Guitarist and rock legend Lou Reed died at 71 on October 27, 2013. The following is, directly or not so much, inspired and dedicated to his music and the impact it had in my life.
Music is extremely important in my life, and there are some artists that have rocked my world since I can remember. Lou Reed was one of them. I was barely 12 or 13 years old when I went to la casa de mi tía Chela to eat very yummy, hang out with her, and watch some TV. She had cable and we didn't. That's why I enjoyed going there to check out shows I couldn't watch at home because it took a little while for mi mamá to catch up con mi tía. Until then, la televisión at casa de tía Chela exposed me to new images, ideas, and sounds.
The cable company, Multivisión, ran its own commercials and clips that were nothing like the ones on regular TV. One of those clips was 'Rocktrospectiva', the play on words for the Spanish translations of rock and retrospective. This brief videos were an exploration of a year in history woven into the lyrics and rhythms of that year's most representative rock album. I still think the play on words is genius. The 'Rocktrospectiva' for 1973 featured Lou Reed and his song Walk on the Wild Side. I can't remember much of what the clip talked about in terms of history, but I was fascinated by the way the song played a central element in that chronicle. I do remember, though, that the narrator talked about the prostitutes, transsexuals, drugs, and bathroom sex in Reed's song, and how it all clashed with the rising of the new pasteurized sounds of disco music. The former Velvet Underground front man was telling reality. Disco was a euphemism. That 'Rocktrospectiva' clip closed with the narrator's voice telling us that while all that shit was happening in 1973, Lou Reed was inviting us to take a walk in the wild side.
Few years later, for my brother's birthday, I bought a digitally remastered issue of The Velvet Underground's Loaded album without really knowing what I was getting myself into. I wasn't a fan of most of the music my carnalito liked, especially because he was a bit obsessive and played Héroes del Silencio o Santa Sabina from morning till night. It even took me years to digest and actually enjoy Babasónicos, nowadays one of our favorite bands. But when he played his Velvet record I was hooked. There was something in their music that I enjoyed. I would shift from Cypress Hill or Wu-Tang Clan to the sounds of Lou Reed and company.
When I moved to Juárez to go college in El Paso, I found it interesting the entire Columbia House record thing. I looked through their catalog and found the Beastie Boys' Check Your Head record and Lou Reed's Rock 'n' Roll Animal. My re-encounter with Lou wasn't a crazy one, thanks to the three MCs from New York. Think of this, in Mexico City all hip hop and rap records before 2000 were expensive imports. As a brand new boy in the States, I loved the idea of getting that record for relatively cheap. Lou Reed had to wait a couple of years.
Two things happened towards the mid 2000s: I became a regular at La Cucaracha, the first downtown Juárez bar you'd see coming across from El Paso. I also took Dr. Lawrence Johnson's Western Cultural Heritage class at UTEP.
La Cucaracha had one of the best jukeboxes I have ever seen. We would drink there and gladly put money into it, but we also tried to make our dollars go longer than the average three-minute song. One of my usual selections was Heroin, a song that I enjoyed very much and that is over seven minutes in duration. It felt as if I was getting a 2X1 kind of deal almost every night.
During the day, I was very entertained with Dr. J's class. To complement the extensive readings, students in his course had to participate in the online forums he set up along with Dr. Bob Wren. We all were assigned a specific one that was named after a city relevant to the time period and literature to be covered through the semester. In the last one, part three covering modernity, I was in the forum named Prague. Our first assignment there, that worked as an introduction and also as research and writing exercise, we were told to write about Prague in 1968.
My research lead me to many facts. That year the Czech Spring came to an end abruptly when the Soviet tanks took over the city. Thus, a brief period known as 'Communism with a face' came to an end. The cultural and social changes that this new version of the old system attempted to implement were thrown away. But during those few months of change and promise, rock and roll found its way to the turntables of the Czech youth. The Velvet Underground was one of the most popular bands there at the time. They had just launched their first record in the United States and their music was the soundtrack to the change that was shaking and making uncomfortable the rigid establishment.
This single piece of information made me remember 'Rocktrospectiva', even though I didn't try to emulate what they did. I focused more on telling an individual story taking from various figures relevant to the history of that tumultuous period in Czechoslovakia, as the country was known at the time. Just as The Velvet Underground rocked them in those days, their music was playing all along as I started to type my assignment. There is more to my personal story with Lou Reed and his music. But at this time, I write this as a tribute to a man whose creation runs along with mine, touching it subtly and deeply at the same time. Lou, thanks for saving my life with your rock and roll music. Here's what I wrote almost ten years ago while his music was playing.
