"We felt more like a guerrilla group than a rock 'n' roll band." — Milan Hlavsa
The Plastic People of the Universe, circa 1973. That's Milan Hlavsa, center, with Vratislav Brabenec to his left and Jiri Sula on the right.

InsiderOne - The Drama You've Been Craving

Monday Jan. 15, 2001

Remembering Milan Hlavsa

The founder of the Plastic People of the Universe, Czechoslovakia's great underground rock band, is dead at 49.

By Michael Goldberg

I read the news today — oh boy — and I cried. The headline on the New York Times obituary page read "Milan Hlavsa, Rock Star of a Revolution, Dies at 49."

Milan Hlavsa was founder, composer and bassist of Czechoslovakia's Plastic People of the Universe (just the name is so amazing — what visions it conjures up!). Hlavsa and his radical underground band actually lived the real rebel rock life that bands from the MC5 to Fugazi and The (International) Noise Conspiracy only fantasize(d) about; for Hlavsa, who died of cancer Jan. 5, it was a hard life.

The Plastic People of the Universe never lived like rock stars. They didn't ride in limos, get put up in five-star hotels or earn millions of dollars. Rather, for 20 years, they carried the torch for experimental underground rock. According to the Times, one bandmember, Ivan Jirous, was jailed on a number of occasions — in 1993 for calling an old man a "baldheaded Bolshevik," and several times during the '80s, once for reading a protest poem in public.

The Plastic People of the Universe performed only rarely. For most of their 20-year career, they were not allowed to perform in public; the Czech government ruled that their music would have a "negative social impact" on the country's youth.

Their only U.S. tour was in 1999, after their 1997 reunion. That tour culminated with a performance at the White House before U.S. president Clinton and Czech president Václav Havel, for which they were joined by former Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed.

The Power Of Rock

I first read about the Plastic People sometime in the '70s, as I recall. Their music was hard to find in the U.S.; it would be over 20 years later that I first heard their music.

I never saw them perform live. I have only one album, Vozralej jak sliva, an album of live 1973–75 performances I bought just a few years ago. In a way it didn't matter what their music sounded like. For me, at least, they've represented what a rock band could be — a symbol of resistance, of freedom — for the past 25 years.

In my heart, I believe that rock is the music of freedom. It takes us outside our daily concerns, outside ourselves. It makes us feel alive.

Here in the U.S., we take our freedom for granted. We can shout that Bush is a moron, or that Microsoft sucks, or whatever else comes into our heads — it's one of our basic rights.

Such was not the case in Czechoslovakia during the Plastic People's career (1968–1988). "We felt more like a guerrilla group than a rock 'n' roll band," Hlavsa said in 1989, according to Jon Pareles' excellent Times obit. "We didn't play this role intentionally — it was forced upon us from outside."

Children Of The Mothers Of Invention

The Plastic People of the Universe were inspired by the freaky American rock bands of the mid-to-late '60s — Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, the Fugs and the Velvets. Those bands — none especially popular — combined social or political commentary with avant-garde music in a kind of rough, experimental rock.

It always amazed and inspired me that these young men in Czechoslovakia could hear the music of Zappa, Beefheart et al. and be motivated to form a band. And that that band in turn could become a symbol for freedom in an oppressive country, such as Czechoslovakia was for so many years.

They carried on for decades, keeping their underground music alive, somehow managing to record albums that were released outside Czechoslovakia. In the aftermath of a 1976 event known as the "festival of the second culture," 27 people in the so-called rock underground were arrested. The Plastic People's equipment was confiscated; two bandmembers were among seven people thrown in prison for "organized disturbance of the peace," according to the Times.

This caused a reaction from Czechoslovakia intellectuals, including playwright Havel, who would later become president of the Czech Republic. Havel was motivated to write the human rights declaration "Charter 77," which launched a movement that ultimately resulted in the 1989 Czech "Velvet revolution." "Before the trial, the circles of the writers and the poets and the artists were separate," Plastic People saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec said in 1989. "Afterward they worked together."

Milan Hlavsa is dead, and the Plastic People are no more. They lived their art under the most trying of circumstances. Their work and their example had an impact few other rock bands have equaled. "Rock 'n' roll is the medium to express the situation of man in this world and the world to come," Hlavsa said in a 1989 interview. "We don't do the music just for the sake of music. You must be the author of your own life."

To which I can only add: Wow!

Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

© 2000, 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.