Josef Škvorecký died last week. He was one of the great Czech dissident writers: The Bass Saxophone and The Engineer of Human Souls remain two of the most remarkable literary monuments to, and expressions of, the new freedom. When history, which is to say, the valiant efforts of the dissidents, made dissidence redundant, Škvorecký, who lived in exile in Canada and came to love his second country, wrote deliciously and indefatigably about the adventures, past and present, at home and abroad, of his countrymen. He was a wise, mordant, genial man with an infectious commitment to the liberties of literature, music, and film. He was also a friend of this magazine, where he published many essays and reviews, and a cherished friend of mine. In his memory we offer his famous essay “Hipness at Noon”, about jazz as a form of dissent in communist Czechoslovakia, which appeared in these pages in 1984. —Leon Wieseltier
The name of the organization was innocuous: the Jazz Section of the Czech Musicians’ Union. Its membership was restricted to 3,000—a mere club of aficionados of a type of music that ceased to excite the masses long ago, and was therefore taken off the Communist Party’s list of dangerous social phenomena. When, after thirteen years of existence, the Jazz Section was finally, for all practical purposes, forced out of existence, the event went unnoticed in the West. Time did publish a story, but ran it only in its European edition. In America this act of “minor” repression apparently was not considered newsworthy. And the bloodless demise of a small group of jazz lovers does pale in the reddish light of a world where even genocide is of declining newsworthiness. Still, for the student of “really existing socialism,” as the system in Czechoslovakia now defines itself, the brief history of the Czechs who liked syncopation more than their government provides an ideal insight into the workings of “people’s democracies.”
After sixty years of the Soviet state’s struggle against art, it should be obvious that Marxists in power do not trouble themselves about aesthetics. They ask only their variation of the query from the Jewish joke: “Is it good for the Jews, or bad for the Jews?” Apparently jazz, that generous gift of America to the world, has never been good for Communists in power; although before they clamped down on it, jazz did help them to recruit quite a few young men and women. But once the Communist cause turned horn liberating people to closely watching them, the jungle sounds of freedom became suspect. At times they were deemed superbly dangerous, at other times only alien to the new socialist man. The criterion was simple. If music fills a football stadium with raving youngsters, it signals danger. If it fills only a smokey jazz club with nostalgic middle-aged men, it is just a nuisance. A well-entrenched Leninist state can tolerate nuisances; thus jazz in Czechoslovakia was under fire only until Elvis Presley and hip gyrations reached first the proletarian dance halls, then the upper-New Class ballrooms. At that point the ideological gunmen switched their sights from the saxophone to the electric guitar.
But in 1982, after 20 years of comparative peace for jazz, something happened. In the course of the next two years the party media orchestrated a clamorous witch hunt directed overtly against punk rock, but covertly against the Jazz Section. For two years the public was treated to dozens upon dozens of articles and letters-to-the-editor written in classical Stalinese, all depicting the pop-and-jazz scene in Czechoslovakia as a hotbed of antisocialist conspiracies. The campaign closely followed the model of the 1950s: the victim, still at large and even holding some kind of office, was tenderized for the knock on the door, for the public confession, for the gallows.
Why suddenly so much ado about a musical nuisance?
I SUPPOSE one has to go back to Lenin. This evil genius of a cause that once seemed so good to so many realized one thing: well-entrenched establishments are rarely overthrown by spontaneous, undirected mass movements. If a group of intelligent organizers channels the pent-up strength of popular feelings in the right direction, however, thrones will fall. It follows that once the well-directed power of the masses has achieved the aims of its leaders, the leaders must see to it that no more spontaneous movements emerge; or, if they do, that they be made nonspontaneous by guides appointed “from above.” In the dictionary of victorious Marxism, spontaneity (živelnost in Czech) has become anathema. It is a crime against really existing socialism.
Yet one cannot prevent spontaneous interest in various uncalled-for things, such as jazz, especially among the young; and it is hard, moreover, to make them nonspontaneous. Such interest always arises “from below,” another term of opprobrium for something that is simply natural. A group of youngsters becomes excited by Elvis Presley, gets hold of a few guitars, tries them out in an abandoned barn. Other youngsters will come to the bam to listen. Eventually a new amateur band plays for free in the local pub, crowded with rock ‘n’ rolling teenagers. A spontaneous movement, in short, has emerged. In America the band might make a few records, disappear into obscurity or be catapulted into stardom. In the socialist states, in the good old days of Uncle Joe, the police raided such pubs and arrested such players.
But that kind of directness creates martyrs, and raises interest in the forbidden fruit. Therefore it is used today only against the most hardened and incorrigible thought-criminals. Remembering Lenin, the party has established organizations such as the Socialist Union of Youth to channel spontaneous movements into riverbeds controllable “from above” by means of “interest groups” (zájmové kroužky). It is hoped that, under the guidance of overseers installed by the party, jazz-and-rock-loving youth will listen to the trimmed sounds of records carefully preselected by an ideological committee, and play low volume rock that will sound sweet even to the ears of the papaláš (Czech slang for Communist big shots).
