Martin Machovec interviewed by Anna Kukatova

From Unearthing The Music

Martin Machovec (2015). Photo by: Tomáš Benedikovič

Martin Machovec is a specialist in the Czech underground movement, with his academic interests embracing the Czech literary underground, samizdat texts and the works of Egon Bondy.

This interview was recorded in his flat in Prague, 23.11.2015, by Anna Kukatova, who got in touch with us and generously allowed its publication. 

Q - The underground in Czechoslovakia is researched much better than the underground in GDR, most probably because there was no real underground at that time. Of course we can consider the punk movement of the 1980s and regard it to the underground movement, but I think, if we are speaking about the 1970s, the situation in Czechoslovakia was unique and it is quite impossible to compare it.

A - I’m afraid yes. I have never studied unofficial cultural movements in other Central European countries into detail, but probably the political development in each of these satellite countries went at a different pace, even in Russia. There was a very famous movie “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” which was made in 1980. Those were very depressive years in Czechoslovakia, following the Charter 77, and such film was totally unpolitical. I have some friends who were part of the hippie movement in the Soviet Union. I know this guy who lives here now, he is about two years younger than I, and of course he was in all that ‘psichushkas’ and of course it was quite hard, but when we were trying to compare those years, the harshest years of oppression here in Czechoslovakia rarely coincided with the harshest years of oppression in the Soviet Union or Poland, where there was a Martial law, started in 1981, so it was a little bit better here. It’s surprising that the development in each country went in a different way. I’m afraid you can’t write on anything that would be the real equivalent of the Czech musical and literary underground. For GDR the situation was different because they always had their “big brother” in the West and there was no language barrier. Moving from East Berlin to West Berlin was sometimes just moving from one bloc to another! For years you could observe the place out of which you were kicked, from behind of the Berlin Wall. That’s crazy and then you could still live in the same city!

Q - I wanted to ask you about the very term "underground", its notion. It seems to me that everybody puts their own meaning. How can we define the term underground regarding Czechoslovakia? Is it only a so-called «anglicism» or has it developed into something transcultural and specific?

A - It is so complicated and so puzzling, isn’t it? I mean this is the trouble with this semantic mess. If you go back to the beginning and try to trace the history of this Anglicism, same is in Russian, we have two synonyms. We can speak of ‘andegraudniki’ and about ‘podpol’e’, ‘podzemí’ in Czech, which is much wider. We could speak about ‘podpol’e’ as far as Dostoevsky is concerned. And its transferred metaphoric meaning is sort of a “social layer” or “social attitude”, which indicates some way of life or an activity which is hidden from the crowd. This is the notion which could be traced in most European languages and, for example, in religious activities. In English we have this trouble because we have only this one word. And that assumes more and more possible interpretations or can be interpreted in a variety of ways. In our languages the equivalent would be ‘podpol’e’ or ‘podzemí’ which, of course, suggests that such activities, which faced with the brutalities of totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany or in Soviet Union are part of a unofficial, hidden, covered movement, well, spiritual movements, of course, I don't speak about political or even illegal armed resistance during the war. Partially political because in dictatorship every independent movement, although it doesn't want to be political, is treated as one. When we use this notion it enables us to speak that it’s some new version of what has existed for centuries. There always must have been a group of people, trying to do something in a different way, unofficially. It depends on how they were treated.

Q - How did the Anglicism, the English word “underground” enter the Czechoslovakian culture?

A - We know that this word was used by Ivan Martin Jirous in his “Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival”, 1975. There is no doubt that this notion (as far as Jirous puts it) entered the Czech rock scene in the late 1960s, influenced by independent anti-establishment and anti-consumerist oriented movements and especially the rock band The Velvet Underground in the United States, but also Frank Zappa, The Fugs, The Doors, Captain Beefheart, etc., as far as music is concerned. Jirous says he was interested in fine arts, including happenings and Andy Warhol’s projects and through this he came to know about rock music, which was part of it and was so different from pop music. It was experimental music. There is no doubt that Velvet Underground chose this name to indicate they were different from the mainstream pop music bands.

Q - If Im not mistaken Jirous compares the underground movement with the religious movement.

A - Yes, what Jirous compares as far as Czech literary or musical scene is concerned, in the beginning he quotes some of the radical Hussites of the 15th century, Czech protestants. But this is what he wrote in the mid 1970s. And as far as the English notion of the underground is concerned, it may have its roots somewhere there as well. I always try to emphasize, discussing cultural orientation, that there was something like an underground movement (podzemí) already in the 1940s, when the Czechoslovakians were occupied by Nazi Germany. Well, look at Egon Bondy and his friends, they were found in some kind of podzemí in the beginning of the 1950s, although, of course, they didn’t call it “underground” they called it independent activity or something like that.

