vàclav havel


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     From: Patrick Neve (splat@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 Frank Zappa.

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:

Rocco (rocco@rocco.wupper.de)
Kristian Kier (KrKier@rocco.wupper.de)
"R. Kane" (caltrops4@newsguy.com)



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