Brno, Czech Republic
Making Music as a Political
or how the Velvet Underground Influenced the Velvet Revolution
Dedicated to the Memory of Mejla Hlavsa, the rocker whom I miss so much.
Introduction: Playing abroad
In April 2000 at
the biennial conference of the European Association for American Studies in
Graz, in the workshop on Simulation and Simulacra of/in US culture, I presented
the article entitled Thirteen ways of Looking at America, written in
collaboration with Don Sparling. There we showed the various ways in
which American culture got simulated by the indigenous population of the Czech
lands and how these adopted cultural ways merged with the domestic ones, often
creating curious hybridizations. This paper in a sense represents an extension
of this project; "the fourteenth way of looking at America in the Czech lands."
In it I will discuss some unexpected transatlantic correspondences in the realm
of underground music: how the music of The Velvet Underground - via its
Czech mediators The Plastic People of the Universe - contributed to the
coming into existence of the "Velvet Revolution."
When The Plastic
People (further on: PPU) came to Los Angeles as a part of their 1999
US tour, I happened to be residing in the city as a Fulbright scholar. That
evening turned out to be one of the highlights of my stay. There were several
reasons for this: I had the privilege of meeting many members of the Czech
expatriate community in L.A., who formed most of the relatively modest audience
of about a hundred; I realized that the band, whose members were approaching the
age of fifty (and some of whom were already looking way beyond that age), had
finally learned how to master their instruments (I was not quite sure whether to
rejoice or rather regret it), but, particularly, the concert brought back many
fond memories. That spring evening in the rock club Spaceland on Silver
Lake Boulevard became saturated with nostalgia.
While the legends of
the Prague underground were plugging in their instruments and preparing their
customary performance bottles of Pilsner Beer (two members, much to my dismay,
drank Evian water!), the local announcer started his introductory remarks with a
long and angry verbal attack on the various forms of oppression in the US under
the Clinton administration. His scathing critique of America and its
institutions was finally crowned with a praise of the Czech visitors. As he
raved about their courage with which they have stood for their ideals and rather
than abandon them were even ready to face numerous jail sentences, my mind
started drifting back to the time when I listened to their music on illegally
distributed home-made tapes, when their music was considered a crime and when
just appearing at one of their concerts might have had serious implications for
one's private life or future professional prospects.
remembered yet another concert fourteen years before when Nico, Lou Reed’s "femme fatale,"
came to play in the former Czechoslovakia. The two concerts were nowhere advertised
(they took place in pubs in tiny unknown villages outside the city centers) but nevertheless
crowds of people showed up, driven by the word of mouth. They wanted to pay tribute to a singer
associated with the legendary New York cult formation they all adored. The fact that they got to
see a worn-out junkie past her prime, singing out of tune, hardly mattered. When confronted with
a goddess you neither care about false notes, nor inspect her arms for traces left by the syringe.
As it typically happens in a
police state, nothing remains quite secret, particularly events such as this one. At the end of the
second concert the police interfered. Andy Warhol’s diva was expelled from the country and the
organizers found themselves blacklisted for the rest of the 80s.
A History of Musical Subversion
The story of the Plastic People of the Universe represents but a
chapter (though a very important one) in a long history of how American music (and its
Czech off-shoots) helped the Czechs resist their different totalitarian regimes. To name
just one example, Josef Škvorecký, one of our best living novelists, currently
residing in Toronto, describes in his autobiographical prose the beneficial role jazz
played for his generation under the Nazi occupation. In the story
Eine kleine Jazzmuzik, for instance he pictures vividly how his teenage band
in the small North Bohemian town of Kostelec attempted to bypass strict regulations
imposed by the authorities on any performed music. These regulations, adopted with the
objective of "preserving a true Aryan musical expression," were directed against
"the jewish-bolshevik-plutocratic malaise of Negro jazz." The long list of
prohibited elements included e.g. a 20% limit on swing compositions, a maximum 10% limit
on syncopated measures, no blues, no hot jazz, no drum breaks, no scat, no provocative
standing up while improvising a solo, major keys were generally to be preferred to the
"decadent and sad" minor keys, etc. etc. The main strategy in the Škvorecký
band’s struggle with the local authorities was one of renaming: For the purpose of a
forthcoming performance the band, originally called Paddy’s Dixielanders, adopted
the name Unknown Bandits of Rhythm, and the composition called "By the Swimming
Pool" disguised King Oliver’s "Riverside Blues," "Tiger Rag"
became "Our Bull has gone Wild" and "St. Louis Blues" became the
"A Song from a Small Town in the Middle of Nowhere."
