Ivan Král, a celebrated Prague-born musician, composer and producer who immigrated to the United States in the mid-1960s, died on Sunday at the age of 71. Early in his storied career, he played with Patti Smith, with whom he co-wrote ‘Dancing Barefoot’, named among the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine. Král also wrote for rock icons such as Iggy Pop, while David Bowie and bands such as U2 and Pearl Jam have covered his songs.
In the summer of 1966, the teenage Ivan Král moved to New York with his mother and older brother to join his father, who had been working at the United Nations headquarters as a journalist and translator for several years.
A diehard rock music fan who wrote his first song when he was five, Král recalled in a 2006 Radio Prague interview that he steered clear of hippies – and especially the drugs – so pervasive during the Summer of Love and among the New York punk/glam rock scene.
“It was frightening to me... All love and Woodstock, I really wanted to stay away from it and finish my studies. I was more into the Rolling Stones and Little Richard than the peace movement, flower children.
“Except there was one frightening moment. Of course, the Vietnam War was devastating, and I was recruited. I got a [draft pick] number to go to Vietnam in my sophomore year. Luckily, I wasn’t to be trusted yet, because I wasn’t a citizen. But I was considered as a translator from Russian to English.”
“I used to tell Iggy, once you behave and we’re really doing proper music, then I’d love to play behind you.”
Ivan Král earned a degree in French literature before forming the glam rock band Luger. In the early ‘70s, he played backup for an early formation of Blondie, which went on to sell millions of albums, and for pop idol Shaun Cassidy.
But it was with the Patti Smith Group that he would find fame, tour the world – and play on some of the greatest rock recordings ever made. Král said he had been drawn to Smith in part because of their shared love for French Symbolist poets.
“I just found Patti interesting, because I studied Verlaine and Baudelaire and fell in love with them before she did. And when I saw her, the androgynous...I thought, my God, there's someone original who could take it somewhere else.”
Their debut album Horses, produced by Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale, is still regarded as among the greatest albums of all time.
“It seemed like a magical, dreamy kind of time...I didn’t know who John Cale was, I didn’t know the Velvet Underground, though I’d heard of Andy Warhol [who briefly managed that band].
“The whole scene around those people, like Patti Smith and [her flatmate and Horses cover photo taker Robert] Maplethorpe... I wanted to stay away from, I was scared that all they do is party, take drugs and get wasted. And that’s not the way I was brought up.”
After the Patti Smith Group broke up, Král flew directly to Rockfield Studios in Wales to work with Iggy Pop, on his album Soldier. He co-wrote and played guitar on the original tracks of Pop’s follow-up record, Party, including the single ‘Bang Bang’, later covered by David Bowie.
“Iggy and I have known each other a long time, since before I joined Patti Smith (...) Coming from a proper family, I tried to avoid [the drug scene]. And I used to tell Jim Osterberg – that’s Iggy – once you behave and we’re really doing proper music, then I’d love to play behind you.”
“I was very fortunate that when Patti decided to quit, in Italy, a friend of mine called Iggy up and he needed a guitar player – that’s how we how hooked up. It was one of the fondest times on stage for me.”
Apart from working with international icons like Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, after the Velvet Revolution, Ivan Král produced the band Lucie and Iva Bittová, among other top Czech recording artists. He will be remembered as among the most influential rock musicians of the 20th century.