Lou Reed visited Czechoslovakia in 1990, months after the country was freed from Soviet rule. The writer and dissident Václav Havel was, by then, the country’s president and Frank Zappa its “Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism.” Reed came not to play music but to interview Havel, one of his heroes. It was then that he learned how the Velvet Underground’s music had kept hope alive among the dissident community during the long years of Soviet rule.

Lou Reed conducted two interviews in his lifetime: one with Hubert Selby, Jr (author of the cult classic novel Last Exit to Brooklyn) and one with the first democratically elected President of Czechoslovakia following the Soviet occupation, Václav Havel. Both were men Reed admired intensely, but the interview with Havel was special. It revealed the tremendous impact that Reed’s work with the Velvet Underground had had on an entire nation during a pivotal moment in its history.

After the Soviet Union took control of Czechoslovakia and turned it into a satellite state in 1968, the Czech art world took a massive hit. Things were especially tough for musicians. Busking was illegal. Any music broadcast over the radio was heavily censored. Only the most banal pop was permitted. Musicians were not allowed to write songs with English lyrics or to wear their hair long in the fashion of American hippies. Václav Havel was 32-year-old widely-published writer in 1968. Before the Soviet occupation forced him into the position of a political revolutionary, he had been enjoying a career as a respected playwright and a poet, and the year before, he had traveled to New York City, where he heard the music of the Velvet Underground for the first time. Entranced, he bought a copy of the band’s White Light/White Heat LP.

“White Light/White Heat”-The Velvet Underground:





The next year, as the Soviets shut Czechoslovakia off from the rest of the world, Havel’s precious copy of White Light/White Heat was smuggled from listener to listener with the utmost secrecy. Devotees of American music censored by the Soviet regime risked arrest and even imprisonment, and Lou Reed’s lyrics were especially taboo. His central approach to songwriting was to roll out a story as directly and simplistically as possible, with a maximum of cold, hard truth and a minimum of evasive frills, and he chose for his subject matter everything which Soviet society considered forbidden topics: issues such as addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, and domestic violence. Lou Reed refused to put pancake makeup over a metaphorical black eye. It was just the kind of unapologetic expression that a totalitarian regime would despise, villainize, and try impotently (and ultimately, ineffectively) to stamp out.


The next year, as the Soviets shut Czechoslovakia off from the rest of the world, Havel’s precious copy of White Light/White Heat was smuggled from listener to listener with the utmost secrecy.


The Soviets weren’t the only ones who found Velvet Underground classics like “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin” unacceptable. Reed’s lyrics were branded as problematic by journalists and moralizers the world over, and he tirelessly defended his right to write songs about whatever he wanted. Reed argued that if scenarios similar to the ones he chose to write about were considered acceptable content in books and films, then what was wrong with extending the exploration of those topics to rock ‘n’ roll songs? His vehement insistence that free artistic expression was a basic human right would later prove a tremendous inspiration to Czech dissidents.

“Venus in Furs”-The Velvet Underground:





As long the Soviets retained control of Czechoslovakia (from 1968 to 1989,) Václav Havel remained a prominent critic of the regime’s extreme artistic censorship. By the time Lou Reed interviewed him in 1990, mere months after the Velvet Revolution, he was the 10th President of Czechoslovakia. Although he had only held office for a few months, it was already clear that Havel was a leader unlike any other. He had recently appointed the high priest of American counterculture, Frank Zappa, as Czechoslovakia’s “Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism” (a position Zappa gladly held until the U.S. government forced Havel to remove him.)

Prague 1990 by David Jensen

Throughout Havel’s tenure as Czech President, he remained a staunch humanitarian, environmentalist, anti-consumerist, and a proponent of direct democracy. Following his death in December of 2011, Havel’s widow, Dagmar Havlova, permitted the creation of the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. It is awarded annually at the Oslo Freedom Forum and seeks to celebrate “those who engage in creative dissent, exhibiting courage and creativity to challenge injustice and live in truth.” (The title of Lou Reed’s interview with Havel, as printed in his 1991 book Between Thought and Expression is, “To Do the Right Thing.” It mirrors perfectly the ambition of the award created by Havel’s widow.)

