Lou Reed died today at 71. The standard obituaries have noted his profound influence on popular music since the 1960s and 1970s. Dig a little deeper and you might find, as The New Republic did, that he affected political leaders like Vaclav Havel. Indeed, in the Czech Republic right now Reed’s death is being mourned for the reason that his Velvet Underground gave its name to that country’s 1989 Velvet Revolution.
The course of human events has many tributaries and that is especially true for the uprising against communist rule and Soviet occupation in Central and Eastern Europe. But the influence of popular culture on the revolution was never more acute than in Czechoslovakia, and that can arguably be traced back to a large handful of people influenced by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.
Specifically, as I have argued elsewhere, the 1976 arrest of the Plastic People of the Universe, the Czech underground band, was the primary catalyst that united the disparate elements of the political opposition in Czechoslovakia nearly 10 years after the crushing of the Prague Spring. That united opposition penned Charter 77 and later became the Civic Forum, which negotiated a peaceful end to Com munist Party rule in Czechoslovakia.
Rock’n’Roll has long been considered, by itself and others, as a socially revolutionary force. And indeed, its greatest enemies make it “political” by banning the music as disruptive of the social order or morally corrupting. But nowhere in history that I know has rock’n’roll come so close to overthrowing the political order as the Plastic People did, and, by extension, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. That is, people were willing to engage in revolution not just for political expression but for aesthetic expression, too. When you think about it, that may be the most important part of the political order after all.