History lesson, part two

Vratislav Brabenec is in Prague, talking to an American journalist on the telephone, and he's asked how politics, both past and present, have shaped his band, the Plastic People of the Universe. Brabenec's bandmates have already suggested he may have had a few drinks this evening, and his English is a bit clumsy — though it's still far, far better than the reporter's Czech — but he quickly makes himself clear: "I would like to, if you don't, to not to push me to some political answers," Brabenec says firmly. "The group was established in '68 ... but it doesn't have any connection [to that pivotal year]. It, it, it happened. It happened, and I guess it isn't so important."

Another member of the Plastic People, Eva Turnová, who joined the band in 2001, has her own perspective on how her bandmates view political matters. "When they started to play in the first place, they were just guys who wanted to play what they wanted and they just weren't allowed to," Turnová says. "That's how they became political, even though they didn't plan it at all. But now, it's very different because the legend really follows them. First there is legend, and then there is the music."

The legend behind the Plastic People is daunting thing. U2 may dream of being the band that saves the world, but the PPU has them beat — they actually helped bring an end to the Cold War. In 1968, the "Prague Spring," a short-lived period of political openness and reform in Czechoslovakia, gave birth to a handful of Czech psychedelic bands. But when the Soviet military rolled in to restore strict order, musician Milan Hlavsa responded by forming the Plastic People of the Universe, a group whose dark, moody sound was informed by the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa's early work.

The PPU had a passionate following, but their fierce anti-authoritarian stance didn't make them popular with Czechoslovakia's Communist leadership. In 1970, their status as professional musicians was canceled by the state, and while they struggled on as amateurs playing with homemade amps at informal concerts, their fans were routinely harassed and beaten, Saxophonist Brabenec was arrested and eventually fled to Canada. Their rehearsal space was burned to the ground. One friend and fan of the group was playwright Vaclav Havel, who rallied international support for the beleaguered band. The PPU's support network eventually evolved into Charter 77, the Czech human rights group that led the "Velvet Revolution," which toppled the Czech communist regime in 1989.

The Plastic People, alas, weren't around to savor the victory — the group had split up in 1987, with Milan Hlavsa forming a new group called Pulnoc. But in 1997, at the request of Havel (who had since become president of the Czech Republic), Hlavsa reunited the PPU, and the band has been recording and touring regularly ever since, featuring four other members of the group's lineup from the '70s — Josef Janícek on keyboards, Jirí Kabes on electric viola, Vratislav Brabenec on sax and clarinet, and Ivan Bierhanzl on double bass. Hlavsa succumbed to cancer in 2001, but Turnová, who played in Hlavsa's electronic side project, the Madness, took over on electric bass, and with guitarist Joe Karafiát and drummer Ludvík Kandl, the new edition of the PPU continues to play strong, compelling music that merges the band's classic sound with a more modern and aggressive approach.

"The range of the ages is so broad," Turnová says. "I'm 40, and Vratislav is about 65. I think Vratislav listens to classical music, a lot of modern classical, especially Czech music. He likes Brecht and Chuck Berry, the old guys. And me, I listen to Patti Smith, P.J. Harvey — she's my favorite — and Tori Amos. And our guitarist is obsessed with Cuban music. I also do my own music, and I use samples, which the Plastic People don't. The older guys, they don't understand it at all — when I use samples, they think it means I cannot play at all and I play playback!"

While some might imagine the PPU as a curious relic of the Cold War, the group is busier than ever in their latest incarnation. The band has toured the United States five times since 1998, and they'll launch their most extensive American jaunt to date on Sept. 6, with 21 dates confirmed so far, including a concert in Ann Arbor. "We are playing something like 80, 85 gigs during the year," Bierhanzl says. "Not only in Czech Republic or Soviet states, but around in Europe, Hungary, Poland, Germany. Also in Taiwan or Russia. We are a quite standard rock 'n' roll band, yeah, playing clubs and festivals." The band also has a new album in the works, and they're eager to prove that their reputation has as much to do with their music as their place in 20th century political history.

"When we play in Taiwan, nobody knows about the past or just vaguely, and the response is just great," Turnová says. "The gigs were full of 25-year-old people and there were like 500 of them. It was a great success." As Brabenec says with a laugh, "The influence of the rock 'n' roll, the importance of the rock 'n' roll, it is something which is unstop— ishul? Unstoppable!"

Monday, Sept. 8, at the Blind Pig, 208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555.

Mark Deming is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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