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How rockers took power in Prague

This may not be significant. It may not even be important. But it isweird: Rock 'n' rollers have taken over Czechoslovakia.

And not just any rock 'n' rollers, but people who idolize Frank Zappa - the man who wants your kids to listen to raunchy music, the subversive who writes songs about "that nasty little pamphlet in your daddy's bottom drawer," and freaks out Tipper Gore.

I told you it was weird.

And what, you might be wondering, does Frank Zappa have to do with


Good question. The answer is a little complicated, but it's worth hearing and may tell you a bit about some of the stranger things going on behind what used to be the Iron Curtain.

Probably the best way to get into this is from the beginning.

It's 1969 and Zappa, the goateed guitarist-leader of a rock group known as "The Mothers of Invention," comes out with a song called The Plastic People. It's a bit bizarre and causes hardly a ripple here in the United States (we were tuning in to peace and love at Woodstock that year). But in Czechoslovakia, some young musicians are mightily impressed. They form a rock band patterned after the "Mothers" called "The Plastic People of the Universe."

Like Zappa and his Mothers, the Plastic People are outside the mainstream - far outside. Even so, they gain a loyal, cult-like following among young Czechs. As long as they keep a low profile, the authorities - whose idea of culture is accordion music and songs about improving farm production - leave the Plastic People alone.

During the next few years, the Plastic People tour the country, gaining in popularity each time their highly amplified atonalities shake the basements and garages where they play. The general public begins to notice. By 1976, Czechoslovakia's dour Communist authorities take notice too and don't like what they hear. They squash this musical anarchy by throwing the Plastic People in jail.

What happened after that is part of the lore of Czechoslovakia's

pro-democracy movement.

Arresting the Plastic People may not have been a signal event in the history of rock 'n' roll (as signal events go, it's far outclassed by The Big Bopper's Chantilly Lace). It did, however, upset a lot of Czechs who up to that time paid little attention to politics. It also enraged liberals who'd been trying to open up their austere culture to some of the fresher winds from the West.

Among them was a playwright, Vaclav Havel, whose political views rankled the authorities even more than the Plastic People. Havel and three other like-minded dissident writers started a very public campaign of ridiculing the government and demanding that the Plastic People be set free.

The Plastic People protest galvanized dissidents and intellectuals

throughout Czechoslovakia and transformed itself the next year into something called Charter 77, which pestered the government at every opportunity to become more democratic and live up to Western standards of human rights.

Like the Plastic People they tried to defend, Havel and many of his Charter 77 colleagues were thrown in jail for daring to challenge the way things were. Democracy, not to mention rock 'n' roll inspired by Frank Zappa, was still not acceptable in Czechoslovakia.

In the chill that followed, the country's rock and experimental jazz musicians and fans realized they had to be a little devious to survive. So they formed a musical interest group known as the Jazz Section, a kind of subsidiary of the officially recognized Czech musicians' union. They figured a name like that might protect them because jazz was more or less tolerated.

For a while the ruse worked, but once more the authorities eventually realized that the rockers were at it again and started throwing Jazz Section people in jail, too. More petitions, more protests, more demands for democracy, more political organizing followed.

Throughout these times, Frank Zappa, the man who describes himself as "the slime from the radio," remained an inspiration. Even though his surreal music and wittily irreverent lyrics never really rose above cult popularity at home, he was a symbol of defiance to those who would soon be knocking down the walls of repression in their country.

If by some odd chance you've been following events in Czechoslovakia closely for the past few months, you already know how this story ends.

Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who still likes his Zappa straight and wears jeans to the office, is now president of the country. That's right, president.

Not only that, rock 'n' rollers are sprinkled throughout the newly reformed establishment. A few examples: Jarda Koran, a rock musician, is the new mayor of Prague. Pavel Kantnor, a rock singer, is chief of government protocol. Michael Kocab, another crooner, is a member of Parliament.

Havel, by the way, is the kind of guy who never forgets his friends. On Jan. 21, he invited Zappa over to share a few smokes and talk rock 'n' roll at Hradcany Castle in Prague, the seat of the Czech presidency.

Czechoslovakia, perhaps Eastern Europe, may never be the same.