Can't (Won't) Go Home Again

Billy Zoom gets the rockabilly band back together

Photo by Tenaya HillsOn a hurried four-lane street in Orange, in a nonthreatening stucco building just north of a railroad crossing, the man who once wore a silver motorcycle jacket, drove a silver Hudson Hornet like a chopped Merc and played a silver guitar the hippies thought looked like a Les Paul waits to be interviewed: blinds drawn, air conditioning cranked, door locked. He still plays a silver guitar—a Gretsch Silver Jet—but he's as cut-and-dried in person as his music is emotional, overwrought and bursting at the seams.

"If Billy Zoom ever decides to play rockabilly again, he will automatically be King of the World," the Weekly's Buddy Seigal wrote in 1998: it was as true then as it is now, even if kings volunteer not a word of their salad days as princes of LA; even if they come in shorts and sandals, not, say, Chippewas and Romeo-collared sport shirts. No matter what he says or doesn't, Zoom, whose unlined face belies his age, will always be a bridge to the first rockabillyists; he knows all their songs as gospel, and when he writes his own, they come in at three minutes like clockwork.

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"It just seemed like it was time. It sounded like it was fun. The right time," Zoom says tersely, explaining for the second time why he got the rockabilly Billy Zoom Band back together, as we sit next to each other on a love seat in the recording studio where he's working on a gospel project.

His punk and rockabilly past—and a dismembered Austin Healey—are safely contained in another unit across the industrial park.

When he and his band, which also features ex-Unknowns Mark Neill on guitar and Craig Packham on drums, hit the Galaxy Concert Theatre stage for their second show since 1989, their colorful history—or lack thereof—and their motives and their manner won't matter if they can still play. And you strongly suspect they can.

"I was with Gene Vincent in '71 and Etta James in 1970," Zoom says, treading lightly through his past: name-checking Big Joe Turner and rockabillyists Mac Curtis, Ray Campi and Jack Cochran. (Intersections: Blaster Dave Alvin's poem "Gene Vincent's Last Show" was very likely inspired by this same tour.)

After that, well, cue up your copy of RootsCanal, the Weekly's fourth music sampler, for Zoom's cover of Johnny Carroll's Brylcreemed classic "Crazy Crazy Lovin'," and suddenly it's 1956 again, even if the Zoom band's version came from 1975. Even if—especially if—the apocryphal story is true about the Roxy Theater (or was it Raji's?) turning down the Billy Zoom Band for a gig in the mid-1970s. And after that, of course, came X, from which Zoom exited mid-'80s and which he rejoined in 1998.

"I don't know, I've been putting it off for about 25 years. I did rockabilly in the '70s, and that wasn't really happening," Zoom continues. "Of course, once X got going, it got popular. I think our kind of music is more mainstream and acceptable now than it ever has been." As are the Gretsch Silver Jet and the Hudson Hornet—both worth thousands—and as is Zoom, born Ty Kindell, a 57-year-old who looks 45, whose musical career began the year JFK died. It's just a little sad and unsettling to consider that his music—rockabilly, the centerfold in the devil's songbook—is exorcised, but Zoom blames us, and he's partly right.

"In the '70s," he says almost volubly, about why he writes and plays mostly originals, "rockabilly was so obscure you could do Elvis songs and people would think you wrote them. In these days, it's hard to do a cover—everyone in the audience will be singing along."

THE BILLY ZOOM BAND AND HELLBOUND HAYRIDE PLAY AT THE GALAXY CONCERT THEATRE, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA, (714) 957-0600. FRI., 8 P.M. $15. ALL AGES.

 
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