Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Karel Gott: 1939-2019

Karel Gott, a tenor with a flawless diction and a wide range including a resounding falsetto, widely regarded as the most legendary singer of Czechoslovakia and Czechia (and an amateur painter and a soccer goalie, among other things), died of aggressive acute leukemia yesterday before the midnight, at age of 80 – at home and in quiet sleep, after he decided to simply stop the exhausting treatment of the incurable illness and die a bit naturally and happily.

Gott was conceived days after the Munich Treaty in Fall 1938 – I don't know how many days – and was born in my hometown of Pilsen, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, on July 14th, 1939 – exactly 150 years after the Bastille (a French prison) has fallen. You may listen his remake of Aznavour's song, When I Was a Boy, [in the heavenly Nazi-occupied Pilsen,] songs had a sweeter sound, trees were taller, rivers were cleaner, the climate was warmer than today, the promises were safer, and you have stolen my childhood and dreams.

His family moved to Prague when he was 6. He was trained as an electrician and started to do music in 1958. In 1960, his father cried that he failed to conceive a skillful son; don't imagine that there was any harmony between these two men. The dad was shocked that the son wanted to sing – and to make things worse, to the microphone. ;-)

Even in the liberal 1960s, his type of music was considered extremely brave, revolutionary – you know, like rock'n'roll where he sort of belonged for years and more than Elvis Presley. His somewhat high pitch voice helped that controversial image – just like his highly idiosyncratic "dancing" that accompanied his singing. (He had to have a choreographer e.g. for The Safebox, right?) This controversial character of the "heavenly Charlie" sounds like news from a different geological epoch – for many decades, Gott has been the ultimate template of the mainstream musician who can't possibly insult anybody.

He has won a contest, the "Golden [later Czech] Nightingale", a whopping 42 times although the recent victories apparently depended on a rather small number of correspondence votes. He's been almost equally popular in all of Germany – where "the golden voice of Prague" ("Slavic Sinatra" and "Presley at the Moldau") also won the contest for the best singer but only thrice. He has sold some 50 million of records and – even by the 1980s – became one of the richest people in communist Czechoslovakia (who simply had to be allowed to travel all over the world and it wasn't too dangerous for the regime) – well, after communism collapsed, he could still be one of the richest artists but not richest Czechs, of course. Wife Ivana and younger 2 daughters will inherit about a billion crowns ($50 million) in assets.

You should try to find some songs at YouTube – one playlist has 500 entries. Even the sheer quantity of his work has been amazing. I will only embed one video with a song that is beloved by the largest number of Germans (well, 77%, according to today's poll at Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung) – the theme music for Maya the Bee, a children's cartoon TV series from the life of insects:

Of course, while Helene Fischer is a flawless and pretty singer, her remake for the 2012 3D version of the cartoon couldn't quite surpass Gott's. It's partly because the kids in these newer times are not so keen on Maya the Bee anymore. ;-)

The music for the German-Japanese cartoon was written by Karel Svoboda [Charles Freedom], an ingenious Czech musician who has created quite some amazing music for Gott and for movies and who tragically shot himself dead 12 years ago. The lyrics says that in an unknown land, a cheeky bee used to live and she was our friend etc. Assuming that the unknown land was Germany, I must add that not every German bee is our friend, however. Gott has obviously recorded the Czech version of the Maya the Bee theme song, too (Gott also made the Slovak edition, the crying bee at 0:57 is used on Twitter today all the time) – that was known to my generation when we were kids. (See also the Heavy Pochondriac's parody about Gott's fame in Germany, Godly Kaya/Charlie, and Gott's variation which is the anthem of Borussia Dortmund based on the same bee's black-and-yellow colors.)

Even if you focused on fundamental fairy-tale songs, there would be many. Check e.g. Svoboda-Štaidl's Where Is Your Nest, Little Bird? from "Three Nuts for Cinderella", a top Czech-EastGerman fairy-tale from the 1970s. Here is his German version of that song. I think that Czech sounds somewhat better in these songs but it's cute that languages from different groups may be treated as "equivalent" and there's something (some kind of rigor?) that attracts me about the (generally disliked) songs in German. Add the theme music for Circus Humberto and many other series...

