Lou Reed and Vaclav Havel

Talk on the Wild Side

Two old friends to chat in public about crossing borders

It’s not clear if Vaclav Havel is a bigger fan of Lou Reed or if Reed is a bigger fan of Havel. The two of them will be together for Stage Talk, as the series of public conversations at Svandovo divadlo is called.

When rock musician Reed was in Prague for a May 2000 concert, he had high praise for then-President Havel. “I think in this world it is very rare to have some heroes. I think President Havel is a real genuine 100 percent hero,” Reed told The Prague Post at the time. Havel, on the other hand, has credited Lou Reed’s music with helping to set off the chain of events that ended in the Velvet Revolution.

Reed’s praise is well-founded. Havel has been short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize several times. Havel’s comment needs a bit of explanation. Reed’s band, the Velvet Underground, was a major influence on the Plastic People of the Universe. The arrest of the Plastic People in 1976 led to Charter 77, which Havel was closely involved with. The Charter 77 movement is seen as the start of the downfall of communism in Czechoslovakia.

When Havel was invited to the Clinton White House in 1998, he brought Reed along as his musical guest. Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, said, “The Velvet Underground became the Velvet Revolution,” although that probably massively oversimplifies matters.

Reed and Havel became friends during an interview in 1990. The interview appears in Reed’s collected writings, Between Thought and Expression. Following the 2000 Prague concert, the two stayed up well into the night talking at a hotel bar near the show’s venue, followed by a visit to Havel’s villa the next day. They’ve met other times as well.

The conversation on Jan. 10 will be a bit more public. Organizing it has taken some work. “The most difficult part of it was the date,” David Hrbek, who will be moderating the talk, told The Prague Post. Both participants have pretty full calendars, he added. Planning for the talk started two years ago. Havel was supposed to appear alone, and a two-minute taped message from Reed was going to be a surprise. Then the idea changed into being a two-night event slated for February 2003. One night would feature Reed, with Havel in the audience. The second would have had Havel, with Reed in the audience. This was postponed due to Havel’s health. It’s now been rescheduled with both appearing on the same night. Simultaneous translation into English will be available over headphones.

While the moderator does discuss some of the questions with his subjects before hand, there is room for some spontaneity. “Both guests asked me if they could go through the list of questions in advance,” Hrbek said. This allows the guests to think about answers longer. But Hrbek works on the questions right until show time. “So they will only have some key questions. I hope the conversation will be vivid and unexpected.” One topic, according to Hrbek, will be crossing borders in private life, in art and in other ways.

Reed has a reputation for being a little difficult in interviews. When he was here in 2000, he explained his refusal to play in Austria while it had a right-wing government by saying, “My action was my statement.” When asked to comment further, he said, “I’m not a political analyst,” and moved on. For one particularly pointless question, his answer was, “That’s his question? Next question.”

Reed did however list “raconteur” among his other talents of guitarist, lyricist, author, songwriter, photographer and actor when asked to describe himself.

Hrbek is aware of Reed’s reticent reputation. The moderator gave a “no comment” when asked if he was worried about a possible tough interview. He did point out that Reed agreed quite readily to participate in the evening, so hopefully he’ll be in a talkative mood. “He immediately said yes,” Hrbek said. “I myself [was amazed] how easy it seemed.”

Normally, the audience can ask questions but this time, because the conversation will be held in the theater’s large hall instead of the smaller studio, questions can be sent in advance through the theater’s Web site at www.svandovodivadlo.cz.

The evening will conclude with music from the Plastic People of the Universe and the Velvet Underground Revival Band. Reed likes the local revival band, and once allegedly mistook them for an old live recording of his real band. Reed himself is not scheduled to perform, but nothing is stopping him from deciding to jam.

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