For a lot of Czechs, Pavel Bobek is THE voice of country pop, thanks to his hugely popular Czech-language versions of hits by U.S. singers like John Denver and Kris Kristofferson. He is also a trained architect, and was a close friend of Jan Kaplický, who died in 2009 after a long and fruitless struggle to have one of his plans realised in Prague. In this, the second part of a two-part interview, Pavel Bobek speaks about Kaplický and aspects of his own career. But first he discusses his love of Johnny Cash, whose songs he recorded on his most recent LP.
“I first heard Johnny Cash when he was starting, it was the deep in the ‘50s. The first time I heard his voice and listened to his songs I thought, this is something new, something not ordinary, something extraordinary.
“When Johnny Cash was in Prague for the first time, it was 1978, I met him, I spoke to him. He was a person who filled me with energy. There was great energy coming from his voice and from his group, the people on stage with him.
“And when I met him and shook hands with him I knew he was a very, very big man. It wasn’t only that he was that big.”
He had a nice kind of revival of his career towards the end, after some years where he wasn’t so popular. Were you pleased as a fan to see him go through that?
“Yeah, but I think it’s kind of exaggerated. His popularity was always very high, though of course there were some ups and some downs. I don’t think he was down much, but of course his career and his life…the first years especially were very wild. It was not easy to stay at the top, with journalists and people from the press – there were some scandals...
“I’ve never had scandals. I was not that good, and I was not that wild as he was!”
Generally speaking, were Czech rock’n’rollers less wild than their Western counterparts?
“Not at all. They were very, very wild. Not me, but my good companions from the rock’n’roll years, like – maybe some people will still remember the name Miki Volek. He was a good friend of mine, a very intelligent guy, a very good guy, but somehow he didn’t manage to be so popular and to have so many girls…”
And he died young?
“He died very young [at 53]. I was with him almost until he died. He was not alone – there were many wild rock’n’rollers. I was not that good that I would be as wild as they were!”
If we could digress for a second – a good friend of yours was the architect Jan Kaplický, who was your university friend. What kind of relationship did you have with Kaplický?
“I met him when we started to study at gymnazium [grammar school] when we were 15. We had the same interests. I remember the first time we spoke together – he had come from a different school from me.
“We had the same interests. We were interested in music, in technology, in building aircraft models. I think what I am thankful to him for is that he taught me somehow to feel beauty – beauty in ordinary things, like buildings, like cars, like airplanes, like music.
“He taught me that architecture and music have very much in common. They have melodies, they have height, they have depth, they have rhythm.
“We were very, very close friends, though after the Soviet invasion in ’68 he left. He started to work in Britain. He was very tough, because his architecture was not easy to sell. But he somehow made it there.
“He wanted to make it here, at home, because he was a patriot. Maybe I’m the one who knows just how big a patriot Jan was. It was his dream to build something in his native Prague. He didn’t manage to.”
This was the famous “Blob”, a National Library building. He tragically died two and a half years ago, the same day his baby daughter was born, at the age of 70. Do you think that the stress of all the disputes about the library maybe harmed his health?
“Definitely. He was very unhappy. He was strong enough to fight and fight and fight. But still, it was too much. I'm quite sure.”
If we could get back to your career, you released an album last year that was a success: “Víc nehledám” – I’m not looking for anything more. It was an album of Johnny Cash songs, recorded in Nashville. Was that the kind of realisation of a dream for you, to record in the home of country music?
“It was not a dream, because I never dreamt about something like that. It was more than a dream. It came like lightning from the sky. I couldn’t believe it.
“Then somehow I was in Nashville. I was sitting in a chair and the people there from the studio told me, last week Kris Kristofferson was sitting in your chair. So it was not a dream come true. It was something…it was a marvel.”
In September you’ll be 74 years old. I guess it’s fair to say you’re at an age when people often ask you to evaluate your career. Looking back today, how do you view your career?
“I feel full of energy to continue, but let’s not exaggerate it. One day the interest of the people, of the audience, will definitely go down. I won’t be sitting in a chair shouting, here I am, I still can sing! No! I think, I hope, I will know when the moment comes that I should go…off.”
You can listen to the first part of this two-part interview here.