The Blurring Face
“Sunday morning and I'm falling
I've got a feeling I don't want to know
Early dawning, Sunday morning
It's all the streets you crossed, not so long ago
Watch out, the world's behind you.”
The Velvet Underground
A cold night cold and I walk beneath it childishly amused by the vapor spewing out my nose. October’s first rain filled with puddles Polská Street and I dodge the small lagoons with little, quick leaps here and there. I’ve walked these streets so many times at night and every so often police officers stop me to check what I am up to. They do it because some of them think I might be checking on them as well. My trivial job in the finance ministry makes me a pretty credible source; I could easily go to the command centre and report them for not doing their job, for allowing the transgression of the Federation and off they’d be to watch trees in a desolate post in Slovakia. That’s the State we live in now. Ha, how curious! Not even a year ago we were living under this same system but all the hope that popped up with Dubcek’s reforms seemed to vanish the regime’s pressure.
I was on the rise. Věra Chytilová agreed to shoot one of her movies using one of my scripts, a pretty good excuse to date her. Václav Havel was a regular at my place. Well, a regular at my parents’ place. Poets, musicians, filmmakers, physicists, astronomers, doctors, and many more always stopped by for a visit. The Prague Spring was about to give this new generation what the prior one didn’t have. I just couldn’t imagine that soon I was going to walk into my new home, that two-bedroom house with red a door waiting for me just across Charles Bridge! It was the best of times just waiting for the worse of times to come.
I miss my position as a party cultural promoter. Culture nowadays is whatever keeps the spirit strong and disciplined. Věra is not allowed to make movies anymore. They say her films are too scandalous and provocative. Most, if not all of my friends are gone, and not because they don’t want to be with me anymore. They just can’t come. Many of them were put to work in every petty position the “concerned communists” found available after the fall of the spring movement: scrubbing floors, baking bread, selling newspapers. Some others, the more rebellious ones, were sent to the Terezin Fortress prison out in the Czech lands. I was one of those. It is incredible how a looking at the bleak landscape made us feel inside that cage; something I will never forget. Thankfully for me, it didn't last too long. Other still remain there.
A few days after the troops arrived into Prague, Mikoláš Arnošt Zdeněk, a good friend of mine from my childhood days at Pioneers school, saw me in jail and took me out. We both had learned the communist principles when we were younger. We spent five years hating the petite-bourgeoisie and admiring Stalin and his quinquennial plans. We both believed in everything we were taught, but somehow Zdeněk seemed to always impress teachers and older people with his zealot drive. That's why it was not surprising that he was selected to go and continue his education at Moscow with the Komsomol. He was only 17. We almost lost all contact. Only once did he reply to my letter. In his only correspondence he wrote, “Stalin’s dead, Gustav.” There were not many other details that could tell me what was going through his mind or if he knew anything of what was going on here at home. I really didn't understand what he tried to say with that line. I only found out what he meant after I asked tat’ka (dad) if that was true. He told me to sit at the table and proceeded to explain to me that Stalin, in fact, was cold dead. The bastard was long gone and he kept pushing us! Now Mikoláš was back as some sort of captain. That’s what the troops called him: Stratég or Captain Zdeněk.
“For Soviet’s sake, Gustav!” That’s all Mikoláš said when we met outside the prison gates. A car was parked waiting for me. We hopped in and on our ride back to Prague he made me promise I would behave according the old standards, the ones I thought lifeless back in April.
“Maminka wants you to be all right, Gustav; think of that and you’ll see how easy things will be. Tell tat’ka that I say hello, please. Now, go!” He said as the car stopped in front of the old house. The night had fallen several hours ago and not a single light was on inside. I haven’t seen Stratég Zdeněk since then.
I’m at the intersection of Polská and Slavíkova. As I left behind the luxurious Vinohrady neighborhood, I couldn’t help thinking about what Jan Palach said to me earlier today when we met at Wenceslas Square. It had been months since we last spoke and I almost didn't recognize him. He looked anxious. His eyes, wide open, seemed fixed on some some distant time. He grabbed my by the arm and started talking, staring at me as if he was trying to find some hidden truth in my nightly gaze.
“So it’s true; they let you out, eh?”
“Yes, the did. I was lucky. How you been, Jan?”
“The shame… you too and all the others… remember Budapest? So what? You know what just happened in Mexico, you know, eh? They were just like you and me… … … And here too. The shame, Gustav. And how to make them understand?”