It’s only in the late 1960s when this new influence from English-speaking countries reached this country. This notion includes some artistic orientation. It’s also a bit puzzling because this influence could only get to this country in a relatively short period of the late 1960s, when there was almost no barrier, the Iron Curtain was almost gone. So you could travel to the West, you could exchange opinions, you could get books so this way people could learn about what was going on before in the West. And so they did, but then, after the invasion again in a couple of months, the frontier was closed again and there was no chance. They could get this inspiration in only two years. In 1968 the monopoly of communist party basically collapsed. Many people profited and took the opportunity, occasion to travel and gather as much information as they could. It’s a bit funny that this influence reached the country and soon again it became almost isolated. But they could make use of that inspiration.

The underground contains the heritage of this country, as Jirous puts it, as far as the radical protestants of the 15th century and the predecessors of the 1950s, of Egon Bondy especially. They could also be influenced in a bit different way of underground in the States, which was mostly musical, also literary (including The Beat generation) Independent, anti-establishment movements traceable in the States after the end of the World War II. It was not only the musical underground. When you look at the literary scene after the World War II in different countries in almost every European country you can find some groups of writers, poets that started presuming the differences of values, assuming very negative attitude towards consumerist society. The existentialists in France, the Beats (and not only) in the United States. Although they may not be able to call themselves underground but if you compare their attitudes they would be similar in a way. If we want to trace the cultural background of the underground movement in the West, it’d be much wider. We had better speak about Western counterculture, it would be perhaps a broader, wider notion. Again it has its special conditions and it wasn’t faced with brutal oppression. It was different, here Egon Bondy couldn't publish single line before 1989. In Slovakia the situation was different. There you can hardly trace any kind of underground movement because they were either able to play music or to write officially. Ok, there were some problems but they never had to live in a totally isolated underground world.

Q - I was thinking maybe the term underground is more suitable to Czechoslovakia than for the West then?

A - Well, the content, what it referred to in the West was different from what it denoted in Czechoslovakia, especially in the 1970s. Here it coincided with a more or less illegal movement which was prosecuted. In the United Stated they occasionally had problems, but they were never put in jails because of their writings or because of their music, they were democratic countries, weren't they? While these countries here in the Central Europe, well, weren’t democratic, they were more totalitarian. So that’s what may still be confusing when they say that the Plastic People are something like the Velvet Underground or The Fugs or Beefheart in Czechoslovakia. Yes, as far as musical influences, it might be true, but as far as their position in the society — it was different. Because the general conditions were different. When we speak about underground in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s we should be aware of such differences. The word was the same, it was an English term, but they were influenced by other movements.

We’d better speak of Soviet bloc versions of underground movements which, of course, responded to the local conditions. And they were different here, for instance, since the underground musicians and poets mostly supported the Charter 77 movement in 1977. You can hardly find an equivalent of such an activity in the West. There was no need for it. The Charter 77 was a movement of Czechoslovak citizens who claimed their right to be treated as Czechoslovak citizens. They called for legal measures that were adopted by the Czechoslovak government. It was the civil rights movement. There was nothing underground of this kind. On the contrary, they wrote their first proclamation, they wanted to be published. The different thing that they were prevented from publishing it here, in this country, they just really wanted an open dialogue with the government, which was, of course, unbearable for the more or less totalitarian government.

Q - Didnt they realize in the first place that they couldnt be published in Czechoslovakia and could only be published in the West?

A - Well, who knows in what Vaclav Havel and his friends believed in the late 1976, but I think most of them were much more optimistic, hoping for at least some dialogue with the Communist Party and Government leaders. Instead of it they were treated as criminals. As long as underground musicians, poets joined the Charter at the same time they betrayed their own underground ideas, because what kind of underground is that: “We are citizens we fight for our rights as citizens”. It has little to do with original underground ideas, described by Jirous in his Report. What is the most important message? I would say that there is a way of resistance. We can resist this pressure and how can we resist it? There’s no hope for the change of the regime, but yet we don't have to be too much depressed because we can independently in small groups keep doing things we want. The Charter 77 had different aims, it actually wanted to open a dialogue with the power, with the government.