It is hoped, but it never happens. Real interest cannot be controlled by fake interest. All that the Youth Union accomplishes is that the amateur band moves from the abandoned barn into the state-provided club room; and instead of making them work for the money needed for equipment, the man “from above” buys the synthesizer with the money from the Culture Fund. There is a tremendous scarcity of dependable men “from above”; the “really existing” ones are moved by hard syncopation much more than by the “Holy Script” of Marxism-Leninism.
As long as it is only a local phenomenon, the deviations of an interest group can be handled. When worst comes to worst in Hicksville, the Hicksville cops will move in. They will beat up a few lads, crush a few guitars, and there is peace in Hicksville for another couple of months. But if a central group in Prague appears “from below,” a sort of Central Committee of fans, and they start building up a network of Hicksville rock groups all over the country, we are in serious trouble!
The Jazz Section developed into such a central committee. It was headed by volunteers who received no pay—another anathema in really existing socialism. The 3,000 members permitted by the party supported the leaders with enthusiasm, and they were remarkably disciplined. A spontaneous movement came into existence, directed by leaders who were not appointed from above, and were therefore “spontaneous” themselves!
It got out of hand.
IT STARTED in 1971, three years after the Soviet ambush. After that exercise in historical dialectics, all artists’ unions were disbanded and new ones, presided over by carefully chosen, party-nominated “chairmen,” were cautiously established, among them the Czech Musicians’ Union. A group of jazz enthusiasts applied to the Ministry of the Interior for permission to form a separate Union of Czech Jazz Musicians.
The Ministry turned them down and recommended that individual jazzmen join the Musicians’ Union. The functionaries of that organization interpreted the Ministry’s decision not as a recommendation that jazzmen merge with the others into a faceless musical group, easily controlled from above by a few reliables, but rather as permission to form, within the Union, a special interest section. The statutes already permitted it, and the Union already had, for instance, a Music Critics’ Section.
In this way the Jazz Section established itself and elected a chairman. The Ministry of the Interior, which neglected to pre-select someone for that position, restricted itself to setting the numerous clausus of 3,000 for the membership—a figure that, in a nation of 11 million, was certainly quite insignificant. Thus at the outset an interesting legal situation was created: the Ministry of the Interior did not approve an independent organization, and since the Jazz Section did not originate with the Ministry, the cops had no legal power to disband it.That was the unpleasant prerogative of the Musicians’ Union. Later this circumstance played a part in prolonging the Section’s life.
The fact that an organization not permitted de jure emerged de facto, and that although formally dependent on the Musicians’ Union, it acted with remarkable independence, was made possible by the existence of what I like to call the Gray Zone. By that I mean the “gigantic conspiracy to outwit the abysses of darkness” of which Kenneth Tynan spoke in the 1950s. Of course he did not have in mind the darkness that calls itself really existing socialism.There the Gray Zone is merely the conspiracy of normal people who stand between the fanaticism of the orthodox and the cynicism of the pragmatic on the one side, and the abnormal moral courage of the dissidents on the other.
The overt solidarity of these men and women is with Caesar, but their covert sympathies belong to God. They hang portraits of the Big Brothers over their desks, but right under their eyes they read Orwell and listen to Charlie Parker. They have no organization, unless human decency is an organizing principle. All ministries, all offices, all schools, all factories are infiltrated by them, and the Musicians’ Union was no exception. They are the Gray Zone which makes really existing socialism livable—in fact, which makes it work.
AT FIRST the Section limited itself to the sort of activities permitted to such groups. It issued a not-for-sale, members-only bulletin called Jazz. It sent lecturers to Cultural Clubs, held jam sessions and disc jockey shows. It sponsored the yearly jazz festivals entitled Prague Jazz Days, which were distinguished at first by strict jazz orthodoxy and therefore did not attract multitudes. The authorities watched, occasionally they grumbled, but they did not much interfere. Their eyes were on rock ‘n’ roll.
Slowly, then quickly, all this changed in the mid-‘70s, when jazzrock appeared on the scene, when a half-forgotten positive phenomenon of the ‘50s was rediscovered and soon achieved unprecedented proportions. The Gray Zone conspiracy always finds loopholes in the armor of orthodoxy. and in the ‘50s it detected a gap in censorship. Officially sanctioned organizations were allowed to print newsletters, and sometimes little booklets, for their membership. Such materials could not be sold to the public; but the censors applied much lighter criteria of orthodoxy to them, and sometimes did not even require that they be submitted for inspection. This may appear as an incredible leniency, or perhaps as an oversight. It was neither. In the early ‘50s the party simply relied on terror. The idea that the Association of the Keepers of Aquarium Fish, say, would print a volume of surrealist poetry seemed—well, surrealist. And yet one of the very best, surrealistically inclined modern Czech fiction writers, Bohumil Hrabal (Closely Watched Trains), made his literary debut in precisely this way. For years he had been known to everybody interested or working in literature, but since he was labeled a decadent non-Marxist naturalist no publisher would touch him. Then in 1956 a prominent poet and artist, Jiří Kolář, convinced the Gray Zonists of the Bibliophiles’ Club that one issue of their members’ newsletter should contain, as a supplement, a little book of Hrabal’s stories, People Talking (Hovory lidí). The booklet came out, for members only. Encouraged by this event, the Writers’ Union Publishing House attempted to bring out Hrabal’s collection, Lark On A String (Skřivánek na niti) for the general public in 1959. The censors immediately killed the book and sent it to the shredder.
