Monday, 15 December 2014

Paddy and the velvet revolution

           We were lost – gloriously lost in the enveloping darkness – at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere with no signpost. We had crossed into Czechoslovakia from East Germany some hours earlier and were trying to reach Prague before the following afternoon when we were scheduled to play at a boys club.

            We were a band of fractious New York improvisational musicians that raised hell behind a poet named Copernicus whose philosophy was:  We do not exist.

            For once he appeared to be on the mark as our driver pored over his maps unable to nail down our location.

            “I could use a drink,” muttered Thomas Hamlin, later to become drummer of Black 47.

            It was then I spotted a flicker of light in the distance. It could have been Dracula luring us to a necking session but the thirst was upon us.

            To our amazement we stumbled into a candlelit tavern occupied by a group of surly peasants not one of whom turned a head to look at us in our black leather New York splendor.

            Not until I flashed a $20 bill and was almost knocked down such was the stampede to fulfill our every desire. When it was established that our only wish was for a couple of cases of beer, these were carried out to the van and we were dispatched without delay on the correct road to Prague.

            It was past midnight when we reached Wenceslas Square and met the very anxious looking dissidents who were promoting our show. In broken, but very familiarly accented, English they informed us that the gig had been transferred to the National Ice Hockey Stadium and we would be headlining.

            It was June 1989 and the dissidents had decided to challenge the government by running an unauthorized rock concert. In order to hire the stadium, however, they needed “an international act of considerable cultural and popular appeal.”  Though we emphasized that we had never played to more than 50 people and had yet to receive a kind review we were shushed into silence.

            The next day we could barely get near the stadium such was the crowd outside jostling for tickets. We had apparently attained star status overnight. It didn’t hurt that the best bands in Czechoslovakia, including members of the banned, but internationally renowned, Plastic People of the Universe, were on the same bill.

            The scene backstage was chaotic but it was then I identified the familiar Czech-English accent. It was Lou Reed’s “take ze walk on ze wild side,” since hey had all learned their English from Velvet Underground records.

            After a couple of slugs of Armenian brandy I was beginning to enjoy my elevation to superstardom until a phalanx of the Czech State Militia marched to the top rows of the stadium and aimed their weapons at the stage.

            When I notified the chief dissident, he smiled conspiratorially and replied in his best Lou Reed, “Zey will not kill all of us.”

            “Yeah, right,” I replied in some dudgeon, “but you won’t be a sitting duck on stage.” 

            He appeared to find the idea of a duck on stage the height of hilarious originality; apparently Lou had never mentioned such a sighting in a Velvet Underground song. He did however give me another bottle of Armenia’s best and on stage we trooped to a rapturous welcome.

            It was one of those nights a musician dreams about. Everything went perfectly from the moment Copernicus screamed to the 12,000 people, “I have always been in trouble with the authorities” and flung a bible down on the stage. Every note, tone and movement gelled; the audience cheered us from start to finish.

            We were the kings of Prague that night, feted wherever we went. Our dissident friends told us we’d helped light a spark. Five months later the Velvet (Underground) Revolution swept away the communist regime and dissident hero Vaclav Havel became president.

            I came home a changed man. I had regained faith that music could make a difference. A couple of months later I met Chris Byrne and we formed Black 47.

            Sometimes you have to be really lost before you learn to find your way.

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