From: Patrick Neve (splat[at]darkwing.uoregon.edu)
Václav Havel- President of the Czech Republic, principal architect of the
Velvet Revolution, musician, playwright, Zappa fan. There is so much more
to say about Václav Havel than this forum can really support. At the risk
of trivializing his life and career, here is some history as it relates to
It started on November 17, 1989 with a protest in Prague. Demonstrating
against the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia, peaceful crowds were
beaten by police for ten full days, culminating in a demonstration of over
700,000 at which Havel spoke for an independent Czech Republic. As a
founding member of the Civic Forum, Havel held a press conference
publicizing their demands, which included the disintegration of Husak's
communist government. Husak resigned two days later, and after a stirring
speech by Havel at another mass demonstration on Wenceslas Square, Havel
was the clear choice as leader of their new government, without even
declaring the intention to run. All this from a man who's favorite album
was purportedly Zappa's "Bongo Fury."
Zappa's influence in the prehistory leading up to this event is a bit of
an enigma. Havel had long been a fan of Zappa's music and even credited
his music as part of the inspiration for the anti-communist revolution. A
Czech group, "The Plastic People of the Universe," became an underground
sensation and the group was thrown behind bars for disturbing the peace.
Under Russian rule, many kinds of music were banned outright. The music
of Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground were specifically blacklisted,
and hence held a special signifigance both to the government and the
revolutionary underground as representing freedom and independent
thinking. Zappa was stigmatized into a kind of revolutionary hero,
without him even knowing it.
So imagine Frank's surprise when he arrived in Prague in January 1990 at
the invitation of Havel, to find hordes of fans intimately familiar with
his music only through bootleg copies of his albums, since his music was
overtly contraband. Says engineer Dave Dondorf: "Frank was shocked at
the adulation, if you will. It was well over the top. It wasn't subtle,
it wasn't blase, it wasn't cool. I mean these people went nuts. It was
like the 'King of Freedom' had showed up. It was pretty strange." Zappa
accountant Gary Escowitz: "Frank was trying to figure out why is everyone
there so happy to see him? Evidently, in Czechoslovakia, when young kids
played heavy rock music, the police would tell them, 'turn off that Frank
Zappa music'. All of a sudden, here's Frank Zappa! He was a symbol of
freedom." One press conference attendee recounted how Russian police had
threatened to "beat the Zappa music out of him."
Zappa and Václav hit it off immediately. Zappa was appointed as "Special
Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism". Czechs treated
Zappa as a national hero, and he was even talking about applying for
citizenship. Meetings were held with Zappa, Havel, his finance ministers
and the Ministry of Culture and Trade. Frank had some ideas about
increasing their tourism viability by converting some old castles into
hotels and dealing with airlines to get more visitors into the country.
There was also talk about credit cards and television shopping networks,
both new concepts in Czechoslovakia. The main question was how to get
western goods and services into the country.
Two weeks later, US Secretary of State James Baker re-routed a trip
through Europe to visit Václav Havel. At the time, Czechoslovakia was
applying for badly needed aid from the US Government. Baker's message was
short and simple: Havel could either do business with the United States or
he could do business with Frank Zappa. It would seem Baker had a bit of
an axe to grind, since Zappa had insulted his wife, Susan Baker, before a
Senate Committee hearing in Washington DC back in 1985 regarding
censorship of rock albums and the PMRC. The PMRC, or "Parents Music
Resource Center", sought legislation for censorship of rock records.
In the Senate hearing, Zappa referred to Susan and the others in the PMRC
as "a group of bored Washington housewives", and it would seem James Baker
had not forgotten the insult. Zappa's career as an international trade
ambassador was over nearly as fast as it had begun.
"Frank Zappa was one of the gods of the Czech underground,
I thought of him as a friend. Whenever I feel like escaping
from the world of the Presidency, I think of him."
-Václav Havel, playwright and President, Czechoslovakia
From the webpage at:
On May 15, 1997, out-there experimental saxophonist John Zorn was in
the middle of a set at New York City jazz spot the Knitting Factory
when he abruptly stopped. He proceeded to chew out a group of patrons
in the balcony who, in a fit of impropriety, were talking loudly over
his skronk-jazz stylings. "You up there," he snapped angrily. "Shut
the fuck up and listen to the music."
The chatterboxes at fault? Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel and
his wife Dagmar, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Lou Reed, and
Reed's girlfriend Laurie Anderson.
Informants to this page:
Kristian Kier (KrKier[at]rocco.wupper.de)
"R. Kane" (caltrops4[at]newsguy.com)