Author: Sebastian Fasthuber
Published:
REPORT. Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, May 2006

Sebastian Fasthuber works as a freelance music and literature critic (“now!”, “Falter”, “Der Standard”, “Spex”).

Special thanks to Abbé Abbé Libánský for interpreting at this “evening conversation”.

Plastic People of the Universe

“It was a good time!”

Sebastian Fasthuber about the “Plastic People of the Universe”

The arrest of the rock group “Plastic People of the Universe” at a concert in February 1976 led directly to the formation of Charter 77. The Viennese author Sebastian Fasthuber and the former confidant of the band Abbé Libánský spoke and drank for Report with the two band members Jiří Kabeš and Vrata Brabenec in Prague.

“It was a relatively harmless evening,” says Abbé Abbé Libánský, a photographer and former confidant of the band who has come with me to Prague (see the photo series in this issue). “But it was a ‘Czech’ evening all the same.” By this late hour, the hospoda (pub) table was sagging under the empty glasses. Vrata Brabenec, the saxophonist, lyrics writer and mastermind of the “Plastic People”, took his leave with a slightly unsteady bow. His fellow musician Jiří Kabeš had already quit the field after talking himself into a rage, striking the table with his fist and proclaiming that to stay any longer would be unbearable. His adolescent son was starting to lie to him, he said, and that was something he was finding unexpectedly hard to take at present. Spake and vanished. Strange? The world of the “Plastic People” works according to its own peculiar logic.

In their universe, unconditional loyalty and trust to each other are important values, for example. In the seventies, they were indispensable for these musicians, who lived in constant fear of being arrested. Without mutual trust, the jazz fan Brabenec and the rocker Kabeš – both bearing the outward signs of their wild lifestyle but as mentally alert as ever – would perhaps not be sitting here today, in their early sixties, in this formation as “Plastic People”.
The other pub guests eye these loud, boorish characters timidly, but with some pride. After all, the “Plastic People” are a kind of sacred national institution in their native country. You can find their CDs in every shop in Prague, and even the younger generation knows how significant this band is: thirty years ago, these old freaks were the only musicians who rebelled openly against the communist regime and the repression of artistic freedom in Czechoslovakia at the time; who kept on playing despite being forbidden to do so; who took big risks and even outlived the regime in the end.

The “Plastic People” don’t like talking about their political importance. Brabanec, who, after the death of the long-time singer Milan Hlavsa, has become the mouthpiece of the group, has been known to cut interviews short when the interviewer was only interested in talking about the “Plastic People” as a political band and the most important representatives of a legendary Czech underground. “We’ve never seen ourselves in that way,” he says angrily. “And I don’t like the word ‘underground’ either. It sounds as if we were partisans or guerrillas fighting against the state. We didn’t fight against the political power. We just wanted to do what we liked doing. Because the state didn’t allow us to, the whole thing turned political. We weren’t a political band at all, we wanted to make music. We looked for new poetry and tried to live a free existence. That’s all.” But after the invasion by the troops of the Warsaw Pact who ended the “Prague Spring” by force in August 1968, it was already much too much for the authorities.

The group “Plastic People of the Universe” was founded in September 1968 and named after a song by Frank Zappa. The band started off as one of many. “In the sixties, a new rock group was formed every day because of the influence of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the hippies, new ideas and philosophies,” Brabanec remembers. “It was like that everywhere, and although we were a little isolated, all that stuff also reached Czechoslovakia.” But the “Plastic People” very soon went beyond this first phase as a typical garage band influenced by the Beatles. They were lucky enough to encounter people and music that were to broaden their horizons significantly. An important impetus for the band’s artistic progress was its meeting early on with the music by “The Velvet Underground”. Jiří Kabeš, who studied art and worshipped Andy Warhol, had come across this band from Warhol’s Factory in 1969, at a time when barely anyone in the world had heard the legendary album with the banana on the cover. “I was looking for music that was different from Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, who were starting to bore me. Back then, ‘Velvet Underground’ was definitely another world.”

