From my perspective in the KrkonoÅ¡e mountains, the initial coverage of the Asian tsunami was something like, ‘oh, a tragedy happened in Asia with thousands dead. Now for the sports.’
Then word got out that Karel Gott Himself was missing on the island of Mauritius and the country nearly had a damn heart attack. He of course later emerged safe and sound, and the nation rallied around the cause.
Today’s Lidovky.cz has a jaw-dropping interview with Karel Gott that I still can’t get my head around, so I’m just going to translate it and let you decide.
Nothing happens by accident, singer Karel Gott believes, and not only about natural catastrophes whose power affected him only remotely. “The shock came ex post, when we saw the scale of the catastrophe. In the airplane we heard the moans of the wounded and saw how the Austrian Red Cross was caring for them,” he says of the dramatic end to his short Christmas vacation in the Maldives.
LN: Your island wasn’t hit by the devastating wave, and you didn’t see the damage it brought first-hand. But you were very close. When did you realize what had happened?
On our island, neither electricity nor water were running, and we knew something terrible had happened, but we didn’t know what. My girlfriend Ivana cried the whole trip back to Vienna. We knew how lucky we were in the midst of such a catastrophe, but I immediately had work responsibilities abroad, so it didn’t completely occur to me until after I returned home. Our stories in this terrible context were not interesting.
LN: In Innsbruck you appeared in a New Year’s show. How did you feel?
Immediately I said that I couldn’t sing any happy songs and act like nothing had happened. Luckily the show was put together as a big benefit and during the four-hour live broadcast it raised about 7 million euros for those affected. It was the catastrophe of the century, and before that there was the more-than-hundred-year-flood; all of a sudden there are more of these catastrophes, and suddenly too much of all of it…
LN: You say that nothing occurs by accident. Is that the case here as well?
Some people believe in fate, that everything is laid out. I think about whether it’s not helping a little. All the animals in the affected areas allegedly ran away to the mountains and saved themselves. I think that at some point people had this instinct, and also managed to feel catastrophes and run away. It signalizes more things. We were at one point prepared – ancient medicine, architecture oriented according to the stars. But today civilization, a certain comfort, and the fact you have everything on a platter, that perfect service works, has shot away our instinct. Experts are armed with powerful technology and modern science, and when such a catastrophe occurs, the seismologist goes on television and stutters: “Well, you see, there were signals, but they had to be evaluated first.” The first thing we should do is warn people, and only then evaluate.
Then it occurs to a person that sometimes “fate” isn’t set. I can’t avoid that feeling, no matter what natural catastrophe happens. Exactly because unbelievable technology exists, that can send out commands and drive nature. Influencing the weather, gathering together clouds, bringing about floods or drought, and even earthquakes. When that technology is available to you, why doesn’t it help? The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center exists – the Americans built it in the 1940s. Why isn’t it in the Indian Ocean? When the tremors were detected even in Prague, why didn’t the seismologists say to evacuate the beaches and take shelter in higher ground? In such catastrophes, whether human – such as terrorism – or natural, I always ask who is going to
gain from it. Let people think I’m crazy, but I can’t avoid such thoughts. Let’s see what is going to happen.
LN: Do you really think that someone wanted and could bring about such a disaster?
There are areas where every second people die of hunger, as a result of epidemics or local wars, and nobody is bothered by it. I ask why aren’t we sending aid? Why isn’t anybody taking care of these people? Why aren’t we sending money to places where there’s famine? They don’t talk about it, because maybe those aren’t economic or strategically important places. But the shores of Southeast Asia are interesting – that’s the tourism of the future. Who could be interested in this disaster? Let’s wait and see which companies, which big chains build something on the green fields. And that will give us the answer. That touching assistance – isn’t that an investment? And if I can predict a little, the next in line is the Canary Islands, mainly La Palma. There, fragile rock cliffs are threatened by a volcano. They expect it to slide into the sea. It could be tomorrow, or we’ll see in one or two hundred years. G.G. Global Geophysical Events, which predicts such events, knows something about it.
LN: To live with this knowledge must be demanding. But you believe in your “guardian angel” – you even named your last album this. It sounds almost symbolic in the current context.
Believe that where you look, there is some sign, but we have to know how to decipher it. On one hand I’m almost fanatical in my conviction, that everything is set beforehand, that nothing is an accident, and especially not in politics and strategy and the New Order. On the other hand I believe in biomagnetism and what’s more, that there is some “guardian angel.” I have been aware of it since I was young. Everything that has happened leads me to believe to some extent that I’ve had huge luck in my life. What I’ve lived through, what I’ve gone through, that I’ve met people who have set me out on a course that would not have occurred to me on my own, how I’ve been lucky with musicians, friends, people in my groups, composers and songwriters, teachers at conservatory, all the way up to people abroad. Why is it that Germans and Russians like me? Why have the Americans invited me to play Nashville five times and a half year in Las Vegas? How is it that they applaud me in Carnegie Hall or in Brazil in a huge concert in Rio?
