Rock ‘n’ Roll vs. Tyranny

Source: FrontPage Mag / By Spyridon Mitsotakis /

What the Mullahs’ recent arrest of Iranian heavy metal band “Confess” really means.

An Iranian heavy metal band called Confess was recently arrested by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Members stand accused of “blasphemy” and writing “satanic” lyrics.

Ari Lieberman of Frontpagemag reports:

Two of the band’s leaders, Nikan Siyanor Khosravi, 23 and Khosravi Arash Ilkhani, 21 were arrested by the intelligence wing of Iranian Revolutionary Guard on November 10, 2015 and were held in Iran’s notorious Evin prison in solitary confinement until their release on February 5. They are currently free on $30,000 bond, a fortune in Iran and face the prospect of execution if convicted of the most serious offense.

Tyrants have a real problem with Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’s loud, raw, and rebellious. It is also very effective in delivering a message. For example, Pussy Riot said in 6 sentences something that took me 2,363 words to say:

Patriarch Gundyay believes in Putin
Would be better, the bastard, if he believed in God!
The Virgin’s belt won’t replace political gatherings
The eternal Virgin Mary is with us in our protests!

Virgin birth-Giver of God, drive away Putin!
Drive away Putin, drive away Putin!

Even Hollywood’s favorite tyrant, Fidel Castro, went into a screaming fit on September 29, 1968, about “some groups of teenagers, some numbering as much as a hundred” who “carry around their little battery radios to flashily maintain their leaning toward imperialist propaganda” and do awful things like

destroy pictures of Che … [W]hat did the youths think? That we were living under a bourgeois regime. No, we have not one hair that is liberal. We are revolutionaries. We are socialists. We are collectivists. We are communists. And what did they want to introduce? A revived version of Prague? … The comrade minister of education tried persuasive means with some of those youths–he tried to counsel them well, though counseling alone was not going to be all–and if they do not understand persuasion, then they will have to understand other types of procedures.

(In his book Exposing the Real Che Guevara, Humberto Fontova interviewed three Cubans who in the 1960s were imprisoned for possession of Rock albums, playing Rock music, or listening to American Rock stations on illegal Russian short-wave radios. In a separate article, a former Cuban political prisoner named Charlie Bravo tells Humberto: “When Castro’s goons caught me with a Led Zeppelin record, they led me to a Stairway alright—but at bayonet-point and this stairway hardly led to Heaven, instead it led down into a dark jail cell.”)

The great dissidents of the Soviet era understood the power of truth, as Paul Berman wrote in A Tale of Two Utopias. The Czech freedom-fighter Vaclav Havel, Berman explained, saw that Communist society “was held together by party ideology” and a lot of intimidation, which produced a me-first atmosphere, which led everyone to go along, which made the ideology functional in spite of everything. So he asked himself: What if a handful of people opted out if the me-first quest for small-scale advantage? What if, instead, the handful of people followed their own instincts — the instinct for truthfulness, above all — regardless of consequences? What if these people, by “living in truth,” managed to establish “parallel structures” free of the general alienation, “where a different life can be lived”? Mightn’t the handful of dissidents succeed in revealing the Communist ideology as an empty shell, and mightn’t the zones of freedom inspire other people to go do likewise? Mightn’t a revolution break out after all — though Havel emphasized the “hopelessness of trying to make long-range predictions”?

In unfree societies, rebelliousness lends itself to expressions of truth. Havel found the strongest expression of rebelliousness among the youth culture of the arts. Citing Havel’s memoir, Berman explains:

The first steps in the development of the youth movement were taken in the “little theaters” of Prague. These places had once been lively centers but mostly disappeared in 1948, when the Communists staged their coup. In 1956, though, at the first sign of reform, the theaters revived. The works of absurdist playwrights, eventually including Havel himself, went onstage. And along with those plays came performances by the very first rock and roll band to become well known in Czechoslovakia, the Akord Klub.

When Alexander Dubcek’s semi-liberalization experiment (“Prague Spring”) was instituted, the Rock scene exploded, developing into a kind of anti-Communist Hippie subculture.

It was this culture that scared the Czechoslovak Communists into begging Moscow for help. The infamous request for a Soviet invasion, known euphemistically as the “Letter of Invitation” stated that “right-wing” elements “are provoking an anti-Communist and anti-Soviet psychosis” to the extent that the “Party leadership is no longer able to defend itself successfully against attacks on socialism, and it is unable to organize either ideological or political resistance against the right-wing forces. The very existence of socialism in our country is under threat.”

It was also this culture that Fidel Castro referred to when he declared no tolerance for a “revived version of Prague.” Castro was one of the most vocal supporters of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the crushing of Prague Spring.

In May and June of 1968, Havel was allowed to travel to New York to put on his play The Memorandum. He “hung around the freak centers in the East Village,” the epicenter of New York Rock N Roll, and even visited Columbia University in the midst of its student upheaval. Berman writes:

And having soaked up that springtime 1968 New York radicalism, he went home to Czechoslovakia with a treasured album by the Velvet Underground [identified in a 1990 interview with Musician magazine as VU’s 1968 album “White Light/White Heat”] and a collection of psychedelic posters in his luggage and arrived in time to see the armies of the Warsaw Pact roll across his own country – and to notice something extraordinary. The revisionist Communists in Czechoslovakia, the Marxists with human faces – those people failed to put up any resistance at all. The Soviet Union summoned the revisionists to Moscow to be reprimanded, and they went and bowed their heads. But at least one portion of the ordinary population was not so contrite.

That portion was the rebellious, Rock ‘n’ Roll youth. When the Russian tanks came, they went underground. The most significant of these Rock groups was the Plastic People of the Universe, a group that was significantly influenced (according to Havel’s October 1990 interview with Musician magazine) by the Velvet Underground album Havel brought from New York. They continued to play at underground events while dodging the KGB until they were finally caught in 1976.

It was in defense of this Rock band – Plastic People of the Universe – that Havel formed Charter 77. It’s call for the fundamental human right of individual freedom and integrity became a rally cry for the people of Czechoslovakia, something that the Communists had no answer to. By 1989, with the bankrupting of the Soviet military machine (thanks to Reagan) and the loss of legitimacy in the face of Charter 77, the Communist regime collapsed. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have been free nations ever since.

The tyrants of the world are desperate to suppress Rock ‘n’ Roll, but they can’t do it forever. So, as Neil Young says, “keep on rocking in the Free World.”

Spyridon Mitsotakis is a writer and former research assistant to bestselling author Paul Kengor. He graduated from New York University with a degree in History.

The Vaclav Havel Center