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Sometimes it's the singer. Sometimes it's the song. Once in a while, it's the land you sing it in. Czechoslovakia's Plastic People of the Universe surfaced in late 1968 just as the wheels of Brezhnev's tanks were rolling into the public square, ending the Prague Spring and its promise of national liberation. It was the dawning of a new era, and the Plastics seemed to have been born to confound it. Early shows were elaborate, theatrical responses to the dreariness of the social ist-realist aesthetic--carnivals conducted in front of a gulag wall. Band members painted their faces and took the stage in flowing robes to play the Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting for My Man" while standing behind a giant flying saucer and a sign that read "JIM MORRISON IS OUR FATHER."
The sounds they made were a polyglot of what to us seem like opposed cultural forces--Frank Zappa, the Doors, John Cale. To the Plastics, though, such music represented a form of open American expression that was equally well-suited to dirges, free-jams, and, later, weighty allegorical mock operas. Almost as soon as the band had established itself, the authorities revoked the Plastic People's professional status and seized their state-supplied amps, guitars, and drums. Going underground, the Plastic People were soon joined by free-jazz saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec, at whose request they dropped their English covers and began singing only in Czech. (He was introduced to the group by the legendary Czech poet Ivan Jirous--an Andy Warhol figure in the underground.) "We wanted our own expression, our own face," says Brabenec 25 years later. Now--one breakup, four unfindable albums, and innumerable trips to the government interrogation room later--Brabenec and the Plastic People of the Universe are finally, belatedly taking their implausible amalgam of classic-rock sounds to the land that spawned them.
Over the phone from New York on the eve of the band's first U.S. tour, Brabenec sounds more than a little vindicated by this chance to play the States. After all, the Coltrane-influenced saxophonist helped shape the Plastic People's ethos, and he suffered for it, too, going to jail between 70 and 80 times in the nine years he was in the band before emigrating to Canada with his wife and daughter in 1983. And it was Brabenec's jailing, along with that of the band's "spiritual manager," Jirous, that inspired Václav Havel to organize petitioners to sign Charter 77--the human rights declaration named after the year of its creation that sowed the seeds for the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
Brabenec's theory and Jirous's management made the Plastics the most significant--and loudest--dissidents in the Czech underground. The band's debut release, Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned, is a classic (the title refers to the poet who wrote many of its lyrics, the absurd rock the Plastics set them to, and the government's decree that this "morbid music" could not be performed in public). Put it on and you'll hear an inspired intensity and a sardonic yet playful sound steeped in abrasive, whirling free-jazz, growling vocals, and boundless energy. Put on the albums that came after it--Passion Play, Leading Horses, and Midnight Mouse--and you'll hear something gloomier: art-rock that echoes the sound of 80 trips to the interrogation room.
But Bondy is a magic moment. Americans who've never heard the band and know the Plastics only through their myth often imagine a shock-art conflation of Zappa and the MC5, missing the point that this was rarely an outfit that made smash-the-state ideology the heart of its sound. (For an exception, note Bondy's "One Hundred Points," which offers a list of things the Soviet state "is afraid of," including "books and poems," "jokes," "each other," and "Santa Claus.")
At their best, the Plastics strove for something less polemical, often disguising their critiques in allegorical lyrics and dense instrumentation. Realizing that their very existence was seen as a threat, the band early on favored escapist music and gimmickry, courting not just the absurdist tradition of Havel's theater or the railing satire of Bondy's poetry, but the very special weirdness of their role as freaky hippie rock 'n' rollers in an Orwellian state. Even at their darkest, the Plastics were about play. It's no accident that original pressings of Egon Bondy came with a 60-page book titled The Merry Ghetto.
It's also no great surprise that repressive Czech officials seized this incomprehensible strangeness as a reason to persecute, deeming the Plastics' music "vulgar" and--almost sneering at its dark dissonance--"morbid." In March of 1976, a series of comprehensive raids on the Prague art community led to the long-term imprisonment of Jirous and Brabenec. Charter 77, which protested this incarceration, would help launch the democracy movement of the late '80s. And so it was that a Velvet Underground cover--the Plastics' long-lost version of "I'm Waiting for My Man"--would contribute a small part to the Velvet Revolution, perhaps making it the most powerful cover version ever performed. The angel of history works in wondrous ways.
But that angel of history is also the monster that craps on your windshield. When liberalization swept Václav Havel into the presidency in 1989, the Plastics had just broken up. Brabenec was living in Vancouver, and a new band, Pulnoc (or "Midnight"), had surfaced with three old Plastic band members--bassist Milan Hlavsa, keyboardist Josef Janicek, guitarist JirÍ Kabes --and four younger musicians. It took almost a decade, and an invitation from Havel to get the Plastics' estranged members to regroup for a show to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Charter 77. "When we discovered it was possible to play, that it was possible to stay in the same room without any tension," remembers Brabenec, "then we discovered we could play and tour without a problem."
Hlavsa has called the harder-rocking Pulnoc "less pessimistic" than the later-period Plastics, and Brabenec evokes that same sense of newfound optimism in his own description of their reassembled band, which he describes as "lighter, more ironic and satirical, not so depressive." In other words, it's the sound the band was going for almost 30 years ago. With all its original members and augmented by a pop-wise Canadian guitarist, Joe Karafiat, the band one hears on last year's Live 1997(Globus International) is downright vivacious, almost plucky. If the music they once made as they marched deeper into the dark '70s and '80s was heavy and lugubrious, the performances on 1997 capture the mood of people walking into an amusement park.
My friend Keith Harris compares them to Pere Ubu, and their meta-industrial power-chords are of a piece, though Jan Brabec's primal drumming is a bit more leaden than Ubu's alloyed pulse. Another friend-fan compares them to Sonic Youth, and they certainly can flail, often denying one's body the catharsis Hlavsa's low-end oomph seems to assure us is right around the corner. Which should only make sense coming from a band that might know the pains of delayed gratification better than any other musicians on earth. So if 1997 is a little hard to parse on the first, say, ten listens, let it work on you for a while. After about 20, what I hear is the weirdest--and, with the exception of the Dead, possibly the greatest--jam band in the world, a loose-limbed avant-blues consortium whose multipartite structures, wicka-wicka riffs, and danceable, if ungainly, rhythms slowly overwhelm anyone who agrees to meet the music halfway.
Fishing for a metaphor to describe the new essence, Brabenec comes upon "a fresh coat of paint," and goes on to note that he hears "promises for a new future." Both are certainly there, but I also hear the sound of a band looking through its back pages--rediscovering and redefining what made the original Plastic People worthwhile in the first place. Which is about the best thing you can ask of a classic-rock band, isn't it?
Plastic People of the Universe play 9:30 p.m. Saturday, March 6 at the 400 Bar; (612) 332-2903.