LN: So you believe that your “guardian angel” has a hand in it?
I’d say that above me the guiding hand has kept above me. For example, now in the Maldives on that terrible day, December 26, I planned a trip with Ivana to an abandoned island. They offer these romantic experiences – they take you to an island, and let you spend a whole day or two, have a private picnic and in the evening sail back for you. At the last minute I called off the trip. Suddenly I didn’t feel like going. I found out afterwards that two hours later, that island disappeared…
LN: On your new CD there are more things that could be explained as some kind of premonition…
Maybe you mean the song about how people take more from nature than they give, where will it lead, and that this time around, there won’t be Noah sailing on his ark? I’ve never sung about such things, and you see? Suddenly it’s here.
LN: You say that in life you’ve been lucky with people who have moved your direction along. But they’ve been lucky that they could do something with your talent and work ethic – and certainly didn’t hurt?
I can’t resent it. This is simply teamwork. With my voice and talent, I could have also sung at home with a guitar or in my bathroom, where it sounds and resonates well and where everyone is a Caruso. It wouldn’t have been good for anything if I hadn’t met the excellent pianist Rudolf Rokl, with whom I listened to foreign records and tested what was so fine about them, to see if we couldn’t enhance our music with it. Right away we went to the piano and tried it. Or the terrific Karel Krautgartner, who took me in his radio group, which at the time had the best musicians. But he was devoted to jazz mainly, whereas all the pop hits were recorded by Josef Vobruba. People sometimes forget that. He had a nose for it, and the people in his stable, where Eva PilarovÃ¡, Waldemar MatuÅ¡ka, VÃ¡clav NeckÃ¡Å™, Helena VondrÃ¡ÄkovÃ¡ belonged, that whole scene could succeed.
There weren’t a lot of us in that pop pond, but we were proud that we moved the popular music of the time a little further than “dance” music. I don’t consider the forty years of socialism only as a period of permanent darkness. I can say that the 60s were for the culture here, thanks to the freeing of political tensions in the world, extraordinary. Take the EXPO, which I experienced in Montreal in 1967, where the Czechoslovak pavilion was an event. And I’m not talking about what I experienced in ’58 at the EXPO in Brussels – they talked about us. There were products that deserved attention, and everybody who visited that EXPO said so. Or theater and Czechoslovak film -the world had a concept of it.
What’s important was that in this industry we mutually inspired each other. We’d end in our theater and go to another theater or to Reduta, to Viola. We played into the night, without a feeling of malice, and we never experienced competition or incorrectness.
LN: And today it’s different?
What’s interesting is that from the rock “stable” somebody chafes against us in “pop”, but I don’t know a singer from popular music who would criticize people in another genre. Somehow it must be modern, or it belongs to rock rebelism, to despise other styles. But we didn’t do that. When somebody stands behind their theory, let them. And by the way, if the rockers are really good, who are we to fuck with it? They have full stadiums. And not just abroad. When I see videos of Kabat’s concerts, I see that I could only dream of that.
LN: But back then, in your youth, in popular music it wasn’t just about the money…
The truth is that money supports artists. It takes a lot of resources to record an album. Companies take care of it, and advertise it. On the other hand they’re looking for a new SuperStar and the previous one hasn’t even had time to hatch. Even I appeared for the first time in public in a contest. It was called “We’re Looking for New Talents.” The jury tossed me aside – my appearence, in contrast to the prevalent baritone singing, was really unusual, but I still tried harder. The musicians, especially Karel Krautgartner, said: come with us, the public likes you.
LN: Didn’t you start originally with classical music?
Yes, and luckily I had a teacher at conservatory who understood that I was trying to balance on the space between genres and helped me in it. Konstantin Karenin brought me to the correct technique of bel canto, but he agreed that I wouldn’t go into opera, that I would make the popular music my heart beat for, and didn’t throw me out in my first year, as another teacher would do. He was an excellent tenor, a Russian aristocrat, relaxed, modern-thinking. He had ice-cold beer at the piano, lit up, and when he took a drag, he sang a beautiful bel canto cadence in one breath. Then he said, ‘you see? You can do it, you have good technique.’ He understood my effort to cross borders; to flirt with classical and on the other hand raise pop to a certain level by the quality of your voice. In Germany they later said they could hear I had classical training, but that I use it like an expensive spice and that’s what makes me different.
But people helped me by lending me otherwise unattainable foreign records. The best school was to grow up in that musical environment. That’s why American singers have those blues notes, the sadness you can’t put in a score. There’s emotion in it. They grew up in it, on the streets, in churches listening to gospel. Elvis himself admitted it – it wouldn’t be my rock and roll if I hadn’t gone to church to listen to gospel, and how the singers phrased it. And the Beatles said that they wouldn’t have existed had Elvis not existed. Elton John then said that he wouldn’t have gotten into pop had it not been for Elvis and the Beatles, and so on.
LN: Do you know that Elvis Presley would have been 70? Did you admire him?
