A Prague Spring for Rock 'n' Roll : Czechoslovakia's new-found freedom is followed up by a pop music explosion

On Wenceslaus Square, where the Czech Revolution swept hundreds of thousands up in joyous celebration last fall, pedestrians scurry for shelter as a cold drizzle falls.

But down a side street in the Lucerna, an imposing, Art Nouveau building built by President Vaclav Havel's family, 3,000 overheated Czechs are swaying to the rock beat of the first free Prague spring since 1968.

In an event that would have landed the participants in jail eight months ago, they have gathered for a benefit concert whose proceeds will go toward efforts to legalize marijuana and abolish the death penalty.

Five bands spanning two generations are playing, and the music ranges from straight-ahead rock 'n' roll by Hudba Praha (which means Prague Music) to rock with emotionally charged, U2-like lyrics from Toyen, to Captain Beefheart-inspired hard-core by Bad Beef Hat, whose members wear long, baggy shorts, flip-flops and T-shirts with dollar signs and the logo of Los Angeles punk band Black Flag.

At intermission, a cannabis flag unfurls from the stage and the late reggae singer Peter Tosh, captured forever on videotape, wails out the evening's anthem: his song titled "Legalize It."

Unlike Hungary, or even Poland, where change crept up slowly during the last decade, Czechoslovakia languished under one of the most repressive Communist governments in Eastern Europe, but won its freedom suddenly last fall with a big bang.

Now, as it settles into democracy under newly elected president Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakian music is also in transition, as bands explore the novel possibilities of writing lyrics on any topic, making records, touring abroad and cracking political jokes on stage without fear of reprisal.

For now, their biggest challenge is shaking off the totalitarian past and learning to live with freedom. Despite the obvious torment of a society that suppressed human rights, there was a definite order to Communism. And its retreat has left a spiritual and material vacuum.

"Before the Revolution, everything was very clear," says Misha Ambroz, the lead singer and guitarist for Hudba Praha. "Now there is a lot of confusion and chaos. All the contexts of the old system have been broken and the new system hasn't been born yet."

But progress is being made. Prague's music scene today is a heady and intoxicating mix of wild styles where artistry submerged for more than 40 years now bubbles to the surface in every conceivable way:

There's also a rap duo that, yup, raps in Czech.

A 25-year-old entrepreneur who adores Nick Cave and the West German industrial musicians Einsturzende Neubauten is starting his own alternative record label--an alternative both to the government-owned major labels and to the mainstream Czech rock that these labels record.

A tattooed, 250-pound punk musician with a shaved head speaks fondly of trafficking in porno movies when he lived in L.A. 10 years ago.

Songs about bad guys are routinely dedicated to the Communists. Those about the triumph of the spirit, on the other hand, are universally dedicated to Havel, whose beaming portrait adorns the windows of many Prague establishments. And much of the best music continues the tradition of minor key music and Slavic chord changes that makes the best Czech rock 'n' roll so distinctive.

Two common threads unite these disparate characters: they glow with optimism about the possibilities of life under a post-Communist government, and they identify fiercely and personally with Czechoslovakia's playwright president, whom everyone--even the hard-core musician Vincent--refers to respectfully as "Mr. Havel."

"I always had a big question in my mind whether to defect and go live in Berlin," explains David Berdych, the alternative record-label czar. "But on Nov. 17 (when the Czech Revolution started), I was there on the front lines. For the first time, I felt I didn't need to find another place to live, that I needn't even think about it. I like Prague, and now I feel everything in Prague is at point zero. Everything is just beginning."

But today's freedom also brings the dilemma of whether musicians should translate their lyrics into English to reach a larger audience. Should bands switch to English and sacrifice the cadence and cultural integrity of their native songs? Or should they stick to Czech, singing their poignant lyrics to audiences who can't grasp its full message?

While the Western encroachment is sure to come--one band, Pulnoc, has already made a critically praised tour of the United States--Prague's musicians don't feel they have to compete with Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson--for now. They retain a strong sense of identity, and their lyrics--often laced with double- and triple-entendres about political oppression--evoke a solidarity that that will never lose its niche.

"The people will come to Western concerts but they'll always be faithful to our groups," Ambroz says. "We sing about things that only Czech people who have lived under this system can understand."

The late afternoon sun lights up Michaela (Misha) Nemcova's hair like a golden halo as she sits like some latter-day Madonna--the biblical one--in a study lined from floor to ceiling with books. As she talks about Pulnoc, the famous alternative band for which she sings lead vocals, her husband David translates the sibilant Czech into fluid English.

