Vaclav Havel's Four Biggest Musical Influences

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This weekend, two world leaders passed. One, North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, is remembered as an eccentric but dangerous dictator, a man who suppressed dissent and kept his people in a perpetual state of war and famine. The other, Vaclav Havel, played a key role in freeing Czechoslovakia from Communist rule, and ultimately became the first president of the nascent Czech Republic.

Both had a taste for culture, but in markedly different ways. Kim Jong-Il kidnapped directors to create movies for him; Havel came from an intellectual family, and ultimately used music and drama as a force for freedom. Havel is now remembered as a man of courage and leadership, while Kim's death has primarily inspired fear of a power vacuum within an unstable nuclear power.

On the sad occasion of Havel's passing, it's worth considering just how important a role music played in his life, and hence European and world history. Here are four of his reputed musical inspirations.

1) Frank Zappa. Havel was a lifelong Zappa fan, particularly the early work with the Mothers of Invention. It's not hard to think of Sixties Czech youth hearing "Trouble Every Day" and finding a kindred spirit therein. "Plastic People" from Absolutely Free was a key track; lyrics like "Watch the Nazis run your town/Then go home/And check yourself" must have struck a chord as a young person in a repressive government. (Never mind that its original inspiration seems to have been the fashion clones the Mothers encountered on the Sunset strip.) In 1990, Havel asked Zappa to be a consultant for his new government on trade, cultural matters and tourism. This was scuttled by the U.S. Administration, who probably had less than fond memories of Zappa's opposition to the PMRC. So he ended up serving as an unofficial cultural attache, and in fact played his last concert in Prague.

The Mothers of Invention, "Plastic People"

2) The Plastic People of The Universe. All in all, 1968 was a turbulent year around the world. This was especially true in Czechoslovakia. In the wake of the Prague Spring and subsequent Warsaw Pact invasion, being in a rock and roll band meant taking your life and your freedom in your hands. The Plastic People of The Universe formed in the wake of this tumult. Throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies, this band secretly recorded its own songs and played surreptitious concerts in remote locations, often billed as "weddings" to circumvent government harassment. In 1976, the band and about 100 of its fans were arrested after such a "wedding." You could compare the Plastic People's treatment to that of Fela Kuti -- but while Fela deliberately targeted the Nigerian military and political structure with songs like "Zombie," the Plastic People were not even terribly political in nature. Havel was one of the Plastic People's most fervent supporters during their trial, and gave them sanctuary and rehearsal space throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Despite their outcast status, their reputation grew outside of Europe, and in 1989, several band members performed in the United States under the name Pulnoc.

Plastic People of The Universe at Hannibal's Wedding Party 3) The Velvet Underground. Why were the events of November and December 1989 called the "Velvet Revolution?" Some hold that it was a tribute to the Velvet Underground, a favorite of the Czech dissidents who would ultimately end 40 years of Communist rule. The Plastic People covered "All Tomorrow's Parties," which must have been heard as a beacon of hope in 1960s Prague. Havel welcomed Lou Reed as an official guest in 1990, and when when the original four Velvets briefly reformed in the early 1990s, Pulnoc opened for their first performance, an impromptu set in France. They finally made it to Prague in 1993.

Velvet Underground, "All Tomorrow's Parties" live in Prague

4) Jazz in general. Havel was reported a big jazz fan and a regular at Prague jazz clubs throughout his life. Though the obituaries are silent as to his favorite jazz performers, a quick Google search confirms that there was a Prague Jazz Festival in 1968, at which Duke Ellington and Maynard Ferguson performed. Here's a grainy clip of Ferguson performing "Maria," first taking a break for some Czech wine.

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