The Velvet Underground and The Velvet Revolution

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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This weekend’s Wall Street Journal featured a review of of the new book, “Seeing the Light: Inside the Velvet Underground.” Anyone interested in rock music could have appreciated it, but toward the end of the review, came something for political and history buffs, too.

It’s not a secret (though my guess is it is also not exactly common knowledge), that the band “became part of political history” when, while visiting New York in 1968, Czechoslovakian playwright Vaclav Havel was given a copy of “The Velvet Underground & Nico.”

For those unfamiliar with the story, the Journal notes that

Havel smuggled the record, along with Frank Zappa’s debut, past customs officers and brought it back to Prague, where it was copied and passed around the underground. A Prague rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe began performing Velvets’ songs and was heavily influenced by the American group. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in August to reassert control, members of the Plastic People were arrested and put on trial. That farcical proceeding prompted dissidents to join together in a protest group called Charter 77. Its leader was Havel, whose plays would be banned by the Soviets and who was eventually imprisoned. Thus began a movement that would, years later, help topple the communist government as the Soviet Union collapsed. Havel was elected president of the newly freed country in 1989.

Havel, of course, died last December.

As I read the review, I couldn’t help thinking of the irony that many conservatives who simultaneously bewailed the subversive influence of rock music, were also among the most dedicated to ending the Communist menace. What is more, it seems ironic on one hand — yet entirely natural on the other — that the leading anti-Communist political leader in Czechoslovakia was also an artist and a music-lover.

There is, of course, no logical reason why conservatives can’t be artists or musicians, or for that matter, simply appreciate the arts (for more on this, listen to my recent conversation with Mark Judge, author of “Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.”)

Culture is more important than politics. A sticker on Woodie Guthrie’s guitar famously proclaimed: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” It turns out, it can kill Communists, too.

Matt K. Lewis