The arrival of amplified rock music performed by free-spirited longhairs was not, to put it mildly, greeted with enthusiasm by the Cold Warriors of the West. Nearly a decade after Elvis’s pelvis dislocated social mores and Frank Sinatra denounced rock as “the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the Earth,” rock ’n’ roll refuseniks were still crying bloody murder. In September 1964, National Review founder and tireless anticommunist William F. Buckley reacted to pop music’s British Invasion with a spasm of Victorian disgust: “Let me say it, as evidence of my final measure of devotion to the truth,” Buckley huffed. “The Beatles are not merely awful, I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowned heads of antimusic, even as the imposter popes went down in history as ‘anti-popes.’”
Twenty years later, the then wife of Democratic senator and Cold War hawk Al Gore cofounded the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in reaction to the heavy metal and early rap genres that, Tipper Gore claimed, were “infecting the youth of the world with messages they cannot handle.” Musicians from John Denver to Frank Zappa were hauled to Washington to argue under oath (futilely) against a warning-sticker censorship regime. Gangsta rappers like Ice-T stood accused of increasing violence against cops, danceclub bonbons like Cyndi Lauper and Sheena Easton glorified sex, and metal acts from Kiss to Iron Maiden were transmitting secret backwards paeans to Satan himself. In her 1987 book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated World, Gore fretted over the demonic import of the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons and argued that listening to acts such as Ozzy Osbourne was “playing with fire” and all too often led to death and damnation. “Many kids experiment with the deadly satanic game,” she warned, “and get hooked.” She claimed to be against censorship but instructed her readers to “file petitions with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington to request inquiries into the license renewals of television and radio stations that violate the public interest.”
Though such outbursts always look comical in retrospect—Buckley ended up befriending John Lennon in the 1970s, and Tipper Gore attempted to rehabilitate her uptight image by insisting during her husband’s 2000 campaign that she’d been a reliable Deadhead all along—the gag reflex that produced them is alive and well. Radical Islam has replaced communism as the existential bogeyman requiring eternal vigilance, and some vigilantes have drawn a link between the vulgar pop culture of the West and the murderous religious radicalism of the Middle East, most notoriously in conservative Dinesh D’Souza’s obscene 2007 book The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. “Conservatives,” D’Souza wrote, “must stop promoting American popular culture because it is producing a blowback of Muslim rage. With a few exceptions, the right should not bother to defend American movies, music, and television. From the point of view of traditional values, they are indefensible. Moreover, why should the right stand up for the left’s debased values? Why should our people defend their America? Rather, American conservatives should join the Muslims and others in condemning the global moral degeneracy that is produced by liberal values.”
If music has become ever-more morally degenerate—and one need only look at the PMRC’s now-pedestrian “Filthy Fifteen” list from 1985 to see the long tumble from Twisted Sister (whose “We’re Not Going to Take It,” a by-the-numbers rave up, supposedly promoted violence) and Cyndi Lauper (whose forgotten hit “She Bop” promoted masturbation) to GWAR (whose albums include This Toilet Earth and We Kill Everything) and Slipknot (who wear scary masks and subtitled one album The Subliminal Verses)—then it would stand to reason that the era of globalized hip-hop, video game violence, and pornography would have set back the cause of human freedom by generations. In fact, the exact opposite has happened.
Freedom House, a U.S. government–funded international nonprofit founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, has been conducting “Freedom of the World” surveys since 1973, measuring by a set of stable, if subjective, criteria whether countries are “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.” The group’s initial analysis of 151 countries found that nearly half (46 percent) were not free, compared to 29 percent free and 25 percent partly free. The collapse of totalitarian communism beginning in 1989 resulted in free countries outnumbering the unfree for the first time, and by 2010, with 194 countries to choose from (itself an indication of increased freedom), the numbers from 1973 had almost exactly reversed: 46 percent free, 30 percent partly free, and 24 percent unfree.
We’re not just talking about correlation between the spread of pop culture and international freedom: There is direct, observable causation. The remarkable two weeks of Egyptian street protests that led to the resignation of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak were populated mostly by leaderless young people who could no longer tolerate being censored (Mubarak’s attempts to shut down Facebook may well have been his fatal mistake). For more than a decade, the Egyptian regime had waged a brutal and eventually losing battle against a burgeoning homegrown heavy metal movement in a crackdown known as the “Satanic Panic.” As Cairo’s unofficial metal historian Sameh “Slacker” Sabry told journalist Richard Poplak in 2009, “My question to you is: Would you stop listening to the music you loved if someone was going to throw you in jail for it? If the answer is yes, then you don’t love the music enough. I have been charged for Satanism; I have been called a devil worshipper. Many times. My name has been in print—with my age, my school—I was waiting for them to come for me. I did not change. I did not hide. You want a piece of me—come get it.”
