Nice Guy, Punk Legend

OC guitar god Billy Zoom on life before and after X

"Whether Zoom liked it or not, more and more people were jumping on the bandwagon; punk had become a force in the worldwide music biz. X were signed to Slash Records and released their first album, Los Angeles, in 1980; it was produced by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek.It was apparent from that first album that this was no ordinary punk band. Doe and Cervenka wrote material that went over the heads of many scenesters, intelligent songs lyrically imbued with the sensibility of beat poetry and sung with a respect for and knowledge of American musical traditions. Their harmonies were eerie and unique--if not always what you'd call easy on the ears. On a bad night, Doe and Cervenka could sound like the Jefferson Airplane on Quaaludes, but when their vocals clicked, the effect was hypnotic and spellbinding, a mantra of curiously compelling despair.X immediately became critical darlings, but while endless accolades were heaped upon the heads of Doe and Cervenka, Zoom's contributions to the group were largely overlooked. His evil, stinging guitar tones, those metal-meets-rockabilly-meets-R&B solos and chord voicings were at least equally responsible for the band's success, both artistically and commercially. "I've always thought about what I could put into a song to make it different and special," says Zoom. "And I've always thought about what I could play that would make the singer sound better."Dave Alvin, the former Blasters' axe man who ultimately replaced Zoom, is a renowned guitar hotshot in his own right, but he soon learned that stepping into Zoom's cowboy boots was no easy task. "I was amazed when I had to actually sit down and learn 32 songs in two weeks," says Alvin. "How Billy Zoom put his parts together was amazing. For a three-piece band, his orchestration on guitar was really tremendous. They were almost mathematically perfect arrangements. Billy likes tinkering with machines and electronics, and in some ways, his guitar parts are put together like schematics. I'm more of a primitive. I lack that kind of technique, and Billy was very, very advanced. I learned a lot; my guitar playing improved a lot after I had to sit down and learn all of his parts. There's a part of me that's forever in his debt, from having my Billy Zoom guitar lessons. A lot of punk bands--a lot of any bands--don't have these kind of intelligent guitar parts. That guy is really good."

Another thing Zoom brought to the table was his detached, ultracool image--the spread-legged stance, the expressionless face, the silver Gretsch guitar and silver leather jacket, the bleached-white pompadour. Zoom always looked, well, different from the rest of the band. His body language seemed to say, "I'm here, but I'm not really a part of this."

"A lot of what I did in X was making fun of '70s music," says Zoom with a laugh. "I remember watching the Doobie Brothers on this Christmas rock concert. The songs were already boring and pretentious to begin with, and then they did this one where the whole band stopped and the guitar player took this solo--wheedly-wheedly-wheedly--playing lots of notes and making all these faces and shaking his hair. And he wasn't even doing anything. There were a lot of notes, but it was a real easy riff, you know? I noticed that all of these rock groups were always making these faces, trying to make it look hard but not really playing anything. So as a joke, I would play something difficult and just smile and not look at the guitar and act like it was nothing. To me, that was funny. In the beginning, most of the audience got it, but after a while, people looked at it and thought, 'Well, he isn't doing anything hard, or he wouldn't look like he was.'" By 1985, X had released four more acclaimed albums, but times had changed, and Zoom was tiring of the game and the grind. The band had grown more self-consciously arty, and there were inevitable creative and personal differences, the physical toll of life on the road, and the resulting meth abuse.

"Being in a band is sort of like being married to three people, without the good parts, without the sex," says Zoom. "There was always stuff that wouldn't have been there if it had been up to me, songs we wouldn't have played. I don't know if I would have listened to X if I wasn't playing in it. I just couldn't stand it another day. We were on the road seven or eight months out of the year, locked in a recording studio two or three months out of the year, and the rest of the time, we were rehearsing. I think I went four years without a single day off, where I didn't have to be somewhere for some kind of business meeting or interview or something. "I told them a year and a half beforehand that I'd make the next album and tour to support the album, but if things didn't work out, if this album didn't sell a lot more than the other ones, I'm out. Then I told them again at the beginning of the tour. It wasn't a sudden thing; they knew I was leaving. We were asked by the managers not to talk in interviews about me leaving--they wanted us to talk about the album. So to the public, it was a sudden thing."

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