Talks with Joan Baez, Lou Reed and Suzanne Vega: musicians of the revolution era

Joan Baez, photo: CTK

Celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution began at the weekend and, of course, they began with Václav Havel. The dissident playwright cum philosopher-president was the main figure behind the bloodless uprising that toppled 40 years of communism within just a few weeks. At the weekend, Mr Havel held a semi-private concert to commemorate the music that accompanied the overthrow of communism, inviting Joan Baez, Lou Reed, and Suzanne Vega, among others. In exclusive interviews, Radio Prague spoke to some of the guests who “laid the soundtrack”, so to speak, to the period of the revolution.

In mid-1989, Joan Baez came to Bratislava. The seasoned activist wasted no time in meeting with Czechoslovak dissidents and provoking the authorities from the stage until they turned her microphone off. This was done in cooperation with Mr Havel, who was banned from attendance and whom Baez passed off as her guitar-carrier in order to get him past the police. And thus began a 20-year friendship between the two, and according to some, the first event of the changes to come. Ms Baez told me how she and Mr Havel planned the event.

Joan Baez, Václav Havel, photo: CTK
“We just talked for a while and laughed, had something to drink, and we sort of determined how we could make some mischief. The best way to make mischief.”

So what did you come up with?

“We came up with making a recording – I said what to say, he recorded it, and I had a plug in my ear so I could speak the words after him. And it said something about celebrating Charter 77 and dedicating this song to my good friend Václav Havel, who’s sitting in the audience. And then I started the song, which was ‘Swing Low’, and then the TV cut the sound. And then I sang ‘Swing Low’ without the sound, which is where he and I bonded. And that was where our friendship seriously started.”

What was the aftermath of this concert for you?

“Well, the woman I was travelling with from my organisation just came tearing into the dressing room and told me not to leave the dressing room. And I said okay, and then afterwards she came in short of breath and said that she had never seen in her lifetime - from the civil rights movement on - such a vicious police action. Because they were frustrated because they didn’t know what to do. They just started running from the back of the place up to the stage, but there was nobody to arrest, Havel was in my room, they couldn’t reach him. She said they were just ferocious and ugly. And they were afraid that they wanted to do something to me. Of course they didn’t. And the aftermath was very nice for me, because [Havel] told me after the event that that evening had been the last drop in the glass before it overflowed, and then there was the revolution.”

Joan Baez, photo: CTK
As many have said.


And how does that feel, I mean…

“Wonderful. That feels absolutely marvellous. Because usually I don’t see a result like that or feel it.”

Why get involved? You had a very successful career at the time of the Velvet Revolution, why get involved in the events of a country half a world away?

“Because it’s what’s always interested me. And my life would probably be very dull without it. It’s no big sacrifice. Really the sacrifice would be if I had to carry on a life that didn’t interest me as much as this has always interested me.”

Has it been fun?

“Yeah [laughs], yeah.”

After the revolution, when Václav Havel had become president of the new republic, one of the very first foreign guests he invited to Prague Castle was Lou Reed. The Velvet Underground frontman (and famously cross interviewee) spoke about his initial interest in Czechoslovakia with characteristic facetiousness.

“I was interested in Czechoslovakia at the time because the word ‘robot’ was invented by a writer, named Kopek [sic], who also wrote a wonderful book, ‘Cyrus the Singing Dog’.”

Don’t bother checking your bookstore for a copy of Lou Reed’s preferred Czech literature, neither Čapek, “Kopek” or anyone else has yet to write ‘Cyrus the Singing Dog’. But of course Lou Reed was not invited for his literary expertise. Rather he and Václav Havel developed a close friendship after that first visit that has lasted until today.

Lou Reed, Renée Fleming, photo: CTK
“He’s the perfect friend. Intelligent, charming, charismatic, knowledgeable. And very, very astute. He’s also one of these people who you just – it’s a strange talent – you just like him. You don’t even know him but you feel like you’ve known him. And he’s also very, very funny.”

Havel has said of their first meeting that he had been embarrassed to host the rock star in Prague Castle, because of the communist-style interiors.

“It was that kind of very totalitarian look, that very, non-descript, bland, group-mentality decoration – it was horrible. I think that’s what he’s referring to: ugly, dull, uninspiring. Kind of the way schools look inside the classroom, that dull look where you want to get out of there quickly, that’s what it looked like. I thought it would be fun in a way to keep some of that just to show people this is what it looks like when you let ‘them’ do ‘that’. This is what happens to just a room; now if a person was a room, you’d look like that.”

Another among the first foreign musicians to play post-revolution Czechoslovakia was Suzanne Vega, who described her 1990 concert for me as we sat in the historic Theatre on the Balustrade.

“The first visit was a 2,000 seat venue and they had sold 4,000 tickets. Everyone came and stood in the aisles; they had sold both the seats and the aisle space for the first time I came. It was hugely exciting. I just remember walking around the city and hearing people singing. We went across the bridge and I heard someone singing in the street. It’s a good memory that has always stayed with me, and the excitement of being here at that moment in time. There was an impromptu sort of press conference right after the gig, in the basement of the venue, so we were mobbed afterwards with people asking questions. It was great.”

Suzanne Vega, photo: CTK
Could you feel then the remnants of the revolution that had just taken place?

“Yeah, well, there was a sense of freedom and sort of liberation and joyfulness that we could feel as Americans.”

Do you recall by any chance first hearing about the beginning of the Velvet Revolution?

“Yeah sure! We heard about it because a lot of my friends were following Václav Havel’s writings and they knew that he had been in jail. And there was this interest in the band, the… Exploding Plastic People of the Universe…”

…Plastic People of the Universe…

“[laughs] I thought there was an exploding in there somewhere… the Plastic People of the Universe and then Půlnoc also I think was a band that came after with the same members. So they had played in New York and I was there at that show with Lenny K. So there was an awareness in the West of what was happening culturally.”

You’ve been here now a lot of times…

“Yeah, a lot of times, it’s been every couple of years.”

What are your impressions of how it’s changed here over that period of time, almost 20 years?

“Well now it’s not quite the same, you know, people are more used to Western artists coming here. There’s not the same sense of joyful discovery. Now it-‘(s a little more, I don’t want to say cynical, but you’re used to a wider choice of artists now. So the mood has changed a little bit.”

Lou Reed, Suzanne Vega, photo: CTK
Do you notice any difference in the way your music is received today as opposed to then?

“It’s always well received here, there’s always great enthusiasm. Even if I go out into the provinces there’s great, big audiences; it’s lovely – really well received. So I have no problem with how it’s been received. But there’s not that, kind of, bit of hysteria that there was in the beginning. In the beginning there was something uncontrollable about the connection between the music and the people and the event itself, and there was this feeling of it all spilling over into something uncontainable.”