Lou Reed, Havel, Půlnoc – and the first Velvet Underground reunion
The first reunion of the classic lineup of The Velvet Underground took place in Paris in 1990, at a show also featuring the Czech band Půlnoc. Believe it or not, the VU performed for the first time in 22 years in large part due to a Prague rumour linked to Půlnoc that took on a life of its own. A recording of that concert – which took place 28 years ago this week – has now been printed up on vinyl by Ivo Pospíšil, who was closely involved in the events in question.
The Velvet Underground’s music also reached communist Czechoslovakia, in part because the young writer Václav Havel brought one of their LPs home from a trip to New York and shared the ground-breaking music with friends. Czech fans even gave them a name: Velveti.
Fast forward to April 1990. Czechoslovakia had just been through the Velvet Revolution and there was major news for Prague rock fans: one-time VU leader Lou Reed, long a solo artist, was coming to town.
Ivo Pospíšil is a well-known Prague musician, producer, manager and DJ. He was a witness to Reed’s visit – which didn’t get off to the ideal start.
“Lou Reed had problems as soon as he got to the airport. He was taken aback by the fact there were still Communist soldiers and customs and passport officials in place. He arrived like a big star and kept his sunglasses on. When they told him to take them off he got really pissed off.”
The main reason Lou Reed came to Prague was to meet one of his own heroes: the recently installed president Václav Havel.
“We’d been living in the mistaken conviction that The Velvet Underground had an ‘underground’ agenda.”
“He was evidently going through a phase where he wanted to become a journalist and thought he’d use Havel to launch a career in journalism. Havel agreed to give him an interview, if Lou Reed played for him. I was the co-organiser of that show. I heard later that the interview hadn’t gone ideally, because Lou Reed’s recorder didn’t work, or he wasn’t able to use it or something.”
Being a member of the Czech underground had taken real courage in the communist years, when just having long hair was a red flag to the authorities. And, of course, members of The Plastic People of the Universe had been jailed. Androši, underground types, still adhered to an alternative, independent outlook that could be traced back to the 1960s.
This in part explains why Lou Reed’s visit turned into a disappointment for Ivo Pospíšil and others.
“It was some kind of a full stop. We’d been living in the mistaken conviction that The Velvet Underground had an ‘underground’ agenda – as we had – and rejected the mainstream. We later learned this was far from the case. We had it in our heads that their ‘underground outlook’ was, in a way, supporting our lives in the underground under socialism.”
“For us, Lou Reed was a god, you could say the biggest god, of the underground ideal and of our musical world. And suddenly our god was here and playing at the Úluv gallery. But he behaved very oddly, in a hostile manner, you could say. So for me the Lou Reed that I had previously had in my mind came to an end that evening.”
Lou Reed’s article about meeting Havel in post-revolution Prague became quite well-known. But not all of the musician’s assertions about the visit were correct, according to Pospíšil.
“I had all of his lyrics from all his solo albums translated into Czech and turned them into a book. I had I think two copies left, so I gave him one, albeit already with some doubts in my mind… Then later in some book of his he wrote that Havel had given him the book and had written an inscription that people had been imprisoned because of it.”
“For us, Lou Reed was a god. And suddenly our god was here.”
The support band when Lou Reed performed in Prague was Půlnoc. They were led by Milan “Mejla” Hlavsa, a former member of the VU-inspired Plastic People of the Universe and a close friend of Pospíšil’s.
And this is where our story really starts to get interesting. Půlnoc later received a booking to perform in Paris on June 1990 with Lou Reed and John Cale. The pair were then promoting Songs for Drella, an LP dedicated to the recently deceased Andy Warhol, who had briefly managed The Velvet Underground.
The audience that day in Paris witnessed a moment in rock history. However, its genesis was highly unlikely. Ivo Pospíšil:
“The whole show came about because of Půlnoc. They played a more important role than Lou Reed or John Cale. Ivo Zázvorka, a guy on the music scene, used to get a Velvets fanzine. It was produced by a guy named Kostek. And he came out with the story that Půlnoc were going to continue playing with Lou Reed, this time at the opening of an Andy Warhol exhibition at the Cartier Foundation in Paris.”