And yet one more puzzling thing. The difference between the notion of underground and podzemí. This Anglicism indicates that those ones who are in favor of it claim certain kind of cultural orientation, American way of counterculture. I always remember professor Patočka, or professor Černý and those who were of the prominence of Charter 77 movement. They were university professors and in the 1950s and 1960s and they were kicked out of their university posts and what was left to do? They could only have some inferior jobs and keep on writing, lecturing well doing things privately without any chance to publish. So they were mostly manipulated into “podzemí”. But not to the underground. I can’t imagine professor Černý, who never showed any deep understanding for Jirous and Bondy:

— So, you became part of underground movement?

— No I don’t want to have anything in common with those dirty, filthy drug addicts and hippies, no, no!”

What professor Černý wrote only proves it. But if you tell him: “Professor, you have found yourself in a kind of «podzemí»”, - unfortunately, he would have to agree. The difference between the Czech translation is in what it denoted, what it referred to.

Q - I’ve read that in the 1970s you actually took part in underground activities by spreading samizdat publications?

A - In a very small way. My father was active in 1968, we left the country for several months and lived in Austria. My parents were considering the possibility of leaving Czechoslovakia and living in Austria or Germany and then we returned. My father could no longer teach at the university and in the early 1970s he became one of the dissidents. No chance to publish, no chance of lecturing, no chance to get any job, etc. He was originally a communist party member; he was a Marxist. After the invasion there was simply no chance. When I was in my teens I started feeling this heritage. The children of who was opposed to the Soviet invasion were prevented to enter the university. It was as early as 1972 —  no chance to get to the secondary school, to high school – it was so complicated. Through my father I came into contact with his colleges, his friends, including Egon Bondy and via Egon Bondy I got to the friends of his in the early 1970s and also to the samizdat texts, because, again, there was no chance to get the books, so many books were abandoned from the public libraries. I remember the book by Jaroslav Seifert called Morový sloup (The Plague Column). Everyone new about him and there was no chance for him to publish as he signed the Charter 77. I remember when I got it, I took my typewriter out and rewrote it in two nights. So it was not only underground musicians and those crazy texts, it was just anything. I kept on rewriting texts in the 1970s and 1980s but it was never too numerous, about two dozen or something. There were professional typists who did it as a part-time job and they were paid for it, unofficially, of course. Vaculík had four or five typists and he had to pay them because they just spent days, weeks, months on it. I would say my role was quite small and limited. I was glad to had this double way of life: officially managed to get to the university, although it was a part-time study as early as I finished my military duty in 1979, but even before, I could study in a kind of apprentice school, since I could not get to a regular high school. Sometimes there were discussions among students even in the 1970s and 1980s, but I deliberately kept my mouth shut, because I was much more afraid. Among my friends there were always one or two kept in jail and my father was Charter 77 signatory and I knew how easy it was to get to prison. Most of my classmates and later on fellow students didn’t know much about it, they grew up in families that were not active in the unofficial sphere at all.

In our apartments one could never be sure whether your place is bugged, that secret police would hear you. We developed this funny way of communication:

- Hello, could you come around?

-Yes, who is it?

No question like this. You have to recognize the other one. If we wanted to talk about important matters, we would go to the street. We knew much more about these police prosecutions, harassment and trouble much better. When we try to interpret the beginning of the underground movement we have to study political matters. So-called home-seminars, organized in private places. My father was one of them, but most prominent would be Jan Patoka who went on lecturing at his home, so his students used to come around to his place. Again this was an underground in its broader, wider meaning. When he signed the protest against the arrest of the Plastic People they let him listen to the music and he said politely: “Thank you very much”. The logic is that I don’t have to accept everything in the world of art and music, but I should be concerned when someone wants to prevent my colleges and friends to play music I don't like at all, but someone wants to forbid them only because of this music. No, I don’t like it, but they should have the right to play. If you don’t think in this way then you are not a democrat, are you? We should respect something we don't like.

