Seminal New York rocker had ties to Havel and Czechoslovakia
Rock star Lou Reed is dead at 71. He had a liver transplant in May, and had been in poor health. The founding member of the Velvet Underground had several connections to former Czechoslovakia. His band was brought to fame in the late 1960s by Andy Warhol, whose family came from eastern Slovakia. He also had a close friendship with former Czech President Václav Havel, who died Dec. 18, 2011.
At a press conference in Prague in 2000 just ahead of a concert for his Ecstasy album, the guitarist said he still missed Warhol and had not met anybody else who is as creative. “Andy Warhol certainly inspired me, absolutely,” Reed said, adding that he had gone to the town in Slovakia where the Warhol family originated and had seen a museum there containing some of Warhol’s art. In a song on the album Songs for Drella, Reed sang about Warhol’s Czechoslovakian customs. He couldn’t elaborate on them, but he acknowledged having written the line.
During that tour, Reed canceled the dates in Austria when the far-right Freedom Party of ultranationalist Jorg Haider became part of the Austrian government in mid-February 2000. He declined to discuss it. “My action was my statement,” Reed explained.
As for Havel, he had high praise at that 2000 press conference. “Havel is a real, genuine, 100 percent hero,” Reed said, adding that he puts Havel on a par with former South African President Nelson Mandela, who spent 28 years in prison for his anti-apartheid political activities. Reed said Havel is one of the few people in the world he truly enjoys talking to because Havel has interesting ideas.
Reed first met Havel in 1990, and the guitarist was one of the first big stars to visit the country. Havel, who has been a fan of the Velvet Underground since he bought one of their albums on a trip to the US in the late 1960s, said that he was embarrassed about the shabby state of Prague Castle at the time of the visit.
Reed also attended a 1998 dinner in Havel’s honor at the White House in Washington, D.C., while Bill Clinton was president. At Havel’s request, Reed performed before an audience that included actress Mia Farrow, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
“The Velvet Underground became the Velvet Revolution,” Hillary Clinton said at a press conference during Reed’s visit. In fact, the Velvet Underground musically influenced the members of the dissident Czech band the Plastic People of the Universe.
Havel was friends with members of the Plastic People and it is possible the band found out about the Velvet Underground by hearing Havel’s copy of the record.
The late-1976 arrest of the Plastic People led to the formation of Charter 77, the human rights movement that made the first real crack in the Iron Curtain.
As for the notion that the Velvet Revolution’s name was inspired by the Velvet Underground, musicians and critics dismiss it as urban legend. The name the Velvet Underground was lifted from a pornographic novel.
In 2005, Reed and Havel shared a stage in Prague for a public discussion. Havel said that when he meets with Reed, they never get much private time. “There are always people present,” Havel told a crowd of reporters before the two had a public discussion in front of a standing-room-only crowd at Švandovo divadlo, in Prague’s Smíchov neighborhood.
Reed, not known for being extremely chatty, did most of the talking at the Jan. 10, 2005, show and at the press conference that preceded it. Much of the discussion was about art instead of politics – Havel was, of course, also a playwright.
Reed condemned then-U.S. President George W. Bush for planning to spend $40 million on his inauguration, when the money could go to support relief efforts in countries devastated by the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunamis.
The only disagreement of the evening was over pop star Michael Jackson. Reed said, “I think Michael Jackson is one of the greatest dancers in the world … the Fred Astaire of our generation.”
Havel hosted Jackson at Prague Castle during the singer’s 1996 History tour. “I recognize his skills, but I must say I am not a fan,” Havel said. He said he had a brief conversation with Jackson and found him to be uninteresting.
At the end, Havel asked whether Reed would ever want to be president. Reed said that he wouldn’t. “I lack certain people skills,” he said. “I’d like to be a kingmaker instead of king.
Reed asked if Havel still wrote in longhand or uses a computer. Havel said he used a computer. “But I’m afraid if I hit the wrong key I’ll delete everything,” the playwright admitted.
Reed told Havel, “Remember rule No. 1: Back up, back up, back up.” He also recommended that Havel switch to Apple computers.
After the discussion, Havel asked Reed to play “Perfect Day,” one of his more moving songs. After a solo rendition of that, Reed joined the Velvet Underground Revival Band for “Sweet Jane.” He concluded with “Dirty Boulevard,” one of the songs he played when he visited the White House with Havel in 1998. He said he had to provide the lyrics to the White House for advanced screening and that this song caused the most trouble.
Perhaps the last meeting between Havel and Reed was in November 2009, when Reed was a special guest at celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. The concert, which also featured Joan Baez, Suzanne Vega and Renée Fleming, was mostly a private affair for invited guests.
During the 2000 press conference, Reed was asked what he thought about bands dedicated to his old music. He said that he preferred his newer music. “I think it is wonderful that people want to live in my past,” Reed said of those groups. “I just don’t want to.”
Reed’s last concert in Prague was July 4, 2012, at divadlo Archa. The last song he played was “Sweet Jane.”