robert zverina

sample works > writing > Plastic People of the Universe @ Sit-n-Spin, Seattle - March 10, 1999





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The Plastic People of the Universe are strangers in a strange land. A progressive rock band from Prague that formed in the wake of the 1968 Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia, they played illicit shows in deep woods and remote farmhouses until finally in 1976 two of their members were imprisoned for "disturbing the peace." The 1989 Velvet Revolution vindicated them and made them heroes. Now well into middle age, they reunited for their first and probably last tour of the United States.

"Nobody nowhere never got anywhere."

The grayhaired sax player Vratislav Brabenec reads from a card to announce the next song. On the back of the card is pasted a page from a family restaurant menu. At which latenight diner stop on their tour did this band from the Czech Republic see the menu and what was it about this idealized photo of fast food which prompted them to keep it?

PPU has never been taken in by appearances, neither the utopian dreams of communist orthodoxy nor the post-Soviet Horatio Alger lies of a free market economy. For former enemies of the state they are refreshingly apolitical, singing about ulcers and hangovers rather than spouting manifestoes. Their appearance is unassuming and a little bit worn; any one of them would look at home hunched over a city park chessboard. But like the old guy in a rusted junker next to you at a light, they may not look like much but they'll whup your candy ass off the line.

They sing in Czech but little of the meaning is lost even to their American audiences because the substance of their songs is the music, not the lyrics. The brief introductions are the only English that is spoken all night but it is enough. As with jazz it is the mere suggestion of a theme which sets the stage for the aural play they are about to perform.

After introducing the song, Brabenec removes his eyeglasses and hooks them over his music stand. He removes his glasses because he does not need them to feel out the notes with his fingers. And I close my eyes because I don't need them to see what Frank Zappa--who along with Lou Reed was an early influence on PPU--would have called "a movie for your ears," in this case with a script that could have been written by Kafka, a Prague denizen of another time.

Lead man Milan Hlavsa's bass has a Peter Gunn flavor, bringing to mind a midnight creep through cloak and dagger streets. The short violent strokes of Jiri Kabes' electric viola move through the mind's eye like a flashing knife. Somehwere down the street are faint tinkling keys of a gin joint pianola and a blues guitarist busks for nickels in the shelter of a doorway, his amp illegally plugged into a telephone pole. Subways, trams, the shuffle of feet are called to mind by the drumbeat. All of it sets up Brabenec's free jazz sax riffs which swoop in like angry birds to pluck out your eyes. Dream logic applies so although I am blind I can track their upward spiral as the blown notes crescendo and the birds disappear into the sky. I shake myself from the vision in time to see Brabenec convulsing with each soul-wrenching note as if each were his last gasp and he wanted it to make the maximum noise.

The song ends and the audience applauds. The movie screen behind my eyes is blank again. The band collects itself, sips on their drinks. Brabenec turns the page, ready to introduce the next song.

"There's a fly in my morning beer," he reads, and a new film begins.

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First published at earpollution.com

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