Milan Hlavsa died last week. Milan who? You might ask. Well, he was from
Czechoslovakia - and no he wasn't related to Gerty. He was bass player and writer for the band
Pulnoc and the founder member of the the legendary Plastic People of the Universe. It might sound
a corny name now - redolent of the 60's. But make no mistake about it, Milan was the ultimate rock & roll
rebel. He even went to jail for his right to make music! For his troubles, he lost his right to make a living
and was under constant pressure from the Stalinist Czech authorities. Now line up your idea of the
rockin' rebel, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison, Joe Strummer, Ronan Keating?......Forget about it!
I had heard of the Plastic People in the 80's. There was a strong contingent of Czechs and Poles in
the East Village but I never imagined I would ever get to play with them. But fate has strange ways
about her. Hammy, Fred and I had played the downtown scene with the poet,
Copernicus, since God knows when. We were amongst a loose association of musicians who would
get up on stage and perform free form music behind his various rants. Sometimes, when we hit our stride and
the substance mix was kind, such music could be majestic, on other occasions it was ragged to the
Nonetheless, it came to pass that Copernicus organized a tour of the
Germanys, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania and other parts of the USSR which ended up in
Moscow on July 4th , 1989. He contacted various dissident groups in these countries and somehow or other got
visas, etc together.
Fred didn't make the trip but Hammy, Dave Conrad, Mike Fazio (two other
Black 47 alumni) and I set out with the Poet. As you might imagine, the adventures were mighty but
eventually we hit the sacred soil of Czechoslovakia and got promptly lost. It was the middle of the
night, out in the wilds of the country, pitch black (the comrades didn't believe in lighting the roads), no
legible signs and we're thirsty as all hell and looking for Prague when, lo and behold, we came upon
what looked like a 17th century inn. Aha, where there's inns, there's liquor! The scene inside was like something
out of the Van Gogh painting of the Potato Eaters. An old crone dominating a wooden table laden
down with black beer bottles surrounded by some simian-like rubes. No notice was taken of us until I produced
that universal passport to earthly paradise, the great American ten-spot. This had a magical effect.
The crone was instantly in my arms offering herself and all the customers but we settled for some cases
of beer and the reassurance that, yes, we were on the right road to Praha (Prague).
When we finally made the wondrous city of Prague around dawn we were
informed that the location of our gig had been changed from a boys club to the Ice Hockey Stadium
and that we would be the headliners with the newly formed Pulnoc (containing the remains of the
Plastics). The promoters also casually observed that this would be the first unofficial concert, that
we would be challenging the Stalinist Government and that all the freaks in Czechoslovakia would be
there to support us.
Whatever! We were well used to the bullshit of promoters. But this was
our first time dealing with the obduracy, commitment and sheer dogged spirituality of the Czech
dissident movement. The next day we arrived at the equivalent of Madison Square Garden in the
middle of downtown Prague and realised that these guys weren't kidding. 13,000 people were gathered inside
and as many surrounded the stadium. But, ominously, the top tiers were occupied by the Czech Militia with
guns drawn and pointed at the stage. I naively inquired of Ivo Pospisil (one of the organizers)
whether we might be in any danger - to which he replied with that Central European swagger and
broken English - "no probalem, bastards vill not kill us all!" With that stolid reassurance, we played before the best
audience of my life - so appreciative, so altogether, so happy that their American brothers were there
to support them. The Gods smiled on us (the substances too) and we played a blinder. Follow that, I
thought as we left the stage.
Then I watched Pulnoc and my jaw dropped. The music was dense,
dissonant, melodic, strident, totally unselfconscious and oddly romantic. It was like The Velvet
Underground meets Schonberg on acid. I didn't understand a word of it but I knew everything they were saying.
It was the soul of Czechoslovakia being hammered off the anvil of pure unfettered rock & roll. And
yet it had none of the ridiculous characteristics that rock music has come to personify. No preening, no
attitude, just pure idealized music uncontaminated by any false excess; and yet, it was as excessive,
in itself, as a volcano. I had to get on stage with these guys. I couldn't let this moment pass me by. So,
with a pint of Armenian Brandy in me, (at least that's what they said it was) I took over one of the mikes
and added my own howling harmonies. I was sure they would throw me off but instead they just smiled
and welcomed me. It may have been the only time I saw any of them smiling.
I couldn't get enough of these guys and after the show we got in serious
conversation. I was also fascinated by their accents. There was something so familiar about them.
And then it hit me - they all sounded like Lou Reed. In fact, they had all learned their English from
Velvet Underground records, so there was a lot of valkin' on the vild side vith sveet Jane. I told them
I was a big fan of the playwright Vaclav Havel and they offered to take me to his apartment. Just
like that? But Tony (the lead singer) was a theatre designer and said it would be no problem. So, off we
went. Milan, Tony, their wives or girlfriends and yours truly. Everyone knew them. It was their town.
Still, occasionally, we would be stopped by the militia and our papers demanded. This was a constant
irritant to them. But to me it was no different than the streets of the North.
Being a thirsty lot, they suggested we stop in a bar. Now this place was like something out of Dracula movie.
It must have been there for four or five hundred years. It was amazing. At any moment, you expected Mario Lanza
to come trotting out and sing The Student Prince.
We were having a great old time. Czech beer is magnificent. But after
about an hour a hush came over the crowd, a television set was turned on and I'm expecting to see
some dark Czech masterpiece. But to my horror, it's a special broadcast from MTV Out pops Michael Jackson,
Duran Duran and whatever else drivel that was popular in 1989. There was a glow in the eyes of the
watchers. I looked nervously at Milan and Tony. Were these two great musicians actually being
taken in by this shite? To this day I don't know. Perhaps, MTV was banned (for once, the comrades might
have got something right) and this was Pulnoc's dazed and silent protest.
I often think of that night. We never got to see Havel. We lingered too long in that wonderful pub
talking about life and music that was far divorced from reality as I then knew it (oh by the way, they did turn
off the tv after an hour or so). The Berlin Wall came down some months later
and Czechoslovakia and all the other soviet satellites have been transformed into modern western
democracies. And what of Milan, Tony, Pulnoc and the Plastics? I don't know. Pulnoc got a deal
with Arista Records and were dropped almost instantly - I guess, they weren't radio friendly. Look for their
magnificent cd, City of Hysteria. I'm sure you can get Plastic People's songs to download.
I often wonder about Milan and Tony. They weren't essentially political
people but they personified the soul of Czechoslovakia in a way that I've never seen another group of
musicians do. They refused to give up their right to play music the way they heard it and thus
confronted the power of Stalinist Communism and its banality of evil. How then did they face up to the terrible
deluge of advertising, fast buck entrepreneurs, MTV and the awful evil of banality that permeates
our modern western life? Hopefully, Milan didn't die disillusioned and kept on fighting to the end. And if
you ever read this, Tony, I'm still trying to keep that promise I made to you. Milan Hlavsa died last
week - a true rock & roll rebel.
This is a short extract from Vaclav Havel's lengthy and incisive observations on the Plastics written in 1984:
"I have often wondered about the remarkable "trick" the Plastics used to achieve their unsettling magic.
It can't be explained simply by their unusual combination of instruments (that unnerving buzz of viola and violin
is typical of their music). Nor is it merely the god-given originality of Milan Hlavsa's musical talent. Nor the
long years of working together that created and shaped the group's style, as a whole that is greater than the sum
of the musical parts brought by each member.....they are unique, and faithful to themselves, and if their music
speaks to young people today more than ever, it's because they've refused to make concessions to taste, because they
have remained themselves, still expressing, after all those years, feelings and experiences which are now felt and