Monday, December 19, 2011

The Tale Of Two Playwright/Presidents

Odd coincidence that Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il die on the same day. The North Korean dictator's passing is getting all the screaming headlines, which is a shame being that Havel was the punk rock freedom loving dissident who led a bloodless revolution, and Kim Jong Il was the repressive dictator. The loss of the repressive dictator is better news (if death should be so seen), but Havel is the one worth celebrating. From Reason in 2003:

This act of literary punk rock was followed, logically enough, by a defense of rock music that sparked the Charter 77 movement. Or, as Havel told a startled Lou Reed when he met the Velvet Underground's former frontman in 1990, "Did you know that I am president because of you?"

Defending The Plastic People

In 1968 a rare copy of the Velvet Underground's first record somehow found its way to Prague. It became a sensation in music circles and beyond, eventually inspiring the Czech name for their bloodless 1989 overthrow of Communist rule, "the Velvet Revolution." The Plastic People, then a newly formed troupe that borrowed heavily from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, quickly added a half-dozen songs from The Velvet Underground & Nico to their repertoire. The group was banned not long after the Prague Spring concluded but continued to play at weddings and secret shows.

Then, in 1976, four members were arrested on charges of "disturbing the peace." The Czech dissident movement, newly roused by Havel's open letter, made the trial an international cause. Havel, who intuitively grasped the symbolism of the case, was in the courtroom every day to witness and document the judicial farce. Just as George Orwell saw picking up a gun to shoot fascists in the Spanish Civil War as "the only conceivable thing to do," Havel understood this assault on freedom as one outrage too far. It was a turning point in his life. "Everyone understood," he wrote later, "that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together: it was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life."

His essay on the trial has the rushed and liberated tone of someone who has just crossed a personal point of no return, or has just heard the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks for the first time. It ends with a classic description of Havel bumping into a film director who didn't understand the sudden enthusiasm for defending some derelict rock musicians.

Inspired by Lou Reed? That's a-ok with me. And sure, Kim Jong Il inspired the South Park guys to do a hilarious send-up of him, still, Havel's the one worth celebrating. CNN report.

The Plastic People of the Universe is Frank Zappa inspired. I remember the shock of listening to this record again around 2004 and thinking how the voice of the 'President' sounded so much like George W. Bush. It made it all the better, if possible:

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