Nice Guy, Punk Legend

OC guitar god Billy Zoom on life before and after X

A mutual acquaintance intervened but warned me: "Billy has a very dry sense of humor. A lot of people take him the wrong way. He's not an asshole like a lot of people think. But don't be surprised if he makes fun of the way you talk."I thought this was a most bizarre warning until Zoom finally picked up the phone one day while I was leaving a message on his answering machine. "I guess I have to talk to you, huh?" he said "Well, yeah, that's the basic idea."

"Where are you from?"

"I just moved up here from San Diego."

"That's NOT a San Diego accent."

"Well, uh, I'm originally from New York."

"What part?"

"Upstate," I said. "Syracuse."

"Syracuse, huh? Hmmm. I guess that's a real place."

I would come to find that Zoom hates Noo Yawk City New Yorkers like a Klansman hates people of color. A curious bigotry to be sure, but a considerable one to Zoom. I briefly wondered if "New Yorker" isn't code for "Jew," but I decided that I was just being paranoid. You see, among the many rumors shrouding Zoom is one that suggests he left X in 1985 because he had become a Bible-thumping born-again Christian. This proves not to be the case, and Zoom is understandably touchy about the perception.

"It might interest and confuse people to know that I became a Christian the same month that we started X, which was about the time Exene joined the band in '77," he said. "I was a Christian when I was in X; I just wasn't a real good Christian. It's not like I quit X because I became a Christian, which is what a lot of people think. People just like to have stories, so they make things up."

I take Zoom's word. In my presence, he joked about the size of his meat (a most impressive slab, if he's to be believed), he made lewd tongue gestures at a picture of the Spice Girls, and he never tearfully thanked Jay-zuz for any accomplishment nor blamed Satan for any downfalls. I decided he's a normal Christian: sincerely devout but no kind of zealot. There are no Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson photos on his walls.

Fastforward to the day I actually meet Zoom: here I am--with our photographer in tow--knocking on the front door of Zoom's house in Orange. It opens a crack. An unfamiliar face peers out at us through Coke-bottle-thick glasses beneath a greasy, silver pompadour. This is my first gander at the Magnificent Bob. Bob is a quirky sidekick, sort of a Kramer-like figure to Zoom, who acts as cheerleader and font of anecdotes throughout the subsequent interview. But for the moment, he is outraged.

"YOU'RE EARLY!" he censures us. An adorable black puppy pushes its way through the crack to greet us. "NICE GOING, GUYS! NOW YOU LET THE DOG OUT!" barks the Exquisite Bob. "Uh, we were told to be here at 10 a.m.," I say to Bob. "We can come back later."

The photographer and I retire to a coffee shop to which the Amazing Bob has thoughtfully directed us. The lens man, reverential of X and shaken by our less-than-hospitable welcome, is as nervous as Jackie Mason at a skinhead convention. Returning at 10:30, we are ushered into Casa Zoom without further incident. The Wonderful Bob is in a kinder humor now, and he leads us into Zoom's room. There he stands, 6 feet 3 inches of elegant rock stardom. He's 50 but looks closer to 30. Zoom's face is instantly recognizable, a less seedy version of Christopher Walken, all charming, boyish smile, angular cheekbones and huge blue eyes. He seems less scary in person than on the phone.

We take a seat, and I turn on the tape recorder. I soon find that this socially awkward, uneasy guy is maybe the most honest interview subject I've ever spoken with. During the course of the afternoon, he turns off the tape recorder a number of times to slam this person or that, but other than these amusing personal anecdotes, he lays open his soul, seemingly eager to break a public silence of some 13 years. He offers no hype, no Keith Richards-like delusions of rock & roll glory. And he admits that he's part of the long-rumored--now confirmed--X reunion strictly for one reason: "I'm doing it for the money, and I'm doing it to get my name out there so I can do some of the other projects I want to do," he says.

"Wasn't there ever a point where you felt you needed to do this for artistic reasons?" I ask. Zoom ponders the question and answers in the negative. "Have you been at any rehearsals with the band and felt like, 'Yeah, it really is good to be doing this again?'" I ask."Nope. My real goal in life is to be a record producer," he says. "I'm going to use the money I get from X gigs to move my [amp repair] business into a proper shop and build a recording studio, start a production company and a Christian record label, do stuff like that. It helps to have my name out there again."

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