Frank Zappa: "God of the Czech underground"

Grand Mothers, photo: CTK

11 years after his death, the music of Frank Zappa returned to Prague on Tuesday night courtesy of the Grand Mothers, a band composed of 3 former members of his band The Mothers of Invention. Zappa's influence in the Czech Republic is legendary and his popularity persists to this day. Today we take a look at how this iconoclastic Baltimore native became what Vaclav Havel called "one of the Gods of the Czech underground."

Though officially banned before the Velvet Revolution, Frank Zappa's albums circulated widely on bootleg recordings. His irreverent humor and improvisational style influenced a generation of Czech rockers including the legendary dissident band Plastic People of the Universe who took their name from one of his songs. Napoleon Murphy Brock, who played tenor sax and sang backup for Zappa from 1974 to 1984 describes what he thinks the music's appeal was on both sides of the iron curtain.

"His music is not suppressive. So he is not afraid to go into any area or any subject area while composing his music. He talks about everything and anything. He is not, you know, suppressed."

David Gaydecka is a rock promoter in Prague

"Zappa had some similarities with the Czech scene and that was that he was fighting something and making fun of the U.S. regime or the banalities and stereotypes of the American culture of the 50s and 60s. He had harder work than Czech bands because it was easier to find something to fight here in Czechoslovakia at that time."

Brock visited Czechoslovakia with Zappa in 1978 and described the reaction.

Grand Mothers,  photo: CTK
"The people were very enthusiastic and they loved the music and loved the fact that there was a band playing and seemed like they were having fun and they were correct. We were having fun."

Zappa returned to Czechoslovakia in 1990 at the invitation of Havel, newly elected President and lifelong Zappaphile, who even went so far as to propose that Zappa be made Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism. Zappa, a libertarian politically, welcomed the challenge and immediately began setting up meetings with corporations interested in investing in Czechoslovakia telling The Nation magazine "You don't have to know about international financing. You just have to know about composition." Havel was quickly talked out of the appointment by Bush administration officials who were not too thrilled about the idea of an American citizen (especially not the one who wrote Burnt Weeny Sandwich) serving as a Czech ambassador, but he made Zappa an unofficial cultural attaché all the same.

But for young Czech rock fans it was Zappa's music that made a bigger impression than his politics. David Gaydecka again.

"I think it was funny for American people because probably Zappa is not as well known in the States as here but yeah he came and he spoke with the President and he played this special solo like only one tune. I think it was D or E for this concert that Michal Kocab when the last Russian soldier left Czechoslovakia so there was a big show and Zappa came and played like a one minute long solo so it was pretty big and I think also he was one of the first people from the west who came here."

Grand Mothers,  photo: CTK
Judging by the crowd the packed the Lucerna Music Bar on Tuesday, Zappa's music is still as popular as ever in the Czech Republic. Brock was overwhelmed by the response.

"The strange and beautiful thing that's happening now is that a lot of the people who are coming to the concerts now weren't even born when we were here before in the 70s or they were just born then and didn't get to come and see us then but they're coming to see us now so its really nice."

Still, not everyone in the new Czech Republic seems to have the same feelings towards the Mothers' music. Tuesday's concert was supposed to be held in the garden's below Prague Castle, but was moved at the request of Castle administrators. Gaydecka says he was told that the baroque architecture of the nation's seat of government was not an appropriate venue for a rock concert. Apparently, even without Zappa himself, his music still has the ability to cause some controversy.