[by Ken Hunt, London] In 2000 Česká Televize (Czech Television) celebrated Egon Bondy’s life and times with the documentary Fišer alias Bondy. The poet-lyricist, writer, philosopher and political commentator’s achievements could have filled a whole series of television programmes. One of Czechoslovakia’s most prominent and prolific men-of-letters, he railed against his homeland’s politicians and politics throughout his life. Outside his homeland however, he was primarily known as the era-defining lyricist for Czechoslovakia’s best-known beat group, The Plastic People of the Universe.
The Plastic People of the Universe took their name from Frank Zappa’s Plastic People, a song that had appeared on the Mother of Invention’s 1967 album Absolutely Free. The Plastics are still playing and re-surfaced in 2006 as a presence in the British playwright Tom Stoppard’s Rock’n'Roll drama. They made their British debut in 2007 and their set included a generous portion of Bondy songs.
Bondy’s name even became part of their first LP’s title. Made between 1973 and 1975 in glorious lo-fi and originally circulated on open-reel tape, Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned only appeared in a commercial form in 1978 in France. Banned meant banned. Bondy and the boys had run and would run into a few problems.
The title punned on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of course but it also name-checked Bondy, a published poet whose work had first appeared in 1950s. In fact, Bondy had ebeen born Zbynk Fišer - a Czechification of the German surname ‘Fischer’ - in Prague on 20 January 1930 and was far older than the members of The Plastic People of the Universe. After the Second World War he fell into surrealistic circles. He had his first book of verse published in 1952 and went on to study philosophy and psychology at Prague’s famed Charles University between 1957 and 1961. Bondy went on to write many volumes of notes on, and essays about philosophy and its history, on Buddha, existence and ontology.
The Plastic People of the Universe formed in September 1968 in Prague. They took their cues from domestic and foreign influences, including California’s Mothers of Invention, New York’s Velvet Underground and Prague’s psychedelic Primitives Group. The Primitives’ Ivan ‘Magor’ (Looney) Jirous took over the band’s management and, for his trouble, would be bounced in and out of prison over the years. (His trials and tribulations form the subject of 1978’s remarkable Dopis Magorovi (A Letter To Magor), part-epistle, part-declaration of solidarity, wholly a morale-booster for a comrade in prison.) What is often overlooked is that Prague, even after the “nomalisation” events of 1968 - when the Warsaw Pact nations marched in to restore the Soviet status quo - remained a frontier Mecca for Eastern bloc record collectors. East Germans in particular went there to buy Western records unavailable at home. These were duly smuggled along with old books, many of which were proscribed or out-of-print in the German Democratic Republic, yet available in Czechoslovakian antiquarian bookshops. That is why the Plastics’ repertoire was shaped by styles of underground rock music that, on the face of it, from a Western European or US perspective, sound unlikely. The vital difference was that when people talked about ‘underground’ in a Plastics context, underground meant samizdat. Underground was not some vacuous record company marketing term in Czechoslovakia.
The Plastics sailed into stormy waters early on. Run-ins with the authorities led to repeated hassles to do with performance licences. Gigs dried up. Their reputations were tarnished. Like the classic English joke, it was a case of ‘Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me!’ In Disturbing The Peace, the 1990 English-language edition of Václav Havel’s Dálkový výslech (1986), Havel recalls, “I had almost nothing concrete to prove they weren’t the layabouts, hooligans, alcoholics, and drug addicts that the regime was portraying them as in the hopes of being able simply to sweep them out of the way.” Parenthetically, it was the former Plastics Canadian lyricist, Paul Wilson, who translated Havel’s memoirs.
Bondy’s importance for the Plastics band coincided with the band’s decision to steer away from covers and to concentrate on Czech-language songs. He was like a well; they drew on his work, setting his poems to music. His lyrics would dominate the band for much of the 1970s, a critical time in the band’s lifetime, although occasionally new old material was added, the prime example being Mladý holky (Young Girls) on their 1985 album Půlnoční Myš (Midnight Mouse). Having obtained permission to perform, their licence was revoked in 1973 on the grounds that their morbid music would have “a negative social effect”.
Quite how Bondy’s tales could be so construed is frankly ludicrous. How could subjects like a list of medicines, drunken overindulgence, spewing and the shakes possibly be viewed as negative role model matter? (Indications of hypochondria regularly surfaced in Bondy’s lyrics.) Or doggerel like Mír (Peace)? In its haiku-approximation entirety it goes,
“Peace, peace, peace
Just like a piece
Of bog roll”
Mind you, the evocatively/provocatively titled Má vlast (My Country) might be - it also being the title of a work by Smetana, the Czech equivalent of Elgar in English terms or Sibelius in Finnish terms. In translation, it starts,
“Just like a kiss from a queer
My country gets up my rear”
- so that could have been a sore point for the authorities.
The Plastics were still playing Bondy songs - Zácpa (Constipation), Toxika (Toxic Chemicals), Nikdo (No one), Okolo okna (Past My Window) and Podivuhodný mandarin (The Wondrous Mandarin) being examples - in the year of his death, notably at the band’s British debut in January 2007 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, an overture to Charter 77’s 30th anniversary celebrations.
A leading figure of the Prague underground, Bondy poured out voluminous verse, philosophical writings, prose and essays, much of which originally appeared in samizdat circulations or overseas editions. Given the nature of samizdat - copies beget copies and so on - the extent of his published work is unquantifiable. What is certainly on the record and unquestionable is the fact that the state’s crack-down on the Plastics was a catalyst for the Charter 77 movement. The Charter 77 petition led to the overthrow of the old order. And while there is much claptrap about rebellion and revolution in rock songs, what the Plastics contributed to was true social revolution. Bondy’s part in all this was a small yet influential one. He swam against the tides.
Typically, he truculently denounced the break-up of Czechoslovakia in January 1993 as a plot that enabled Prague-based capitalists (in the Czech Republic) to lord it over their Slovak Republic neighbours. In protest he left the country and chose self-imposed exile in the Slovak Republic.
Bondy’s marriage to Jaroslava Krčmařiková produced one son, Zbynk Fišer, born in 1959. From 1963 he lived with Julie Nováková (1920-1994); they did not marry. To the end a good old Marxist, he died in Bratislava in the Slovak Republic on 9 April 2007.
With due thanks to the English-language translations in the Jaroslav Riedel-edited book, Plastic People of the Universe (1999).