In the ‘50s People Talking was an isolated phenomenon. In the mid-70s, however, the loophole was suddenly stretched wide by the Jazz Section and its audacious chairman, Karel Srp. To the bulletin Jazz, the Section added two more for-members-only publications: a paperback series, Jazzpetit, and a line of art monographs, Situace (Situations). Both became the haven of authors, artists, and theorists of art interested in genres and trends that were, for all practical purposes, outlawed. Surprisingly, the old exemption of membership publications from the duty to submit them to the censorship office held—perhaps because the Gray Zone has a branch even in the Cop Ministry.
The Situace series focused exclusively on what that old really existing socialist Dr. Goebbels would call entartete Kunst: the stuff made from old wire and feathers, the strange looking holes in the earth, the publicly performed self-tortures, and so on. I feel reasonably sure that rank-and-file jazz fans did not particularly care for such artifacts, but these things have always existed not only for their intrinsic value, but also to épater les bourgeois. Whereas the bourgeois, that splendid liberal creature, that basis of every decent society, grew tolerant after the initial shock, the Nazis and the Communists have never ceased to see red at the sight of a woman’s face painted in profile with her eyes en face, unless it was found in the pyramids. I am reasonably sure that, although the fans may not have particularly savoured the rusty-wire cum smelly-eggshells still lifes, they enjoyed the fact that the concoctions were veritable apples of Eden, gathered in violation of God’s law by the industrious gardeners of the Jazz Section to épater les Communistes.
The Jazzpetit series was more diversified. It included, for instance, an anthology about New York’s Living Theater compiled by JaroslavKořán, the well-known translator of Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, and other American writers; another anthology on Minimal + Earth + Concept Art, edited by the Section’s chairman, Karel Srp; a sophisticated essay, The Body, the Thing, and Reality in Contemporary Art, by Petr Rezek; a beautiful monograph of the photographic oeuvre of the leading prewar surrealist painter Jindřich Štýrský; a book-length study of E. F. Burian, a pre-war Communist jazzman (he published the first Czech book on jazz in 1931) and stage director which, due to the Marxist but not really existing socialist approach of its author, could not find an official publisher; a fascinating study of how the Jews of the Terezin ghetto, facing death, managed to lead a far more cultural life than the Wagner-adoring Nazis could ever boast of, entitled Music of the Theresienstadt Ghetto by LudmilaVrkočová, deemed also too controversial (probably Zionist). There was a book on John Lennon, edited by TomášKraus and Lubor Šonka, with a series of photographs of the John Lennon Wall in Prague, another spontaneous creation of youngsters, covered with graffiti of grief, which the police smeared with whitewash every night, and which the Lennon mourners repainted every day. There was Czech Rock ‘n’ Roll by VladimirKouřil, a history of rock music in Czechoslovakia that even contained photographs of stars who left the country without permission, and therefore became nonpersons. There was a two-volume dictionary of American rock musicians, Rock 2,000, by Josef Vlček, the second volume of which was eventually seized by the censors. There was an essay on Gary Burton which included a discography.
By an irony of fate the whole enterprise climaxed where the loophole allowing membership publications had once started: with a book by Bohumil Hrabal. The post-invasion establishment managed to break this old man of Czech nonconformism, forced him to give a recantatory interview, and then permitted the publication of carefully expurgated editions of the writer’s least controversial works. Still, there were a few manuscripts which the master refused to have disfigured, among them the hilarious novel I Waited on the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále). And that’s where the Jazz Section came to help. The book was issued in a handsome, large size, for-members-only paperback; and the conforming nonconformist gratefully dedicated the work to the “Readers of the Jazz Section so that they may have some fun.” The longhand dedication, printed in facsimile, appeared on the title page, and the cup of the cops’ tolerance overflowed. Hrabal was called to order, he was threatened that if he continued to commit such rascalities no more books of his would be published. He was allegedly forced to sign a statement claiming that the Section had published the novel without his knowledge. The facsimile dedication was left unexplained. But logic has never played an important role in the statements of the victims of the arrogant stupidity of power.
Finally Karel Srp edited a book on Graphic Music and Phonic Poetry, and all cups overflowed. The Ministry of Culture received an order to put an end to this outrage—remember, it was the Musicians’ Union, a province of the Ministry of Culture, and not the cops, which had brought the Section to life. So the Ministry commissioned a number of Marxist analyses of the shocking book to serve as scholarly arguments for the banning of the organization; some of the Gray Zonists, I’d like to think, secretly hoped that at least some of the arguments might be used to save something from the wreckage. Indeed, some readers’ reports contained very Marxist arguments. A Václav Cutych, for instance, wrote:
Are you serious? A specialist’s analysis? Why organize a wise men’s dance around goose-shit? Doesn’t the Music Department of the Ministry of Culture have more important things to do than prepare “specialists’ analyses” of what should be clear at first glance to every man in his right mind, not to mention educated Marxists. One could say that what we are here concerned with are negligible stupidities if they did not have a clear and transparent political background. One knows, doesn’t one, what IS the Jazz Section, WHAT it is engaged in, to WHOM it addresses its publications, and what are its REAL aims.
