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John Lennon and the Velvet Revolution

John Lennon and the Velvet Revolution

[We’ve already talked about why, for a creative person, travel equals fuel. The next couple of posts offer hard evidence of this, drawn from a recent trip to central Europe.]

When John Lennon was killed on December 8, 1980, Czechoslovakia was still tightly in the grasp of the Soviet empire that had crushed a brief blossoming of freedom—the so-called “Prague Spring”—12 years before. Records by Lennon or his former band the Beatles—like any Western bourgeois influences—were banned by the Communist regime and only available on the black market, bought and sold among local youth in public parks while dodging the local police. These treasures would then be brought home to small apartments and played over and over for groups of friends circled around the stereo like homeless gathered around a campfire, warming their souls with songs that entreated them to imagine strawberry fields forever.

The night after word of Lennon’s death reached Prague, a group of young locals created an impromptu memorial to him by painting his image and lyrics from his songs on an otherwise nondescript blank wall in a small plaza just steps from the world-famous Charles Bridge. They gathered there late into the night mourning Lennon and singing his songs.

Within a day or two, of course, the secret police showed up, roped off the wall, and painted over the graffiti. And then began a game of cat and mouse that would no doubt have elicited a wry grin from master provocateur Lennon, as the next night his image and words reappeared on the wall. The police returned and painted over it again, and again it reappeared, and again, and again. After a few weeks, the authorities finally threw up their hands and left the wall alone. Nine years later, the Soviets departed for good and Czechoslovakia won its freedom.

The John Lennon Wall, as it is known these days, remains a gathering point for young people and musicians in Prague. Today the wall is no longer devoted solely to Lennon—to some extent it has become a whiteboard for a new generation, with a constantly changing mosaic of messages ranging from the profound to the prosaic. Still, stenciled, bespectacled images of Lennon look down approvingly from a place of honor at the top of the wall, and when I visited recently, a scruffy but determined young guitar player stood below serenading the crowd with “Norwegian Wood.”

The backstory of the Lennon Wall was explained to me on a recent trip to the Czech Republic by our guide, a Prague native born in 1977, who later spoke frankly of what was gained and lost when the country’s Communist regime eventually collapsed under pressure from mass popular demonstrations, in 1989’s so-called Velvet Revolution. With freedom came less certainty and more risk. Not everyone embraced the changes, and the Communist Party still wins seats in the Czech Republic’s parliament every year. But, she told us, the Czech people have what they yearned for most under Soviet rule, the most important thing to her as the mother of three young children—they have hopes and dreams for the future.

Complex character that he was, John Lennon is somewhat of a musical Rorshach test; he almost invariably means different things to different people. To a generation of Czechs restless to achieve their freedom, his words, his music, and his passion represented hope. Imagine that; it’s easy if you try.

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