Q - As far as Im concerned, the Plastic People, when they started in the late 1960s, quickly gained popularity, had people attending their concerts. And in the 1970s, the years of unofficial existence, it wasn't that hard to make some happenings and gigs - it was hard, it was unofficial, it was underground, but still there were gatherings and people knew about them

A - To understand it better we had to follow the development from year to year. The situation in a couple of years, starting in 1969 or 1970 and ending up in the trials of Plastic People and their friends in 1976. After those trials the situation was different. It was surprisingly quick. In the late 1960s the Plastics were one of the popular rock groups. There were mixing of different spheres of art with one another, the heritage of Andy Warhol. It was not only about the music, but also about the show, about the performance, basically. Art theoreticians started to pay interest. This was a message, something interesting. There is a little joke on how Jirous was trying to explain to the musicians the differences between the psychedelic and underground music. He said: “Psychedelic is music of some art rendering, it’s a show or performance whereas underground is more of a spiritual attitude, it’s something that you take a deliberate stand, out of our decision, it is an attitude to the world”. And then one of those musicians answered back: “I see, at last. Well, when we have fires on stage, it’s psychedelic, but without fires it’s underground, right?”. This is an illustration that they were not so much bothered by the words, by the terms, they wanted to play their kind of rock’n’roll. At first they started to imitate Frank Zappa, etc. but later on they developed their own style.

But it was the years 1968-1969. In 1970 problems came. Again this was a period of the so-called purges. Once the pro-Kremlin government was reestablished, thousands of people were kicked out of jobs, unless you complied with the official guideline, which said: “No, it was not Soviet occupation, it was a brotherly help, we were rescued from hell”. As a rock musician, sign this, have a haircut and then include one of the progressive Soviet songs. Have songs and a band name on Czech. It was a censorship, of course, and the way of breaking bones of artists. You will do what we’ll tell you. This way, in a couple of years, in the framework of Czech culture the underground music assumed a different meaning. It started to be identified with The Plastic People of the Universe, other groups and artists who resisted this pressure. Who could have thought about such purges and humiliation in the late 1960s? And as early as 1970 they came. And so they said no. Year by year this was becoming more and more difficult for them. They could still give their gigs at some villages in the country away from Prague, etc. They had some contracts and then the secret police were everywhere, it was no longer possible, so they had to find different strategic. They started organizing wedding celebrations. They started renting village pubs just for their friends, that was permitted. So they managed to do as many as ten gigs, just each time, unfortunately, one of them have to marry. As Jirous joked: “Unfortunately, in the end, each of us had to marry someone! And some of us bitterly regretted it later”.

In the beginning the police didn’t pay much attention to them, because they were much more afraid of the intellectuals and dissidents, whom the government knew about. They were afraid of them because people loved them and knew them as their readers. And these rock musicians? But later on it proved to be more important. “We want our socialist youth like this and that and then look at these hairy hippies gathering”. This is extraordinary that the core of this movement was shaped by the rock music fans. Jirous started helping to shape this movement. Egon Bondy, the poet, was a legend for The Plastic People. Jiří Němec, was a philosopher of Christian orientation. Then they were artists who managed to complete their studies at art colleges in the 1960s, who collaborated with them. Jirous’ sister was organizing those happenings. That was really surprising. In this respect we can thank the oppression of the regime of the so-called «normalization». Thanks to this pressure these people found a way to one another.

Q - Would you talk a little bit about radio broadcasting in Czechoslovakia and its role?

A - In the 1950s listening to the Radio Free Europe was very dangerous. But it was music, the kind of media which doesn’t need words. Listening to Radio Luxembourg or RFE was necessary for the young people, who really wanted to know what was going on. It was more or less tolerated, especially, I think, in the 1960s. The RFE was in Czech. It played a very important role in the late 1960s, when this musical development stared shaping as far as rock music as concerned. It was always so that you could learn about something on the radio and about two-three-four years later you could get a record released in Czechoslovakia. I suppose it was as late as 1969 when the first one long-play vinyl of the Beatles was released in Czechoslovakia. And before it was just one or two singles. There was a collection of “Oldies but Goldies” and I remember somebody told me that you can buy it and there’re Beatles songs on it. I was a Beatles fan and I had it! 80 Crowns at that time were a lot of money. I was so glad, because there was no chance to get the record, the music, etc. So we were like: “This guy might have this new record at home!” We used to copy the tape, hundred times, you call it ‘magnitizdat’, don’t you? Officially it was illegal, but no one cared. At that time, it was so complicated and it was such a thrill. We used to visit one another exchanging the records. So music in this way, rock music especially, in the 1960s were tolerated, but again only some of it were tolerated. This way a lot of rock music scene became a political factor. The Communist regime did not want it; they hated it so that is why we preferred it much more. At last we found something, which was really interesting. It was a side effect of the intolerance on the side of the regime. If you’re unjustly prosecuted, it gives you the feeling that what you do is justified. Don’t betray what you believe in no matter how much you are prosecuted.