Obviously the conspirators in the Ministry, if any, could not use this argument.
THE PUBLISHING activities of the Section were one factor in the deepening drama. The other factor, as I said before, was the emergence, in the mid-‘70s, of jazzrock, the consequent shifting of the Section’s interest from pure, orthodox jazz to hybrid forms, and finally, under the pressure of events, to rock. Parallel with this development ran a gigantic rise of interest in the Section’s activities. True, new members could be accepted only if someone dropped out, but the 3,000 possessors of the bulletin Jazz and of the volumes of Jazzpetit did not keep them to themselves. According to conservative estimates, each volume had about 100,000 readers. It was not exceptional for one especially appealing title to be read by the entire student body of a high school (as well as most of the teachers) even if only one of its students was a Section member. The attendance at the Prague Jazz Days also multiplied; in the end some 15,000 people bought tickets and listened to jazzrock, New Wave, Rock-in-Opposition, and Modem Jazz. After various molestations and much bureaucratic chicanery, after the prohibition of any mentions of the Jazz Section in the media, the Jazz Days were finally banned—characteristically neither by the Ministry of the Interior nor by the Ministry of Culture, but by an “individual,” the Prague cultural inspector František Trojan, under the pretext that “public disturbances” were expected.
INDEED, they were to be expected, for the ban came on the eve of the event, when several bands from abroad were already in town, and thousands of young fans from distant country villages had already arrived in Prague, some bivouacking in the city’s parks. In hastily printed leaflets the Section explained the situation to the enraged crowds of youngsters and asked them to abstain from any display of anger. Miraculously, measured by Western standards, the crowd (which contained quite a few punks) maintained discipline; the disturbances for which the cops yearned with all their hearts did not take place. But the Section had to give money back to many patrons and pay the foreign bands. This resulted in financial difficulties which opened a new road toward a “legal” method to curb and eventually to stop the Section’s endeavors. The cops used this road a couple of years later.
After the canceled Jazz Day, the Section committed another grave sin. Instead of making appeals to “above,” it asked for support from “below,” and it got that support: in letters, in proclamations, in bold display of the Section’s statements on billboards in high schools and in the club rooms of the Socialist Union of Youth. Graffiti even appeared on the walls of the Ministry of Culture, with the challenging exclamation: WE SHALL NOT LET YOU KILL THE JAZZ SECTION! (JAZZOVOU SEKCI NEDÁME!) And the Section made another clever and provocative move which further complicated the life of the bureaucrats. It applied for membership in the International Jazz Federation, which is an organization of the Music Department of UNESCO—and it was admitted. The Ministry of Culture did not recognize this membership, arguing that the application had not been accompanied by the Ministry’s recommendation. Yet the statutes of UNESCO do not require any such thing; the Section was definitely a member. And to ban a group that is part of an international organization is naturally much more difficult than to liquidate a pest that is only domestic. Very probably the UNESCO affiliation also prolonged the Section’s life.
Caught unprepared, the Ministry again resorted to chicanery. It started denying exit visas to the Section’s delegates to international meetings of the Jazz Federation. It began to spread rumors that the jazz fans were “subsidized from the West.” It even mailed a fake announcement to all county councils according to which the Section had been abolished by the Musicians’ Union. It didn’t work. And so, since the Interior Ministry still did not want to interfere directly, since the Cultural Ministry was unable, and the Musicians’ Union unwilling, to perform the killing, eventually the party itself had to rush in.
IT DID SO by launching a campaign of defamation which was to prepare ground for the final “administrative measures.” The campaign was triggered by an article in the party’s politico-cultural weekly, Tribuna, in March 1983. The article was titled “New Wave with an Old Content” and was signed by one Jan Krýzl, in fact a pseudonym hiding the identity of two Interior Ministry employees. It tried to sound knowledgeable but it didn’t quite succeed; it became, rather, a source of amusement for the Section’s thousands of supporters. Then the Section itself made another unorthodox move. It started yet one more series called Dokumentry (Documents), which included a pamphlet in answer to Krýzl, entitled Rock on the Left Wing (Rock na levem Křidle). With elegant doses of irony, the booklet corrected the many mistakes of the Krýzl twins, from subtleties apparent only to the initiated to gross errors in dates, critical judgments, and personalities. Krýzl, for instance, presented Pete Seeger as a famous rock star of the early ‘50s, which should be enough to give the American reader an idea of Krýzl’s qualifications. The cops also gave their own original interpretation of the punk phenomenon. Punk rock, it appeared, was the invention of capitalist manipulators who intend to implant in young people’s minds the conviction that one should identify with life under capitalism and not revolt.
