Plastic People of the Universe

at Empty Bottle, March 5

By Monica Kendrick

Some concerts, no matter how phenomenal, are just concerts; others are events. The circumstances that determine which are which very often aren’t purely about music–let the aesthetes cry foul. The Plastic People of the Universe’s first full-fledged reunion tour, also their first tour of the United States, is not just another batch of old farts trying to recapture their glory days, because they spent their “glory days” in communist Czechoslovakia as an officially banned band, often harassed, spied upon, and jailed, their performances shut down and their equipment confiscated. They kept playing anyway, recording secretly until eventually the regime crumbled under its own bureaucratic weight and a friend of the band’s, Vaclav Havel, was elected president. Even if their music were awful–which it generally isn’t–the Plastic People would be worth seeing and hearing in the same way that footage of revolutions and riots is.

Nothing warms the cockles of an American heart like a good story about scruffy but noble rebels duking it out for their freedom against an evil empire. In fact, the story of the Plastic People of the Universe and their circle of ultimately successful dissident artist friends would make a great movie. There are so many great climactic scenes to choose from: the moment in 1977 when the imprisonment of manager Ivan Jirous and saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec for “disturbing the peace” inspired the drafting of Charter 77, a human-rights manifesto by the opposition that would peacefully take over in 1989; the inauguration of Havel as president; the band’s first show in 16 years, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Charter 77; the 1998 concert in New York, attended by longtime Plastic heroes Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs; perhaps even bassist and de facto bandleader Milan Hlavsa’s 1998 gig at the White House, where at Havel’s request he cheerfully accepted the onus of backing Lou Reed. One only regrets that the Plastic People’s other hero, Frank Zappa, departed too soon to see Tipper Gore and the First Fleetwood Mac Fans politely applaud a man whose most famous song is about transvestites, prostitutes, and speed freaks. It brings a tear to the eye, even as the gorge rises.

Yes, this movie would be wildly popular in America, because we want very badly to believe that rock ‘n’ roll’s rebelliousness is more than a youthful phase or a marketing convention–despite all the evidence to the contrary. And in America, what little evidence does support this cherished notion–the proliferation of various explicitly or implicitly rebellious forms in small “scenes”–is either crudely repressed (ask Jello Biafra or John Sinclair) or, more commonly these days, immediately co-opted. Even the Plastic People’s weathered, been-through-hell aging-radical looks can be respun as romantic now that their revolution has safely succeeded.

Ironically, when the Plastic People were formed by 17-year-old Hlavsa in 1968, just after the Soviet invasion, their intention was not to be radical poster children. Hlavsa and his cohorts certainly had the literary and art-rock intentions and pretensions of his heroes the Mothers, the Velvets, the Fugs, and the Doors. Their first recording, a concert album called Muz bez usi (“Man With No Ears”), featured poems by Blake and Shakespeare set to music as well as the epic “The Universe Symphony and Melody About the Plastic Doctor,” a sort of manifesto/rock opera/astrological fantasia in which the Beatles and Kinks and Stones are dissed, Zappa is hailed as “the rich spirit of the underground,” fish and birds are burning on Mars, and Pluto’s home to a lake of heroin. Someone willing to really stretch it could of course find some drug-damaged political allegories here, but “The Times They Are a-Changin'” it ain’t. The Plastic People’s first studio album, Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned (sneaked out of the country on bootleg cassettes, released in France without the band’s knowledge in 1978, and now finally available in the U.S.), featured lyrics by the dissident poet Egon Bondy; here one doesn’t have to dig nearly as deep for the allegories, but on the surface the words are largely about drinking, puking, shitting, pill popping, and insomnia. They’re set to music that would sound more like the first two Nektar albums than anything else, if Nektar had a grimmer wit, a weakness for eastern European folk melodies, and an unshakable Velvet Underground fixation.