When Reed arrived in Prague in 1990, the city looked like a film set, as though it had been suspended in time for the majority of the 20th century. It was one of those places seemingly made to look good in a black and white film: clean-lined and elegant, steeped in gothic romance, flocks of pigeons wheeling through grey skies over the church spires like the stutter of a pixelated photo. Lou Reed, long governed by admiration of beauty, was entranced. He approached the opportunity to meet Havel as a journalist; he did, after all, have a B.A. in English from Syracuse University.

Prague 1990 by David Jensen

As a fan of Havel’s poems and plays, Reed was also interested in meeting Havel in order to learn from him as a writer. The interview shows a side of humility that not many people see in the thorny New Yorker in the black leather jacket and shades, with the sledgehammer wit and a tongue dipped in battery acid. Reed comes close to gushing at several points, and in his eagerness to glean information from Havel, and constantly tries to deflect the focus from himself. There is a delightful awkwardness to the proceedings, because Havel is gushing too, utterly delighted at a chance to chat with one of the idols of his youth. (The meeting cemented a friendship that was to last until Havel’s death.)

Reed was astounded to learn from Havel that the music of the Velvet Underground had directly helped to fuel the Velvet Revolution (a name given to the uprising by journalists in reference to the relatively low levels of physical violence involved; the use of the word ‘Velvet,’ was not in reference to the band.)

The Plastic People of the Universe were a Czech psychedelic band heavily influenced by both the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. During the years of Soviet control, various members of the Plastic People were arrested for their nonconformity and constant rejection of censorship.

Run Run Run”-The Plastic People of the Universe:




With no small amount of difficulty, Havel persuaded some of the more “serious” dissidents (that is, anyone who wasn’t an artist) to intervene on behalf of the imprisoned musicians. Charter 77, a group working for the advocacy of human rights, sprang from this partnership. Out of a population of 15,000,000 only about 1,800 actually signed the Charter 77 civic initiative, which played a large role in eventually launching the movement that finally ended Soviet control in 1989. Many of the members of Charter 77 besides Havel went on to play important roles in the Czech government, post-Velvet Revolution.


The Plastic People of the Universe were a Czech psychedelic band heavily influenced by both the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. During the years of Soviet control, various members of the Plastic People were arrested for their nonconformity and constant rejection of censorship.


Shortly after the interview, Reed and Havel saw each other again, at a small private concert organized to celebrate Reed’s presence in the country which had only recently been opened to international visitors. Backed by former members of the Plastic People of the Universe, Reed performed Velvet Underground songs to an audience of the dissidents who had supported Charter 77 and had helped kick the Soviets out and bring democracy in. Reed was moved to tears by the easy proficiency of the Czech musicians backing him, and the skills that professed long knowledge of their content. He had not expected to encounter such scholarly attitudes towards what in America was still viewed as weird, avant-garde music for degenerates to take drugs to. He wrote later that he felt as though he were playing with the real Velvets; as though John Cale, Maureen Tucker, and Sterling Morrison had suddenly materialized in the tiny club and taken their old, familiar places on the stage behind him.


Reed was moved to tears by the easy proficiency of the Czech musicians backing him, and the skills that professed long knowledge of their content. He had not expected to encounter such scholarly attitudes towards what in America was still viewed as weird, avant-garde music for degenerates to take drugs to.


After the show, Havel presented Reed with an anonymous-looking black book, small enough to be tucked discreetly into a coat pocket. Its pages were meticulously hand printed with Velvet Underground lyrics, translated into Czech. Havel explained that only 200 of these books had been printed, and that people had been arrested and imprisoned for having them in their possession. Reed’s constant reiteration had finally been taken seriously: the freedom to write what you want, about what you want, is vital, and must be protected and defended at all costs.

Voices of Vaclav Havel and Lou Reed speaking about the VU’s influence in the Velvet Revolution:





Prague 1990 by David Jensen

 

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