This display of Marxist thought gave the Section an opportunity for a counteroffensive. It was not difficult to prove that punk rock started as genuinely proletarian music, created not by the sinister plotters of some British Tin Pan Alley but by unemployed amateurs. Rock had always been a left-wing phenomenon, claimed the Section. In the concluding lines of the pamphlet, its writers accused Krýzl of the gravest sin a Communist can commit: of spreading right-wing concepts, and therefore “harming the interests of the Communist Party.”
I OFTEN wish Westerners would know “small” languages, such as Czech. If they could read the debate that followed this clash of minds, they would shed all illusions they might still have about the quality of intellectual life under reálný socialismus. The term itself, coined by the French Communist Party after the Soviet ambush of Czechoslovakia, has implications that are quite horrifying to socialists. The correct translation is “really existing socialism,” suggesting a parallel to Marx’s old distinction between “utopian socialism” and “scientific socialism,” which was the only way, according to Marx, of achieving utopian ideals. But the parallel is false. In Czechoslovakia the term “really existing socialism” became the official description of the status quo in party documents. It was introduced after another term had been officially accepted in the late ‘50s—dovršený socialismus, “accomplished” or “realized” socialism, which indicated that the first phase on the road toward the ideal paradise of communism had been scientifically reached, to be followed shortly, perhaps in that generation’s lifetime, by the scientific establishment of communism. In actual fact, what followed “realized socialism” was a gruesome economic and intellectual crisis which prompted Communist reformism; it paved the way to Dubček’s attempt to square the circle and to the Soviet invasion, after which “realized socialism” quietly metamorphosed into “really existing socialism,” also achieved scientifically but with no utopian vistas of communism mentioned any more.
But to define a police state as “really existing socialism” is tantamount to confessing that socialism can really exist only as a police state. Many people may resent me for saying this, but if this is socialism, then it “really existed” once before: in the National Socialist State of Germany. Whatever ideological differences may have existed between the two totalitarian movements, there is ample but largely ignored evidence that there were indeed many ideological similarities. The Nazis and the Communists were deadly competitors for the leading role in combating a common enemy—Western democracy and the fruits of its culture. Jazz was to both of them the degenerate outpouring of either barbaric or sick minds belonging to either a wrong race or a wrong class, or both; the anti-jazz exhortations of Dr. Goebbels do not differ in tone, knowledge, or argument from the effusions of Gorodinsky’s Music of Spiritual Poverty, that bible of the Stalinist anti-sax squads. (Interestingly enough, the music produced by the two camps was practically identical, both in its melodic and harmonic structures, and as far as the lyrics are concerned. Remember that quite a few of the dread SA men were former C.P. members, as SA music leader Hans Bajer demonstrated in his book Songs Make History. No wonder, then, that among the gems of the Nazi repertoire of songs one finds also a thing like this one: “Einst waren wir Marxisten, Rotfront und SPD, / heut sind wir Nazionalsocialisten, Kampfer der NSDAP!” “We used to be Marxists, Red Frontists and SPD, / Today we are National Socialists, warriors of the NSDAP!”)
Unfortunately these similarities are not a thing of the forgotten past. The Tribuna campaign against rock demonstrated that totalitarian thinking, and the resulting diction, is common to all who believe in the iron rule of any sort of party. Here is one of the many letters published in Tribuna after the debacle of the Krýzl article. A comrade Beran writes that the punks appear to him as “animals that bear only a superficial likeness to human beings.” This very phrase, of course, was frequently used on the pages of Der Stürmer. This is how Jews appeared to Parteigenosse (comrade) Streicher. And the final solution offered by Beran’s friends, whom he quotes in the article, is this: “Command these crowds of half-wits, adorned with their cow bells and chains, to form columns and make them march in the direction of the foundries of Kladno, Ostrava, Košice!” In these foundries, particularly in Ostrava, many workers are political prisoners. The playwright Václav Havel was one, until recently. All that is missing from the recommendation is a suggestion to build showers for the arriving humanoids.
Another righteous contributor to the witch-hunt revealed that a group which “shone brightly” at the Festival of Political Songs—a musical nonevent sponsored by the establishment—was Janus-faced! As the law bid them, the musicians at the festival performed and sang beautiful anti-war and anticapitalist songs for the jury. (There wasn’t much of an audience.) At a gig after the festival they outdid themselves playing ugly, high-decibel New Wave rock, indulging in “indecent songs.” Of course this is an age-old trick of all people living under repressive governments. As far back in history as ancient Rome, for example, not all Christians were ready to let themselves be devoured by the lions. The not-so-courageous secret members of the sect bowed to the statues of the pagan gods by day, and by night they crawled into the catacombs to worship the God they really believed in.
One group that was willing to expose itself to the lions’ teeth was the legendary Plastic People of the Universe, whose English-singing vocalist was Paul Wilson, the translator of my novel The Engineer of Human Souls. In 1976 they were all put on trial charged with “creating public disturbances” and “singing indecent songs.” Sentences of a year and a half in jail were meted out to them, and Paul was expelled from the country. The Canadian Ambassador might have asked disagreeable questions about the legality of sending a Canadian citizen to jail for singing a ditty that included the noun “shit.”
The charges centered on such nouns. In the repertoire of the group was a song addressed to an anonymous but apparently (self-) important citizen, which culminated in the following lines:
What do you resemble in your greatness?
