Lou Reed, Jan Macháček and Vaclav HavelJan Macháček is an economist and columnist for the Prague weekly Respekt. For over 20 years, he has been the guitar player of the Velvet Revival, a Velvet Underground cover band well-known in and around Prague. Macháček was present at the historic occasion when Czech President Vaclav Havel met Lou Reed, a hero Havel cited as being responsible for him becoming the first Czech President after the end of the Cold War. The story of that meeting is recounted here in a letter from Macháček to Reed, on the occasion of the musician's passing.
My dear Lou,
You're responsible for the fact that I've started all sorts of bands since I was 14. Although I used to take guitar lessons in music school, I never got that into the hard rock music my schoolmates would try to turn me on to. Those singers seemed so unnatural to me, their ripped up jean jackets looked so nerdy and the guitar solos reminded me of a macho outburst or an athletic performance. It was a foreign world to me...
When I was thirteen, my sister Marie and her friend Daniela brought a tape to our cottage in Říčany (can anyone remember that black Hungarian portable tape deck with orange rubber buttons?) that had "I am Waiting for the Man" and "Sunday Morning" on it. And I realized that another form of rock music existed.
Your voice had a beautiful color. You sang as if you were speaking. And though your music was intense, it was slightly distant, as if behind a thin pane of glass. I was fascinated by that sound and its amazing simplicity and it gave me the courage to attempt to seriously start bands (then I found out that it's actually much harder in reality, but that's not important -- the seed was sown).
I found out what that band of yours looked like (though it had already fallen apart): black glasses, black clothes, and no flower children like in California. That got me. That's what I wanted to look like some day.
In March 1990, Lou Reed arrived in Prague and played at the "ULUV Gallery"on Narodni Street. And then something happened that I never could have imagined -- he joined my Velvet Underground cover band "Velvet Revival" on stage for four songs.
Lou Reed had come with his wife Sylvia to perform for [former Czech president and dissident political poet] Vaclav Havel, and though he probably envisioned playing in the president's ear by his fireplace, Havel [had a more special concert in mind]. Havel explained to Reed that it was thanks to him that he was president: The Plastic People of the Universe, which Havel was associated with, first played Velvet's songs in the underground circuits. They were imprisoned for being "anti-social" and, because of that, they formed Charter 77, which ultimately caused the end of communism in the Czech Republic. Havel became president thanks to that charter.
Lou Reed really liked that but it took some more convincing to get him to perform, and, on top of that, a Fender Twin needed to be tracked down, without which Lou refused to play.
In the end, we performed together, and Lou was touched and happy. He turned to me as he was leaving ULUV and said, "It was great to play with you," which totally shocked me because that was just what I wanted to tell him.
There's a saying "you can never step in the same river twice", but this miracle repeated in 2006 in the Švandovo Theatre, where Vaclav Havel and Lou Reed had an onstage interview. Again we played several pieces together. Lou conducted us nicely during rehearsals, especially during "Sweet Jane." Live, he taught us (without any words, just gestures) that the dynamics have to be exaggerated and that the front man dictates them.
It's unbelievable that in so many respects, music would be in a completely different place without you. And even if someone else discovered it later, you get the credit for being first.
You were the first to sing about drugs, life on the street, and rough city tales. You were the first to bring the phenomenon of noise, feedback, and industrial sound to music. You had a dog-collar on your neck before all the punks. You were the first to release an LP that felt so much like a novel (Berlin) and you were the first to do an LP about a friend who was dying from cancer (Magic and Loss). That album is so strong, and thanks to it I know that you were not afraid of death.
Though it might not have always appeared that way, behind your sunglasses you obviously paid good attention to the people around you, and to their characters and stories. That's how you built memorials in music for people you met.
I know that you were a little jealous of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen because they've always been held up as "great American poets" while you've been ignored by universities and intellectuals. For them, you are still some dude with a guitar. I think that's also why you were so glad to make friends with Havel, because he was a big world writer who respected you and treated you as his equal.
I love it when people try to tell me you couldn't play the guitar, or that John Cale was superior to you as a musician. That's how I recognize an idiot. You could be playing a solo with one finger and it was immediately obvious that it was you playing it. That's what's most important among the millions of guitar players in the world, right?
Jan Macháček performing with Lou Reed
I like every one of your albums, except for the one with Metallica. That said, when I don't like an album at first, I analyze why. I enjoy that process so much that I usually end up liking the album. (It's the same with Woody Allen movies).
It's also thanks to you that I love New York and thanks to you that New York is my "second town". When I visited in 1990, the first place I went to was the Dom on St. Mark's place, where the first Velvets concert took place.
And I'll never forget how beautifully you played in Prague at Pražska křižovatka for the 20th anniversary. And your concert in the Theater Archa that you devoted to Vaclav Havel last year was your best solo concert that I have ever heard. You came to say good-bye to Prague and it was so beautifully dignified. Your "Sad Song" -- that was really something.
Please say hello to Mejla Hlavsa, Sterling Morrison, Andy Warhol and Filip Topol in the after life. I'm sure you'll meet up.
(Translated by Vanda Krutsky)