He had an amazing effect on female audiences – with his manly sex appeal and his wild movements. That he wasn’t aware of his greatness – I’m one of you and I see things as they are. I think that the most important thing about him was the unspoken promise, the challenge. It’s a shame he died young. He could have still done a lot. But maybe today he wouldn’t be so famous if we could experience the process of his aging. If we were at his 70th birthday, who knows how he’d look. The whole world still has the young, good-looking American guy, a guy of the people.
LN: Who started from nowhere…
Elvis’ manager, Tom Parker, is an ideal example of the fact that a manager doesn’t have to be well-educated or superintelligent. It’s enough to have a good guess. You can grow to worldwide proportions. Concretely, Parker, before working for Elvis, went around to American carnivals and entertained children by turning on a record player and turning on a sizzling platter that he’d stick chickens on, and because it burned, the chickens started to dance and the children clapped. And then he worked for Elvis. He had good ideas, but at their basis they were completely simple.
LN: Have you experienced something similar?
We had to know how to choose partners and have good sense as well. I worked with the Å taidl brothers, and that was essential cooperation. JaromÃr KlempÃÅ™ wrote beautiful songs for me – PoÅ¡li to dÃ¡l, C’est la vie, ProÄ ptÃ¡ci zpÃvajÃ… – and I can say that of those 70s songs Karel Svoboda wrote for me, half of them were hits. And what about Honza SvrÄek, who helped me with the radio? He had ideas that I didn’t want to go into, and then I apologized to him and admitted he was right. Take a song like Zvonky Å¡tÄ›stÃ. The critics scorned it and they blame Darina for it to this day, even if it was immediately and unbelievably successful even abroad. I can’t believe that such a simple song would take hold like that did. But it was only HaÅ¡ler, who had a lot of those simple ideas, that hit that right nerve.
LN: At one time not long ago you said that you would – as a listener – put on later Gott rather than earlier. Why?
I let my mood decide. Before, at the beginning, there was a lot of emotion in my performance and vocal exhibitionism. Now I want to sound believable and pleasant. Of course there’s a big difference between a live concert appearance in concert and a record you put on at home. At home a singer is with you in the room, and the meeting is very intimate. Understandably if it’s not a protest singer or martial songs. But I sing about relationships, which is an admission of my admiration of beautiful things, of the feeling and the atmosphere. Sometimes when a song reaches its climax they say that I hit that high note because the public expects that of a tenor. In his book on the subject Luciano Pavarotti writes about how they wait for the C, how it’s like an athlete and whether he’ll jump or run.
LN: How is it with you? Do you work with your voice?
The whole time I’ve had a singing teacher he is a pedagogue, a psychologist and philospher, and a little bit of a magician. I can’t be an excellent singer like Karenin was, but it helps me to concentrate, to relax, so that my expression is healing, so that it’s pleasant to listen to.
LN: How does such training look?
The basis is psychic relaxation. High, full tones come at the end of the session. Someone must be there with me who controls me. The most vocal exhaustion comes from the spectrum I sing in: from romantics, bel canto to aria, through pop, rock’n’roll, a world repetoire up to my own songs, which have a different construction a different placement of the voice’s color. That’s the best way to destroy a voice. Two and a half hours of switching techniques and styles exhausts more than if you sing very hard Wagnerian notes, but with the same technique. That’s why I need someone who controls me, if I haven’t spoiled my technique of singing, so that it doesn’t surprise me in the middle of the concert. After such lessons I always have a huge appetite to go on stage then and there.
LN: Do you have any tricks for warming up?
Maybe you’ve heard of how, with listening to a good singer, a person learns to sing correctly. I can listen to three or four pieces, for example from Pavarotti, how he creates a tone, healthy, correctly brought out, tasteful and smiling, and I can go to the studio and hit notes I couldn’t hit before. I come and it’s there. If I hear a sick voice, I feel like coughing. You can get so-called sica syndrome, or dry mucous membranes. It can happen from stage fright.
LN: You’ve had at least remotely a strong experience [in the tsunami]. Has it forced you to deeper meditations on what to do with your life and career?
Would it need something more, or is less more? That’s the eternal dilemma. To end it tonight after the concert? Or would the day after tomorrow be even better? Who would want to leave the stage if it’s going well? And when it doesn’t go well, it’s too late. I have to slowly prepare for a repertoire that corresponds to my age and experience – and have a believable effect with that. From deeper lyrics all the way to self-irony.
LN: What are you planning then?
The only thing I want is to make a balance between everything I do. I don’t want to leave the position I’ve reached. I don’t want to leave a debt with the public. But I do that too much. I can’t escape the things that are connected with this work: deadlines, preparing the repertoire, which is my capital, recording albums, which has promotion connected with it; appearing on TV shows, concerts, tours, galas. And everything has two tracks, here and in Germany.
LN: What are you missing then? Not work, not money either. Do you have strength?
There’s enough strength so far. After the conquest of a certain amount of riches I don’t even count my bank account or the possessions that surround me. I measure how I use and savor my life in my free time. And I’m missing that.