Are you the Truth?
Are you God?
What do you resemble in your greatness?
A piece of shit, a piece of shit,
a piece of shit . . . ,
the refrain repeated eight times. The State prosecutor and the three judges did not indict the insults to the unnamed public personality, but instead the use of the scatological expression. The courageous defense attorney Štěpánek then delivered a learned speech demonstrating that scatological words were common in the life of the working class, that they had always been an indelible part of folk song vocabulary. He cited a seventeenth-century folk song from the collection of Jan Jeník z Bratřic which went:
He was shitting, shitting, shitting,
holding on to grass.
Grass gave way,
he fell into his shit,
and smeared his ass.
In the days of the counter-Reformation, that is, at the time of the reactionary rule of the Jesuits, the attorney continued in poker-face style, a Jesuit song collector changed the lyrics of this song to:
He was smiling, smiling, smiling,
holding on to grass.
Grass gave way,
he fell and hurt himself.
He further quoted from the works of Hašek, Chaucer, and other literary luminaries to show that sometimes the word “shit” was essential to conveying the message. The public in the courtroom, represented by proxy by plainclothes policemen on duty, grew duly enraged, and the judge, ignoring the historical evidence, ruled that the use of “shit” in songs was a criminal offence under socialism; and anyway that socialist Czechoslovakia was not Chaucer’s England.
THE JAILING of the Plastic People in 1976 led directly to the emergence of the Charter 77, a petition signed by a group of daredevils from all walks of life which challenged the government to respect the Czechoslovak Constitution. Far from respecting that piece of paper, however, the Government clamped down on them, and sent some to jail—among others, the playwright Václav Havel, who got four and a half years and barely escaped death in prison. Still, the cops were never able to completely eradicate the Chartrists, and so, in 1983, at the peak of the witch-hunt, the group issued an open letter entitled About Popular Music. Its main thesis—a very valid one—was that the “controversial” lyrics of contemporary Czech rock are probably the first example since the nineteenth century of genuine folklore, and that they were provoked into being precisely by the irrelevance of the officially approved songs. Although such impotent products flood the radio and the TV shows, they do not appeal to the young, because they do not reflect the reality of Czechoslovakia. They reflect only the cautiousness of greedy hacks eager to make a fast buck while staying out of trouble. No wonder that young rockers resorted to self-help, with the result that lidová tvořivost (people’s creativity), which for many years had been only a propaganda myth, suddenly became a fact. But a spontaneous fact. And such facts, again, do not have the approval of the people’s government.
Then a most unexpected source offered to help. The Critics’ Section of the Musicians’ Union composed an open letter which they asked Tribuna to print. It took several months and, I am sure, countless meetings of cops and functionaries, before the letter—rewritten many times, cut and edited—finally appeared in the journal. It was not presented as originally intended, as a collective opinion of the Critics’ Section; it was signed instead by three individuals, Lubomír Dorůžka, Ivan Poledňak, and Peter Zapletal. They are the three most eminent jazz musicologists and folklorists in Czechoslovakia, and have a long list of scholarly books to their credit. Their main thesis—also an easily documented one—was:
We indulge in cultural protectionism. . . . We indiscriminately refuse any influences from the outside; but if such influences are strong they will penetrate our defenses anyway, and then we are not prepared. . . . We care too much about nobody stepping out of line (and this line usually expresses only the average taste), about not making a mistake, about not introducing something improper, incorrect. . . . It is a big question whether the present attack on the ideological diversion by rock music is as effective as it is loud. The main direction of this ideological diversion can be found not in the form of rock “excesses” but elsewhere: it is realized by the mass and frontal operations of the bourgeois model of culture and music, by accepting bourgeois taste, by supporting the production of cheap and commercial pop songs which benumb people and divert their attention from the problems of life.
This is as far as you can go in a totalitarian state if you want to tell the plain truth, using the obligatory party jargon (“bourgeois” instead of “bad” or “kitchy”). The critics ended their exposé with what sounds—and was, I think, meant to sound—like a warning: “The generations that follow one another identify quite strongly with the music of their youth, and it remains their music throughout life.” In other words: if you make enemies of young people by suppressing the sounds they love, they will hate you until their dying days.
Such observations may be true, but they lack the conditio sine qua non of “Marxist” analyses: the “class” approach which, for a ruling Communist Party, is more important than any truth, than any reality. That was the line taken by the authors of Tribuna’s reply to the critics, Jiří Janouškove and Jiří Kohout. They opened with a categorical statement: “Art is Party—and class—conditioned. There can be no discussion about that!” Such an opening, naturally, precludes any discussion; and the rest of the article boiled down to a ritual restatement of well-known Stalinist dogmas. Reading their reply, one comes to the conclusion that the government and its repressive policies are not at all responsible for the widespread acceptance among the young of degenerate punk rock, for the general anti-establishment mood of the young generation. The responsibility rests with—guess who?—what they call “Western Diversion Centers,” which apparently commissioned the creation of jazz, rock, and similar abominations for the special purpose of undermining socialism. (If this is correct these Diversion Masterminds must be geniuses.) In fact, I know of only one government-sponsored attempt to create a type of modern pop music that would counteract American rock. It took place in East Germany, and never got off the ground.