“I was the manager of Půlnoc, and Mejla kept coming to me and asking me how things were looking with Paris. This was a time when many things were going on. So we took some show in Paris as just one of many normal events. Because at that time everything seemed normal – and we thought we’d always be playing in New York and at Midem in Cannes and so on.”
To find out what was actually going on, Pospíšil called a buddy in Paris, Jiří Smetana. He had been living in France for years, ran a club and was well-connected in the music world. Smetana got in touch with the Cartier Foundation.
“They said, Mr. Smetana, we are planning a big Andy Warhol exhibition but we don’t know anything about a concert – though you know what, that’s not a bad idea. So they called Lou Reed and he agreed. He said he knew Půlnoc from Prague and that he’d arrange with John Cale to do some songs from their LP Songs for Drella, which was a tribute to Andy Warhol.”
So Půlnoc and some cohorts squeezed into a van and drove to Paris to perform before Lou Reed and John Cale at the swanky venue, a chateau on the outskirts of the city. Once again, Reed didn’t make a great impression on the Czechs, says Pospíšil.
“The whole show came about because of Půlnoc. They played a more important role than Lou Reed or John Cale.”
“Communication with John was excellent. I even faxed with him later about the possibility of him producing Půlnoc. Lou Reed behaved just as he had in Prague. He spoke to Cale but was looking in another direction entirely. What’s more he had made it a condition he wouldn’t have to meet Sterling Morrison, because the Cartier people had invited the rest of the band. There were around 15 of us from Prague and it was a lot of fun; we were in a world we’d never experienced before, and never experienced again.”
Půlnoc played their set and then Reed and Cale did a few numbers from Songs for Drella. But that wasn’t the end of the show. Despite his apparent aversion to Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed made an announcement.
“At the end Lou Reed said, I’ve got a surprise for you, and invited the rest of the band on stage. So they came together on stage for the first time in 22 years. It was very surprising and moving for those who were there. Some even cried. Nobody had even dared to imagine it might happen.”
However, the brief VU reunion nearly didn’t happen at all.
“There was one snag in that the only free guitar was a Czech one that belonged to Jirka Křivka [of Půlnoc] and at first he didn’t want to lend it to Sterling Morrison. Mejla and I had to give him a talking to so that he’d lend it to him. So just as the Czechs brought the whole thing about, they also nearly prevented that miraculous moment. And The Velvet Underground played Heroin and that was that.”
A recording of that show – entitled Reunion 16 6 1990 – has now been printed up as a vinyl LP by Ivo Pospíšil himself.
“The recording came about by coincidence. Jirka Smetana was quite thorough and he inserted a cassette into the mixing desk and had his soundman record Půlnoc for me. But then the soundman turned the tape over and also recorded the rest of the show. So when the Velvets played, that song was also on the tape.”
However, it was only in recent years that Ivo Pospíšil was reacquainted with a cassette that had seemed lost to the mists of time.
“I have no interest in the record being especially well-known. My main aim was for it to end up in the hands of Czechs, because it’s mainly for us.”
“In those days my friend Vláďa Jurásek was writing something about the Velvets, so I gave him the tape. Then around 20 years later when he returned some stuff to me he also gave me that cassette. I played it at my mother’s place, where I have a tape recorder. And it bowled me over because the recording was very good. It was powerful and emotive.”
Pospíšil decided to put the music out on record out of his own pocket. However, he doesn’t have the rights to the music so – after commissioning an excellent sleeve – only printed up a not-for-sale, numbered run of 500. These he has been giving away for free to fellow music fans.
He says he doesn’t know or care if knowledge of the record’s existence has reached Velvet Underground collectors in the US and around the world.
Ivo Pospíšil has sent copies to the two surviving members of the classic VU line-up, John Cale and Mo Tucker. He plans to hand another one to Cale in person when he performs in Prague at the end of the next week.