Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Milan Hlavsa 1951-2001

In another country, Milan Hlavsa might have seemed nothing more than an unregenerate hippie. When the Plastic People of the Universe finally played New York in 1998, headlining a bill that also included ex-Fug Tuli Kupferberg at a half full, generationally mixed Irving Plaza, Hlavsa's half-bald pate and shoulder-length locks looked straight outta Marin County. But his careworn face told another story. By founding the Plastic People as a 17-year-old butcher's apprentice and American rock fan in Prague, this insistently apolitical bank clerk's son began a chain of events that led directly to Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, which ended Soviet domination in 1989. He was a hero in spite of himself. And, not coincidentally, he was also an inspired, world-class bass player.

Although Hlavsa later would marvel over how the group's playing improved over the years, his bass--driving, obsessive, hypnotic--jumped out immediately from their first album, Egon Bondy's Lonely Hearts Club Banned. He was the band's chief composer, conceiving music of tremendous force and focus, specific gravity and jazzy wiggle room. The Plastic People's "air of Slavic mourning and pessimism," to quote critic Tom Johnson, made other European art-rock sound hopelessly arch by comparison. Would less compelling stuff have ended up a cause celebre? Probably not. Having sprung up in the wake of the 1968 Soviet invasion, the Plastic People were lightning rods. In 1970 they were denied professional status and the instruments that went with it. Soon they moved to the hills and took jobs as "forest workers" so they could keep playing--when the police didn't intervene. In 1976 they anchored a festival of "druha kultura" ("second culture") that eventually won prison terms for three of them, with Hlavsa remaining free. Czech intellectuals responded with Charter 77, the human rights movement spearheaded by Vaclav Havel, on whose farm the next two Plastics' albums were recorded.

In glasnost 1988, after years of sporadic guerrilla gigs, the Plastics were offered the chance to resume official performance, only to disintegrate rancorously over whether to compromise by assuming another name, which Hlavsa favored. Instead he, two other Plastic People, and three young admirers including his sister-in-law formed the more conventional rock band Pulnoc, which released a well-regarded American album on Arista in 1991 and maintained something of a career thereafter. In 1997, Havel persuaded the Plastic People to regroup. When Havel brought Lou Reed to the White House in 1999, the Plastic People also played.

Described by those who met him as both "sweet, funny, good-natured" and a "wise guy," Hlavsa had a darkly religious bent--the first album the Plastic People cut at Havel's farm was about Christ and called Passion Play. He once told me that Pulnoc's subject was "the place of man in this world and the world to come." Now Hlavsa will no longer see any "world to come" on this mortal plane. On January 5, plans for a new album of Plastics material came to an abrupt halt when treatment failed to halt the spread of lung cancer and he died.

Rolling Stone, Feb. 15, 2001