I could link to hundreds of songs that I became a fan of. You may check e.g. my playlist with Czechs and Slovaks who sing in German – Gott is clearly playing a prominent role in that playlist. But let me just add his German version of Alphaville's Forever Young, with a video clip filmed somewhere in CERN or Bern or Luzern or what's that place in Switzerland. FAZ chose to embed the Anthem of the Fellowmen (CZ) today.

He has lived in a fancy enough villa in Prague-Bertramka, on a hill within Prague-Smíchov, and that structure used to be occupied by another musician who said to be understood by the people of Prague (more than Vienna), namely Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

To get to some sad events, while he looked "forever young" (and the picture at the top is from 2002 when he was a shocking 63 years old!) and full of energy, we learned about a bad diagnosis in 2015 – cancer of lymph nodes. (A minor stroke in 2003 was too small an event to mention.) Gott has basically recovered and was giving concerts even very recently – although I wouldn't claim that it was quite the same Gott as before 2010 anymore.

The treatment of that cancer had to be extremely harsh. A year ago, he started to have trouble with the production of blood cells. A few months ago, he was diagnosed with leukemia. He revealed that news to the public a month ago – to be ahead of the speculations etc. I think that this openness was wise. Sadly, this leukemia was extremely aggressive and fast. I silently did expect the end to be a month away and I was unfortunately right.

Leukemia is a rare enough disease and may have various causes. In this case, the previous treatment of the cancer of lymph nodes seems like an almost certain "explanation" why he became a sufferer of leukemia. Chemotherapy etc. may cure one from the cancer of the lymph nodes and similar cancers – but there's some risk that this cure turns out to be "worse than the disease" with a significant probability. So correct me if I am wrong but I think that this leukemia was a result of his previous treatment of the other cancer.

RIP, Karel Gott.

P.S.: He married in Las Vegas in 2008 – with, unsurprisingly, much younger Ivana Macháčková Gottová. They have two daughters, Charlotte Ella and Nelly Sophia, and Gott has gotten two older daughters with previous women. Some daughters have some musical DNA but frankly, among such daughters, I am more amazed by e.g. Natálie Grossová, the daughter of Czechia's youngest PM Stanislav Gross (soc-dem) who died of Hawking's disease.

Gott has had as mainstream opinions – meaning the Czech mainstream – as you can imagine. After the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, he continued singing – unlike e.g. Ms Marta Kubišová. I am not sure it was due to his cowardliness or opportunism – it could have been mostly due to his extraordinary importance for the music, too. Comedian-writer-actor Jan Werich once quipped: "Mr Gott, you have escaped from our control by being too popular. Now we will either have to ban you or decorate you." Gott also signed the Anti-Charter 77, a communist-directed manifesto against Havel et al. I increasingly tolerated this "moral failure" because the proper usage of such an exceptional voice (and product for export exhibitions, as Klaus said) that is born in Czechia once in 300 years (and that may be an underestimate because I haven't actually heard the CD by Christopher the Bastard from After Spoons and Without Satellites) seemed more important than the moral – and perhaps just political – undesirable act by a single man. Concerning my much greater political harmony with him, in 2016, he said that the mass migration was a process organized from above whose goal was to reduce the economic growth of Europe. Needless to say, he has collected some criticism from some (unknown, relatively to him) neo-Marxists after that.

Of course, he was naturally skillful as an entertainer in a more general way. In the exchange with singer-and-comedian Ivan Mládek above, Gott and Mládek started by negotiations about trading some members of their bands before Gott sang a song from Mládek, "The Weir", about a hapless partner from a canoe.

He was by far the most successful musician – according to the West – from the communist bloc, ever, and it was due to a combination of his special voice, musical skills, appearance, and his extremely kind behavior towards everybody. He was a uniter of the generations, uniter of fans of different political parties, and a uniter of the nations.

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