Nice Guy, Punk Legend

OC guitar god Billy Zoom on life before and after X

It's easy to grasp why Zoom is so misunderstood, why so many sensational rumors circulate around him. He's an enigmatic, suspicious figure, naturally cold and wary; yet he's also as honest and intelligent a man as you'll ever meet. His manager, the affable Mike Rouse, has been installed to act as a buffer between Zoom and X's management, which Zoom loathes and distrusts. Even the name Billy Zoom--of the great noms de guitar, his is deliciously flashy and absurd--seems to contradict whatever really animates the complex, contradictory man behind the handle. He lived the first 24 years of his life as Ty Kindell, son of a big-band saxophonist/ clarinetist who planted a love of playing music in sonny boy's heart at a very early age. Somehow, he seems much more Ty Kindell than Billy Zoom."My dad started sticking instruments in my hands when I was really little," he says. "I had some violin lessons when I was about 5 and a couple of accordion lessons. I started piano lessons when I was 5 or 6, and I took them for about three years. I started playing guitar in 1954, and at some point, my dad bought me a tenor banjo. I remember taking that to school in the third grade and singing and playing for the class. Then, in the fourth or fifth grade, I started taking lessons on the clarinet, then tenor sax. I was always in the school band, so I used their baritone sax. I was in the marching orchestra and student jazz band." In all, Zoom plays nine instruments--and he doesn't just fuck around; he's proficient on each. Over the course of our conversation, Zoom plays astonishing guitar (fingerpicking and flatpicking at the same time!) without even looking at the damn thing, peels off Ray Charles-like riffs at the Hammond B3, and blows cool jazz into a flute. It's an astonishing display, and he never gives the impression that he's trying to wow. He just does this stuff.In 1966, young Kindell set out from his Savannah, Illinois, home to seek fame and fortune. He landed in Davenport, Iowa, and became a member of the Loved Ones, a popular group that toured the Midwest playing soul covers. The nomadic Kindell traveled around the country in the late '60s and early '70s, also putting in stints in Boston and San Francisco before settling into LA. As a member of Art Wheeler & the Brothers Love on and off from '69 through '72, he backed up the likes of Etta James, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Bobby Day, Johnny Taylor and other soul legends. "I knew who some of them were, but I didn't really appreciate it all until much later," says Zoom. "If I had my druthers, I'd still be playing R&B. I really liked that. I got out of it in the early '70s, when they started getting into funk. I didn't go there. I didn't do acid, so that whole Parliament/Funkadelic thing got kind of weird for me. I didn't want to wear the pink feathers and stuff."In 1971, Zoom landed a gig with rockabilly titan Gene Vincent, who had fallen on hard times in the face of the psychedelic era. Rockabilly music was long out of favor, and Vincent had ruined his health with the bottle. But Zoom--a lover of classic rock & roll and R&B forms--knew Vincent was the Man, even if the rest of the world didn't come to appreciate his legacy until long after his death. "[Vincent] was having trouble getting gigs and wasn't making too much money in those days," Zoom recalls. "Musicians in his band were embarrassed about playing songs like 'Be Bop a Lula' in front of people. They were all a bunch of stupid hippies--you know, 'We don't like his music and we don't know who he is, but he has a name, so we can help our careers by playing a few gigs with him.' He was on the wagon when I played with him. He had a real bad ulcer and couldn't touch a drop. That's what eventually killed him; he got screwed over and went on a bender and died. But when I was playing with him, he was absolutely sober and a real nice guy. The thing I remember him saying the most was, 'I can't believe that somebody who looks like you can play like that.' I still had hair down to my waist and bellbottoms in those days."

Zoom may have looked like a product of his era, but roiling beneath the surface was a nascent punk attitude--a disgust for all the music and fashion excesses of the '60s and '70s. He was a man out of his time, stuck in a place of unparalleled absurdity."I liked the Beatles' first two albums, but I hated Sgt. Pepper and The White Album and all that stuff," says Zoom. "I really couldn't stand any of it. The Stones: I liked their first album; I liked them until they started doing their own songs. I liked them when they were doing Willie Dixon and Bobby Womack songs. And '70s music really sucked. I think music sort of died at Woodstock. I think everything between Woodstock and the Ramones is an embarrassment and needs to be erased from the history books. I hated all of that stuff. That's why I started doing rockabilly; I couldn't get into the glam-rock thing. I couldn't get into Peter Frampton and the Eagles and all of that stuff. Creedence was kind of cool, I guess. Commander Cody, Asleep at the Wheel--I used to go see stuff like that."By 1972, a makeover was in order, and Ty Kindell became Billy Zoom. "I had hair down to my waist and little wire-rimmed glasses, and I decided to change my image," he says. "That look wasn't rebellious anymore. All of the people who threw beer cans at me had long hair now; they were rednecks on acid. So I cut my hair real short and bleached it a little bit, and Igot really blue contacts. I had this friend named Liz who came over a couple of days after I did that. She just stood there staring at me and said, 'You don't look like you anymore; you don't look like Ty.' And I said, 'Well, who do I look like?' She said, 'You look like your name ought to be Billy Zoom or something!' Then some friends started calling me that, and it just sort of stuck."

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