Frank Zappa and Prague

12. 5. 2024 | Rubriky: Articles

Lecture and screening on Frank Zappa and Prague at the Czech Consulate in Los Angeles, 10 May 2024.

[Petr Dorůžka, Los Angeles, California] You might find it strange, that a person from a far away, non English speaking country, talks about Frank Zappa in his home city Los Angeles. So – I should explain a few things in the next hour, with a help of a documentary film about Zappa’s visit to Prague and his meeting with president Havel.

The main points are:

— how Frank Zappa managed to gain such a strong following in my home country, former Czechoslovakia,

— how his music broke through all European cultural and language barriers,

— and also, how one of his songs inspired the name of the most celebrated local underground band, the Plastic People of Universe.

There is actually a book on this topic, including history of the Czech Underground movement and also Frank Zappa visit in Prague, written by Joe Yanosik in New York – more about this later.

Czech underground was very different from what used to be called underground here. Playing in an underground band in a communist country meant you risked your freedom, many musicians or concert organizers ended up in jail, as well did people who copied forbidden books on their typewriters. Underground poets, writers were in jail, one of them was the future president Václav Havel, whom Zappa was meeting during his visit in Prague in January 1990.

But first let me explain how I became part of this amazing story. Yes, I spent the first 41 years in a communist country under a dictatorship rule, and that meant, not just political, but a cultural struggle. I was 18 when artists like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and of course Frank Zappa released their most important albums. Yes, they were never sold officially in Czechoslovakia, but also, they were never forbidden to be brought in, if you were lucky enough to buy them abroad. On the other hand, smuggling books by the dissident writers, both living in exile or in Czechoslovakia, was punished as a crime.

To Czech listeners, Frank Zappa’s music sounded like the perfect cure in these dark times, and also as a guiding light. It showed the Czechs how to raise your voice against establishment, against the political rules, hardline Communist apparatchiks: that was the word used for the ruling Communist party members.

Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore, but he started his career here, in Los Angeles, in the mid 60’s, in the era of free love, psychedelic music, and the hippies, but he was not part of any trend, actually he was very critical about people following trends rather than questioning them.

His songs were a biting satire against American authorities, hypocrisy and double standards. The Czech and Slovak listeners understood it as a universal statement, so they easily adapted all these hidden messages to their own situation. You can suppose, that most of them didn’t understand the English lyrics, but by their instinct they knew well how Zappa was breaking the rules, how he was using the non-musical sounds as a provocation, and of course how he and his musicians were dressing up… their long hair was a much more extreme statement than the cute haircuts set by the Beatles.

I was lucky that I had access to Frank Zappa’s recordings through my foreign friends, also I knew English, my mother was a language teacher, so I found Zappa’s lyrics fascinating, but there was no way I could start a radio show on Czechoslovak radio and play the songs. That was possible only 20 years later after the fall of Iron Curtain and communist rule. But there were other ways: you could travel around the country and play music in clubs, just for listening, not dancing, to likeminded youngsters searching for music close to their own feelings. Play the music and explain what it is about. It felt like a conspiracy, you could see the risk, but also you were rewarded by feeing of victory over this political monster, ruling with brute force and no brains. This battlefield was known as “the gray zone” – things that were not exactly forbidden, but also not directly banned, unless somebody complains. And in this grey zone it was also possible to publish books, that official publishing houses were not allowed to print. Zappa became a hot topic in the Czech grey zone. Also, during the 1970’s, Zappa’s band was the best live act, reaching far beyond the rock boundaries. So I asked my colleague, who was organising these semi-underground listening sessions: can we do a book on Frank Zappa? Yes we can, but we do not know how this will end up. For example, members of a similar activist group, The Jazz Section, ended up in jail. Also, you should know that things were much more complicated, far beyond common logic. For example, the leader of The Jazz Section, as revealed years later, was a secret police informer.

So, I started to work on the book, and it was very simple to find the right name: the key word was Šuplík, which means Drawer. If you were writing a book controversial enough, that finally will not be published, it stayed in your drawer. In the communist times, we had a plenty of drawer writers. So my book was titled A Drawerful of Zappa and was published for the first time in 1984 as a handout for education only, not to be sold to public. Yes, only registered members of the activist semi-underground conspiracy club could buy it. Later it was translated into Slovak and published twice in free Czechoslovakia. This is the first freely published edition, which stays here in the library of the Consulate.

And now from 1984 fast forward 6 years later. After Russian Perestroika, former East Block countries are set free. On New Years Eve the radio announces, that after 41 years of dictatorship, Vaclav Havel is elected as a president. On January 3, 1990, Frank Zappa arrives at Prague airport, now Vaclav Havel Airport, without his band, but with an American TV crew. He arrives from Moscow, to make a film and build bridges between American entrepreneurs and the former Communist countries. To his great surprise, he is a celebrity in Prague: Czech TV plans to shoot a documentary about his visit, and because of my book, they hire me as an interpreter. It’s a dream come true not just for me, but for another 2 and a half thousand of his Czech fans waiting at the airport. It’s a morning full of surprises: the US ambassador at that time, Shirley Temple, the former actress, admits she has never heard his music.

Let’s see the first part of the movie: besides Zappa you will see organizers of his visit, 2 young Czech men living in Austria, we shall get to them later, Michael Kocáb, the musician, who participated in organizing his visit, and other interpreters working for him, I am the one with glasses. Also you will notice that Zappa was a heavy smoker, unfortunately.

Comments to the screening

5:11 Mikoláš Chadima, a underground musician, explains: We played Frank Zappa’s music with my previous band, and I can remember, when the secret police arrested us and we were beaten up during interrogation, the officer screamed at me: “I shall beat this Frank Zappa stuff out of you!”

6:00 It’s well known fact, that rock and roll and electric guitar helped to overthrow the communist rule. Rock and roll, like jazz one generation before, was the voice of freedom, that bravely opposed the fake culture forced on the public by state propaganda, like Russian over stylized folk music that sounded like a bad operetta. BTW, it was in Frank Zappa’s late 70’s triple album Joe’s Garage, where Zappa describes an imaginary country, where all electric guitars are banned. His Czech fans knew that kind of situation very well, when the local rock singers were periodically banned from performing live or on TV or both.

Zappa’s Prague visit was partially organized by two former Czech citizens who were forced by the Soviet invasion in 1968 to move to exile to Austria. They succeeded to track down Zappa in his secret hotel, did a short interview, and Zappa gave them a written message for the Czech people: Communism does not work.

Another important story: on the screen, soon we shall see Zappa meeting president Václav Havel. Together, they had a plan: Havel appointed Frank Zappa as “Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism.” But for the US government, Zappa was “persona non grata” for a very serious reason. In 1986, Zappa was an outspoken critic of the activities of the American right wing and its efforts to censor rock and roll. The pro-censorship movement was led by Tipper Gore, wife of Al Gore, Clinton’s Vice-President, and Secretary of State James Baker’s wife Susan. So, James Baker’s response was: “You can do business with the United States or you can do business with Frank Zappa.”

12.30 Jazz flutist Jiří Stivín is praising Zappa but disappointed the US Ambassador didn’t know him .. and following part is meeting with the Prague underground artists in Hotel Krivaň, a legendary building close to collapse, thus a very stylish place for the sweet end of communist era. That was highlight of his visit. He was performing with Pulnoc, Midnight in translation, a band formed by some of the Plastic People members.

21.10 meeting with the Minister of Culture ..”Zappa is a fierce critic of his own society, that is something that we have to learn.”

28.10 President Havel talking at the General Assembly of Czechoslovakia, Frank Zappa listening.

For further information, I strongly recommend an excellent book in English, written by Joe Yanosik, a historian of the Czech Underground movement living in New York: A Consumer Guide to THE PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE – see this link.

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