¡Viva la ZZ Top!
In an excerpt from the Norton Center for the Arts’ “Notes from the Faculty” series, Assistant Professor of International Studies Robert Bosco weighs in on ZZ Top’s March 21st performance in Newlin Hall. For ticket information to Saturday’s concert, visit www.nortoncenter.com.
In November of last year, Billy Gibbons, guitarist and frontman for ZZ Top, played in Washington D.C. at a Congressional ceremony honoring former Czech President, Vaclav Havel. Gibbons wasn’t exactly sure why he had been invited to play. But like a gentleman, he accepted. Gibbons, of course, is a seasoned entertainer and generally seemed to be at ease. He engaged in some genteel banter before pulling out a mini-steel resonator guitar for a drastically shortened version of the old blues standard, “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” He said that he chose the song in reference to the time when Havel thought of leaving his country and giving up the fight for freedom. A generation of Czechs took to the streets as if to say, baby, please don’t go. Gibbons was all set to play but then realized he had forgotten to put on his sunglasses. Then he remembered his hat, a Czech-style bowler. As he put it over his knit cap, he mumbled something off the cuff. “Texas and Czech Republic workin’ together here,” I think was what he said.
Gibbons’ song choice of “Baby, Please Don’t Go” may have been a stretch, but perhaps ZZ Top and Vaclav Havel aren’t such a strange combo after all. Throughout its modern history, Texas proved such a haven for Czech immigrants (and later, political exiles) that at one time the state even entertained making Czech its official second language. Today, in some towns such as West, Texas, Czechs remain a majority of the “Caucasian” population. The current Czech Prime Minister was on hand for Gibbons performance at that Havel ceremony in D.C. The Prime Minister’s visit to the U.S. included other high-profile events, like a meeting with Joe Biden at the White House. But he visited only one state, and that was Texas. If ZZ Top stands for Big Texas, they stand for Big Freedom. So, of course, did Vaclav Havel. In that sense, there could have been no better choice to honor Havel than Billy Gibbons.
ZZ Top, Texas, and the Czech Republic are connected musically, too. Czech immigrants brought their music, and their instruments, with them to Texas. In those days, if you were Hungarian, like my grandfather, you might play the csimbalum, a sort of spooky-sounding relative of the hammered dulcimer. If you’re Czech, you might play the accordion. And play it they did. Eventually, the accordion found its way into the Mexican communities in Texas, where it became a staple of the original Norteno and Tejano musical styles you can still hear today. ZZ Top owes very much to this Tejano music, Norteno culture, and the borderlands between Mexico and the U.S. In fact, if you read carefully, ZZ Top sings about the border, and Mexico, all of the time. For a band that celebrates so many American stereotypes — like the beer drinkin,’ hellraisin,’ car-revvin,’ Texan — Spanish, and especially Mexican, language and imagery have played a central and consistent part in the band’s aesthetic from the very beginning.
Thus we arrive at the unique combination that makes ZZ Top what they are. They’re rebellious, and rugged, and fiercely loyal to their state. There are a lot of gender issues in their music. But it’s not just about the ladies and the bodies and the suits and the bars and the sunglasses. ZZ Top is more than that. It’s their obsession with the dusty borderlands, and Mexico, too. ZZ Top isn’t so much Texan as…Texican. And, of course, it’s their revving hot-rod engine guitar sound wrapped in their glittery Rhinestone chic. For me, it is a sound epitomized in that main riff from “Legs” — you know the one I mean, the one that sounds like a chrome-plated chainsaw — that was burned into me since the first time I heard it on MTV as a kid. It was, quite simply, the coolest sound I had ever heard. Today, that’s the first sound I think of when I hear the words “electric guitar.”
While Governor of Texas in 1997, George W. Bush proclaimed May 15, 1997 as “ZZ Top Day.” Texas is our land of oil, and some say that’s what helped to cause our recent wars. Maybe, but Texas is also a state that can handle some serious freedom of speech: we’re frankly ashamed that George Bush is from Texas, said the Dixie Chicks on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. If ZZ Top stands for Big Texas, ZZ Top, once again, stands for Big Freedom. Maybe George W. Bush got it right on May 15, 1997.
by Robert Bosco, Assistant Professor of International Studies