|Velvet Underground front man Lou Reed and Velvet Revolutionary Vaclav Havel discuss bondage, sexual and political.|
Pulled into a Statoil in Pärnu on a rainy December night to get a coffee, left with the three disc Rolling Stones Singles Collection, just so I could zoom among the dark pines and listen to Mick Jagger croon, “I am the little red rooster, too lazy to crow for day …”
I had to buy it. Just had to. What other Statoil customer would? What demand exists in Estonia for vintage Stones? I felt it was my duty as a lifelong Stones fan to snatch up their product.
I was thinking about rock ‘n’ roll music the whole ride home, wondering what impact it had had at all in Estonia. Many of the songs of the Singing Revolution were nominally rock songs, though it’s hard to trace the musical lineage from “Johnny B. Goode” to “Eestlane olen ja eestlaseks jään.”
I have no idea what music my father-in-law Andres enjoys. His brother Tiit, who actually is a musician, is one of these frustrating people who likes all kinds of music. No luck there. I know my late mother-in-law Aime supposedly had a fondness for French pop. But nothing seems to light the old folks’ fire like “Satisfaction” does when my father John hears Keith play that fuzzy introductory riff for the 1,965th time.
When I got home I saw that Vaclav Havel had died. He wasn’t Estonian, but he was a so-called Eastern European, a dissident who helped topple the local Communist regime and later became president. A Mandela story in other words, but not exactly. Havel was also an avid rock music fan, and the group that tickled his fancy wasn’t the Stones but one that originated closer to my home, the Velvet Underground, consisting of Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker, all of Long Island, and John Cale of Carmarthenshire,Wales, with vocals by Nico of Cologne, West Germany.
From what I understand, the records of this New York based experimental rock ensemble, which gained notoriety in the US but sold dismally, were smuggled into then Czechoslovakia and embraced by the underground dissident movement. Reed has claimed that the name “Velvet Revolution” evolved out of the Czech dissidents’ affinity for the Velvet Underground’s music. It’s possible. Reed and Havel were acquaintances, if not friends. He came to visit Havel in Prague in 1990, and played at the White House dinner in Havel’s honor in 1998. To give one a sense of the profound change that had taken place in global culture, try imagining the frontman for a group that sang about heroin addiction, transvestites, and sadomasochism playing at a state dinner during the Johnson or Nixon administrations …
I can see why Europeans liked the Velvet Underground. Nico’s deep, accented vocals immediately gave the group’s first album a Teutonic tinge, and John Cale’s palette was different from any working class New Yorkers’, a viola player trained in classical music at the University of London. Even if you listen to those records now with Nico moaning over Reed’s choppy, anxious guitar and Cale sawing away on his electric viola, you can see how they fit in among Prague’s gothic architecture, far more than the Grateful Dead’s sunny West Coast psychedelia or the Stones’ attempt to revive the Delta blues with a Kentish accent.
I guess what I am trying to say is that music is important. It doesn’t get enough credit. When we write the history of the 20th century, we of course should remember to put the dissidents-cum-presidents front and center. But don’t forget about the poets and their guitars who spoke to them through stereo speakers in their bedrooms late at night. Maybe there is more to those spur-of-the-moment Statoil purchases.