It wasn’t the usual kind of event at the U.S. Capitol.
When dignitaries from the House and the Czech Republic came together Wednesday to honor the country’s late president, Vaclav Havel, they heard from the predictable political suspects in the ornate National Statuary Hall.
But they also heard from ZZ Top front man, Billy Gibbons.
The Texas blues guitarist, resplendent in a sequined black jacket, full red beard and electric guitar, belted out some signature songs, a way of recognizing Havel’s artistic background, his love of American music and his country’s strong connection to Texas.
Havel was a playwright, poet and author who 25 years ago led the “Velvet Revolution” that turned him into a reluctant president and his country, known as Czechoslovakia at the time, from a communist bloc nation into a democracy. He was president until 2003 and died in 2011.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, decided to give the ceremony to unveil a bust of Havel a twist by inviting Gibbons.
“America admired Vaclav Havel, and he admired America – and his affection wasn’t limited to his appreciation of our country’s system of government,” Boehner said before the event. “He was also a fan of American music, including the blues – and nobody does the blues quite like Mr. Billy Gibbons.”
At the ceremony, Boehner spoke of Havel’s repeated imprisonments and his determination to continue writing, with the unlikely outcome that he would lead his country. “You just can't write a play like this,” said Boehner.
Gibbons was definitely a crowd-pleaser among an array of U.S. officials, including House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was born in what was then Czechoslovakia. The Czech dignitaries were pleased, too, led by Czech Republic Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies Jan Hamáček.
Donning his signature sunglasses, Gibbons, said that “Texas and the Czech Republic work together here” and played an abbreviated version of the Big Joe Williams classic, “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” changing a few words. Apparently Havel at one point was thinking of foregoing the presidency. Gibbons later sang a short version of the Sam & Dave hit, “I Thank You,” which ZZ Top also recorded.
Czech Ambassador Petr Gandalovič, said before the ceremony, “President Havel was fond of blues and rock music, and there is a very close relationship between Texas and my country. I think President Havel would have appreciated Mr. Gibbons performing at this event.”
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, founding co-chair of the Czech Caucus in Congress, said he was honored to attend the event “and show my support for Vaclav Havel who at great personal risk to himself and his country stood up to the Soviet Union in the name of freedom.”
The bust of Havel by Czech-American sculptor Lubomir Janecka is one of only a few sculptures of foreign leaders in the Capitol, which include former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
On Thursday, the Czech officials traveled to Texas, where several large Czech immigrant populations settled in the 19th century, especially in West, a town just north of Waco long famous for kolache, a Czech dessert.
West was the site of a fertilizer plant explosion in 2013 that killed 15 people and injured over 150 and the Czech officials presented their government’s contribution of over $200,000 for the rebuilding of a gymnasium.
“The dreadful explosion that had occurred on 17th April 2013 in which 15 young people of mostly Czech descent lost their young lives, struck me profoundly,” Sobotka said, “and at the same time raised a tide of solidarity in the Czech Republic.”
And for that, the people of West said “thank you.”