The True Story of the Velvet Underground in the Czech Underground
the first time I heard the Velvet Underground, I instantly felt that some break had occurred, that this band would be with me forever. In the years to come, the Velvet Underground accompanied me on late nights and early mornings, through youthful confusion and elation, through wrenched hearts and sobriety. I could, and still can, lose myself in their noise-laden, discordant melodies for hours, listening to transmissions of a New York that no longer exists.
When, a few weeks ago, the internet brought the news that Lou Reed had died, I didn’t know quite how to respond — how do you react to the passing of someone you never knew and therefore could never love, but whose work affected you irreversibly? As I read memories and memoirs on the internet, half a world away from New York, in a small house in the woods in southern Moravia, I was reminded of one more story about Lou Reed — the story of the Velvet Underground, the Czech underground, and Václav Havel. It’s been told before, of course — good stories are often perennial — but I think it bears retelling.
I am far from the only person on whom the effervescent noise of the Velvet Underground had a profound impact. There is a quote about Lou Reed attributed to the producer Brian Eno. The specifics have grown vague, but it goes something like this: “The Velvet Underground may only have sold 30,000 albums, but everyone who bought one started a band.” He was right about that.
One of those bands, formed in 1968 by a 17-year-old long-haired kid named Mejla Hlavsa, was a Czech band called The Plastic People of the Universe. Unlike Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground, Plastic People of the Universe never became famous outside of Czechoslovakia. They didn’t really produce records, and, if a crackly cover of “Sweet Jane” is anything to go by, they weren’t necessarily very good, in the technical sense anyway. However, their impact on the country’s cultural and political landscape far transcended sloppily played chords in pub basements.
Though I was not there, I’m quite sure that the ’70s were not a fun time in communist Czechoslovakia. After the heady liberalization of the spring of 1968 that ended with Soviet tanks in Prague’s main square, the country’s leaders were doing their best to create a culture of “Normalization,” a kind of grey existence where everyone was to keep their heads down, carry on, and not say or think too much. (“Držet hubu a držet krok” became a wry saying from this period, and it roughly translates to “Keep your mouth shut, and keep in step.”) After what was deemed a dangerously liberal exchange of ideas in 1968, a big part of this strategy was rigorous censorship of music, writing, and art that was deemed to be subversive to the regime.
Censorship creates resistance, and an underground culture of traded books, essays and music emerged. (My grandmother, a librarian, casually mentioned about year ago how she remembers sneakily photocopying the works of Jaroslav Seifert on the library copy machine. Sometimes, photocopying a love poem can be an act of defiance and personal bravery.) Illegal shows, an alternative to the often rather soulless and plasticine state-sanctioned entertainment, were organized, usually at considerable personal risk. (My friend organized one, got kicked out of university for it, and subsequently illegally emigrated.)
Enter the Plastic People of the Universe. Who knows how a copy of the Velvets’ album made its way eastward into the hands of Mejla Hlavsa in that time, but it did, and soon the Plastics were covering the Velvets, playing shows all around the country. With long hair, nonconformist personal histories, and covers of Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground as well as a good deal of their own raw texts, the Plastic People were flying in the face of any regime-sanctioned culture. In the words of band member Vratislav Brabenec: “The worst insult is if you ignore someone. While you’re arguing with someone, while you’re objecting to them, you’re still in some sort of dialogue. We acted as though the communists didn’t exist. That, of course, pissed them off.”
It didn’t take long for the Plastics to become persecuted. The regime quickly took away their status as professional musicians, effectively making it impossible for them to play legal shows, and a period of semi-legal and fringe performances followed. A long string of clashes with the authorities came to a head in 1976, when the band was arrested for disorderly conduct and sent to jail. This event became something of a rallying point for Czech dissidents and was a major impetus for the drafting of Charter 77, a document that criticised the government for its suppression of human rights and freedoms. One of the major figures in the drafting of the charter and one of its earliest speakers was the dramatist Václav Havel, who was to be jailed multiple times over the course of Normalization for his open opposition to the authorities. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Charter 77 figured as one of the most prominent instances of dissent against the communist regime. Its signatories were often persecuted by the secret police, fired from their jobs, and jailed. Nonetheless, people like Havel continued criticising the regime — in 1978, Havel wrote “The Power of the Powerless,” an essay in which he discusses how best to resist a totalitarian regime.
Eventually, in the fall of 1989, students marched, walls fell in Central Europe, keys were rung in Wenceslas Square, and the old order was no more. Václav Havel became president just as the ’90s came to be. He invited Lou Reed to Prague, and reportedly showed him a notebook full of hand-copied Velvet Underground lyrics, explaining that in the right circumstances, having that was enough to send someone to jail. When Reed was hesitant to perform, Havel remarked to him that he should, because Havel wouldn’t have become president without him. He outlined the trajectory of the Velvets, the Plastics, censorship, and Charter 77. The two men remained close friends until Havel’s death.
Already quite a ways into the wildcat 21st century, we Czechs are struggling with all manner of things in the public sphere of our new democracy. Many of our politicians are corrupt, our president is frankly straight-up evil and in any case about to drink himself to death, unsavoury private dealings are revealed in the national news every other Tuesday, and sometimes we’re cynical about all this. Growing up Czech, the stories about the Velvet Revolution, underground culture, and dissidents become a part of the public subconscious, and in light of our mess of a public sphere, people become cynical about those, too.
There are a number of responses to that cynicism, but mine can be summarized succinctly as follows: Fuck that. Maybe I’ve heard stories about Havel’s bravery 10,000 times in my life, but that doesn’t make it any less awe-inspiring when someone stands up straight in a culture where standing up straight can get you kicked in the teeth. And maybe it’s a universally assumed truth that music has the power to transform and inspire — everyone feels that way about their favourite band — but that doesn’t in any way make that feeling less valid.
So a story about a rock band inspiring another rock band inspiring dissent remains powerful. So does the most famous quote of Václav Havel: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.” This is a legacy that people still stand up for in Czech Republic, and around the world. It lives on in my friends that organized a picnic this fall in Brno as a counterprotest to a neonazi march, and it lives on in photocopied love poems, and it lives on in everyone who is trying to make anything anywhere just a little bit better, cynicism be damned. And if discordant songs about heroin can in any way help, all the better. In the first place, they are, after all, just really good songs.