How Lou Reed Helped Bring Down Communism in Eastern Europe

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Oct. 27 2013 9:51 PM

How Lou Reed Helped Bring Down Communism in Eastern Europe

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Lou Reed, left, and Václav Havel in Prague in 2005.

Photo by Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images

This post previously appeared on Business Insider.

By Rob Wile

Just how influential was Lou Reed, who died today at age 71? Former Czech President and onetime dissident playwright Václav Havel was once said to have asked him, "Did you know I am president because of you?"

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Here's the back story (hat-tip to the Financial Times’ Ed Crooks for reminding us of this): Sometime between 1967 and 1968, Havel visited the U.S., and scored a copy of a record by the Velvet Underground, the band founded by Reed and championed by Andy Warhol. (It's not clear which album Havel got—some accounts say it was their debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico; others, including Crooks, say it was White Light/White Heat.)

The band's liberating, experimental sound proved a sensation in the Czech artist community, as music writer Rob Jovanovic once explained: “Havel took it home, along with Frank Zappa's debut, and managed to smuggle it through Customs. Soon it was being copied and passed around the Prague underground, influencing the avant-garde set to play secretive gigs around the capital."

One of the people who picked up the album was Milan "Mejla" Hlavsa, who played in a band called the Plastic People of the Universe. Along with Zappa and Captain Beefheart tunes, the Plastic People of the Universe began incorporating Velvet Underground songs into their sets.

In August 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Prague, and the repression that followed prevented the Plastic People of the Universe from playing in public. Eventually, they were formally banned. But they continued to play on underground circuits. Finally, in 1976, its leaders were arrested, their music deemed anti-social. Lots of other artists were rounded up too, and their trial ended up giving birth on Jan. 1, 1977, to Charter 77, a dissident movement formed to protect human rights. Havel was the leader.

It took another 12 years, but eventually the Charter 77 movement brought about the fall of the Czech Communist regime. Crooks tweeted the main lesson of the saga: “Proof that art does not have to be didactic to be political. White Light/White Heat has no message, just a vision of freedom.”

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