HAVEL CONVERSATION: Lou Reed, Vaclav Havel, and the Velvet Revolution

New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Bruno Walter Auditorium
111 Amsterdam Ave, New York
Wednesday, November 16, 2022, 6 – 7:30 pm

In the early 1990s, Václav Havel became the first president of the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution toppled the Communist system. Soon after, Havel invited Lou Reed to visit the newly formed country—Reed visited, but was hesitant to perform there. Havel convinced him to do so, explaining that he wouldn’t have become democratically-elected president without him or his music. The Velvet Underground and its noncomformist ideology inspired Czech bands like Plastic People, who were jailed for playing the same music Reed freely performed in the US.

Václav Havel and Lou Reed. Photo Credit: Ondrej Nemec

In this celebration of that moment, Ivan Bierhanzl and Paul Wilson will talk about the risks and pleasures playing for the Plastic People at different stages of the band’s more than 50-year long career. They will shed light on this amazing story of how the self-confessed non-musical Václav Havel became the rock’n’roll president of his country and friends with Lou Reed, Frank Zappa, Joan Baez, the Rolling Stones and others. The panelists will be joined by Sylvia Reed who traveled with Lou to Prague and witnessed his encounters with Vaclav Havel. Rare archive footage from the 1970s and 1990s will also be shown.

Ivan Bierhanzl

At the turn of the 70’s and 80’s, musician and producer Ivan Bierhanzl played with Czech underground bands such as Dg307 and The Plastic People of the Universe. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989 he devoted himself to concert music and producer work. So far he has recorded and released over 60 music albums including several DVDs. He accompanied Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders on bass during one of their last visits to Prague. With the renewed PPU line-up, he performed at Joe’s Pub and Knitting Factory. However, his name is mainly associated with the Agon Orchestra, an ensemble for contemporary music, with which he has performed at a number of international festivals including Bang On A Can at the Lincoln Center and Next Wave at BAM.

In 2012 he performed with Ivan Král, Zuzana Stivínová, Suzanne Vega, Ed Sanders and Lou Reed at the “Love Is Here To Stay” concert, dedicated to the memory of Václav Havel at the Bohemian National Hall in the Upper East Side. As the owner of the ARIS studio (Analog Remaster Instant Studio), he has an extensive audio and video archive documenting the Czech underground music movement before1989.

Paul Wilson. Photo Credit: Henry Wilson

Paul Wilson was born and educated in Canada and England, but his life took a dramatic turn when he went to Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1967 to teach English. A year after he arrived, Warsaw Pact troops invaded the country to crush the so-called Prague Spring. Wilson stayed on, and in 1970, was invited to join The Plastic People of the Universe, a rock band founded after the invasion, but now faced with liquidation. Under the guidance of Ivan (Magor) Jirous, the band regrouped and developed a repertoire consisting mostly of cover versions of songs by two legendary New York bands, The Velvet Underground and The Fugs. Wilson transcribed their lyrics from an old Tesla monophonic tape recorder, and contributed his limited skills as a rhythm guitarist and singer to the band’s emerging “sound.” He played with them until 1973, when the band developed a new repertoire, based on original settings of the poetry of the Czech underground poet, Egon Bondy, and he was able to “retire.”

Wilson was expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1977 for his association with the band, and went on to form, with Ivan Hartel, a record company, Boží Mlýn, that put out and distributed music by The Plastic People and other musicians in the Czech underground such as Charlie Soukup and Svatopluk Karásek. Back in Canada, he became involved with the Punk/New Wave scene in Toronto, profiling local bands and reviewing indie records for the Toronto music magazine Shades. Wilson has also translated novels by Josef Škvorecký, Ivan Klíma, and Bohumil Hrabal, and essays, speeches, and plays by Václav Havel. He’s been a radio producer, a magazine editor, and an essayist. His work has appeared in many publications, including Index on Censorship, Musician Magazine, The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and The Walrus.

Sylvia Reed. Photo Credit: Brenda Zlamany

Sylvia Reed is the second of three wives of the late recording artist, songwriter and musician Lou Reed. She was integral to his life and work during the many years they spent together. Sylvia became the manager of Lou’s career (at his behest) as well as collaborating with him in many aspects of the creative work during these years. Some key areas were Album cover Design, Set Design, and Lighting Design for performances and films during what was arguably the most prolific period of Lou Reed’s art and life. She also brought musicians such as Robert Quine and Michael Rathke to work with Lou that changed the direction of his work at key moments.

Sylvia’s impact included album cover design for several albums including “The Blue Mask”. “Songs For Drella”, ( the album Lou Reed and John Cale created as a tribute to Andy Warhol ) resulted in a Grammy nomination for the album artwork, co-designed by Sylvia Reed and Tom Recchion. She worked closely with art directors Spencer Drate and Judith Salavetz on album artwork/packaging for the “New York” album, artwork and Special Package for “Magic and Loss” and the Velvet Underground Reunion performance album (“Live MCMXCIII”). Sylvia was Co-Executive Producer of the first “Sweet Relief” album, a benefit album featuring various artists (including Lou Reed, Pearl Jam, Jayhawks, Soul Asylum among others) performing the work of Victoria Williams, to assist payment of medical bills related to Victoria’s MS. Sylvia also designed the album artwork for “Sweet Relief” and the cover of an EP for Moe Tucker ,”I Spent a Week There the Other Night”. Sylvia was with Lou Reed during his first trip to Prague and was in the room during his notable interview with Vaclav Havel. Sylvia Reed lives in New York and is currently working on a book about her life with Lou.

While tickets to all events at the Library for the Performing Arts are free, seating is granted on a first come first serve basis. Five minutes before showtime, seats will be given out to people on the wait list regardless of reservation status.

The Library encourages mask wearing in all public spaces.

Please click here to register.

Assistive Listening and ASL
ASL interpretation and real-time (CART) captioning available upon request. Please submit your request at least two weeks in advance by emailing accessibility@nypl.org.

This event is organized by the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation and the Consulate General of the Czech Republic in New York, supported by the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association and hosted by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Concert to honor Lou Reed, Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution will take place at the Bohemian National Hall, November 17, 2022. Details TBA.