On Velvet Undergrounds and Velvet Revolutions: Havel and Jonathan Richman

Lou Reed as Havel's guest at the White House in 1998.

Last month, poet, playwright, political philosopher and [former-Czech] president Václav Havel died. While this blog has a commitment to no pop culture and no politics (as those subjects are indubitably covered more capably and thoroughly elsewhere on the internet), the more I read about Havel the more my admiration grows.

Havel’s most famous writing is on the subject of totalitarianism. He lived and worked behind the Iron Curtain and as both an artist and political writer paid the price for his unwavering commitment to truth over and over again. While the Eastern European totalitarian regimes that inspired his work have faded, his insights remain prescient and relevant today. Take, for example, this excerpt from his 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless, on how ideology within what he characterizes as “post-totalitarian regimes” unmoors itself from reality.

“Increasingly, the virtuosity of the ritual becomes more important than the reality hidden behind it. The significance of phenomena no longer derives from the phenomena themselves, but from their locus as concepts in the ideological context,”

I was more reminded of the tireless spinning of cable news pundits to demonize our right-of-center Democratic president than the state-run Soviet press. I guess it’s all what you know and have experienced. It also has echoes of Guy Debord’s fantastic Society of the Spectacle, a thorough comparison to which will have to wait until I need to write a master’s thesis.

Havel and the Rolling Stones.

But Havel was also a rock and roll fan in a country where rocking and rolling were illegal. When he visited New York as president, he took a night to go to CBGBs; his favorite band was the Rolling Stones. In 1997 John Zorn halted one of his performances at the Knitting Factory in New York to yell at President Havel and Lou Reed for being too noisy. When he became president Havel even offered the position of Czech Minister of Culture to Frank Zappa (who modestly declined). While in jail he even requested that his wife bring him a Bee Gees record, who have some really good early albums (Odessa!).

Havel found inspiration in the Czech band Plastic People of the Universe. PPotU took their name from a Zappa lyric and played wicked psych rock that moves between free jazz and White Light White Heat-era Velvets.

While it’s kind of harsh even today, for Havel, PPotU were a revelation. What was it that he saw in longhaired, seemingly apolitical rock and rollers?

“Their trial was not a confrontation of two differing political forces or conceptions, but two differing conceptions of life. On the one hand, there was the sterile Puritanism of the post-totalitarian establishment and, on the other hand, unknown young people who wanted no more than to be able to live within the truth, to play the music they enjoyed, to sing songs that were relevant to their lives, and to live freely in dignity and partnership.”

As Paul Berman summarized in a recent article on Havel for The New Republic,

“Some of the first people to ‘live in truth’ in the post-totalitarian Czechoslovakia of the 1970s were the rock musicians. The whole point of rock music, or a certain kind of rock music, is to puke at sentimentality—which is to say, at hypocrisy and lies.”

It’s a beautiful (and maybe even sentimental) way to evaluate the arts. In the West, where rock n’ roll has long been a commercial entity, can we find an ethos of  “living in the truth” amongst a genre obsessed with notions of youth, sexism and self-indulgence?

Only amongst the good ones.

In an effort to flush out this notion of living in the truth, I turn to another Czech intellectual that I deeply admire, Milan Kundera. Toward the end of Unbearable Lightness of Being, the artist Sabina exclaims that her “enemy is kitsch, not Communism,” when asked whether the regime oppresses the arts. The way the regime oppresses the arts is by forcing them to deny unpleasant parts of life—death, voiding your bowels, genuine and deep differences between individuals. Kundera argues that these things are facts of life, and as such they are morally neutral. It is not that they are evil. So by pretending that they don’t exist, you leave the realm of reality, and enter the world of kitsch. To quote Kundera, “kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative sense of the world; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”

I seem to recall Kundera elsewhere talking about how rock music is devolutionary—the electric guitar being less beautiful than the acoustic—but look at what he claims the kitsch aesthetic attempts to banish and deny: every display of individualism, every doubt, all irony, “the mother who abandons her family or the man who prefers men to women.” Is there anything more punk rock than individualism, doubt, irony and upsetting gender roles? Just glam rock, baby.

It’s an interesting rubric to take to the arts: does it embrace the truth of life, unpleasant and all?

Which is to say, Jonathan Richman is probably the greatest rock musician of all time. Follow me: the protopunk rocker, turned children’s hospital and elementary school touring musician (turned, unfortunately, Something About Mary narrative star), is an individualist whose band went from being known as “The Modern Lovers” to “Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers” to just touring under the name “Jonathan Richman.”

He writes songs that celebrate pretty much everything: the beach, Massachusetts, Pablo Picasso, summer as a child. But he does so in a way that includes the unpleasant aspects of life. In his song about the beach he celebrates “cruddy sugar lemonade” and people with hairy chests. In the punk anthem “Roadrunner” he professes to loving Massachusetts, but loving the neon signs, the gas stations, being lonely.  He has a song called “Couples Must Fight.” In his ode to the Fender Stratocaster, he celebrates the famous instrument by noting, “the sound is thin, and the sound is cheap/like a tin can falling on a dead end street/ Fender Stratocaster there’s something about that sound!” His song “Dodge Vegematic” is a celebration of car whose best attribute is that it doesn’t run.

In his late work Richman goes so far as to warn that “when we refuse to suffer” we are only cheating ourselves. It’s a more Christian message than you’re likely to hear on any FM station. And he does it all without swelling strings, just a little rock ensemble; sometimes it’s just JR and a guitar.

There, of course, is a danger within our punk rock ethos of becoming self congratulatory, and becoming sentimental for things that seem to welcome in the unpleasantness of life, but are so anestisized from being celebrated—graffiti covered walls for instance—that they’ve been turned into kitsch. Kundera warns that kitsch causes two tears to flow in succession:

“The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!

The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass.

It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.”

By this rubric, I suspect songwriters like Sufjan Stevens, who writes with an eye on the beauty/unpleasant axis but couches it in instrumentation that seem determined to invoke the innocence of children (and annoy the bejesus out of me), wouldn’t pass. But maybe he does, and the truth of it is lost on me for biographical and not artist reasons. I can’t help but think that Stevens oversteps when he claims that “on his best behavior, [he is] really just like” pedophilic serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. Sure, nobody’s perfect, but claiming your infractions and personal failings are the same as having tortured and murdered children’s bones under your house just reads as disrespectful to the victims and their families, to say nothing of coming off like a platitude and therefore bad songwriting.

And of course there’s probably an anti-kitsch out there that denies the pleasant things in life, and creates a false reality of total misery and degradation, but if there is, it probably isn’t popular enough to warrant a takedown here. This framework, though, is why I hate music that seems lacks a sense of humor.

Okay, we’re miles off course at this point…. Oh yeah, Havel!

Courtesy of "Poems for Kush"

So there you have it, sentimentality is a tool of totalitarian regimes. The next time you see a painting of a cabin in the woods on a snowy evening with light streaming out of the windows, think of Stalin. The next time you hear the song “Christmas Shoes,” remember it’s as much propaganda as “O Canada.”

I guess this all feels like it should build to something… so, you know, try to live in truth. Listen to punk rock.


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