The next musical genre singled
out by the next totalitarian establishment as its archenemy was of course rock’n’roll and then later
rock music. A 40 part documentary produced by the Czech TV in 1998 and a recently published accompanying
volume by Vojtěch Lindaur and Ondřej Konrád give an impressive testimony of a four decade
long struggle between those who liked to play, listen to and further develop this American cultural
import on the one hand and the authorities keen at suppressing it on the other. The 1950s, particularly
their beginning, were naturally a rocker’s (as well as any democrat’s) nightmare but in the more liberal
atmosphere of the 1960s rock music started its secret march through the small clubs of Prague, Brno and
other cities. The vibrant and multifaceted musical scene gave rise to a great number of outstanding
musicians and bands (or vice versa). All this cultural activity was largely invisible to the Communist
authorities, who gradually became blind to the world around them, preoccupied with themselves, exorcising
various demons from their own past, desiring a new round of reform, this time around under the name of
"socialism with a human face." The brief and happy life of this illusion, which produced a period
of salutary neglect, ended a couple of months after the Soviet invasion in August 1968. When "in the
summer of ‘69" the Czechoslovak police – without any Russian assistance – crushed the popular protests marking
the first anniversary of the invasion, killing a couple of people and seriously wounding many more, the iron curtain
was safely back in place – and the dark times for rock ‘n’ roll were back.
The Plastic People of the Universe,
the Prague Dissidents and the Rise of Charter 77
It was in the emotionally
heightened atmosphere in the aftermath of the collapse of the Prague spring that the story of The Plastic
People of the Universe started to unveil itself. They appeared on the scene in February
1969. Just like their Prague predecessors – The Primitives Group – the PPU were
particularly inspired by the US psychedelic music and thus a major stress lay on the visual aspects
of the first performances. They used a variety of lights, fires and fireworks on stage,
they appeared in long white gowns (made from
bed sheets) [ä]
and in their
concerts they included various performance effects. Their chief musical role models were bands
like The Fugs, The Mothers of Invention, the Doors, The Pretty Things and, most
importantly, The Velvet Underground. Right from the beginning they also played their own
compositions, typically by the band’s leading figure Mejla Hlavsa; however, a major share of their
repertoire at that stage came from other sources. Thus at a time when the borders were once again
getting closed, their audiences had the opportunity of getting acquainted with songs like "Heroin,
Venus in Furs or I am Waiting for my Man." The success of their first appearances resulted in
their attaining the professional status, which somewhat predictably got soon revoked in the chilly
climate of the coming "normalization" of the 1970s. (In the political jargon of the day
the word "normalization" meant the reestablishing of the Soviet type Communist
hegemony in all spheres of life).
band, singularly unimpressed by the authorities’ unfriendly actions,
Under the artistic and ideological guidance of the art historian and poet Ivan Martin Jirous, better known under his nickname
Magor (in English "Blockhead"), they staged ambitious projects such as The Universe Symphony and Melody
About Plastic Doctor or The Homage to Andy Warhol, an evening program devoted to the versatile pop artist,
with a lecture by Jirous, "a slide show and a concert with songs borrowed exclusively from the repertoire of
The Velvet Underground." So as to sing the American songs in proper English, they even invited a Canadian
teacher, Paul Wilson, who at that time happened to live in Prague, to join them. Unlike the other members, he was also
free to travel west and thus supply the others with otherwise unavailable novelties by their American role models.
As it usually happens, the musical development
of the group went through a variety of stages. Extensive information about their personal constellations as well as artistic
preoccupations obviously transcends the scope of this paper. I will just mention one. Probably the most notable result of the
PPU’s artistic activity in the first half of the seventies is the illegally produced album Egon Bondy’s Happy Heart’s
Club Banned from 1975, which appeared in the West three years later, accompanied by a thick brochure entitled The Merry
Ghetto. After the PPU met Egon Bondy, another well-known personage of the Prague dissident circles, their mutual
attraction resulted in a collection of probably the best original songs by the band. Their playful, unadorned, free and at
times inarticulate music found a perfect match in his ironic, grotesque lyrics.
The mid-seventies saw the rise of a very strange phenomenon.
The society at large, pushed by an omnipresent fear of repression (and pulled by generous government family subsidies) turned
away from public life, inwards, to the cottages, one’s families and related private past-times. Just as the ordinary people
moved toward the production of one of the mightiest baby-boom generation of the century, the Prague underground scene,
inspired by the carefree attitude of the PPU, started to grow almost at an equal rate.
In the footsteps of the PPU came bands such as DG 307
Plastic I, Plastic II, Plastic III, The New Old Teenagers, The Bedsheet Band. Illegal concerts were organized, usually at the members’ or their friends’ weddings or other celebrations, and the whole scene started to meet at underground festivals of independent culture. The growth of the phenomenon soon alarmed the authorities and so in March ‘76 the arresting began. Jirous and several musicians were indicted, put on trial and received relatively severe sentences: Jirous 18 months, Zajíček, the frontman of DG 307, was sentenced to 12 months, two other players received 9 months in prison. Afterwards the PPU indeed became an underground band.
