Vaclav Havel Walks into a Nightclub
My one night at a rock concert with the Czech dissident, artist, and president.
It's a shame that the death of one of the world's most ghastly leaders, North Korea's Kim Jong Il, will overshadow the death of one of its finest: Vaclav Havel, the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, who passed away on Sunday, Dec. 18, of respiratory ailments -- he was a lifelong smoker and lung cancer survivor -- at his country estate in northern Bohemia. I only met Havel once and wouldn't pretend to know him, and my reminiscence accordingly counts for far less than the rest that will be offered. You can read those if you want to understand why Havel matters to history or art; what follows, for what it's worth, is an account of why he matters to me.
It’s a shame that the death of one of the world’s most ghastly leaders, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, will overshadow the death of one of its finest: Vaclav Havel, the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, who passed away on Sunday, Dec. 18, of respiratory ailments — he was a lifelong smoker and lung cancer survivor — at his country estate in northern Bohemia. I only met Havel once and wouldn’t pretend to know him, and my reminiscence accordingly counts for far less than the rest that will be offered. You can read those if you want to understand why Havel matters to history or art; what follows, for what it’s worth, is an account of why he matters to me.
It was six-and-a-half years ago in Washington, D.C., and I had somehow persuaded an extremely indulgent editor friend at a music and fashion magazine to let me write a short squib about a Czech band called the Plastic People of the Universe, which was playing at the Black Cat nightclub on 14th Street. I mostly wanted an excuse to meet "the Plastics," a band whose legend far outstripped its recorded catalog, most of which was out of print and hopelessly difficult to find. The group had formed in Prague in 1968, amid the rush of the Prague Spring, with the intention of playing music inspired by the American experimental rock musicians they adored: the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart. It was a modest aim that, after Soviet tanks rolled into Wenceslas Square the following August, suddenly looked revolutionary. The Plastics were not particularly political, but Czechoslovakia’s newly disciplinarian communist regime looked askance at their lyrics — many of them written by the best Czech poets of the era — which celebrated sexuality, Catholic imagery, and other taboos. In 1976, after years of government harassment, the band’s members and associates were finally rounded up and hauled into court on trumped up "disturbing the peace" charges.
Among the poets whose work had informed the Plastics’ records — which were pressed in sympathetic Western countries and circulated samizdat-style in Czechoslovakia — was Vaclav Havel. The band’s trial inspired him and other dissidents to draft the landmark Charter 77 human rights declaration the following year, a document that laid the foundation of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The conviction of the Plastics — which was finally overturned by the Czech Supreme Court in 2003 — also prompted some of Havel’s finest writing. In his essay "The Trial," Havel described how the court proceedings made the band into "the unintentional personification of those forces in man that compel him to search for himself, to determine his own place in the world freely, and in his own way, not to make deals with his heart and not to cheat his conscience, to call things by their true names."
The seven-piece band that was waiting downstairs in the Black Cat’s sepulchral green room when I arrived that summer afternoon included only a couple of the members who had founded the Plastics 37 years earlier. One of them, saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec, also happened to be the band’s de facto English-language spokesman; after leaving prison, he had spent many years in exile in Canada. Brabenec was 62 and, with his long flowing hair, prodigious beard, and heavy Slavic features, resembled an Orthodox patriarch. Like everyone else in the band, he smoked incessantly as he described the details of the band’s visit to Washington. "Oh," he added, leaning back in the cracked pleather chair, "and Vaclav is coming."
A couple of hours later, they trooped down the stairs: not just Havel, who happened to be in town for a reading at the Library of Congress, but also former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the Czech ambassador. They availed themselves of the cooler full of Heinekens, drinking and smoking with the band and listening while the bassist, Eva Turnova, recounted her run-in with Lenny Kaye, the proto-punk guitarist and her hero, on the band’s tour stop in New York. Then the band was called up to the stage, and the rest of us followed, settling in the back of the club around a big black plywood table, sticky with stale beer and etched with the names of dozens of past concertgoers.
On the stage, Brabenec let loose an ear-splitting peal of free improvisation, and the rest of the band settled into a heavy, abrasive rhythm. This was not the Fleetwood Mac of Bill Clinton’s administration, and I leaned over to ask Albright what she thought of it. "I think it’s — I think it’s great," she said after a lengthy pause. "I like it a lot. Now, I can’t say I’ve heard a lot of it — I’ve mainly heard about them."
Havel, the old avant-gardist, was watching with a smile on his face. He had personally coaxed the Plastics out of retirement in 1997 for a performance at Prague Castle on the 20th anniversary of the Charter 77 signing; a year later, he brought Plastics bassist Milan Hlavsa — who died in 2001 — to Washington to perform with the band’s hero, the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, for Havel and Clinton at the White House. I asked him about his relationship with the band, but the music drowned out his soft voice, and I stopped after a couple questions, feeling guilty — I was keeping him from watching the show. On the dance floor, the Czech ambassador was shimmying to the music with a drink in his hand and a Plastics T-shirt under his sport coat. A slow trickle of admirers approached Havel for his autograph, which he signed with a pair of red and green felt-tip pens: "Havel" in loopy cursive, followed by a heart.
Then without warning, Turnova blew Havel’s cover, outing the "ex-president" in the back of the club. A couple of hundred fans turned around to face Havel, who stood up and waved sheepishly, his shoulders hunched slightly inside his sport coat. "For Mr. Havel," Brabenec called out, "’Magical Nights!’" The Plastics launched into a song of the same name, one they had performed three decades earlier at a clandestine music festival that Havel hosted at his country house. The lyrics went:
We live in Prague, that is the place
Where the Spirit itself will show its face.
We live in Prague, that is the place.
The ex-president smiled again, and I realized I was in the presence of something remarkable. Here was a man who had survived one of the Eastern Bloc’s worst regimes and helped overthrow it; who had navigated the confusion of the Iron Curtain’s fall and the division of his own country; who had endured the myriad little compromises and disappointments that come with the actual business of governing. Yet he had emerged somehow intact, in a way that the U.S. politicians I had met in Washington, survivors of far less battering public experiences, rarely seemed to be. As I watched him drinking beer with old friends and basking in the sound of a band he had seen play who knows how many times, it was possible to believe that one could plunge into the morass of politics and emerge on the other side a human being. Havel had, true to his own words, determined his own place in the world.
It was 1 a.m. by the time the encores wound down and Havel finally got up from his seat. After he had left, I noticed something on the table at the place where he had been sitting. It was just a concertgoer’s name, etched through the black paint in loopy cursive, punctuated with a heart.
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