Frank Zappa and Eastern Europe: Absolutely Free
On June 24, 1991, Frank Zappa took the stage for the first time in three years. Under any other circumstances, the return of one of the most inventive and influential guitarists of all time would have made headlines, but it was even more special – a concert held in Prague to mark the withdrawal of troops Soviets from Czechoslovakia.
Zappa was the guest of honor and performed a solo during a set by local favorites Pražský výběr. He then performed the same role six days later to mark the Soviet withdrawal from Hungary. He had accepted the invitation despite being rusty, as he had said. Musician magazine before the shows, “I’m faced with a little dilemma that will hit me in the face on Thursday. I go to Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and I was invited because they have big parties. The last Russian soldier leaves Czechoslovakia on the 24th and Hungary on the 30th, and they want me to bring my guitar and play. And I haven’t touched it for years. I have no calluses!
Despite his apprehensions, Zappa was visibly moved when he addressed the adoring Czech public, saying, “I’m sure you already know this, but this is just the beginning of your new future in this country, and as you face the new changes that will take place, please try to keep your country unique. Don’t change into something else, keep it unique.
Frank Zappa’s music had not been officially released in Czechoslovakia until 1989’s “The Velvet Revolution” – a nonviolent movement that saw the overthrow of the communist government. Under Soviet rule, there had been intense censorship and blacklisting of Western culture to prevent subversive ideas from taking hold among young people. Zappa’s music represented an irresistible freedom of expression for the younger generation of Czechs and his music became popular through underground smuggling. “Plastic People” – the opening track from the second studio album by Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention, completely free – even inspired the name of Czech underground band The Plastic People Of The Universe. This group became key to the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia, thanks to their incarceration in 1976, which in turn led to Charter 77 – a document signed by notable Czech cultural figures who criticized the government’s human rights record. humans.
One of the architects of Charter 77 was Vaclav Havel, playwright and activist. In his hugely influential 1978 essay, The power of the helplessHavel explained the importance of the persecution of The Plastic People Of The Universe, “Everyone understands that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on the most basic and important thing, something that bound everyone… The freedom to play rock music was understood as human freedom and therefore as essentially the same as the freedom to engage in philosophical and political reflection, the freedom to write, express and to defend the social and political interests of society.
Havel would go on to lead the Velvet Revolution and become President of Czechoslovakia in 1989. One of the leaders of Havel’s party, the Civic Forum, was Michael Kocáb, a member of the popular Czech band The Jazz Section. Kocáb was a great admirer of Zappa’s music, and a mutual friend had arranged a meeting when Kocáb was visiting the United States in 1989. As Zappa later recalled, “At that time, [Kocáb] was a famous Czech rock musician…and he invited me to Prague to play some of my orchestral music. Then, a few months later, there was a revolution, and he was not just a rock musician, but an MP.
A cultural emissary for Czechoslovakia
Kocáb arranged for Zappa to visit Czechoslovakia and meet Havel, and, on January 20, 1990, Zappa arrived at Prague’s Ruzyne Airport to an unexpected welcome. He was greeted by 5,000 fans, chanting and waving handmade banners. Zappa was surprised by the reception: “It was incredible! Never in 25 years in rock ‘n’ roll have I ever got off a plane and seen something like this. They were totally unprepared for the situation, there was no security, but the people were just wonderful!
Over the next few days, Zappa received the royal treatment with a series of meetings with influential Czech figures (including members of The Plastic People Of The Universe), culminating in a meeting at Prague Castle with Havel. Zappa said: “So I was in the Oval Office or something and the president is talking about Captain Beefheart and rock ‘n’ roll and I think, ‘Is this The Twilight Zone or what?'” During a series of conversations, Zappa impressed Havel with innovative ideas about commerce and communications, which led to Havel’s announcement that Zappa would represent Czechoslovakia on trade, tourism and cultural matters.
Within weeks, an intervention by then-US Secretary of State James A. Baker reduced Zappa’s role to that of an unofficial cultural emissary. Zappa and Baker had a history – the musician had been an outspoken critic of The Music Resource Center for Parents, a pro-censorship group that Baker’s wife, Susan, had co-founded. Havel’s press secretary released a statement saying, “We love Frank Zappa, but he is not authorized to negotiate trade deals with our government.” Although Zappa was forced to step down from his proposed role, the episode shows the enormous esteem in which he was held.
A statue in Lithuania
Frank Zappa’s popularity in Czechoslovakia was matched throughout Eastern Europe. In March 1990, Lithuania also declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Over the next few years, Soviet statues were torn down as the nation sought to regain its national identity. After Zappa’s death in 1993, Vilnius-based photographer Saulius Paukstys saw the musician as an ideal candidate for a statue, as he later said. The Guardian, “We were desperate to find a symbol that would mark the end of communism, but at the same time express that it was not always catastrophic.” Paukstys’ idea gained momentum and eventually Konstantinas Bogdanas – a 70-year-old artist who had done many Soviet statues all those years before – was commissioned to sculpt a bust of Zappa.
The bust took pride of place in a downtown square and was unveiled in a ceremony featuring a marching band playing Zappa songs and fireworks. Zappa’s popularity skyrocketed – a local radio station even devoted a weekly show to his music and interviews. Zappa became a symbol of Lithuania’s regeneration and when Užupis – the bohemian district of Vilinus – declared itself an independent republic on April Fool’s Day 1997, Zappa was chosen as its patron saint. Paukstys explained, “Zappa’s spirit made us see that independence from Moscow was not enough and persuaded us to declare independence from the rest of Vilnius.”
Frank Zappa’s music was an uncompromising and intelligent expression of freedom. He pushed the boundaries of his writing and stuck to his principles in public life. It is no wonder that Eastern Europeans suffering the consequences of cultural repression have found so much to identify with. For many in the west, completely free was a neat album title, for his secret army of fans in Eastern Europe, it became a motto, an ideal, and it offered much-needed hope.