Narodi divadlo (National Theater) is a magnificent monument to Czech history and culture. The theater presents opera, ballet, and drama, serving not only as a testament to Czech tradition, but a symbol of the growth and prosperity of the country’s arts. The National Theater is also where a lot of people go to skateboard.
As a means of jump-starting youth culture in the Czech Republic, the country’s first president, Václav Havel, established the theater as a designated recreation area in the early ‘90s. Frequently, you’ll find skateboarders and BMX bikers showing off for passing pedestrians. It’s peculiar to see amateur Tony Hawks and Dave Mirras pulling flips and spins outside one of the country’s most important cultural institutions.
Admittedly, the Czech Republic is a peculiar country. Shirley Temple served as the U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution, saying it was “the best job I ever had.” President Havel was a lifelong fan of Frank Zappa and, in 1990, he asked the guitarist to serve as a consultant to the government on trade, cultural matters, and tourism. (This, apparently, upset Ambassador Temple.) But he remained dedicated to this culture revival even in practice, riding a Razor scooter around Prague Castle.
But youth culture has always been important, even vital, to the country. This curiosity becomes less surprising if you understand Havel’s history with music, or perhaps even more importantly, Czechoslovakia’s relationship with rock ‘n roll.
Divadlo Minor is a strange venue for a rock concert, but the perfect stage for the precursor to the Prague Writers’ Festival. The decor of the theater–walls featuring bright colors and warped cartoon animals–brings to mind the children’s section of Ikea on acid. At the coat check, I snag a press release announcing that next summer’s Writers’ Festival marks the 40th anniversary of Prague Spring. This year’s theme is “Laughter and Forgetting,” a clear reference to a Milan Kundera novel. American authors Margaret Atwood and Paul Auster are set to appear in June.
All things considered, this is tonight’s venue for former Czechoslovakia’s most significant rock ‘n roll band, and I’m surprised that I’m able to get a ticket at the door. I find my seat in the fifth row of an intimate black box that seats a maximum of 206 people and wait for the Plastic People of the Universe to take the stage.
Shortly after the end of World War II, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, with Soviet support, took over the government in February 1948, ushering in forty years of totalitarianism. The Communist regime took over privately-owned businesses and property, removed the Catholic Church (the majority faith until the invasion), and suppressed all forms of art deemed threatening to the party.
As a response, many playwrights, filmmakers, and musicians began to create works with hidden anti-Communist morals. Most famous for this practice was FAMU (Filmová a Televizní Fakulta Akademie Múzických Umění v Praze), the film school that the soviets revamped to produce propaganda but instead created movies with Aesopian commentary criticizing the regime. Unfortunately, these hints weren’t subtle enough, and almost all of the FAMU works were locked away in a vault. To this day, they are highly regarded as brilliant works of art.
But on the whole, the humanities were subdued during this period.
Censorship of the press and arts was lifted when Alexander Dubček came to power in 1968, inevitably leading to a revival in the anti-Soviet movement. In April, Dubcek, against the advice of his party, adopted a program guaranteeing basic rights that were previously suppressed, such as freedom of speech, travel, assembly, and religion. This event would come to be known as Prague Spring.
Unfortunately, these new freedoms threatened the regimes of surrounding countries in the Warsaw Pact. As a response, 175,000 troops–23 divisions of the Soviet Army–invaded Czechoslovakia in late August. Within three days, Dubček was deposed, and the country underwent a process of “normalization,” a return to the Party’s totalitarian ideals. The government was purged of all reformist elements, and the freedoms that Dubček had secured were again taken away.
Normalization took aim at a special target: rock ‘n roll. To the Communist Party, rock ‘n roll was a mouthpiece for the dangerous influence of Western ideals. Almost all of Prague’s music clubs were closed down, and bands were forced to change their sound and appearance.
This is when the Plastic People of the Universe distinguished themselves as the most important rock ‘n roll band in Czechoslovakia (and perhaps even the world). The Plastics embodied the nonconformist spirit of Prague’s underground culture, a refutation of the communist regime’s censorship. And all they wanted to do was write music.
Ed Sanders is opening for the Plastic People. He’s one of the founding members of the Fugs, an American socio-politically-conscious folk rock band from the ’60s. Sanders looks the way I wish my high school science teachers looked–like a beatnik Albert Einstein in a black velvet blazer. Sanders sings a few songs and reads a few poems. His background music switches between a three-string guitar, a little box of pre-programmed MIDI loops, and his Powerbook.
Sanders announces that he is “the only person from the beatnik generation that can yodel.” He proves it by singing “Surveillance Government Yodel.”
The Plastics’ psychedelic rock draws influences from the Velvet Underground, whose songs comprise most of their early repertoire [i] and Frank Zappa’s Mother of Invention, from whom the group took their name, from the song “Plastic People.” One can argue that the Plastic People sound like imitators,with added elements of acid and free jazz, but when they refused to comply with new music regulations, the government revoked the band’s professional license. This restriction prohibited the band from staging paid performances, and mandated that they return their musical equipment to the state.