The vicious frontal assault by the authorities on the alternative musical scene, accompanied by a disgusting all-round media campaign, had an unwanted result of bringing together many critical intellectuals who were up to then more or less dispersed in the aftermath of the institutional purges of the early 1970s. The well-known dissident organization Charter 77 actually sprang from the gatherings of people who showed up to express support to the persecuted musicians. Václav Havel, the current president of the country, became one of the chief organizers of the movement that protested against the underground bands’ unjust persecution as well as one of the first three spokesmen of Charter 77. When Lou Reed came to Prague at the beginning of the 90s, inevitably, like The Rolling Stones before him and Pink Floyd after him, he was granted an audience at the Prague castle. On that occasion Václav Havel said:
"The trial with the band was a strange event. In those days you could enter the court building and take part in the proceedings. The building was overcrowded. You could see a university professor engaged in a friendly conversation with an ex- politbureau member of the Communist party and with a longhaired rock musician, and everywhere around them was the police. That was symbolic for the forthcoming events, for the unique character of Charter 77: it united a number of people from various backgrounds and with different opinions. They were brought together by their resistance toward totalitarianism and their willingness to challenge the system.( …) By this I want to say that underground music in general and the record (V.H. brought home from the USA in 1968) by The Velvet Underground in particular played a major role in the history of our country."
The following years were marked by many more prison terms for Magor the Blockhead and others (including for instance even people who allowed them to play in their own house) but the band kept practicing, recording and playing. Their performances were inevitably reserved for the select few of the Prague dissident community. Several notable projects, such as the composition Eastern Passion Play (1978) took place at Václav Havel’s summer house at Hrádeček. Their music was distributed illegally, copied by enthusiasts and passed on from friend to friend. At the same time much of their production was released abroad, particularly under Paul Wilson’s Canadian label Boží mlýny [The Wheels of Fate]. The collected works of the PPU at the moment encompass 10 CDs.
In the 2nd half of the 80s, in the coming political thaw of Gorbacev’s Perestroika, some band members formed a different group, Půlnoc (The Midnight), which could start performing officially. The PPU split in 1988 to reunite for occasional live concerts, such as for two notable live recordings made in 1992 and 1997, respectively. In 1999 they toured the USA, giving the concert in Los Angeles I have described above. In January 2001 Mejla Hlavsa, their bass guitar player and driving spirit, died of lung cancer, the same disease his dissident friend and president Václav Havel suffered from and survived.
Listening to the PPU’s music today, one keeps wondering what all that fuss actually was about? Why could they not be left alone to run around on the stage in bed-sheets, surrounded by fires with projected slides? What was so wrong with their lyrics, which instead of the Communist rule or the occupation of the country by Soviet troops dealt with such topics such as constipation, sleeplessness, alcoholism and the
vanity of all human aspiration [¯]? Why did it matter to the authorities that their bohemian lives largely consisted of extensive stays in Prague pubs over beer, with an occasional interruption by a happening or concert? The ambition on the part of the former rulers to regulate everything – even the length of a male person’s hair, which too, quickly became a sign of resistance – amazes one by its ultimate shortsighted monstrosity. If there was a major cause for the regime’s eventual downfall, next to the general lack of economic incentives it could grant to its citizens, it was the paranoiac, all devouring desire for control.
Initially, the members of the PPU did not regard themselves as dissidents, just underground musicians.[*] However, when they got persecuted, prosecuted against and harassed, they started to voice unequivocal political messages. For instance in the song "A Hundred Points," having enumerated all the things the Communist establishment was afraid of, they ended up with an exclamation: "Then why should we be afraid of THEM?" The Communist regime, sensing the strong subversive potential of their music, succeeded in isolating the musical underground (just as the dissident circles with which the underground was soon to merge) from the rest of the society. Yet the people who landed in this ghetto became even more free spirited, critical and determined. Thus the brutal pressure on the part of the regime in fact provided further nourishment for its own opposition. Despite constant harassment the dissident movement survived the 1970s, grew in the late 1980s and in 1989 many Charter 77 members were ready to assume government and parliamentary responsibilities.
