decade of the 21st century? What kind of legacy can we leave our children, and their children after them? Will we be able to look them in the eye when they inevitably ask us, “Dad, how did you survive the 2020’s?”

The documentary finished with Karel Gott’s final performance and passing from terminal illness. However, it was one of hope and optimism. He sang his final song, one reflecting on his childhood and the wonders of youth. Yet even in the face of his own mortality, he managed to do it with a smile and a light in his eye. A lasting image for his millions of adoring fans to remember him by.

Perhaps one day, we can all be so lucky ourselves. Not to have millions of fans to love us, but happy enough to have just a few cherished loved ones around us, to think about and remember us, and all the wonderful stories we had to tell.

Kevin is an Australian educator and writer who came to Prague for his PhD studies in applied sciences and has lived with 'mother Prague's sharp claws' for the better part of a decade. His passion is in exploring cross-cultural experiences and the emerging global face of the Czech Republic as he encounters it day by day.

Author: Kevin Loo
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