Václav Havel & Lou Reed

In conversation at Prague's Švandovo Divadlo theatre, January 10th, 2005

They're an odd couple.

The retired Czech politician who once led the Velvet Revolution and the aging rock star who once led the Velvet Underground are in Prague for a press conference and, more importantly, an onstage "conversation" at the Švandovo Divadlo theatre.

A broad spectrum of journalists and photographers, ranging from hardcore hacks to the hip and the hairy, has turned out for the press conference, scheduled for 11am in the Opal and Topaz rooms of Andel's Hotel.

Time drags on, and it's 11:28 before Reed and Havel finally appear - first thing you learn is that you always gotta wait.

There's a clamor of oddly hushed photographers, during which Reed does his obligatory rock star bit - telling one female snapper that she's very beautiful - then the press conference begins.

The topic jumps from Havel's plays and Reed's music to contemporary politics and the Velvet Revolution but the only genuinely interesting revelation is that Reed does two hours of t'ai chi every day.

Most of questions are directed at Reed, whose prickly answers justify his pre-match billing as an awkward interviewee. Havel, meanwhile, says very little. It doesn't bode well.

Answering the press conference's final question, Reed says that, if he'd lived under communism, he'd "probably be Kafka", unaware, perhaps, that Franz Kafka never lived under communism.

Despite this unpromising start, the evening goes well.

It's one of those events that sells out before anybody's even heard about it and Czech celebrities are out in force. I spot Monkey Business frontman Roman Holý (forced to stand), contemporary artist Jiří David, and Mrs. H herself, Dagmar Havlová.

The Plastic People of the Universe kick things off, 23 minutes late, then moderator Daniel Hrbek introduces his two main guests, who receive a standing ovation. Reed has changed into leather trousers for the occasion, while Havel walks with a noticeable limp.

Havel recalls his first exposure to the Velvet Underground, during a trip to New York in the late 60s, when a Czech-American friend told him he "must buy this record" - the Velvets' third album, with the black-and-white cover.

The two then go on to recount their nervousness at their first meeting, at Prague Castle in 1990.

"It's always dangerous to meet someone you admire," says Reed. "I had no idea what to expect."

Havel, meanwhile, was slightly in awe of Reed - "Lou was the first to come to my office from the heaven of stars. No one so famous had come to Czechoslovakia before" - and was so embarrassed by Prague Castle's ugly communist-era furnishings that he's since shown Reed photos of the changes he made.

By his own standards, Reed is on a charm offensive, and his cantankerousness only resurfaces when he bats away one of Hrbek's persistent and increasingly baffling questions about Andy Warhol.

Even in translation, Havel is the more articulate of the two.

Asked if he's influenced anyone, Reed's modesty comes across as ignorance: "I don't have a clue. I don't pay attention to it. Everybody influences everybody else."

Havel, on the other hand, uses the question to give a neat summary of his priorities: "I don't have this sticky feeling that maybe I betrayed myself. Whether I influenced people is a secondary issue."

Havel and Reed talk about early influences and, with some embarrassment, their early work. Havel says he is "ashamed" when he reads his early poems, while Reed dismisses his first efforts at songwriting as "standard rock 'n' roll love songs - I love you, you love me, no you don't love me anymore."

Unsurprisingly, Reed is most comfortable talking about music.

"I still like things I liked when I was 14, and anything that sounds like it," he admits. "The right song strikes me emotionally, and it surprises me."

Recent examples include the Ray Charles songs What'd I Say and (Night Time Is) The Right Time, and, less expectedly, music by Mary Chapin Carpenter and The Cranberries.

"I gave up trying to figure it out," he adds. "There's just this thing in rock music that does that to me."

The first half ends with Havel discussing the agony of writing - "if I'm writing a play … I'm never happy with it, but I know there's a moment where I have to say 'enough'" - and the joy of cooking - "I don't really follow recipes from cookbooks - it's too mechanical. Risk is a part of the creation."

The second half begins with the Velvet Underground Revival band's exact replicas of What Goes On and All Tomorrow's Parties. (Reed is amazed by the accuracy of the All Tomorrow's Parties guitar solo.)

Reed and Havel go on to discuss the complications surrounding Reed's 1998 performance at a White House State Dinner honoring Havel, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Reed recalls the interference he faced from White House Staff. "What I remember is doing a soundcheck and somebody said you have to play softly. [I said,] 'we can't play softly - this is my idea of softly.'"

The White House also wanted to clear Reed's lyrics beforehand. "They had wanted copies of the lyrics - depending on us to send them."

Despite their different backgrounds, Reed's and Havel's friendship seems like a strong one. They only disagree once all evening, over Michael Jackson.

Havel had invited Jackson to Prague Castle in 1996, because he was interested in the pop star as a "civilization phenomenon," but found him "disappointing."

Rather than discuss his own cultural significance, says Havel, Jackson wanted to "go to the third courtyard and say hello to the children."

Reed, irritated by the audience's laughter, defends Jackson. "He's a great singer, a great dancer, then there's all this other stuff and people don't pay attention."

"I recognize his skills, but I'm not a fan," Havel responds rather sniffily.

"He wasn't in my castle," Reed shoots back, getting a big laugh.

Later, Hrbek invites his two guests to ask each other a question.

Havel asks Reed if he'd ever consider running for office.

"I lack certain people skills, but I have good instincts," Reed replies. "I can think of people who could do a better job - I might bring you in!"

Reed's answer strikes a chord with Havel: "I wanted to be the kingmaker not the king, and you know what happened."

Reed's question for Havel is more specific - when he writes, does he use longhand, a typewriter or a computer?

Havel, it turns out, has given up longhand but is terrified of his new PC, which is "full of little characters that stick their tongue out at me, and if you hit the wrong button it plays the anthem of Panama!"

Before taking the stage to play (fairly sloppy) versions of Perfect Day, Sweet Jane (with the Velvet Underground Revival), and Dirty Boulevard, Reed advises Havel to buy an Apple Mac, and to invest in a back-up program called Retrospect.

It's an unusual end to an unusual night.

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