PRINT March 1994


the Plastic People of the Universe

THE SCENE IS RIGHT out of a dialectical fairy tale: a band that once upon a time became a subterranean legend, an avatar of freedom and refusal, reunites to record a live album. The group reaches back almost a quarter century into its repertoire to dredge up the now-quaint signature tune “Waiting for the Man.” Only this isn’t the Velvet Underground finally paying a call on a stadium-full of adoring fans somewhere in Europa, but a much more obscure and mysterious outfit that sprang from such fandom itself in the waning days of 1968: the Plastic People of the Universe.

Born in the wake of the East-bloc invasion of Czechoslovakia—Soviet tanks in the streets on a mission of “normalization,” rolling over the socialist reforms of the Prague Spring—the Plastic People were as much a secret society as a band. Keeping alive a forbidden language of disorder inspired by smuggled-in Western music (the Velvets, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, the Doors), hounded by the authorities (denied instruments and venues, their clandestine concerts raided by the police, their members eventually imprisoned for “disturbing the peace”), they were a resistance movement unto themselves. In hit-and-run performances and privately circulated recordings (some of which in turn were smuggled to the West, to receive their only official release), they kept history itself alive—here was the sound of a phantasm haunting the totalitarian imagination.

On the 1992 reunion album, Bez Ohnu Je Underground, “Waiting for the Man” is no more than nostalgia, a sweet, slightly wooden gesture to a different time, another world: one that gave birth to the Velvet Revolution, which abruptly overthrew the communist regime. Those swift, surreal events in late 1989—with citizens peacefully taking to the streets to reclaim their country, almost reenacting the 1968 invasion in reverse—would thrust author Vaclav Havel into the country’s presidency. Havel had written admiringly of the Plastic People of the Universe and contemptuously of their 1976 trial, in which band members were convicted of “extreme vulgarity with an antisocialist and antisocial impact” and of “extolling nihilism, decadence and clericalism.” This trial in turn had served as a catalyst for the Charter 77 human rights group formed by Havel and other Czech intellectuals, which itself had catalyzed the Velvet Revolution. (That the Velvet Underground could be a source of revolution confirms the obvious; that gadfly-in-the-ointment Frank Zappa, who was a deeper influence on the Plastics as well as a personal favorite of Havel’s, could serve as a revolutionary catalyst tells us how bizarre the politics of cultural transmission can get.)

Now another song begins, this one aversion of the Fugs’ “Garden is Open,” and everything scripted about the concert is driven out by the music’s swirling, millenarian currents. Milan Hlavsa’s voice casts a spell of allegory, as though Max von Sydow’s backward-counting hypnotic-suggestion narration in Zentropa had been transposed into a new idiom: the Edenic promises of the 1960s instead of the Mephistophelian ones of the 1940s. All of which only sets the stage for the entrance of Jirí Kabes’ electric viola, elegiac notes turning in a circle of ritual, as underneath him the band distills the Coltrane Quartet’s incantatory polyrhythms into slow-motion fireworks. Then a guitarist—either Josef Janícek or Jirí Stevich—picks up the viola’s melody, twisting it into an emblem, the entrance to a dream. The guitarist seems to hold in his hand every utopian, absolutist wish of ’60s music, but the modalities he wraps them in call up the 16th-century Prague where the revolutionary mystic Thomas Müntzer once preached utopian, absolutist sermons through an interpreter.

Returning the Plastic People to their ritualistic beginnings, this detour into the unknowable evokes how truly otherworldly their early concerts must have seemed. Wearing togas dotted with peculiar insignia, heavy makeup turning their faces into masks, they might as well have dropped into their occupied nation from another planet. Which explains the mock flying saucer they performed in front of, if not the sign they placed at the front of the stage, declaring “JIM MORRISON IS OUR FATHER”—another sort of extraterrestrial, perhaps, but in the translation to Czech sensibilities, one every bit as extreme as the beheaded heretic Müntzer.

