Paul Wilson - the impact of the Plastic People on a communist universe

Paul Wilson

Hopefully Paul Wilson won't take affront to being included in our "Czechs in Toronto" series which wraps up this June. Though Canadian, Paul Wilson easily deserves the title of "honorary" Czech, having contributed enormously to Czech culture through his translations into English of authors that include Ivan Klima, Josef Skvorecky, and Vaclav Havel. In the late 60s and through much of the 70s Paul lived in Czechoslovakia becoming part of the underground movement. He befriended art critic Ivan Jirous, the guru of the seminal underground band The Plastic People of the Universe, and then, indeed, became part of the band himself.

Paul Wilson
"I met the band through Ivan Jirous when he invited me to a party at his place and band members were there and we sat around talking about music and playing and listening to the Fugs and the Velvet Underground. And, a little while later Jirous got this crazy idea of inviting me to the band as a singer! Not that I have a great voice and I'm certainly not a great guitarist, but I could strum the guitar and I was also useful for transcribing the lyrics of Velvet Underground songs from this scratchy old tape that they had. I joined the band in 1970 and the rest is history I guess."

One of the things that always strikes me, looking back, is how incredibly "in" the Czech music scene was in the mid to late 1960s, keeping stride with all the musical developments in the West.

"Well, one of the things that censorship did very badly was keep music out of the country. One of the things that was very marked in the 1960s was that although intellectuals found it very hard to get a hold of books it was very easy for kids to be right on top of things because records were brought in and the music was broadcast over Voice of America and other radio stations. So, there was a very current music scene here, with a lot of knock-off bands and a lot of fans of different groups just the way you'd find them in the West. The other thing, too, is that the Prague music scene, very early, attracted the attention of the western press, because for them the existence of rock bands in a communist country was a sign of change."

Okay, you've already said that it was impossible to keep out musical influences but bands like the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart and so on weren't exactly mainstream: I can't imagine they were even all that well known - back then - even in the US, let alone in Europe.

"Well, I think it's just a question of musical taste. I know that Milan Hlavsa, who was a kind of guiding musical force behind the band, was a big fan of the Velvet Underground and it was because the sound was there: this kind of dark throbbing sound that they were trying to create themselves. It was also because it was connected with Andy Warhol and that's where Ivan Jirous came in because he was an art critic and he was at that point very taken with the work of Warhol. The fact that Warhol had in effect a house band was something that attracted him."

A dominant aspect is Jirous' influence, his idea of Second Culture within society...

"First of all he was a student of Czech history and he was aware of the role of music in the sort of self-awareness of the Czech nation going right back to the 19th century and beyond, so there was that. But, there was also the fact that he realised that one of the ways of defeating the kind of stultification of communism was to do what you really wanted to do, regardless of what the regime wanted you to do. And playing the music you loved and playing the music you wanted to create - despite the pressure not to - was a very important principle in the way he treated the band. I mean, he was very, very clear about and the band members also took it on themselves. There were people who fell off and tried to make music on the basis of compromise, but the Plastic People didn't try this at all."

At what stage of their artistic development were they at the time that you were singing for them?

"I think that I joined the band just at the time when there was kind of transition from their first period - when they were legal and they had a licence to play and were doing these big shows and a lot of songs that they had written themselves and some songs by the Velvet Underground. I enabled them to build up a repertoire of cover songs, but I never really felt comfortable with that role, because I always felt that at some point they would have to get beyond that."

"I remember having arguments with Jirous about whether or not we should be translating these songs and at least singing them in Czech so that the audience would know what the words were, but for Jirous and for the band too it was important that we sing in English and give the audience something like the experience the audience would have listening to the Velvet Underground. But, it wasn't just cover. In Jirous' terms it was bringing a different kind of 'spirit' to the Czech music scene. We also sang songs that they composed themselves but we sang them in English, I translated the lyrics. That was a weird thing."

At what point did it become obvious to you that there would be a return to a tightening of the freedoms that Czechs had gotten used to in the 60s?

"Well, I think it was clear from the very beginning. I didn't join the Plastics until 1970 and there was no illusion at that point that there would be anything but an increase in censorship and an increase in pressure to conform. But, the real phase of illegality, going underground, was I think about 1972. It began then. The last phase when we will still playing 'openly' was when we were still playing private weddings but even that 'mask' fell off pretty quickly and from that point on it was just secret concerts out in the country."

[Band leader] Milan Hlavsa always said the band was not about politics, that that was not the point, but they ultimately became the centre of the storm when they were arrested and put on trial for 'disturbing the peace'. That, it's said, paved the way for the human rights charter, Charter 77. Is that in fact the case?

"It paved the way for Charter 77 in a very specific way. I think one of the things that happens in these underground resistance situations is that there are lots of groups of people who are resisting in their own way but may not know of each other because the regime tries to keep people separate. So, you had this whole literary scene around Havel and Ivan Klima and Ludvik Vaculik who were putting out samizdat and so on. Then there was a group of Catholic intellectuals who were trying to develop a kind of 'philosophical resistance', if you like, to the regime. And, there were people trying to keep Czech culture alive in very different ways."

"Somehow, at about 1975/76 these scenes began to 'cross-fertilise'. Havel became interested and then when these and other musicians were arrested in 1976 and put on trial, Havel took a very deep interest in this trial and actually got in to observe it. He then wrote what I would consider a seminal essay in Czech underground literature called 'The Trial' which is a reflection of Kafka. The point that was made there was that he felt that people with a high international profile like himself and Klima and other writers were living a kind of protected existence. And, that these kids were exposing themselves to brutal repression - I won't say the most brutal but certainly brutal by the standards of the day."

"And it was up to writers to stop living this protected existence and start defending these people like the Plastic People and other bands, who were being repressed with no protection whatsoever. So, that sort of spirit and that observation led to the creation of Charter 77, which involved members of the underground signing it, and people from the literary and philosophical communities all signing this document. What was significant was that the Plastic People of the Universe were the catalyst that brought these elements together. I'm not saying that there wouldn't have been a human rights movement in Czechoslovakia without the Plastics, but they became the first sort of 'cause celebre'."