Poplak, writing in a book on pop culture and Islam that came out six months before the historic events in Cairo, concluded on a prescient note:
What I had seen that night was on some small level a revolution—or at least a concentrated act of defiance—played out to the fuzz and wail of heavy metal music. I had seen kids assert their right to rock. There is this expectation, a shared if unarticulated belief that these bands—like the legendary [Czech band] Plastic People of the Universe, who carried the ethos of revolution inside the psych-swirl of their avant-rock—herald some hope for future freedoms. Regardless of lyrical content, simply by existing, merely by banging head, [the Egyptian bands] Wyvern, Deathless Anguish and company are harbingers of change.
What sort of change? Some of the architecture of that change was spelled out in the Alexandria Declaration, a March 2004 statement from Middle Eastern intellectuals advocating a series of liberal reforms, above all “guaranteed freedom of expression in all its forms, topmost among which is freedom of the press, and audio-visual and electronic media.” The Alexandra Declaration, as the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported in February 2011, is a “‘Charter 77’ for reform in the Arab world.”
Charter 77, just like the Plastic People of the Universe, is a relatively obscure reference in twenty-first-century America. Yet, its 1970s-era call for freedom of expression in communist Europe is at the very center of the single-most foundational story of how supposed Western cultural decadence combined with dissident aspirations in the unfree world to produce not just unprecedented liberation but a useable blueprint for oppressed people everywhere to cast off the shackles of their masters. Standing at the center of that story is the literal author of the blueprint, a rumpled star child of the 1960s whose love and understanding of rock music helped free his country and inspire freedom in so many others: Václav Havel, the late leader of what came to be known as the “Velvet Revolution.”
That story begins with another story, that of the Velvet Underground, a band whose best-known member, Lou Reed, chafed not under the oppression of Russian tanks but the strictures of postwar Long Island suburbia. A hippie-hating countercultural figure, the teenaged Reed had been given electroshock treatments to “cure” his homosexual tendencies. Reed would later find a mentor in the legendarily alcoholic and writer’s blocked poet Delmore Schwartz, before gaining fame for singing about drug abuse and cross-dressing and fronting a band that openly sang about soul-sapping heroin rather than consciousness-raising LSD during 1967’s Summer of Love.
No one is exactly sure how a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico found its way to Czechoslovakia before Soviet tanks crushed the cultural opening of the Prague Spring in August 1968. After all, the March 1967 debut album by Andy Warhol’s nihilistic house band barely sold in America, peaking at just #171 on the Billboard charts before quickly disappearing. Rock critics would not come around to declaring it one of the best albums ever made until decades later. There is that famous line, variously attributed to superproducer Brian Eno or R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, that “only a thousand people bought the record, but every one of them started a band.” And though Czechs were starting bands right and left, as part of an all-too-brief cultural reemergence that saw artists such as filmmaker Miloš Forman and novelist Milan Kundera gain international prominence, there was a lot of catching up to do in 1967 and 1968 for a country that had recently outlawed William F. Buckley’s least favorite band. “It is so strange,” the singer of a Czech Velvet Underground cover band would muse a few years after communism’s demise, “that Prague was so up-to-date.”
Whatever the source, this influential piece of dissonant, drug-saturated, hyperurban yet occasionally gentle music, with the flat everyman vocals of Lou Reed alternating with the morose German female baritone of supermodel Nico, wound up in the hands of a teenage butcher’s apprentice and budding rock bassist named Milan “Meijla” Hlavsa. “The Velvet Underground was something very different, very new, very real,” Hlavsa recalled a quarter century later, “because their music was a part of their life. . . . It brought us America in a real way. It was good to see that in the States there were normal people who had problems like us.” One month after the 1968 Soviet invasion, Hlavsa and some buddies started a band called the Plastic People of the Universe. Named after the song “Plastic People” by future Tipper Gore foil Frank Zappa (though perhaps also influenced by the Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” multimedia extravaganzas that the band would go on to emulate), Plastic People was mostly a cover band at first, singing versions in heavily accented English of Zappa, the Doors, the Fugs, and the Velvets. “The base of our music was the Velvet Underground,” Hlavsa said.
