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26 / M / Straight / Single
Saint Louis, Missouri
His journal posts
Jul 9, 2011
Maybe some of you have heard this story before, but I bet it will be new to most of you. I've heard the term "Velvet Revolution" before, but didn't really know what it meant until reading "The Declaration of Independents" by Nick Gillespie & Matt Welch recently (I highly recommend it). This absolutely blew my mind. It should blows yours too. I know parts of it are a little dry, and it's sorta long, but stick with it. It does relate to all of us today. It's amazing. Besides, I wrote all this myself, jerk, you better read it!
"The Velvet Undergound & Nico" is an album you really should be familar with, but if you're not, it's pretty much universally accepted by all serious music critics as one of the top 5 albums ever made. But when it was originally released in March of 1967, it bombed. Horribly. It's peak #171 on the Billboard charts. This was not supposed to be an important work of art at all. And for a year and a half after its release, it wasn't. But somehow in that time a copy of the album made its way into Czechoslovakia. and I say "somehow" because this was not the Czech Republic we know of today. This was a country still run by communist tyrants where music (and all art) had to be approved by the government to be legally distrubuted.
In 1968, the album ended up in the hands of bass player named Milan Hlavsa. Milan was so moved by the music (along with Frank Zappa), he started his own cover band which became known as the Plastic People of the Universe. Understand that the Velvet Underground nor Milan prodcued "political" music. These were songs about heroin, heroin, and more heroin. But as is written in the book I'm reading, "when the state dictates culture, all unapproved acts become polticial, like it or not." The Plastic People started to do original music (still not political) and developed a following. The communists didn't like that at all. And the Plastic People's license to perform was revoked. Yes, in Czechoslovakia at that time, the government licensed all bands to play publically.
Being censored for playing their silly heroin music, the band and their followers started playing shows underground illegally. Their movement was dubbed "druhá kultura" which translates to "second culture". They were finally busted though at a festival in 1976. Four members of the Plastic People and plenty of fans were arrested. Ironically, the group's songwriter, founder, and frontman, our man Milan was the only bandmember not sentenced. They served time IN PRISON IN A COMMUNIST TOTALITARIAN COUNTRY for 8 to 18 months. For playing music. Fuck.
Václav Havel was a playwright in Czechoslovakia at the time and a fan of the Plastic People of the Universe. And he was pissed. He penned an open letter that was broadcast on Radio Free Europe and copied by hand (ILLEGALLY, of course) passed around between friends and family. The letter was directed at his homeland's dictator stating in clear terms how tyranny was ruining their country. And the population of Czechoslovakia were starting to be woken up. And the people were pissed. It didn't stop there.
Havel got together in 1977 with other like-minded intelligent writers and they wrote "Charter 77". "Charter 77" was not asking for anything unreasonable. All it called for was for the Czech government to live up to the promises they made. Over the years almost every human rights promise made in the Czechoslovakian Constution and various treaties signed (many of which with the United States as a co-signee) were broken. "Charter 77" said to knock that off. Afterall, they agreed to. So what happened? Predictably, spreading "Charter 77" was deemed illegal and "antisocialist" (my note: as if that's a bad thing?). And the authors were not only labeled as traitors, but they were fired from their jobs, their kids were thrown out of school, and some were deported. And our friend Havel got the worst. He spent 5 years in-and-out of prison. Disgusting. But "Charter 77" still spread. And more and more people were getting angry.
It took a long time, but in 1989 the communist reign over Czechosolvakia finally fell. In large part because of some heroin addicts in New York played some music 22 years earlier that one guy, Milan Hlavsa, enjoyed. And that started the dominos. Václav Havel, our playwright who co-authored "Charter 77", became the very first president in the very first free elections held by the newly-minted Czech Republic. And Milan Hlavsa, once released from prison, continued to play music until his death from lung cancer in 2001. The Plastic People of the Universe? They all were released from prison over the years, It took 18 years for the government to reverse their ban on their music. But it happened. In 1988, the (still communist) government said the Plastic People could be heard again finally! And what happened (this is my favorite part)? The band got into a fight and broke up. That's rock n roll.
So what's the lesson here? In my eyes, it's that nothing is more important than the art we create. An idea has more firepower than any weapon could ever hope to. A band from New York put out some music that nobody gave a fuck about. 22 years later it brought down a government. That's power. Art inspires the best in people. It will still be here after we are dead. And it makes no difference if the medium is music, movies, television, books, paintings, or professional wrestling (you knew that was coming, right?) if you can inspire an idea in one person, that is contagious. It can spread. And it can change the world.
And the other lesson is, the Velvet Underground fucking ruled.