Nice Guy, Punk Legend

OC guitar god Billy Zoom on life before and after X

And so Zoom left X amid rumors and speculation of acrimony. The band played on, toured and released a number of albums for various labels, but it was never the same; the essential chemistry was never recaptured. Doe and Cervenka seemed more inspired by solo projects than their work with X, which remained X in name only.

Zoom played a few solo gigs to pay the rent. He busied himself by concentrating on Billy Zoom Music, the amplifier shop he runs out of his home (by all accounts, he's an excellent technician). He cleaned up and became sober, and he got deeper into Christianity--two subjects on which he'll say almost nothing. He finally quit the music business altogether, except for doing guitar-for-hire work on recordings by johnny-come-lately punk bands. "I've gotten a lot of session work lately for local bands doing X covers because there's at least one chord in every X song that nobody can figure out," he says.

It is one of many seeming contradictions about Zoom that, for all of his eremitic tendencies, you'll find his phone number listed in the OC directory. He's not what you'd call a warm and fuzzy guy, but he's likable enough, a thoughtful conversationalist even while remaining prickly and sarcastic--no small trick.Next year, Gretsch guitars will be marketing a Billy Zoom model, the creation and production of which Zoom will personally oversee--unlike most celeb guitar endorsements, which are simply slapped together and sold with a signature embedded on the pick guard. Of this accomplishment, Zoom seems eminently proud.

The last question I ask him: "When you sit back and think about the accomplishments X made, doesn't that make you feel good? Doesn't it make you proud to know that there will be a chapter about your band in the rock & roll history books? That you've inspired so many people to start up bands of their own?" Zoom grimaces as if he were just force-fed a spoonful of maggots. He thinks it over for a bit and replies, "There's a little bit of 'What have I started?' to all of that. I don't know. It's nice that . . . I don't know how to answer that. . . . There are a lot of people I don't care for who have cited X as an influence. But then there are some I like, too."

Zoom poses for pictures, flashing a million-dollar smile that he knows could charm the stink off a pile of dog shit. He shows us pictures of his family and of him playing in all of the bands we've discussed. It's a little bit like seeing a microcosm of 20th-century American-music history: Dad in blackface with a minstrel band, a western group, a swing orchestra; 12-year-old Kindell wearing Buddy Holly shades, in a Beatles haircut, as the only white guy in a soul revue, as a hippie with hair down to his waist, as a latter-day rockabilly; and finally with X as the primal punk guitarist. He shows us his amp studio, wherein a T-shirt hangs on the wall, emblazoned with a rock-god picture and the words.

"BILLY ZOOM--NICE GUY, PUNK LEGEND"

Mike the manager and the Fabulous Bob seem to want to impress upon me that this tongue-in-cheek casualwear bears the Truth about Billy Zoom. However, I don't need their prompting. I've already decided that, yes, Zoom really is a nice guy, despite the walls he builds around himself. Going one-on-one with Zoom takes no small reserves of energy, and I left his home feeling exhausted. It was thrust and parry all afternoon. I'd try to sneak in a question about his religious beliefs; he'd get a look of profound annoyance and go silent. I'd try to identify some feeling--positive or negative--about the whole X experience, but he never would admit the reunion was anything more than a calculated business venture. And all through the day was the nagging sensation that Zoom was evaluating me as much as I was trying to figure him out. It's impossible to relax in his presence.Still, unvarnished moments of love and humanity shone through the layers of ice. No one had asked to see pictures of his parents, but he volunteered them, including a 1940 photo of his mother on a 4-cylinder Indian motorcycle. Then there's the puppy, Sasha. The dog was at his side as he played the organ; his hand absent-mindedly stroked her head as he told his story.

I know Zoom's musical history now, but not his personal one. Some would say he masks unspoken hurts with hostility; others that he's simply an asshole. I'm no shrink, and I don't think he's an asshole. What I'm left with is the notion that while I like and respect this guy, I would not want to be Billy Zoom: life's too short and sweet to shoulder such an apparently weighty task.

X performs at the Palladium, 6215 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 962-7600. Sat., 7:30 p.m. Call for ticket prices.

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