Though the passage of time has dulled the shock value, the Velvet Underground in its time was like a needle in the eye even to seasoned Western rock audiences. One of the only music magazines to take contemporary note of The Velvet Underground & Nico called it “a full-fledged attack on the ears and on the brain.” Legendary Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs in 1969 called the band a “bunch of junkiefaggot-sadomasochist-speed-freaks who roared their anger and their pain in storms of screaming feedback and words spat out like strings of epithets.” And he liked them. The songs were about heroin, hitting your girlfriend, scoring drugs, and the pathos of planning for the next Manhattan party. The drummer was a girl (no normal occurrence in those days), who played standing up, with mallets. “The real question is what this music is about—smack, meth, deviate sex and drugdreams, or something deeper?” wondered Bangs. “The most important lesson [about] the Velvet Underground,” he concluded, was “the power of the human soul to transcend its darker levels.” This was not the sort of material that either Dinesh D’Souza or Tipper Gore could bop along to.
Now, imagine how it might have gone over in a totalitarian country where longhairs like Hlavsa were arrested, literally, for having long hair, as well as for the crime of possessing unapproved music. Rock bands in Czechoslovakia required a license from the government, and in those days of communist “normalization,” the Plastic People’s was soon revoked. The band continued to play, but only at weddings (one of the few activities beyond the government’s control) and at secret, one-time shows advertised through paranoid word of mouth. The Plastics acquired a Warholesque “artistic director,” the crazed alcoholic imp Ivan Martin Jirous, and eventually replaced its English-language repertoire with a bunch of Czech originals derived from the poetry of various banned authors. The songs weren’t political in any conventional sense, but when the state dictates culture, all unapproved acts become political, like it or not.
The actual Velvet Underground back in the United States was being used as a cautionary tale for parents about their drug-addicted teens. “The light show, the intensity of the sound, the wild dress and appearance of the musicians has turned many adults away from listening to the lyrics,” the Utah Deseret News quoted one cultawareness seminar leader as saying in 1974. “But if heeded, the words vividly convey a message of confusion, searching, longing, destruction, and morbidity.” At the same time, the band’s Czech apprentices were being portrayed on propagandistic communist television shows as dangerously nihilistic longhairs who might just convince wayward teens to hijack an airplane. Forced underground by the censors, the Plastics and their followers christened their own artistic movement as “the underground” (in English), or druhá kultura (“second culture”). It was alternative before there was Alternative. As Hlavsa would tell an interviewer in 1997, “Our community, which was, probably imprecisely, referred to as ‘underground,’ was a pocket of normal life. . . . People with feelings similar to ours were coming to our concerts. Their music preferences were not necessarily similar, but music wasn’t as important there as meeting people and being together in a normal environment for a while. I don’t know if anything like that would be possible had the Plastic People of the Universe not existed then.”
By 1976, the regime could stand it no more. At a festival celebrating druhá kultura, four members of the Plastic People, along with many other festival attendees, were arrested on charges of disturbing the peace, no small offense in communist Czechoslovakia. It was a move that would not only backfire on communist authorities but help create source code for citizens of any lousy country to stand up to their oppressors. Dissent itself was about to be democratized, planting seeds that would eventually free hundreds of millions of people. Václav Havel, by this time, was not your typical rock ‘n’ roller. At age thirty-nine, this disheveled, chain-smoking playwright with the awkward stammer, son of one of the richest families in modern Czech history, spent much his time with his regal wife futzing about the garden of their vacation cottage outside of Prague, under the perpetual surveillance of the police. As an enthusiastic participant of the 1960s—“That was an extraordinarily interesting, fertile, and inspiring period, not only here, but in the culture of the entire world,” he told an interviewer in 1975—Havel was a rock guy. He preferred the Stones to the Beatles and took from amplified music “a temperament, a nonconformist state of the spirit, an anti-establishment orientation, an aversion to philistines, and an interest in the wretched and humiliated,” he would later write. This may help explain why, the year before, after more than a half decade of depressed indolence brought on by normalization and the experience of being banned in his own country, Havel had uncorked a piece of literary and political punk rock whose ramifications are still being felt.
In April 1975, Havel sat down and, knowing that he’d likely be imprisoned for his efforts, wrote an open letter to his dictator, Gustáv Husák, explaining in fearless and painstaking detail just why and how totalitarianism was ruining Czechoslovakia. “So far,” Havel scolded Husák, “you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power.”