One Plastic Person Roams the Universe
An interview with Paul Wilson
By Liz Worth
How blurred are the lines between politics and rock n’ roll?
When living under a regime that harnesses monoculture and perceives music as a potential threat, dissonance can fast be transformed into dissidence.
This is something that Paul Wilson learned when he inadvertently found himself at the forefront of an underground uprising in Czechoslovakia as a member of the seminal Czech band, Plastic People of the Universe.
After studying English literature at the University of Toronto, Wilson left Canada in 1964 to continue studying at King’s College in England. He says he was drawn to the UK because he wanted to see where everything he’d studied had been written, to see how all of these words had been shaped by their surroundings.
In England, Wilson one day found himself at a Czech film festival that featured the new wave of Czech cinema. Although Czechoslovakia was under heavy censorship because of its communist government, these films somehow broke past the barriers of the Iron Curtain and, as Wilson recalls, gave honest portrayals of Czech life. Despite the subtitles, he admits there was a lot about the films he didn’t understand, but this only fascinated him more. Wilson decided to strike out on his own rather than pursue his academic career, and in 1967 headed for Czechoslovakia.
“You are who you are and your interests lead you in a certain direction,” he says. “I did know that there was a very driving music scene in Prague and that it was one of the symptoms of the decline of communism. There were a lot of semi-underground bands and it’s always a sign that something is about to happen; that’s always been my experience. So one thing led to another and I gradually connected up with people who took me into this Czech, I wouldn’t call it a counter-culture, but it was people who had rejected the official culture in one way or another, not in any manifest way but just because their tastes and their politics were so much in opposition, so antithetical to the official culture and the official set of ideologies. But I wasn’t exploring this thing; it just sort of happened to me.”
Wilson says of his early experiences in Czechoslovakia that he could feel there were people pushing against the grain. There was the oppression of extreme censorship through the country, which wasn’t just dictating what could and could not be published, but was setting the tone for Czechoslovakia’s atmosphere as a whole.
It was at a party one night when Wilson met art historian and cultural critic Ivan Jirous, who introduced him to the Plastic People of the Universe, a band heavily influenced by the likes of the Velvet Underground. It would prove to be a life-changing encounter.
The communist regime was suspicious of ideas and kept a close watch on writers and playwrights, but it took them longer to see music as anything that should be taken seriously. Wilson says that when he joined the band as their singer, a role he took on from 1970 to 1972, he wasn’t making a conscious political statement. None of them were. All they wanted to do was make rock n’ roll.
“As I discovered later it was cultural things like playwrights and poets and little books being published that were the signs that something was happening. I kind of developed this notion that I think is still true, that it’s always the culture that changes first. Politics are the last to change. Things that are happening under the surface and are largely invisible to the official eye, that’s where the seeds of change first sprout, and it usually happens first in poetry because poetry comes to practice without a stage or a public space. So it was the poets who were the avant garde and close upon them came the musicians.”
As Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops had invaded, the tanks were in the streets, the band’s attitude was, “Let’s do as much as we can, while we still can.”
Their sense of urgency proved insightful, as the government eventually caught on to music as a radical outlet and set up a system that required musicians to go through a licensing process; the Plastics failed the test. They didn’t have a Czech name, they sang in English, and they refused to cut their hair. The band continued to play, however, moving further and further under the radar, its following growing along the way. But the totalitarian system never let up, gathering exhaustive files on band members and anyone they could who was involved, even as a fan. Eventually the band was arrested and Wilson was expelled from Czechoslovakia.
“At this point a movement that had no intentions to be political suddenly became political,” Wilson says. “And this is where the whole thing is so misunderstood. People write about the Plastic People as a band that rocked the regime…This was something totally different but in many ways it was far more radical because one of the things a regime like that cannot possibly tolerate is people doing what they want. They just can’t.”
Wilson says that culture does not set out to be political; it’s the government that makes it so, and in the case of the Plastics, the repressive climate the band grew out of turned something that grew innocently enough out of adoration for the Velvet Underground into something entirely rebellious.
Upon returning to Canada, Wilson continued his involvement with the Plastics by releasing their recordings and getting them distributed. He kept on working with the band for ten years and also worked on translating Czech literature, but eventually made a move to break away from the orbit of this culture. Still, he admits that it’s something that he’s never been able to let go of.
“It’s changed me, but I think it’s not just from being in the Plastic People but being in that society,” Wilson says. “It’s way more traumatic living in a system that doesn’t allow you to do anything.”