New doc highlights Frank Zappa’s connections to Prague

Frank Zappa at Prague's airport, photo: YouTube

A new documentary on the late rock star Frank Zappa contains multiple references to Prague. Zappa was the first major Western musician to visit the city after the Velvet Revolution and performed his last ever concert there in 1991. But why was he so popular with the Czech underground?

A newly released documentary, simply entitled Zappa, traces the life and career of the singular US rock musician Frank Zappa, who died in 1993.

The film has much to offer Czech music fans. There is footage from Zappa’s famous visit to Prague in January 1990, when he received a hero’s welcome, and poignant shots of his last ever concert, which took place in the Czechoslovak capital the following year.

Journalist Petr Doružka wrote a book about Zappa in 1984 – and was his interpreter during that now legendary first visit, just weeks after the Velvet Revolution.

“I remember being at the airport. To me it felt like a natural thing, when 2,500 people were waiting for him. But it was a shock for him, because he never expected something like that. In countries where he was touring, this crowd wouldn’t be at the airport, it wouldn’t be as big as in Czechoslovakia, where he wasn’t touring. He was a sort of distant hero. All the people who had listened to him for the past 20 years came to meet him in person.”

Zappa can be seen at Prague Airport in 1990 at around 1:42.

Doružka explains Zappa’s appeal to the Czech underground.

“Because of the message of his songs. And not just songs, also the music, when he was breaking the rules, when he was doing satire against the authorities. In his case it was the American authorities, or American morals. But Czech and Slovak listeners knew that it was also the case of our country – so they easily adapted all these hidden messages to their own situation.”

Zappa famously met Václav Havel – then in the post of president for less than a month – on his first trip. He had this to say afterward.

“I tell you one thing – it would have been impossible for me in my own country to walk in and talk to George Bush. Impossible.”

Havel described their meeting at a news conference.

“Though he didn’t play his visit was very important. He brought significant economic proposals and became a great friend of Czechoslovakia. He now feels more like a Czechoslovak than an American and he’d love to be employed at Prague Castle.”

It is well-known that Havel named Zappa Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism. However, says Petr Doružka, the appointment was short-lived.

“He had some plans, which unfortunately couldn’t be realised. He offered to Havel to be sort of ambassador of Czech interests in the United States. Havel liked this idea but later, when he discussed that with his team, working with somebody like Frank Zappa – who had a certain image [laughs] in the highest political circles in the USA – that wouldn’t be a good recommendation. So he actually had to back out of this agreement.”