Saturday will be a post-Red-letter day for Eastern Bloc rock-watchers in Los Angeles.
After enduring a seemingly endless stream of corporate-rock wanna-bes and preciously dissonant dissidents, they'll get to see Czechoslovakia's Pulnoc--perhaps the one truly great band from Eastern Europe--finally make its Southern California concert debut at Al's Bar downtown.
Pulnoc (pronounced POOL-notes and meaning midnight ) was founded by three former members of the Plastic People of the Universe, the most celebrated Eastern Bloc underground band of the '70s. But even those familiar with the Plastic People were unprepared for the musical sophistication and power Pulnoc showed during a brief U.S. tour in the spring of 1989.
A show at San Francisco's Kennel Club revealed the septet as a bold musical entity, combining monolithic riffing (part art-rock, part Velvet Underground) and the operatic vocals of young Michaela (Misha) Nemcova. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau went so far as to name a bootleg tape of a Pulnoc show in New York show as the best album of 1989. But Pulnoc was unable to arrange an Los Angeles date then.
A lot has happened in the meantime, not the least of which was the November revolution in Czechoslovakia that gave Pulnoc founder Milan (Mejla) Hlavsa artistic freedom for the first time in his 20-year rock career and elevated his longtime associate, playwright Vaclav Havel, to the country's presidency.
But fans need not fear that the new Czech politics have diluted Pulnoc's music.
"The revolution didn't influence us at all," Hlavsa, 39, said through a translator by phone from San Francisco, where Pulnoc opened a short U.S. tour Wednesday.
"We just go on making music," he said. "The only thing now is we don't have to be afraid that there should be problems after concerts. Secret policemen used to come to the shows. These problems are over now."
The highlight of post-revolution living for Hlavsa, as much as seeing his friend become president, was getting a chance to meet and perform with his idol, Lou Reed. Reed was in Prague to interview Havel for Rolling Stone magazine and joined Pulnoc in performance at a small art gallery. Later, Pulnoc was the opening act for a one-time reunion of Reed's Velvet Underground in Paris.
"That was like a dream come true," Hlavsa said of the Prague concert with Reed. "He was surprised we knew all the Velvet Underground songs. Whatever song he chose, we knew it."
Hlavsa, a leader in the long struggle for artistic freedom, has looked on as other bands have tried to capitalize on the revolution.
"Many groups and artists who didn't do anything before the revolution to fight for freedom are now trying to present it like they were fighters," he said.
"We never wanted to be political," he said. "But our existence was at times."
Hlavsa remains in contact with Havel, who he said has come to see Pulnoc more often since becoming president than he did before, but Hlavsa has no desire to serve in the government with him. "Maybe if Havel would make a rock 'n' roll (office) I would do it," he said, laughing.
Likewise, Hlavsa has little interest in taking on the pressures of stardom. For now, he is content playing regularly but still makes his living as he has since before the revolution, manufacturing plastic bags at home.
"We prefer not to be professional musicians," he said. "It would influence our music in a bad way. We would have to play too often and we are afraid the music wouldn't be so good and we wouldn't enjoy it as much."
Still, Pulnoc is looking for a U.S. record deal and hopes to have an album recorded within six months.
"I cannot say I wouldn't like (having success here), of course," he said. "But we don't try to do that. We care more about artistic considerations than financial."
So far, though, the band's experience in the United States--two small-club tours on shoestring budgets--has not made a great impression.
"I wouldn't like to come back home as a good, well-trained homeless person," he said, half-jokingly.