He didn’t hear my question. I was bewildered. "Just like you and me," I repeated to myself as I saw him trudging away. Soon he was just one more in the noon crowd that comes and goes around the German tanks stationed at the plaza. Few days later I found out about Jan on the newspaper. It was horrible. It was the end of all our hope.
The moonlit intersection of Slavíkova, Kubelikova and Jezkova streets tells me I’m rather close to home now. The puddles had begun to ice over. I didn’t realize it was that cold, but it’s been long since I stopped feeling anything in particular. I wish I could see Charles Bridge once more, but this box on Jezkova is always on the wrong side of Prague. I just love seeing the bridge and how the Moldau River gently leaves us behind. But enough of that! Maminka awaits. I love her very much. It’s just that I don’t understand her sometimes. I remember the day I read to her one of Václav Havel’s stories. It was just before the Warsaw troops took over the city. She had barely got a “neat” (that’s the word she actually used) portrait of Comrade Dubcek. There was a certain glint in her eyes every time she looked at it. I saw that same shine come to life as I was reading Václav’s “Garden Party” to her. She laughed vehemently, and at first I didn’t know whether she caught on all of Havel's political satire. When I finished, she asked me to read it one more time. “Don’t ever tell tat’ka you’re reading this to me, eh!” She said before I began for the second time.
That’s all gone now. Though dad told her to put Dubcek’s portrait away, she stills keeps it inside the oven. She doesn’t know I know; it’s all just the same. Suddenly I want to keep on walking but as I walk next to Maminka’s window, her lamp goes on and not only her room but the entire house illuminates.
Jan Palach was a student at Charles University in Prague, protesting the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces as well as the abandonment of democracy by Czechoslovak politicians, doused himself with flammable liquid, set a match to his clothes and set himself aflame on Wenceslas Square near the statue of St. Wenceslas at 3 p.m. Jan Palach died as a result of his burns in the Burn Clinic on Legerova Street in Prague. Student sculptor Olbram Zoubek secretly took a death mask of Palach and the next day brought the cast fastened to a black disk to the Museum ramp, where university students held a funeral ceremony for Palach. From Jan. 16 to Palach's funeral on the 25th, a group of young people held a protest hunger strike at the statue of St. Wenceslas for the fulfillment of his demands. Among them was also the next "torch", Jan Zajic.
Věra Chytilová is Czechoslovakia's first blatantly feminist filmmaker. She was originally aligned with that country's 'New Wave' of filmmakers and is noted for being among the most innovative and radical of them. Before breaking into directing by studying at the Prague Film School, Chytilova studied philosophy and architecture. She also performed assorted jobs including draftswoman, model, and script girl. Both her graduation film, Strop (1961), and her feature debut Pytel blech (1962) were initially banned by authorities for criticizing the role of women in Czech society. Both films were eventually combined and released as U stropu je pytel blech. In these and subsequent films, Chytilova used techniques of cinema verite (often using non-professional actors) to make her stories more realistic. Her post-New Wave films are presented from the feminist view and encourage audience participation to create meaning and truth. To this end, most of her film conclusions are inconclusive. Her feminist films continued to get her in trouble with authorities, and between 1969 and 1975, she was forbidden to work. Finally, in 1975, she wrote a letter to the Czech president explaining her films and the problems she faced in making them, and she was again allowed to make films. Between 1976, and 1989, she made ten short and feature-length movies. — Sandra Brennan
Václav Havel was a Czech writer and dramatist. He was the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic. In the 1960s, Havel made his way in the theater, first as a stagehand, and then becoming resident writer for the Prague "Theatre on the Balustrade" from 1960 to 1969. During this time he continued his education at the Prague Academy of Art. His first play as the dramatic consultant of the theater Na Zábradlí, The Garden Party (1963), was a satire of modern bureaucratic routines. It was a success both at home and abroad. In the footsteps of George Orwell Havel became interested in language - in the play the protagonist acquires an "official" language and rises to bureaucratic fame. Havel was subsequently enrolled at the Academy of Dramatic Arts and he graduated in 1967. A few years earlier he had joined the editorial board of the literary magazine Tvárin, which was soon in conflict with the conservative Writers' Association. The magazine ceased to appear in 1969. In the same year Havel's passport was confiscated because his writings were considered subversive. In the 1960s Havel satirized communist bureaucracy and supported the Prague Spring reform movement of 1968. Havel died on 18 December 2011, aged 75, at his country home in Hrádeček.