In 1970, the “Plastic People” performed entire concerts with songs by “Velvet Underground” and Lou Reed. In this period they gradually turned into an original musical group under the guidance of Ivan Jirous, aka “Magor” (“the madman”). He was far more than just a manager, and gave the musicians lectures on art history. They began writing their own songs, started to include sounds from jazz and the avant-garde, performed happenings “in theatre-style make-up”, and broadened their horizon – in every respect. “The knowledge that Magor passed on to us was very important to us in developing our own view of art and the world,” says Brabenec when talking about the importance of their manager, who is now living a retired life in the country after many years in jail. “Along with a few coincidences and the climate we were living in, that was what led to the ‘Plastic People’.”

The special status enjoyed by the group today admittedly derived only in part from their music. The rock album “Egon Bondy’s Happy Hears Club Banned” and the more avant-garde “Passion Play” are records that have retained their staying power to this day. But what really made the musicians famous was the way they consistently refused to react to the ban on performing English song lyrics, which was rigorously enforced in Czechoslovakia from 1969. They just kept playing as “Plastic People” in concerts advertised at short notice so that the police wouldn’t find out. During this phase, they mostly appeared on farms and at friends’ weddings, but they were still caught out several times – and in February 1976, after a concert at their manager’s wedding, they were finally taken into custody.

These days, Brabenec doesn’t want to remember his eight months in jail. “There were a few parties and weddings where we had problems afterwards,” he says laconically. “It was a good time, we were young and lazy.” I dig deeper: But it must have been incredibly stressful living with the constant fear of being beaten up and arrested? Brabenec smiles: “It’s harder finding good poetry than being persecuted by the police. That phase lasted a few years, but making lyrics fit the music can sometimes take a whole lifetime.” Was it bravery or just madness that made them sacrifice themselves so radically for art and the desire for freedom? “Both,” says Brabenec. “We were brave and mad.” “And we were strong as well,” puts in Kabeš. At times, however, it looked as if the “Plastic People” would have to give way under the constant pressure. Looking back, Brabenec describes the eighties as a “bleak period”. Their singer and bass player Hlavsa, who died in 2001, wanted to commercialise the group’s sound and had signed a contract with American managers.

Brabenec, aesthetically still the most radical of the “Plastic People” and completely uncompromising in nature, argued with the band and left for Canada to escape the police persecution. “Every so often I played music if I was asked,” he says, recalling his 15 years in exile. “But most of the time I licked my wounds in peace. I wrote a letter to the others saying that I didn’t want contact with them any more.”

Nowadays, this phase, during which the “Plastic People” sometimes played under the name “Pulnoc”, is long forgotten. Even if they were separated for quite a time, they now look as if they are bound together for life. A bit like the Rolling Stones, just a few hundred millions poorer and – yes, less embarrassing. Since 1997, when their old friend Václav Havel hired them to give a concert for the 20th anniversary of Charter 77, they have been working together again. Now, in addition to the band’s core members – Kabeš, Brabenec and the keyboarder, Josef Janíček –, there are several young musicians who have shown themselves worthy to be called “Plastic People”. “They have settled down amazingly well,” says Brabenec. “Perhaps we’ve still got a future ahead of us, but perhaps only the cemetery.” Uproarious laughter.

The “Plastic People” still have plans. There may be a new album to come, but above all they want to perform their “Passion Play”, a religiously motivated song cycle, once more in 2006 with a large orchestra. This connection with religion seems unusual in an underground band. But in fact, religious faith is a tradition in the Czech Republic as a critical act that is not welcomed by the state. “I studied theology for a few years,” Brabenec relates, “looking for an interpretation of the story of Jesus Christ. What particularly interested me was the question of what it means for us today.” He has often asked himself the famous question about the meaning of life. “That is a life project. Today I know: you have to know how to make sense in order to make no sense. In life and in music.” The conversation on this Prague hospoda evening has reached a point where everything seems to have been said and where further questions about details of the seventies would be petty. So it’s better to order more red wine and pivo. But Brabenec, who in the meantime has started mumbling and singing softly to himself, speaks up once more, clearly and audibly: “What do you think, are we strong, or are we just old farts?” Strong old farts, no question of that.