Still, not even this could stop the rescue attempts. A thoroughly unexpected source of aid came from what I believe are the Gray Zonists at the Ministry of Culture itself. True, the publisher of the brochure is identified as the Theatrical Institute in Prague; but why would theater people bother about Entertainment Music in the Czech Socialist Republic, its Values and the Preconditions of its Social Effectiveness? (What a peach of a title!) Besides, the text bears the indelible stamp of the Ministry’s ponderous writing style. It is yet another rephrasing of the few early letters in Tribuna and of the critics’ article, couched in cautious and ambiguous language, It makes frequent use of what Václav Havel once termed “dialectical metaphysics,” which is the dialectics of “On the one hand this thing is bad, but on the other hand it is also good.” Just one of the pamphlet’s many profound observations:
If we, on any level, in any place of work, are faced with phenomena that work against the interests of our socialist society, we have to deal with them resolutely, but at the same time also sensitively, so that we would not suppress hopeful talents, hopeful creativity which, after proper redirectioning, can have the prerequisites of successfully asserting itself.
And so on.
But the Ministerial brochure appeared too late. By then somebody somewhere had reached a decision, and the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of the Interior finally took “administrative action.” First, dozens of rock groups were forced to disband—‘the most outrageous was the ban of the excellent experimental jazzrock orchestra of Michael Kocáb, Prague Selection (Pražskyvýběr). Others were forbidden to perform in Prague. Dozens of musicians were asked to take “requalification exams,” which they naturally failed. (Without passing such exams, you cannot perform in public, even as an amateur.) Then the editorial board of Melodie, the only pop music monthly, was totally purged. Melodie had never openly supported the Section or the punk rockers, but by providing excellent objective information about the world’s jazz-and-rock scene it became guilty of the lack of a class—that is, of a party— approach. Since its circulation was enormous, it was a continuous thorn in the side of the really existing socialists.
The journal’s editor-in-chief, Stanislav Titzl (who brought out the illegal, underground magazine Bop Times in the early ‘50s) was fired, along with the other lifelong students of jazz on the staff. They were replaced by one comrade Miroslav Kratochvil, whose occupation is that of a “professional director.” (Just one taste of his kind of expertise: in 1968 he was made director of the newly established Radio Hvězda (Star Radio) which purported to be a clandestine station of the “true Marxists” broadcasting from somewhere in Dubček’s revisionist Czechoslovakia, but was really filling the air with virulent anti-Dubček and often anti-Semitic propaganda from somewhere in the south of the German Democratic Republic.) His assistant, nicknamed Krahe—for KRAtochvil’s HEmorrhoid—let it be known that from now on a photo on the cover of Melodie would cost a pop star 5,000 crowns; Kratochvil can expect a considerable increase of income. This con artist, by the way, is a Candidate Member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and, naturally, an employee of the Interior Ministry. He filled the vacated editorial posts with his colleagues from the Ministry, and for the several hundred thousands of its readers, Melodie became a humorous monthly, filled with ludicrous errors and ideological excesses.
The destruction of Melodie was only a blow to the flanks. A direct hit against the Section followed. Its dedicated chairman Karel Srp was fired from his editorial job with a printing company on the pretext that a general reorganization had eliminated the need for his post. In Czechoslovakia this is one of the valid reasons to dismiss an employee. But as soon as Srp quit, a new man was hired to fill his old position. In perfect agreement with the law of the land, Srp sued the employer. The judge, a woman specializing in political trials and utterly disinterested in the facts of the case, dismissed it. Since Srp is now unemployed, he not only has no income (there is no unemployment insurance in Czechoslovakia, since theoretically there is no unemployment); he may be charged with social parasitism.
Moreover, the Ministry of Culture resorted to the proven method of liquidating nuisances. In the old days the trumped up charges at the trials were political. In really existing socialism nondesirables may be attacked for political deviations, but when they are actually put on trial the charges are invariably economic or criminal. The Committee of People’s Control seized the Section’s accounting books, and one comrade is now busily meddling with them. By a strange “coincidence,” as soon as the commission confiscated all bookkeeping documents, astronomical bills for unpaid taxes since 1980 started to arrive from the revenue office. These unexpected taxes, about 3 million crowns, were to be paid immediately from the Section’s account, which was closed for all other purposes. The Section could have proven easily that the tax demands were incorrect, but for that they would have needed their books, to which they now had no access.
But the Good Lord (I suppose) intervened again on behalf of the Section. The Section is a part of the Prague Division of the Musicians’ Union, and in February 1984 the Division had been told to stop all activities. In fact, the order was an indirect effort to stop the doings of the Jazz Section. But since the decree did not explicitly mention the Jazz Section, the Section carried on. The annoyed authorities sent an explicit command to the Prague Division to abolish the Section immediately. The Division duly responded that having been ordered to stop all activities, they could not carry on any and could not, therefore, oblige.