It is obvious that both the PPU and the American bands they were initially inspired by had an ambition to challenge the prevailing conventions in taste and were running against many mainstream values in their respective societies. Given the differences in their backgrounds and respective contexts one cannot help noticing considerable deviations in topic, tone and aspiration. Drug experience is dealt with but whereas Lou Reed sings poetically about the pleasures (and dangers) of heroin, Egon Bondy’s text "Francovka" describes, in somewhat more naturalistic terms, the reaction of the body after its owner got high on an
alcohol-based muscle pain reliever [¯]. If The Velvet Underground provoked with explorations into sado-masochism, the PPU covered
the unexplored thematic territory of constipation [¯]. If the aspiration of the middle-class anti-establishment figures around Reed was still somehow related to concepts such as success, stardom and money, the working class heroes of the PPU were in it for the sheer fun of it: in the world behind the barbed wire fences there was no money to be made by challenging its dangerous establishment.
Excursions into the realm of the sexual, though not entirely absent from the PPU oeuvre, did not seem to be as dominant as, for instance, in the Fugs’ repertoire. If there had been a single freedom untouched by the Communist regime, it was the freedom to engage in unrestrained heterosexual behavior. Thus unlike in the Protestant United States where the breaking of various sexual taboos meant so much, in Czechoslovakia it only had a relatively modest subversive potential.
A paradoxically much more subversive charge lay in traditional Christianity. The Catholic church, considerably decimated by the authorities’ actions yet still surviving, became a useful ally to everyone who cherished hope in the change of the system. Even a great many non-believers looked toward it with expectations, regarding it an essentially positive institution of decency and humanity. By saying this I do not want to imply that the desire for subversion and provocation was the only reason on the part of the PPU for taking up religious themes. However, their values and artistic choices may have been influenced by the very positive connotation the church was enjoying.
There is a common liking for William Blake but whereas the Fugs chose, for instance, the poem "London", the PPU used "Never Seek To Tell Thy Love" and "The Tyger." The Czech underground appears to be, on the whole, unconcerned with questions of material poverty, although events from their existence as social outcasts are sarcastically thematized.
The most important difference, however, lies in the fact that the PPU, just like generally the Czech writers and other artists during the Communist rule, had the paradoxical privilege of being taken seriously. What would many an American rebel give for such a chance? The word, just as music, mattered a good deal, at that time.
What I admire about both communities of artists – i.e. the Czech and American underground – is something they truly share: joy. Naturally their respective stories have turned into myth: Lou, Nico, Andy, "The Factory", Exploding Plastic (sic) Inevitable, etc. on the American side, Mejla, Bondy, Magor, their first major Concert at ČKD Polovodiče, on the Czech side. But despite all those "romantic" embellishments undoubtedly overshadowing many conflicts, jealousies and frustrations, practically all of the protagonists (both Czech and American) agree: it was a great time for the people involved. As Egon Bondy put it: "The years 72-76 that I had the chance to spend in the proximity of "the Plastics" were truly the best years of my life." This is particularly admirable considering the Czech circumstances of the day: it was a period of sheer desperation and public apathy where the omnipresent grayness of the facades symbolically spoke about the condition of our souls. Amidst that depressing wasteland the PPU and their fans carved out an island of creativity, freedom and fun. You may say a ghetto, but certainly a jolly one.
Epilogue: Playing Abroad II
On the night after his audience at the Prague castle Lou Reed promised to perform in a the rock club Galerie for Václav Havel and a company of about 200 dissident and underground friends. When he entered the club he realized that a band was on stage. They played old songs by The Velvet Underground. It was the band Půlnoc, where many PPU members used to play.
"Those were perfect versions of my songs. I could not believe it. It was something you could not put together over night." recalls Reed. "The drummer says he’s going to faint because of your presence here. By coming here to listen you’ve made their dream come true," said his local guide. "The songs followed one another, each one felt from the heart, including arrangements, with a right intonation and pauses/breaks. It was as if I had entered a time machine and were
listening to myself playing" [¯], Reed remembered. Finally Havel arrived and Reed performed with the band, feeling "as though Moe, John and Sterl were standing behind (him)."
The next transatlantic concert took place at the White House on the occasion of Václav Havel’s visit with president Clinton in September 1998. Mejla Hlavsa from the PPU was in Havel’s entourage and for that particular symbolic performance he joined Lou Reed’s band at a dinner organized by the president. I have often wondered how the anti-establishment bard Reed must have felt about it. Maybe that concert was an apt illustration of the merger of the generation of the sixties’ rebels with today’s establishment as described in Brooks’ entertaining and insightful book
Bobos in Paradise. But more probably he did it for Hlavsa’s and Havel’s sake. So touched was he by his Czech admirers. So much did he himself admire the Czech president. As he said in the concluding lines of his article about his stay in Prague: "I like Václav Havel enormously. And I keep my fingers crossed for him. Like him, I too, want to do the right thing."
n.n. “Czech rock performer, friend of Czech
president, dies at age 49.”