In their particular place and time, it probably wouldn’t have mattered what the Plastic People played–any band with a decadent longhaired look implied a Western-influenced “counterrevolutionary” affiliation. But to American ears, what they did play is hardly the stuff of revolution. Most American music of political intent has deliberately been kept as simple as possible, lest any innovation or overly creative turn of phrase obscure the message or, worse, alienate the theoretical mass called “the people.” In some circles, like folk or hardcore, it’s virtually impossible to introduce a new instrument or even a new chord change without being accused of some ill-defined elitism. But in Europe, and especially in cosmopolitan centers like Prague, where modernism has flourished since before World War I, it’s long been held that radical content requires radical form–that a complete restructuring of the thought process is a necessary factor in a restructuring of society. The Zappa influence made sense in this context: behind the iron curtain, at the least Zappa’s attempt to fuse the “high art” of avant-garde music with the ultimate “low art” of toilet jokes functioned as an inspired raspberry at ennobling socialist realism.

In an American context, however, the Plastic People always played, and still play, hippie music. It’s the real stuff, though–not to be mistaken for your watered-down, uniformly tie-dyed, school of Phish endless-jam shit. We’re talking genuine, naked-in-the-mud, freak-flag-flyin’ space rock. They’ve always aimed for smartness and complexity to the point of crossing the line into dumbness: their 1978 rock opera Pasijove hry velikonocni (“Passion Play”) is a roiling mass of dense allusion, religious and political threat making, and doom crying, Godspell as played by an orchestra of ex-Beefheart sidemen. To 90s American ears, the real liberation going on here is from the dread of the epithet “pretentious” that’s cowed too many young talents into keeping their ambitions small.

To the surprise of everyone who hadn’t heard their live reunion album, 1997, with new, relatively young guitarist Joe Karafiat, when the Plastic People took the stage at the Empty Bottle last week, they turned out to be a shit-hot and gnat’s-ass-tight funky prog machine, churning through an intense selection of songs drawn mainly from Egon Bondy. The set was nearly identical to the 1997 set, and the effect of regular, aboveground rehearsals was clear. Brabenec, through a beard bushy enough to house a squirrel, read song intros in English from a piece of cardboard, making explicit the allusions of scatological tunes like “Zacpa” (“Constipation”): “An important message from Prague. Constipation–in my belly is a hard stone of terror.” “Podivuhodny mandarin” (“The Wondrous Mandarin”), “Spofa Blues,” the hard-rocking “Elegie,” the dark “Prsi, prsi” (“It’s Raining, Raining”), and the stiffly funky “Toxika” were all long, expertly controlled, fierce blasts of throb and wail, with wah-wah pedals hooked up to everything that wouldn’t run away. Brabenec contributed his droll English recitations and Fun House-vintage sax; former guitarist Josef Janicek, now banished to keyboards, occasionally spewed Star Wars-vintage laser sound effects and synth washes. Karafiat is a fine hard-edged guitarist, but shaggy violist Jiri Kabes was the real wild man, using his heavily effected viola as a drone instrument, a rhythm guitar, or a voice crying in the wilderness. The packed house–in which I heard a lot of conversation in various eastern European tongues–devoured the music, with more enthusiastic dancing than I’ve seen at the Empty Bottle since the Ex played there.

The Plastic People’s sound was passe in the West by 1976, but perhaps what’s designated by a certain privileged sector of the world as cutting edge is less important than what others in the world are doing with the sounds we’ve discarded. What generates a party or a pit or an underground movement or even a revolution, velvet or otherwise, has a life of its own–it doesn’t require an American or western European stamp of approval. Possibly the acceptance of playfulness with form, of self-indulgence, of “out” sounds, of songs that don’t make perfect sense, is an indicator of a trend away from market-driven thinking; and perhaps as the Plastic People cease to hear the whispers of police informants in their dreams, we can learn to hear the American equivalents of those whispers, the better to defy them. Perhaps if we take the Plastic People less as a museum piece from someone else’s struggle and more as veterans with a torch to pass, we can maintain the future-tense optimism of Bondy’s lyric to “Magicke noci” (Magical Nights”), perhaps the Plastics’ best song: “We live in Prague that is the place / Where the Spirit itself will show its face.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Nicole Radia.