EVERYBODY is having fun. But through the laughter sinister rumors may be heard: a trial of the leading figures of the Section is in preparation. As is customary in Marxist states, the sentences have already been agreed upon and approved by the party: fourteen years for Karel Srp; ten years for Josef Skalník, the graphic designer of the Section’s publications; and some shorter terms for minor perpetrators of the thought crime. If this proves not to be just a rumor, I would urge all jazz fans in the West, and everybody who is concerned about freedom, to send strongly worded letters of protest to President Gustáv Husák, last known address Praha Hrad, Czechoslovakia.
However it may all end, the efforts by the cops of the Interior Ministry (the true holders of power in Czechoslovakia) to hide behind the smoke screen of administrative measures undertaken by the Musicians’ Union, and then by the Ministry of Culture, have failed. Finally the Interior Ministry itself was forced to come out, and on July 19, 1984, it curtailed all activities of the Musicians’ Union for three months. This fall the curtailment is to be lifted, if the following conditions are met. The union will stop publishing any books, pamphlets, or periodicals. It will dissolve its Jazz Section. It will discontinue any work, theoretical or otherwise, in the field of jazz music. It will refrain from founding new orchestras, bands, and musical groups. At the time of this writing only God knows how the union will react. And what will remain for it to do, if such conditions are met.
But at least power will have been revealed in its nakedness.
I HAVE written this article for those who share my view that if what exists in Czechoslovakia is socialism, I would rather be a capitalist. But I am aware that many in the West are always ready to give the benefit of a doubt to any regime that calls itself socialist, except to national socialism, which was discredited because it lost a war. I also know that anyone who is no longer ready to give the socialist cops the benefit of a doubt is likely to be labeled a reactionary, and that the jazzmen and rockers of whom he writes with sympathy will (perhaps subconsciously) become suspect of antisocialism, indeed of fascism, or worst of all, of pro-Americanism. In an article entitled “What it’s like making rock ‘n’ roll in a police state” (Musician, February 1983) my translator Paul Wilson recounts his experience in London, soon after his expulsion from Czechoslovakia:
It was in the summer of 1977 and punk rock was in full swing, joyful exuberance in grimy clubs, mindless weekend punch-ups on Sloane Square, instant analysis in the New Society. The same bands that the Plastic People had been inspired by ten years ago—The Velvets, Captain Beefheart—were now being rediscovered. I went to an early Slits/Sham 69 gig where the new Sex Pistol documentary was shown, full of arrests, protests, rage and lèse-majesté. Afterward I approached someone in the Pistols’ entourage with a suggestion, why not smuggle a copy of the film into Czechoslovakia, give the Plastic People a lift. “The Plastic People?” he responded in a dead-eyed, cocky public school whine. “They’re antisocialist. I don’t support fascist rock bands, I’d rather send the film to South Africa.” Ah yes, images of Sid Vicious smelling his socks to raise consciousness in Soweto. I was sorry I’d asked.
HOW is it really? Are the Czech punks, the thousands of supporters of the Jazz Section, the hundreds of thousand of readers of Melodie, all antisocialists?
I have known many, and some of them are convinced Communists even after all the pogroms, which is something I can’t comprehend. Most of them are—well, I would say they have no interest in capitalism, only in the freedom it offers. They have, in principle, nothing against socialism, nothing against the system, which is the normal human stance. Only fanatics support establishments wholeheartedly and under any circumstances; surely the many critics of capitalism in the West agree, in principle, with its liberal and democratic structure. The Czech aficionados of jazz and art have nothing against socialism so long as It does not annihilate what they love, which inherently has nothing to do with politics, economic systems, or ideologies, but which may assume political overtones if an oppressive establishment endeavors to crush it. These youngsters are not blind to the advantages even of really existing socialism. Job security, for instance—that is, job security as long as you behave. But neither are they blind to the disadvantages: the arbitrary rule of the police; the lawlessness of the courts; the heavily curtailed freedom of the press, of literature, of the arts in general; the terrible nepotism; the political discrimination called, less offensively, “class discrimination” when you apply for admission to a university, or for a job; the brutality toward those who do not keep their dislike to themselves; the new-class greediness of the papaláš in governmental and ministerial posts, self-appointed through the ritual of “elections.” Can any decent person, socialist or nonsocialist, really like such things?
Fortunately there are decent people everywhere, who sin daily against the orthodox code of socialist conduct. The following story is taken from a letter I received from an amateur rock musician who recently escaped from Czechoslovakia and now lives in the United States. With a group of friends he intended to attend a private jam session and lecture in a little village near Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad). As they walked from the railway station to the village they passed a truck that belonged to the State Construction Company. The driver, a typical working class character, stopped, leaned out of the cab, and warned them: “Boys, don’t go there! The place is swarming with them! They’ve got wagons ready for you, they’ve got German Shepherds and submachine guns!” By “they” the man of the people naturally meant the cops. But the boys ignored his warning, and were promptly arrested; they were subjected to a long process of chicanery and interrogations which resulted in their fleeing the country.
Was the truck driver a reactionary? He wasn’t an antisocialist. He was merely a decent person. A citizen of the Gray Zone. The kind of person who makes life bearable even in states of really existing socialism.
This article appeared in the December 17, 1984, issue of the magazine.