Yet “Garden Is Open” and Bez Ohnu Je Underground are really just epitaphs. For the full measure of this recondite story, or as close as you can get without having lived it, there is the Czech-import limited-edition box Plastic People of the Universe. This contains the four albums the group put out over their almost two decades of existence: the legendary Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned (recorded 1974, released in Europe only in 1977), the dark antiopera Passion Play (source of the charges of “clericalism,” though the liturgy most suggested here is Captain Beefheart’s “Dachau Blues”; recorded 1978, released 1980), Leading Horses (1981/1983), and Midnight Mouse (1984/1987). But the box also contains four additional albums, which fill in many of the gaps in the Plastic People’s saga: Francovka (material spanning 1974–79), Eliásuv Ohen (1972–76), Slavná Nemesis (1979), and Hovezí Porázka (1983–84).

Taken altogether, this music becomes the soundtrack for a great lost epic: an absurdist verité documentary, perverse home movies superimposed over official propaganda reels, basement tapes ransomed from a captive house. But the plot still has a familiar air. The ’70s material is rife with corrosive intelligence, while the later recordings grow ever more formal and remote—the Plastic People’s sound slowly loses its resolve, its moral claim on the lives it might chance to enter. By 1984’s “Kanarek,” the screams are no more than a house-of-wax affectation against a tasteful scrim of chamber-rock woodwinds, violin, and viola. You hear nothing of the upheavals to come, only solemn inertia, as though orthodoxy had seeped into the band’s souls.

Resignation, however, was a false ending: the Plastic People had disbanded by 1988, but their core—Hlavsa, Janícek, Kabes—assembled a new group called Pulnoc (pronounced “poolnotes,” meaning “midnight”). “Kanarek” resurfaces on Pulnoc’s fabulous 1991 American release City of Hysteria, and this time it’s tough and unforgiving: the spirit of the Plastics, and of the victorious underground Second Culture they shaped, seems to have survived intact after all. But if City of Hysteria is composed of sharp echoes of past struggle—“A time of memories... ,” sings Michaela Nemcová, quietly, “A time of black holes”—strange corners of the Plastic People experience still remain out of reach. None of them is farther removed from rational discourse than Francovka’s mad 8½-minute beatnik tribute to the deity called “Phill Esposito.” From the opening, a basso introduction of the promised land (“New York, Madison Square Garden”) amid noisemakers, whistles, clanging silverware, and chanting voices, the American hockey player takes on new life as a cargo-cult icon. No one would call this music as such, but it’s brimming with good humor and demented conviction; the baggage of East and West is melted down for precious metals, to be fashioned into nonsense charms, ecstatic symbols of disobedience.

In the essay “Stories and Totalitarianism,” Havel writes of the destruction of historicity as state project:

The fundamental pillar of our present totalitarian system is the existence of one central agent of all truth and all power, an institutionalized “rationale of history,” which becomes, quite naturally, the sole agent of all social activity. Public life ceases to be an arena where different, more or less autonomous agents square off, and becomes no more than the manifestation of the truth and will of this single agent. In a world governed by this principle, there is no room for mystery; ownership of the complete truth means that everything is known ahead of time.

The Plastic People’s story found its meaning in the negation of that world. In a time when most music is dedicated to the abolition of historicity and the continuation of late capitalism’s narcissistic monologue of itself, the runes they left behind remain as unconditional as ever. They constructed a dream of exemplary public life out of the conditions of their own suppression. In the face of “nihilization” (Havel’s succinct term) and state-administered boredom, they escaped into the catacombs of an unborn city. “Let the dead rise from the grave,” Hlavsa sings in Pulnoc’s “End of the World”; the lyric was written by Ivan Jirous, the Plastic People’s most-imprisoned member. The line looks back to Passion Play, which began with the song “Exodus 12,” and beyond that to a phrase from that biblical book: “We be all dead men.”

Howard Hampton writes for the LA Weekly and Film Comment.

The boxed-set Plastic People of the Universe is available from Globus International, Jaromírova 61, 128 00 Prague 2, the Czech Republic. Selected Plastic People and Pulnoc albums are available from Wayside Music, P.O. Box 8427, Silver Spring, MD 20907.