Friday, January 11, 2008

Plastic People of the Universe!

This story about Tom Stoppard's new play Rock 'n' Roll, about the band, brought a lot of memories back in a flood.

Plastic People of the Universe was (and possibly is) a rock band that formed in 1968 in Czechoslovakia under the dark cloud of the Communist regime, and is credited as being the underground soundtrack of the Velvet Revolution - their albums were pressed and distributed clandestinely and gigs held in secret. I've only heard two of their records: Muž bez uší is live lo-fi garage masterpiece, borne of the dark seeds of, well, The Seeds, Dylan and brooding Eastern European poetry and the turbulent times in which it recorded. It is in many ways a party record, and without understanding a lick of the language, you can feel the desperation of the young seeing their future crushed under tank treads and jackboots, but it is till about the burning sensation of rock 'n' roll. When you get to the speech "Magor UmravnugePublikum Ve Silenci" the album turns dissonant and darker, with violins and screeches haunting the streets, flutes and bells tolling out the dim future before them and Mothers of Invention-grade rock white dwarf implosions.

Their proper album Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned, continues this mood with more clarity. The sound is if The Dirty Three was augmented by a junior acolyte of Albert Ayler on sax and Einsturzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld on vocals. If none of that means anything to you, its a lonely fiddle, a lonely guitar, and fiery sax and dissident poet Egon Bondy trying to inspire some truth and revolution. The quality of it betrays the undoubtable shoestring budget on which it was recorded, but the spirit of it rings right through all that.

Vaclav Havel the poet and playwright that later became the
last president of Czechoslavakia and the first of the new Czeck repullic in the early 90's, was a lyricist and champion for The Plastic People, and his writing of the Charter 77 manifesto inspired by the imprisonment of the band led to his own incarceration, which only fueled his revolutionary fire. His most famous play Largo Desolato is a tense absurd depiction of a writer facing what he must write even if it means he might die in prison for it.

Around the time that he became the rock 'n' roll president of the Czechs with Bono and Lou Reed and the world's hopeful toasting his victory, LSU put on a production of Largo Desolato in a starting display of cultural currency, and my girlfriend was set to star in the play. The summer semester before is the one I refer to with acknowledges preciousness as "my Artaud summer," which was spent in an un-air-conditioned dorm room sweating and losing my mind. I was doing a semester-long paper on the mad French playwright, and in pretentious undergrad fashion, was feeling it to a ridiculous degree.

I remember freaking the fuck out on my girlfriend over some perceived slight on my part where I took off running. In typical convenient fashion, it was right before some big weekend where we were going somewhere and some friends of hers were going to be staying in my dorm, so the pressures of the universe compelled me to freak out. I remember running in a panic, and then looking up as a cloud stood still for a second, then moved in right on the moon, stood another second and then moved away.

This had terrible signifigance for my fevered ego. It was like getting a wink from God, telling me to pull my shit together - that I had a fine-ass girlfriend who would have sex with me all the time in that terrible little room and was afforded the liberties to freak the fuck out. I staggered over to her dorm where she patiently awaited my eventual re-emergence and the weekend got on its way.

My paper, at least in mine and my teacher's mind was a rousing success - a detailed vivisection of the easy symbolism his 3-page play "The Spurt of Blood." I was cocky enough to submit it to Andre Codrescui's Exquisite Corpse (Andre was/and still is a poetry teacher at LSU, and like with everybody in Baton Rouge, I had an in) and he was wise enough to pass on it without comment. It opened with a quote form Bauhaus' melodramatic "Antonin Artaud" and had the phrase - Antonin Artaud was a gone, gone crazy motherfucker in its opening paragraph. My fragile spirit could not have handled the truth that this was drivel and I was a completely transparent and obvious clown. In my mind then (and frequently now) I was electric with poetry! Zap! My girlfriend was taking Andre's poetry seminar that summer, where they would meet as his apartment which was decorated, in her description, as a matress surrounded by French pornography. She was the star undergrad poet at the time, the dean's daughter, and I was her boyfriend, and we spent nearly every fevered sweating moment together. It was glorious.

When the sunlight of the fall semester rose, and we were no longer isolated souls in the heat but were instead surrounded by actual people all the time, she grew tired of being a lunatic's paramour. Her mom was a psychiatrist, and apparently had wisely informed her that her
boyfriend as described was an imbalanced anchor to her future achievements and she was better off pursuing her own pursuits. In other words, things were not has they had been just weeks before.

She tried out for Largo Desolato and got a medium sized part at the writer's flighty lover, and spent every waking hour in practice. I was forced to forage out in the wilderness and find new friends and eventually a new girlfirend who shared my taste in records and was thankfully devoid of the pervious girlfriend's ardent hippie happiness. Her favorite band was The Doors, for fuck's sake, and the new girlfriend had Joy Division posters on her wall. The new girlfriend smoked and was my speed. The transition took a couple weeks, which was like years in hormonal college time. Our true breakup came after running into her in the Union, and I confessed in what I thought was gentlemanly candor that this is not what I wanted, and for the first time in our relationship, she was the one that broke down in tears. Not out of losing me, but in shear exasperation, of the pressures of being in a play and being the star poet and being fucking nineteen and he comes me, adding to that with my declaration. Somehow, we managed to not see each other, even in passing, for the rest of the semester, until the night of her play.

I had to see this play since, in my mind, it cost me my girlfriend, and she was pretty good in it. Not great though - maybe it was the part that she was supposed to be stilted and flighty. It was a weird feeling - I was expecting her to be transcendent in it considering her participation in it had been such a trial for me, but the whole event was a letdown. I was a vegetarian back then, and the best thing about being a vegetarian was how easy it was to do something defiant and wrong, so I slumped down to the ATM off campus with the Joy Division tape my new girlfriend made for me in my busted walkman and extracted $10 to get a hamburger at the Wendy's next door, a celebratory feast of something significant and pathetic at once, a dull tableau in honor of the machinations of life. I turned and there she was, with a gaggle of lanky imbeciles from the play, for the first time in months. She had not noticed it was me in line.

Oh hey! Hey. I just saw the play. Oh! I didn't know you were there! What did you think? and I think I had the boorish gall to say The play was great, letting a little venom drip in my emphasis. I glanced right off her; she was in her moment though and off to celebrate the good life, and I was headed for a Double with Cheese and a walk in the dark back to my girlfriend's apartment. I mentioned it was cool that Vaclav Havel had just been elected president of Czechoslovakia and she looked stunned. "Really? Like just recently?" "Um yeah, like in the past week. Nobody mentioned it?" "No we've been so immersed in rehearsals! Wow, that is so cool."

Really? These people were so self-absorbed that they were completely unaware that the man whose words they were living for weeks at a stretch was making headlines? Even I knew that. Artaud was barking from his grave, waving in the air the one shoe he was found clutching when he died, telling me I followed the right horse that summer. My hatred of theater people has persisted ever since. The Czech's shouted "We have clean hands!" at the police in the streets of Prague in 1989, holding flowers against their vanquishers' guns and while my liberation was infinitely less significant and far easier won, I left here with a terse hug and congrats and marched triumphant to the hamburger awaiting me at the hall of heroes next door.

More info on The Plastic People of the universe at the ever perfect Perfect Sound Forever, and at their official web page.


  1. As of this post I've started a list titled 'Narratives with Cheeseburger Denouements.' I'm curious to see long it takes to add item #2. Great story!

  2. It was a real delight to read this.
    ...It's always great to read about events people and music that marked my birth in context of ordinary life -it makes it all real, gives a(nother) form to it- but when it is a life of someone across the ocean, it's even bit mystical.