Monday, December 19, 2011

RIP Vaclav Havel- Another Life Saved By Rock 'n' Roll

Legend has it that the reason that Prague has retained its beautiful old-world skyline over the centuries is that whenever they were approached by a threatening army, they'd say 'We're artists! We surrender!" I told a Czech friend this story and she laughed and said 'well, there's some truth to that...' How else to explain a playwright there making the rare and extraordinary leap from artist to head of state?

It was all the more stranger for an artist who had originally no interest politics and distrusted it so much. Regardless, his art led him there. In 1975's "Audience," one of his most famous plays, two men act out a low-level, simmering psychodrama about power, trust and deceit. When I saw it acted out in New York in the '90's, its themes didn't seem any less relevant, even in a post-Communist world. But when Havel's friends in the rock band the Plastic People of the Universe were jailed (one year after "Audience") for playing decadent rock music that the Soviet regime frowned upon, Havel took up their cause and became politicized, emboldening him to take on Mother Russia and, incredibly enough, succeeded at that.

Havel wanted a revolution, but more specifically a Velvet Revolution, named after his favorite group, a truly decadent American rock band. Counting these Plastics, Havel's taste in music ran to the avant and prog side of rock but not the weedy ELP and Yes branch of it. When he rose to a position of power, he finally got to meet heroes like Lou Reed and Frank Zappa, even offering the latter a position in his government as Minister of Culture (which FZ declined as he was as distrustful of government as Havel once was). Havel also performed another important musical function by corralling his own friends from the Plastics to reunite in the late 90's, which led to their first international tour- even with the death of leader/singer/songwriter Milan Hlavsa in 2001, the band still continues on to this day.

Maybe the best illustration of Havel's collision of art and politics happened on his trip to meet then-president Bill Clinton in September 1998. Four years earlier, Clinton was in Prague, performing on sax (one that was given to him by Havel) at a club with local musicians (you can hear one of the songs performed here).

Now, Clinton was to return the favor and host Havel at a White House dinner. Havel decided that he wanted Lou Reed (who had been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years earlier) to perform for the occasion. Only a few weeks before that, Clinton had given grand jury testimony about his affair with Monica Lewinsky and then went on TV to publicly admit it to the nation. His staff was sensitive about the situation and squirmed from Havel's request to have a performer so associated with sex and drugs (not to mention rock and roll) at the White House. The irony was thick and not just because of the Clinton connection but also because the West was now flinching from decadent rock music as its former Soviet foe once was.

Supposedly, Havel was furious when they balked at his request to have Reed perform at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, saying it would be a great insult to the Czech people. It only made sense- after all, Reed's band gave the Revolution its name. Though Czechoslovakia was not exactly a country that America had to fear reprisals from (militarily, economic or otherwise), the White House didn't want a diplomatic incident at such a sensitive time in Clinton's Presidency so they relented. Reed performed there with his band, with Hlavsa sitting in. Havel got to dance with Hillary, while Bill got to dance with Havel's second and last wife, Dagmar Havlova. You can even see the guest list, dinner served and the gifts that Clinton and Havel exchanged here at this archived government website. Judging by the photos here, a good time was had by all. But then again, who wouldn't enjoy an evening of Gingered Pheasant Consomme, Roasted Salmon and some decadent rock and roll as the finisher?

Photos above: 1. Havel, Reed, Milan, Hilary; 2. Havel and Reed
Photos below: 1. Milan meets Hilary, 2. Bill meets Milan, 3. Reed and Havel (with Milan in the background), 4. and 5. Reed and his band perform with Milan

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