Ivan Martin: Jirous Stalwart of the Plastic People of the Universe
Monday 21 November 2011
A legend of the post-war dissident movement in his native Czechoslovakia, Ivan Martin Jirous was a poet and mainstay of the psychedelic rock group the Plastic People of the Universe.
Between their formation in 1968 anddisbandment two decades later, they achieved easy renown in the hardest possible way by provoking theCommunist authorities with an approximation of hippy garb, coiffeur and attitude, and an absorption of American rock – most plainly that of the Mothers of Invention. Cultural outlaws, they were lucky not to be sent to the salt mines, although Jirous endured five prison sentences for "organised disturbance of the peace" and other trumped-up offences.
Between incarcerations, he worked as a labourer. Although he graduated in art history from Prague's Charles University, he was prevented from obtaining academic posts because of his outspoken belief that the force of "alternative" artistic expression – what he called the "Second Culture" – might undermine the repression that followed the Soviet coup of 1948. He was an admirer of the pungent concrete poetry of Jirí Kolár; Jirous's readings of his own output were enlivened by his habit of stripping to the waist. Given to provocative gestures beyond the campus, too, he was often the central figure of spectacular brawls in city taverns, earning the nickname (and eventual stage alias) "Magor" ("the crazy one").
Yet intimates became privy to a sensitive, contemplative side to Jirous. This was articulated to a wider world through his verse, which circulated illegally at first but was destined to bring him belated recognition through awards such as the Jaroslav Seifert Prize, in 2006.
But this all lay in an unimaginable future when the Plastic People of the Universe dared its maiden concert, from which Jirous emerged as the combo's manager and creative pivot. Initially, he encouraged the incorporation of English lyrics into the repertoire until it became clear that compositions sung in Czech were having more of the desired upsetting effect on the government, which revoked the musicians' performing licenses in 1970, forced the cancellation of subsequent recitals and suppressed the distribution of record releases (though tracks from exported albums reached playlists on foreign radio programmes such as John Peel's Top Gear on the BBC).
One fan was Václav Havel, later to be first President of the Czech Republic, whose enduring friendship with Jirous began shortly before the arrest – though the medium of a police agent provocateur – of the poet and three companions for a rendition in a beer garden of a traditional ditty updated to embrace disobliging comments about the Russians. Charged with defaming the Soviet Union and public disturbance, the four spent eight months in jail.
But Jirous's further eight years under lock and key were used constructively. Many items from his numerous poetry anthologies, children's stories and a 500-page collection of letters published in 2005, were written in his cell.
He completed his final stretch weeks before 1989's Velvet Revolution. While his remaining decades were rich with honours for literary achievements, he was as proud of the revaluation of the Plastic People of the Universe through the issue of compilations like 2010's Magical Nights, a two-CD retrospective that conveys a sense of listening to coded musical messages from youth oppressed by tyranny – the "real thing", as opposed to a boy in the free West, shrugging off his mother's relentless moaning about his long hair.
Ivan Martin Jirous, poet and musician: born Humpolec, Czechoslovakia 23 September 1944; married (two children); died Prague 10 November 2011.
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