The Plastic People of the Universe continued to perform as amateurs anyway, with cheap used instruments and homespun amplifiers made from old transistor radios. Still, it wasn’t enough to appease the government, and the Plastics were banned from Prague in June of 1972, after a downtown concert ended in a fight between militiamen and drunken fans.
The band carried performing in the Bohemian countryside in secret. They played in barns and farmhouses in the forest, the locations of which disclosed solely by word of mouth. Often, the police would show up and cancel the performance before it started. On one such occasion in March of 1974, the Plastic People arrived at their undisclosed location only to find the authorities waiting for them. Thousands of fans showed up, and hundreds were beaten by the police. A handful of students were arrested, and many others, whose names were collected by authorities, were expelled from school. The incident became known as the Češke Budovice Massacre.
Two years later, after the Plastic People organized a music festival for underground Czech musicians, members of the band were arrested. This leads us back to Václav Havel, who, in response to the wrongful imprisonment of the band, penned a manifesto called Charter 77 with a diverse group of Czech artists. This document would become an internationally-recognized defense of civic rights, and would land Havel in prison. Chapter 77 didn’t criticize the regime directly, but it did recognize the defense of human rights in light of agreements Czechoslovakia had signed in previous years (specifically the Final Act of the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, part of the Helsinki Accords). Charter 77 would be one of the harbingers of the Velvet Revolution twelve years later.
Many rock bands sing about revolutions and change, but few ever have a direct hand in such matters. The Plastic People openly defied the Communist Party in the name of art. An article written by Joseph Yanosik from online publication Perfect Sound Forever expresses the romantic importance of the band to Czechoslovakian development:
The amazing history of the Plastic People is so crucially intertwined with the history of Czechoslovakia that one can not fully understand the history of that country without knowing the history of the band, and vice versa. No other rock band has had to put up with the abuse and the obstacles that the Plastics did during their lifetime. Yet they did not plan to risk their lives for their music. As Hlavsa said, they were “dissidents against their will.” Eventually, however, they came to the realization that what they were doing was historically important and their very existence through the hard times their country was experiencing was a powerful symbol of freedom to the younger generation of Czechs [ii].
Sanders finishes his set off with a William Blake poem, backed by his MIDI loops, which ends with a ridiculously tacky though endearing ’80s-style guitar solo. Then he introduces the Plastic People of the Universe–now an eight-piece, including a saxophonist and a violinist. The band doesn’t exactly look like revolutionaries, instead coming across as the kind of stereotypically aged hippies you might find in Portland. They play half a dozen Fugs songs with Sanders before he leaves them to perform their own material.
The Plastics sounds great, particularly for a group that’s historically been recognized for their national symbolism rather than their music. I’m not too familiar with their material, but it hardly matters when the majority of the songs are improvisational psychedelic jam sessions. Even though the band is probably past their prime, there’s still a rebellious nature about their performance. The Plastic People of the Universe are a little too old to be playing shows as frequently as they do (and they’re certainly not doing it for the money). Perhaps it’s this same perseverance and love of music that kept them going when the Communist Party made their lives as difficult as possible.
Nowhere else in the world will you find an artist running the country.
As a playwright turned activist when the Communists banned him from the theater, Havel’s story is extraordinary itself. I recently finished his memoir, To the Castle and Back, translated into English by former Plastic People vocalist Paul Wilson. Along with Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I consider Havel’s book essential reading before visiting the Czech Republic. In the book, Havel explains that he never aspired to be a politician, let alone president:
I hadn’t prepared myself for a presidential role from my schooldays the way American presidents do… In the end what probably won me over was the appeal to my sense of responsibility. You can’t spend your whole life criticizing something and then, when you have the chance to do it better, refuse to go near it.
Like the Plastic People, Havel accidentally became one of the most important figures in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic.
Václav Havel resigned from his presidency in 2003 for health reasons. His successor and former rival [iii] was Václav Klaus, a leader who in many ways is the antithesis of Havel: a conservative born politician.
The Plastic People of the Universe recently gained the attention of British audiences after the 2006 premiere of Tom Stoppard’s conversational play, the aptly-titled Rock ‘n’ Roll, which details the band’s influence during the twenty-year gap between Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution. A Czech translation of Rock ‘n’ Roll premiered at the National Theater last February, featuring an opening performance by the Plastics. The play is a testament to their influence, a recognition of the band’s importance to a country whose development of the humanities was suppressed for 50 years.
Recently though, skateboarding and biking have been banned from the courtyard outside the National Theater. Freshly painted symbols by the theater steps pronounce the newly-established illegality of these youth activities. Unlike the Plastic People, Havel’s unconventional influence is quickly unraveling. As the Czech Republic’s economy continues its transition–a political and economic “shock therapy” of privatization–the rebellious ethos of the Velvet Revolution fades away.
It’s a bit tragic, thinking back on time when music truly made a difference.
After the Plastics end their set, Ed Sanders reappears onstage for the finale. He performs a song he wrote, an homage to the spring of 1968 regarding the short-lived season when Dubček tried to free the arts of Czechoslovakia. It’s funny that it would instead be the arts that freed the country.
“Long live the future, long live freedom, long live rock ‘n roll,” Sanders sings, “long live the Beatles, long live poetry, long live Kafka’s soul.”
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