Ivan Kral: A Czech rock icon reflects on his life and career

Ivan Kral

Ivan Kral is perhaps the only Czech to have left his mark on the history of rock music. He was in an early incarnation of Blondie, worked with the great Patti Smith for a number of years and played guitar with Iggy Pop. His songs have been covered by such giants as U2 and David Bowie. In this special programme, Ivan Kral looks back over his career in music, but also reflects on his boyhood in Prague, moving to the US with his family and much more besides.

As with many rockers of his generation, it all began in the early to mid 1960s.

"I started playing with the British invasion and hearing about the Rolling Stones in Germany and hearing about the Beatles. I was probably 12 years old and I had to have a band. I started playing guitar and playing clubs in Prague, basically for lemonade.

"We were probably the only band...I was writing my own material and we were singing in Czech. That's how I got into it, just like every kid probably in high school. It kept me out of trouble because I hated any kind of communist...surroundings, and anything that I had to do. Right after school I would rehearse and try to get a band together. It was called Soot."

Soot is the English translation of his first band's name: Saze.

Ivan Kral

The teenage Ivan Kral bought his first guitar with money made doing "brigada", seasonal work for students that was compulsory under the Communists.

"We used to go and work in the fields for a couple of weeks, picking hops. And I actually won first prize. On top of that I got the most money and I saved it and bought a guitar, a Futurama, the make that George Harrison later made famous I think."

You also got some prize from the president, I read.

"Oh my God, yes, you are absolutely right. I was invited to the Castle and selected out of my high school - as the top worker! I think I was greeted by [President Antonin] Novotny. All I remember is a red carpet and a small man in a grey suit."

I've often read about for example in England and bands like the Rolling Stones...there were very few people who in those days had blues albums, and they all got to know each other because there were so few of them - was it similar here in those days?

"It was a lot harder - there was no freedom here. The only thing we could do was whoever had a tape recorder and could record Radio Luxembourg - that's how you got some music. Whoever had a tape recorder was the king in high school.

"No, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were getting records straight from the sailors in Liverpool and all that, they were very lucky. I remember jumping off a tram because I saw a kid with the first record by the Rolling Stones and I had to look at it."

Your family left Czechoslovakia in the mid-60s. When exactly did they leave, and why did they leave?

"They didn't leave. My dad got an assignment as a journalist and translator at the United Nations [in New York] in 1963. Of course my brother and I were happy, my mom wasn't happy because we had to be left behind. During those two years my brother and I just fended for ourselves. Our parents communicated by writing each other. After those two years we were allowed to visit our parents, for a month, we got permission...That's what my parents did."

And you followed?

"Yes, we followed, we came in the summer of 1966. Within a few days of our arrival dad decided, you're staying here, you're going to be studying here no matter what happens. That's what happened. I went to college - final year."

Was it a bit of a shock to the system for you moving to New York? Or did you immediately settle in, so to speak?

"It was a complete shock. To know America, I think it takes you about seven years. Especially coming from communism, and not speaking the language. I would say seven years it was rough, definitely a shock to the system, beginning with the buildings, the highways, the cars and all that.

A couple of years after you moved was the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. I presume there were suddenly a lot more Czechs in New York and in America - was that the case? And how did you find those people who came after '68?

"I tell you, even in the first few years in New York before '68 I would meet Czechs and I would try to stay away from them...it seemed like I had bad luck in everyone I met, they were either trying to outsmart the system like little thieves or...I just had bad luck with them.

"In 1968 I was in upstate New York, I wasn't living in a quite university town. So I really didn't mingle with Czech immigrants. I just remember it was a traumatic time for my father.

"He had to be protected by the FBI because communists from Europe were inviting him to conferences which didn't exist, just to get him back and imprison him for what he stood for, because he spoke right away at the United Nations against the invasion."

In those days a lot of young Americans would have been I guess part of the counter culture, quite left wing, against the state and so on. How did they react to you and your stories, coming from a communist country? And how did you look on them?

"I was really trying to...step back and observe the whole hippy movement, the yippy movement, and I thought it was a joke. A lot of these kids had so much time and money on their hands and they really didn't understand what oppression is or what it means to live under a dictatorship - even though they could have gone to visit the Soviet Union or other communist countries, most of them didn't. The college kids were spoiled, like they usually are.

"It was frightening to me...all love and Woodstock, I really wanted to stay away from that and finish my studies. I was more into the Rolling Stones and Little Richard than the peace movement.

"Except there was one frightening moment when during the Vietnam War I was recruited. I got a number to go to Vietnam in my sophomore year. Luckily I wasn't to be trusted yet, because I wasn't a citizen. I was considered to be a translator, from Russian to English."

During all those years Ivan Kral kept playing music, forming his own band Luger in New York in the early 1970s. He passed through a number of other groups, including an embryonic version of Blondie, who went on to sell millions of albums.