Their family has long fought to maintain its artistic dignity. David's mother, well-known Czech psychologist Vera Nemcova, was jailed by the Communists for signing Charter 77--the human rights petition. Today she sits in Parliament alongside her old friend Havel.

Misha Nemcova, who studied voice at the Prague conservatory for six years, drifted into alternative music because, "I didn't want to sing opera, I wanted to sing actual music with political relevance." After showing the bass guitarist for Pulnoc (Midnight in Czech; pronounced POOL-notes) some of her poems, he convinced her to join the band.

That brought history around full circle for the Nemcovas, since Pulnoc has roots in the legendary Czech band Plastic People of the Universe. It was their arrest in 1976 on trumped-up charges of "disturbing the peace" that galvanized Czechoslovakia's leading artists, writers and intellectuals--including Misha's mother-in-law--to draw up Charter 77.

After seeing one of their U.S. concerts last year, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called them his top band of 1989, rhapsodizing that Pulnoc meshed "trance-like vocals, hypnotic hooks, draggy drones and guitar work not unreminiscent of Neil Young all into an ineluctable four-four that could make you believe in rock 'n' roll future yet again."

Unfortunately, however, Pulnoc tapes aren't available yet in the United States, and circulate among the rock cognoscenti only on homemade cassettes with handwritten titles. And while adulation from Christgau would make most U.S. bands swoon, Pulnoc reacts only with bemused curiosity.

"We don't know this critic," confesses 25-year-old Nemcova. She leans forward on the sofa. "What does it mean?"

Pulnoc hasn't exactly been tracking the charts since the revolution. They've been too busy re-learning how to live.

"We all waited for it but it came so suddenly," Nemcova says. "Now people my age are very happy and have many different ideas. We never lived before in normal circumstances. A year ago, it was impossible to imagine we'd have the possibility to do such things."

One thing they have done is make a record that will be released in Czechoslovakia this summer. Their music is more stripped down and primitive than that of Plastic People, who favored experimental and free-form jazz with lyrics that created a separate universe rather than being overtly political.

Nemcova too has evolved a unique personal style that blends elements of Steve Reich, John Cage, Schoenberg, minimalism and underground poets laced with a deep spiritualism.

"When I was in school I had the idea to sing in a universal voice," she says. "An Italian bel canto, a flat pure voice without any vibrato that would stretch from the lowest to the highest. With this technique, it's possible to sing anything, from romantic songs to opera, any classical and modern music."

She was overwhelmed at the response her music evoked in their U.S. audiences but admits the trip was grueling. Seven months pregnant with twins at the time, she was constantly tired. Often, the band slept on the floors of people's houses. "Sometimes we barely had enough money for hamburgers," she recalls.

Now the mother of twins, Nemcova is summoning up the time and energy to make music once again.

But rock stardom isn't on the agenda of this cross-generational band.

"We don't want to fall into the hole of commercialism," Nemcova says, echoing a common sentiment among alternative Eastern European bands.

"When you are dependent on money, the music is no longer your own."

One day the secret police came to me

And they imprisoned me.

And I didn't understand what I had done.

It must be a strange world.

-- Hudba Praha Picture the old Whisky A Go Go with art on the walls and a 25- to 40-year-old crowd dressed for comfort, not fashion, and you've got a fairly accurate picture of the Junior Club, a longtime bastion of Czech rock 'n' roll in Prague.

In contrast to the more raw, youth-oriented clubs, there is an almost palpable sense of '60s innocence and nostalgia here. The men sport shaggy hair, sideburns and burgeoning beer bellies; many of the women have long, straight hair parted down the center and wear miniskirts or jeans. It's as if the Woodstock generation had closed its eyes for a quick nap in 1968 and woke up to find itself in 1990.

Today's Prague is still a virgin city in many ways, unpolluted by Western pop culture and commercial television. Adidas and McDonald's haven't yet set up camp; Madonna doesn't blare from the tinny speakers in Prague's numerous proletarian eateries.

In fact, one must go to the flea market, where sidewalk vendors hawk Western goods from overflowing gym bags--to find the best selection of rock 'n' roll tapes, heavy-metal posters and cosmetics--often in garish hues.

On weekends, club-goers in their black-market best belly up to the bar at the Junior Club, smoking Sparta cigarettes and drinking coffee, beer, wine and Fernet Stock, a digestive liqueur distilled from bitter herbs.

Those with less stalwart stomachs, like Ivana Franova, mix their Fernet Stock with Coke.

