Billy Zoom puts X in perspective

[16 June 2008]

By Ben Wener

The Orange County Register (MCT)

It was a little more than a decade ago that the original lineup of legendary L.A. punk band X first reunited for a torrential blowout at the Hollywood Palladium. At that point it had been 13 years since poet-songwriters-former-spouses John Doe and Exene Cervenka and drummer D.J. Bonebrake had appeared on a stage with ever-grinning guitarist Billy Zoom, whose revved-up Chuck Berry intros and stoic, spread-leg stance had been as much a signature of the group’s as Cervenka’s deliberately off-key caterwauling.

Those who were there surely still have certain moments seared into their memories. I haven’t forgotten how strangely moving “The Unheard Music” was that night, how unhinged Cervenka got during “We’re Desperate,” how much Zoom’s fretwork lit up “The Hungry Wolf” and “The World’s a Mess; It’s in My Kiss.” It was a rare event worth treasuring.

Or, rather, it would have been had X not carried on making the impossible possible year after year at every kinda gig. Sometimes they have been remarkable. Sometimes, however, they’ve come close to phoning it in to pick up a paycheck.

So now that the group has embarked on a 31st anniversary tour - Doe, logging some 300 solo shows last year, was unavailable to celebrate the big 3-0 - some questions are begging to be answered. Questions, it turns out, that Zoom, who lives and runs both an electronics business and a recording studio in Orange, Calif., was more than happy to answer, despite a media-generated reputation for being extremely tight-lipped.

For starters, why, after all this time, has there been no new X music?

“It’s a very difficult subject to discuss with the public,” Zoom explains, “because they have so many misconceptions. One reason is that it would be very expensive for us to make an album, and we’d have to be able to get a record deal. I’m sure our fans assume we can just go out and do that. But it’s not true. They don’t sign people our age.”

Then there’s a geographical issue: Cervenka lives in Missouri, Doe in central California, Bonebrake in the Valley. “That means three of the four of us would have to stay in motels for a couple months while we worked on material, and we’d have to pay for that. Then we’d have to go into a studio and hire an engineer, and that could cost many thousands of dollars that I don’t know we’d ever recoup.

“People don’t really want to hear or think about stuff like that. Plus, we all have different things that we want to do - John makes John Doe records, Exene makes what she wants. It’d be hard to come together. Everybody would really have to compromise a lot. Then there’s the fact that it would have to be a really, really good album, or else we’re screwing ourselves, because then we’re gonna be remembered for our last album instead of our first four.”

Zoom holds the band’s legacy in as high regard as any admiring critic: “We deserve a lot more credit than we get. We really changed things; we’re a really important band. I think we belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They inducted the Ramones, so there’s hope.”

Agreed. But does heading back out on the road every so often tarnish that legacy in any way? Zoom doesn’t think so. “We still get out there and kick butt, play the songs like we used to. I’m a stickler for keeping it authentic. I do it the same way I did it then - same amp, same guitar, same kind of strings. I don’t try to update it and make it modern.”

True enough, X is one of the few bands of its era that maintains a considerable amount of its original force while steering clear of sentimentality. It helps, of course, that Doe and Cervenka’s savage critiques of urban life and modernity and romance continue to resonate decades later. X’s rich, lively music has always stood for something apart from rebellion; though seething with gritty detail and seemingly dead-end characters, it was never hopelessly bleak. So much of it had an undercurrent of fending off cynicism before it ate you alive.

As Zoom points out, any rebelliousness grew out of the same aesthetic shared among all of the original punks. “We were all trying to bring back the musical values of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll and ‘60s pop, and it was a protest against the overly slick arena bands of the ‘70s.”

Yet there was soon a divergence: “The kids in the audience came from a completely different place than the performers they were watching. I don’t think they really got what we were doing when they started their own bands. Suddenly it was all do-it-yourself and you don’t need to know how to play. They had very peculiar ideas of what they thought we were doing. I didn’t really understand the next wave. I still don’t. I don’t understand being angry. I never played music because I was angry, and I never wanted to seem angry.”

Hence, the big grin.

Obviously, then, there are bound to be misperceptions among fans, some of whom may think it’s a cardinal sin for a punk band to list making money among reasons to keep touring. “Is that what keeps you coming back,” I wondered, “because it’s a good-paying gig?”

“Well, if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing it,” Zoom admits, adding later that “if I’d made as much money and sold as many records as the Eagles had, I probably wouldn’t.”

But he quickly took issue with my question. “See, I don’t even understand that. Why does anybody ever go to work? You can enjoy your work, but would you get up and do it every day if you didn’t get paid? No, you’d have to go out and get a job, ‘cause you need the money. It’s no different from working in a hardware store or being a plumber.”

“I think people get the impression that musicians should do it for the love of the art,” I responded.

“And then what do they live on? I got a wife and two kids (2-year-old fraternal twins) and a California mortgage. And I don’t even know how many more years I can do this. So I gotta make as much money as I can.”

“But do you still enjoy it?”

“Oh, I love it, yeah. I love the playing, love the shows. I don’t really like the 1,000-mile drives every day. I don’t like getting up at 6:30 in the morning and being on a truck for 10 hours and then going to soundcheck and skipping dinner to go on stage.

“But the part where I’m on stage, that’s real fun. I’m usually grinning because I can’t stop - ‘cause it’s so much fun. To be 60 years old and still making a living playing rock ‘n’ roll for people - that’s reason to smile.”

Published at: