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Milan Hlavsa: Age 49
January 5, 2001
Lung Cancer
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Milan Hlavsa
  OBITUARY
  BIOGRAPHY
  LINKS
  DISCOGRAPHY (CDNOW)
  BOOKS
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  GORDON'S CD PICK: Pulnoc City Of Hysteria  (n/a)

 

OBITUARY
 

Plastic People Of The Universe Founder Dead At 49
Milan Hlavsa's underground band helped inspire Czech Velvet Revolution.

Richard Gehr reports:

When the Plastic People of the Universe, the rock band founded by bassist Milan Hlavsa — who died Friday in Prague, Czechoslovakia, of lung cancer at age 49 — raged against Czechoslovakia's Communist government during the late 1970s, the machine actually ground to a halt.

The 1976 arrest of two Plastic People members for disturbing the peace inspired future Czech President Vaclav Havel to write Charter 77. His human-rights declaration, with its defense of "life's intrinsic desire to express itself freely, in its own authentic and sovereign way," laid the groundwork for the 1989 revolution that liberated the country from its hard-line Communist rulers.

Hlavsa, born in 1951, worked as a butcher while performing in such bands as the Blue Monsters, the Vagabonds, the Undertakers and the Primitives. In 1967 he heard The Velvet Underground & Nico for the first time.

"I was totally, absolutely in a trance," he told writer Richie Unterberger. "It was raw, clear, transparent. Thanks to this encounter I did not throw my guitar in the dustbin."

Under the influence of the Velvets and other American bands, including the Doors, Fugs, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention (whose song "Plastic People" inspired their name), Hlavsa formed his own Plastic People less than a month after Czechoslovakia was invaded by Soviet tanks and Polish troops in September 1968.

Along with keyboardist Josef Janicek and artistic director Ivan Jirous, the Plastic People performed as professional musicians subsidized by the government until January 1970, when their license was revoked due to their refusal to follow Ministry of Culture rules. The band went underground, performing at "weddings," outlaw parties and tribal "happenings," scrounging its equipment together out of spare electronic parts. In 1973 Hlavsa formed DG 307, a side project with poet/sculptor Pavel Zajicek.

The Plastic People recorded their first album, Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned, in 1974. A loose-limbed slab of grungy psychedelia containing surprisingly little political content, the album was smuggled out of the country and released in 1978.

A Hundred Points, a tape of the Third Music Festival of the Second Culture that took place at Havel's country home, was released in 1977. The band's second album, Passion Play, was recorded at Havel's farm in 1978, while the police staked out the area. The group also recorded Leading Horses (1983), the unreleased Slaughterhouse (1984) and Midnight Mouse (1987).

The Plastic People broke up in 1988, following a dispute over what compromises the group was prepared to make to perform at a 1987 Czech rock festival.

Hlavsa subsequently formed Pulnoc (Czech for midnight), who toured the United States in 1989, several months prior to the Velvet Revolution in November, which put Havel into power. Pulnoc recorded City of Hysteria in New York in 1991.

"Hlavsa was a terrific student of Zappa, Beefheart and the Velvet Underground," said former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, who performed with Pulnoc when they appeared in New York in 1998. "I definitely felt a Beefheart connection, especially rhythmically."

In 1997 the Plastic People reunited to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Charter 77. That same year Hlavsa formed another band, Fiction. In 1999 the Plastic People performed at the White House with Lou Reed.

Hlavsa was recording new music with the Plastic People when he learned that the lung cancer he fell ill with in May had spread to his brain. ~http://www.sonicnet.com/

   
     

NY TIMES

Milan Hlavsa, Rock Star of a Revolution, Dies at 49

By JON PARELES

Milan Hlavsa, the founder, composer and bassist of the Plastic People of the Universe, an underground Czech rock band that galvanized a movement for human rights and democracy, died Friday at his home in Prague. He was 49.

The cause was cancer, the group's management said.

While countless rock bands tout themselves as revolutionary, the Plastic People are among the handful who can claim they changed history. The group persisted for two decades in the face of harassment and imprisonment while its members were treated as dissidents by the Communist government of Czechoslovakia during the 1970's and 80's.

When the Plastic People were arrested along with other underground Czech rockers in 1976, a coalition of students, artists and intellectuals arose to defend the band. That coalition turned into the human rights movement that brought democracy to Czechoslovakia in 1989. Yet the Plastic People, Mr. Hlavsa said in a 1988 interview, were not political. "We were dissidents against our will," he said.

Mr. Hlavsa began playing rock 'n' roll as a teenager in the mid-1960's. His first band was called the New Electric Potatoes, and he also played in the Blue Monsters, the Vagabonds and the Undertakers. He started the Plastic People of the Universe in September 1968, shortly after Russian tanks rolled into Prague to install a new regime and suppress the liberalization known as Prague Spring.

The Plastic People had been listening to American bands including the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, the Mothers of Invention, the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart and the Fugs, and at first they played versions of their American favorites. In 1969, two members of another band, the Primitives Group, joined the Plastic People: Josef Janicek, on keyboards, and Ivan Jirous, who became the group's artistic director. Mr. Jirous wrote manifestos about a "second culture," an artistic underground that would ignore the official state culture, and the Plastic People spearheaded the movement.

From 1968 to 1970, the Plastic People were recognized as professionals by the government, which provided equipment, rehearsal space and official bookings. But the group's license was revoked in 1970. So the band scrounged instruments and Mr. Janicek built homemade amplifiers using speakers from transistor radios. Members took day jobs, and the band performed free at parties and high school dances. The group's sporadic shows were hippie-style happenings. Members wore quasi-tribal costumes and warpaint or white satin gowns and had a large flying saucer and a sign proclaiming "Jim Morrison Is Our Father" onstage.

The Plastic People's lyrics, like the band's name, were in English at first because the band associated English with the sound of rock 'n' roll. A Canadian graduate student, Paul Wilson, joined the band from 1970 to 1972 as vocalist, guitarist and Czech-to-English translator for lyrics until, in the early 1970's, the band began singing in Czech.

In 1972 the saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec, who was a generation older than the other band members and steeped in modern jazz, joined the Plastic People on the condition that they perform their own material exclusively. Mr. Hlavsa came up with music that merged Slavic dissonances with his own adamant bass lines and a psychedelic drone; Mr. Brabenec's saxophone pushed toward free jazz, while Jiri Kabes added caustic viola lines.

Their first album, "Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned," was released by Czech émigrés in France; the lyrics were by Egon Bondy, a poet who had been banned since the Russian invasion. Later, Mr. Brabenec wrote most of the lyrics. The Plastic People's songs were generally surreal and black-humored — only one, "Hundred Points," was openly political — but any deviation from the optimism of official culture was risky. In 1973, Mr. Hlavsa started a side project: DG307, an avant-gardist collaboration with the poet Pavel Zajicek.

The Plastic People's professional status was reinstated in 1973, only to be rescinded two weeks later. The Prague booking agency ruled that the band's music was morbid and would have a "negative social impact" on Czech youth.

The group was allowed to perform only at private events. Since Czech law allowed couples to book their own wedding entertainment, many of the Plastic People's friends got married.

"We felt more like a guerrilla group than a rock 'n' roll band," Mr. Hlavsa said in 1989. "We didn't play this role intentionally — it was forced upon us from outside."

As early as 1971, the police had interrogated band members, and in 1973 Mr. Jirous served a 10-month prison sentence for calling an old man a "baldheaded Bolshevik." In 1974, the police stopped a scheduled Plastic People concert in South Bohemia before it began. They rounded up fans, beat many, expelled dozens from school and imprisoned six.

In 1976, after rockers presented what they called a festival of the second culture, the police cracked down further. In a sweep of the rock underground, there were 27 arrests. The Plastic People's equipment was seized, along with many people's photos, tapes and books; more than 100 people were interrogated. Seven received prison terms for "organized disturbance of the peace," including Mr. Zajicek, Mr. Brabenec and Mr. Jirous.

Intellectuals, including the playwright Vaclav Havel, publicly supported the musicians. The intellectuals' response became a formal human rights movement named Charter 77. "Before the trial, the circles of the writers and the poets and the artists were separate," Mr. Brabenec said in 1989. "Afterward, they worked together."

The Plastic People continued to perform and record despite increasing police pressure. Mr. Jirous was arrested repeatedly and spent much of the 1980's in jail for such offenses as reading a protest poem in public. The band's music became bleaker, more gnarled and more elaborate.

"When you only play twice a year, there is plenty of time to work on the music," Mr. Hlavsa said in 1989. The Plastic People recorded the albums "Passion Play" and "Leading Horses" on Mr. Havel's farm, which the secret police then burned down. Mr. Brabenec emigrated to Canada in 1982 after repeated arrests, interrogations and threats.

Yet the Plastic People continued to perform when they could through the 1980's. They made one more album, "Midnight Mouse," in December 1987; it was released by a company in the Netherlands. There were hints from the government in 1987 that the band would be allowed to perform, either as the Plastic People or under another name, and possibly to tour abroad. But in 1988 the group fragmented.

Mr. Hlavsa formed a new group, Pulnoc (Czech for midnight), which included Mr. Janicek and Mr. Kabes, and in the spring of 1989 it toured the United States. It was the eve of what Czechs called the Velvet Revolution, which forced the hard-line Communist government from power in November 1989. Mr. Havel became president of Czechoslovakia.

Pulnoc recorded an album, "City of Hysteria," in New York City in 1991. The Plastic People reunited in 1997 to mark the 20th anniversary of Charter 77 and recorded a live album. In 1999, the group toured the United States and performed with Lou Reed from the Velvet Underground at the White House before Presidents Clinton and Havel.

Mr. Hlavsa had surgery for lung cancer in May 2000. He was rehearsing new music with the Plastic People when he became ill again and doctors discovered that the cancer had spread to his brain. He is survived by his wife, Jana Nemcova; a son, Stepan; a daughter, Magdalena; a brother, Vaclav; and his mother.

"Rock 'n' roll is the medium to express the situation of man in this world and the world to come," Mr. Hlavsa said in 1989. "We don't do the music just for the sake of music. You must be the author of your own life."

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All-Music Guide

This band's debut may well have been one of the most amazing and radical records to be released during the punk era (or any era for that matter), recorded under the most extreme conditions in the years before punk rock was a reality (1973-74). Prague's Plastic People of the Universe, and the band they later became, Pulnoc, remain one of rock & roll's great stories of triumph and how great music can be produced and survive even in the most hostile of environments.

The band was founded in 1968 soon after 500, 000 Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia. With the Kremlin not being particularly fond of Western-style rock that wasn't sanctioned by the state, the Plastic People, to paraphrase the Jefferson Airplane, quickly became outlaws in the eyes of Moscow (and the ruling Soviet government in Prague). From 1970 until the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989 that ended Soviet domination, the Plastic People lived a mostly illegal existence, with two of their members, Ivan Jirous and Jaroslav Vozniak, doing lengthy stretches in prison.

Influenced by Zappa, English progressive rock/radical politicos Henry Cow, Captain Beefheart, and the Velvet Underground, the Plastic People appropriated the avant-garde leanings and anti-authoritarian outrage of these bands while working in their own sense of dread and desperation. Remember, according to Soviet law, they could not record, press and distribute albums or play gigs; still, they did all three surreptitiously, with the help of their numerous artist friends who made up an indefatigable support network known as the Invisible Organization.

Although all of their music remained unheard outside of Eastern Europe (or Czechoslovakia for that matter), their first record was released in the West in 1978. Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned was not a proper record in the sense that the Plastic People entered a studio with the intent to record a "rock" record that would be placed into mass circulation. The reality was that these were grubby, low-fi demo recordings made by friends on primitive equipment and released without the band's knowledge. It also marked the first time the poetry of Czech dissident Egon Bondy was heard outside of Czechoslovakia. Bondy wrote lyrics that meshed perfectly with the Plastic People's cacophonous sound: harsh, dissonant soloing over repetitive odd-metered rhythms. It remains dense, challenging music, totally oblivious to the state-approved pop music.

A ferocious government crackdown on the Plastic People and their supporters occurred in 1976.

Many of them were jailed, their meager instruments and recording equipment confiscated or destroyed, all in the hope that this troublesome group of avant-garde artistic political radicals would finally be stopped. The problem was that Czech government officials didn't realize that the music of the Plastic People was being listened to in the West (thanks to favorable reviews of Egon Bondy's in the British music press and in America in the Village Voice) and that groups such as Amnesty International were now wondering why these musicians were being persecuted and jailed without trial. Although never reaching the fever pitch of, say, Nelson Mandela's incarceration, it wasn't long before the plight of the Plastic People became better known to an outraged Western pop community. After being released from prison, the band managed two more releases in the '80s that were (and still are) extremely difficult to find, unless you lived in New York.

After 15 years of struggle, incarceration, harassment and violence, the Plastic People quietly disbanded in 1984, but in no way stopped their anti-government activities. Finally, in 1988, a year before the "Velvet Revolution" and the ascendancy of the poet/writer Vaclav Havel (a longtime supporter and occasional lyricist for the Plastic People) to the presidency, the band was given government permission to perform under the name Pulnoc ("Midnight"). With three original Plastic People in the group (Milan Hlavsa, Josef Janicek, and Jiří Kabeš), Pulnoc recorded an extraordinary debut for Arista in 1991 (City of Hysteria), and a difficult-to-find live cassette recorded at New York's vaunted experimental performance space P.S. 122. Unlike the radical, dissonant sounds of the Plastic People, Pulnoc had a more traditional guitar-based rock sound and production polish, but its accessibility in no way detracts from its greatness as a record. For reasons unknown to me, there has been little music from Pulnoc since City of Hysteria, though there was a reunion and tour of the country in 1997. But, whatever the case, this story had a much happier ending that anyone could have anticipated. Although much work is required in finding what little recorded work they made, the payoff is well worth the effort. — John Dougan

 

      
 

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For more information on the Plastics and other great Czech music, see the Tamizdat site. More info: http://terra.pl/pepik/plastic.html http://www.forcedexposure.com/artists/plastic.people.of.the.universe.html http://www.mindspring.com/~czechmusic/plasticpeople/theband.html
See also: Milan Hlavsa - "Sílenství"

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