But it was as bass player and guitarist with the Patti Smith Group that Ivan was to find fame, tour the world - and play on some of the greatest rock recordings ever made. Patti Smith was visceral and poetic, obsessed with both French Symbolist poets and 1960s rock icons. Her group's debut Horses is regarded as one greatest albums of all time.

Ivan Kral takes up the story.

"I joined so many bands in that era. I happened to stumble upon Blondie and Patti Smith. At the time it was very rare to find something interesting, something different. I don't know if it was the most vibrant scene...nobody knew how to play and there were few clubs, not like today.

"I just found Patti interesting, because I studied Verlaine and Baudelaire and fell in love with them before she did! And when I saw her, the androgynous...I thought, my God, there's someone original who could take it somewhere else."

Now her music, especially her first album Horses, is really seen as classic. At the time you were making that record did you yourself think, this is something different, this is something a cut above the vast, vast majority of music?

"I definitely was convinced it was something different. I didn't know if it would be palatable to the masses. I thought whatever she had inside her mind is going to be spilled out, and spewed out...and all the energy we put into it. It was magic and happened very quickly. It didn't have to be rehearsed, it didn't have to be overdubbed or anything.

"It was a special album and to this day you get kind of goosebumps. It's too bad it wasn't followed up with stronger albums. What followed was more commercial, of course. But that album stood out and I knew we were special."

Is there any one memory from your time with Patti Smith that really stands out?

"I was more of an observer...at first I would be, oh, I'm going to have my own band in America and do it my way and write everything. But then I stood back and was more observing.

"It seemed like a magical, dreamy kind of time...I didn't know who [Horses producer] John Cale was, I didn't know the Velvet Underground [Cale's 1960s group]...I'd heard of Andy Warhol.

"The whole scene around those people, Patti Smith, [photographer and Horses cover photo taker Robert] Maplethorpe...I wanted to stay away from, I was scared that all they do is party, take drugs and get wasted. And that's not the way I was brought up."

But if getting wasted wasn't his thing, Ivan Kral's next collaborator was an unlikely choice - Iggy Pop, the (literally) self-lacerating wild frontman, whose Stooges had been one of the most exciting - and out of control - bands of the late 1960s.

"Iggy and I have known each other a long time, since before I joined Patti Smith. We were friends but he was kind of whacky and not balanced right...And I used to tell Jim Osterberg - Iggy - that once you behave and we're really going to do proper music, then I'd love to play behind you.

"I was very fortunate that when Patti decided to quit, in Italy, that a friend of mine called Iggy up and he needed a guitar player - that's how we how hooked up. It was one of the fondest times on stage for me."

Getting back to Ivan Kral the man, did he miss home during those years when he was enjoying professional success as a musician?

"I was homesick probably the first two or three years, having recurring dreams that turned into a fright, that you were coming out of the airport in Prague and you don't have an American passport and you're going to be thrown in jail.

"But the curiosity...every time I would go to Austria I would call Prague...I felt incredibly sorry for the generation that had to stay here and the young generation and my generation that had to stay behind and couldn't do anything about it."

What was your reaction to the events of November 1989?

"I was extremely happy. I knew it was going to happen any time after Poland, everything was falling apart...It took me two or three years before I showed up. I went to Austria, through Slovakia until I wound up in Prague.

"The period when Havel was the president was very optimistic, the strongest probably - not what it is now."

Was it strange for you coming back here? And how about the Czech language - could you immediately speak fluently again?

"I tried to speak as best I could but things were not falling into place. One strange thing is that I've always counted in Czech, not in English. But it took me a while...sometimes if you come to a radio station straight from the airport you have a hard time, speaking Czech.

"It was like going through déjà vu, going back to your childhood, walking the streets. It was very romantic, very wonderful."

What about the fates of your friends from when you were a kid? What kind of lives did most of your friends have?

"I really had my friends in the band Soot. The only one I hadn't met passed away during that time, my drummer. But the two other boys I helped to get to America. One of them became an executive in Kodak and the other one has a transport import business in New Jersey - they're both very successful."

During the 1990s Ivan Kral - a living legend here - released a number of albums in the Czech Republic. He also produced numerous Czech artists, such as Lucie and Iva Bittova. Would it be fair to say that the Velvet Revolution give his career in music a new start?

"Oh absolutely...One thing I felt was you don't want to do one job all your life, it's boring. My dad was in the office and my mom was a teacher - just one job. You want to do several different things.

"Czechs ask me, you did records - you must be doing pretty well? But you know yourself that only a few musicians can really live off their music. I was doing other things, I was living in Seattle and I had an antique shop, I started a creperie there.

"When I was asked to do and produce music, yes it gave me another chance. But it was not something that I was waiting for...To answer your question, it was very pleasant."