Delicate, with broad Slavic cheekbones and long flowing hair, Franova is an English teacher and former rock 'n' roll singer who says her favorite artists are the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed and Frank Zappa.

And Hudba Praha, of course. Franova used to sing with them up until 1982, when she quit to concentrate on studying English.

Tonight, Franova is singing under her breath as Hudba Praha singer Ambroz launches into "The Beast," a song to which all Czechs can relate. It includes the lyric "The beast has the face of a human being." Ambroz dedicates the song to the Communists.

"I used to sing this, I sang it with them maybe 100 times, back when our lyrics were forbidden," Franova says.

After a visit to Prague this year, writer Philip Roth noted that in a censorship culture where everybody lives a double life, literature becomes a life preserver, the remnant of truth that people cling to.

The same was true of alternative rock 'n' roll. While many musicians in Eastern Europe never set out to write political lyrics, the system forced them into it. Now, they find the lines between politics and culture blurring again.

Vladimir Misik, a graying, 43-year-old rocker of the band E.T.C. who wears a happy-face button on his lapel, identifying him as a supporter of Havel's political party Civic Forum, spent most of May touring Bohemia, holding concerts and urging people in that region of Czechoslovakia to vote for Havel in the June elections. "A lot of people are watching TV, are reading newspapers," he says. "They are more interested in going to meetings and rallies, and they don't have much time for music."

But the younger generation disagrees. In clubs with names like New Horizons, Club Rock Cafe, Gallerie Ulov and the very underground 14-16 Club, today's youth rocks to local bands with names like Michael's Uncle, St. Vincent and Plexis. These are three popular fixtures on the Prague music circuit and they play psychedelia, hard-core and metal-punk, drawing more inspiration from Jane's Addiction and Sonic Youth than the Rolling Stones.

Some musicians and entrepreneurs have formed unofficial companies that put on concerts, publish fanzines and run clubs.

Already, certain bands have clustered around specific clubs and promoters hawk crudely made cassette tapes at these venues. The budding entrepreneurs expect to develop ties with independent record shops as they open and even strike deals with state shops to carry their music.

Young promoters are also bringing over Western bands like England's Cassandra Complex. And Berdych says he'd like to arrange concerts for Prince, the Residents, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Lydia Lunch, to name a few.

"People in the West are surprised that we know these bands but we do. We have good connections in Berlin and London," he says.

With 1.2 million residents, Prague is small by L.A. standards and its artistic underground grew up reading the same formerly illegal, self-published journals and listening to Western underground bands such as the Sex Pistols, Pere Ubu, the Damned and Devo, which friends would bring home after travels to Western Europe.

Throughout Central Europe, musicians would tinker with lyrics and arrangements of these Western songs and play the retooled versions live. In Prague, fans identified heartily with lyrics of the Clash's "Guns of Brixton:" "When they bang on your front door/how you gonna come/with your hands on your head/or on the trigger of your gun?"

The easy flow of people and ideas continues today. At concerts, there is little separation between audience and bands. Fans mill around backstage, unencumbered by security guards. Some actually sit on the stage during shows, while others prefer to slam-dance in the pit up front or swirl dreamily in the back of the venue, lost in a world of their own.

One of the most intriguing watering holes in Prague today isn't even a club but an art space called the Ceska Alternativa.

Run by a lanky, 26-year-old impresario named Daniel Bergmann, who wears his curly black hair in a ponytail and speaks five languages with equal ease, the Alternativa functions as a gallery, cafe, bar and performance space for experimental bands and theater troupes.

It attracts suburban-looking couples with babies in tow; Johnny Rotten wanna-be's in hardware-festooned leather jackets, and young attaches from the Brazilian embassy in Prague who bring their own liqueur and samba tapes to share with the locals.

But one tenet remains: The nation that claims Milan Kundera, Franz Kafka and of course, President-playwright Vaclav Havel believes that words are tantamount.

"Our songs are very focused on the lyrics, which isn't so important in the States," says Peter Kumandzas, the 28-year-old lead singer for a new Prague band called Egypt. The Czechs also identify strongly with the 1960s, especially Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground, whom many musicians cite as the important influences. One Prague band, called the Velvet Underground Revival, sings songs only by its namesake.

Zappa's biting lyrics resonate closely with the Czech sense of the absurd. His songs about government control and totalitarianism struck a familiar chord here.

"The Czechs fought against the regime with this type of black humor," says George Smrcek, manager of the Junior Club, long a Prague oasis for the progressive arts. "We didn't fight with guns, we fought with humor. The absurdity helped young people go through those times."

Next week: Inside the even more grim rock scene in Budapest.

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