“Rock and roll wasn’t just music to us, it was life itself.” Timeless words from the heart of rock and roll, spoken by Milan Hlavsa, founder of The Plastic People of the Universe, the words resonate with the force of history. On Thursday, April 30th, the band will give a free open-air concert in the courtyard of the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv, as a prelude to their live appearance on May 2nd and 3rd in “Rock ‘n’ Roll” at the Cameri Theatre.
Image credit: Robert Loerzel photos of Plastic People of the Universe in Chicago
Hlavsa, who died in 2001, founded the Czech avant-garde rock group in September 1968. Just one month earlier, in August, the forces of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia in response to the brief interval of freedom introduced by Czechoslovakian Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek – a time known as Prague Spring. Taking its name from a song by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, “Plastic People”, the band was influenced by Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground.
The art critic Ivan Jirous became their manager, bringing guitarist Josef Janíček, viola player Jiří Kabeš, and Canadian Paul Wilson to the group. Wilson taught the band (which initially sang only in English) the lyrics to American songs and translated lyrics of songs in Czech until he left the group in 1972. Joined by saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec, the group began to work almost exclusively with the texts of Czech philosopher-poet Egon Bondy, whose writing was banned by the government.
The simple desire to make music led the band on a political odyssey which was to have extensive ramifications. With their musician’s license revoked in 1970, the band came to symbolize the struggle for artistic freedom, recording in secret and holding their concerts in remote locations. In 1974, police attacked 1,000 fans that had arrived in the town of České Budějovice for a performance, beating and arresting hundreds.
Jirous introduced Václav Havel (Czech President 1989 – 2003) to the group’s music, playing songs on a tape-recorder, of which Havel later wrote: “There was disturbing magic in the music, and a kind of inner warning. Here was something serious and genuine…truth was on their side…in their music was an experience of metaphysical sorrow and a longing for salvation.” Havel arranged to attend the group’s next secret concert, but that concert was not to take place, as several of the group’s members were arrested for “organized disturbance of the peace.” His outrage at this arrest inspired Havel to organize a campaign on their behalf, which was the initial seed of the human rights movement “Charter 77”.
Disbanded in 1988, a year before the Velvet Revolution ended communist rule in Czecholoslovakia, the group reformed at the request of Havel to perform at the 20th anniversary of Charter 77.
This confluence of music and history is literally brought to life as the group performs in Tom Stoppard’s play “Rock ‘n’ Roll”. The current members of “The Plastic People of the Universe” are: Vratislav Brabenec , Jiří Kabeš, Josef Janíček, Joe Karafiát, Ludvik Kandl and Eva Turnova.
The Plastic People of the Universe perform in Tel Aviv as part of the Cameri Theatre’s First International Theatre Festival, marking the centenary of the city of Tel Aviv-Yafo. This ambitious project is supported by the Municipality of Tel Aviv, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Israeli Ministry of Science, Culture & Sport, HaPoalim Bank and the Marc Rich Foundation for Education, Culture and Welfare.
The Embassy of the Czech Republic in Israel has helped bring the National Theatre’s production of Tom Stoppard’s play “Rock ‘n’ Roll” and this unique concert to Israeli audiences. Czech Ambassador Michael Žantovský will be in attendance at the concert. Come celebrate music, freedom and spring in Tel Aviv on April 30th!
The Plastic People of the Universe – Free concert
22:00 Thursday, April 30th
Israeli Opera Courtyard
19 Shaul Hamelech Avenue