By Václav Havel

The New Yorker, December 20, 1993

FRANK ZAPPA was one of the gods of the Czech underground during the nineteen-seventies and eighties. It was an era of complete isolation. Local rock musicians and audiences were hounded by the police, and for those who refused to be swept aside by persecution—who tried to remain true to a culture of their own—Western rock was far more than just a form of music. At that time, Frank Zappa hung somewhere high up in the heavens, a star as inaccessible as the many others whose influence was felt in the local scene, like the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart. I never dreamed that I might meet him one day, but shortly after the revolution, when I was already President, Zappa turned up in Prague. He arrived during a period still vibrant with revolutionary energy. He jammed with local musicians and paid me a visit in the Castle, and we went out drinking together. He was the first rock celebrity I had ever met, and, to my great delight, he was a normal human being, with whom I could carry on a normal conversation. He was eager to learn everything he could about the radical changes taking place in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. He was curious about what this sudden collapse of a bipolar world might bring. He wanted to know what we thought about the future position of the Soviet Union in world politics, and he probed us about the negative as well as the positive aspects of the “velvet” course we had set for ourselves.

What fascinated and excited him was the idea that the artist had a role to play in active politics. He gave serious thought to offering unofficial assistance to our country, in both cultural and economic spheres, and I learned later that he had discussed the matter in detail with several ministers. Perhaps his illness prevented him from taking on this kind of work, but his sincere concern for our country made a deep impression un me. So did his appearance with Michael Kocab and his band, Prague Select, at a gala concert in June of 1991 to celebrate the final departure of the Soviet troups from Czechoslovakia after an occupation of almost twenty-three years. He was seriously ill at the time, but he took part all the same. It was one of his last appearances as a rock musician.

I thought of Frank Zappa as a friend. Meeting him was like entering a different world from the one I live in as President. Whenever I feel like escaping from that world—in my mind, at least—I think of him.

(Translated from the Czech, by Paul Wilson.)

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