Every day for two weeks, I had heard the song rise from what must have been a pair of seriously powered speakers, floating out over the hills of Hollywood like some sweetly-scented audio pollen. The music had to be screaming from those distant monitors because BillyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s guitar scuttled the birds in the trees and the vocals came down from the heavens like the very voice of God himself — if the Lord had spoken in a southern dialect and had a preoccupation with modified racecars. Precisely at 11 A.M., ZZ TopÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“Manic MechanicÃ¢â‚¬Â was spit out into the ether, signaling to the inhabitants of Laurel Canyon that it was time to start the day — and what better way to greet it than with those tres little hombres from Texas? Today, in another hour, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d be doing just that, driving to Beverly Hills to meet up with Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard. And as the worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s greatest alarm clock woke up every other late sleeper in the gently sloping foothills, the songÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s third verse took on even more serendipitous significance:
And I havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t saddled my pony yet
Well, I wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t heading for a showdown, exactly, more like a stimulating and witty exchange of musical theories; and, no, no pony to speak of, but there was some horsepower under the hood of my RX7 and the truth was, I hadnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t yet saddled up. I mainlined a cup of coffee, gathered up my cassette player and the bandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Deguello album, jumped in the car and as Horatio Alger urged, headed west.
Laurel Canyon lies at the eastern end of the Sunset Strip, a mile-and-a-half stretch of Sunset Boulevard real estate that was/is home to record labels, management companies, famous eateries, infamous hotels/motels, and an assortment of clubs, record stores, book shops, bars, and miscellaneous businesses. I passed the Hyatt West Hollywood, an upscale hotel now located on the same spot where the Continental Hyatt House once sat, the infamous and legendary home-away-from-home for visiting rock bands. Here, six years earlier in 1973, is where I first met the group. Tres Hombres had just been released and the Hyatt House was a reasonably priced facility for a band still counting pesos. Today, however, I pass right by the chrome and glass structure, crossing Doheny Drive, the StripÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s western boundary, and make my way to the Beverly Hills Hotel. Opened on May 12, 1912, the facility is now considered one of the most exclusive establishments in the city. Private bungalows attracted music and movie elite and the one-bedroom Presidential suite priced out at $3,400 per night. And thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s where I found Billy and the boys. Not bad for a Little olÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Band from Texas who, in the previous half-decade plus, had recorded five albums, risen from a regional blues band into an international hitmaking machine, and were then just a couple days away from headlining the 12,000-seat Long Beach Arena.
I pulled into the front parking area of the great and gilded palace, obtained a parking receipt from the attendant, and made my way to the secluded residences at the rear of the hotel. A gentle knock on the appropriate door and I was greeted by the great, bearded Gibbons, the Grand Wazoo, Guitar Wizard, and Thinker Extraordinaire. Dusty Hill wrangled himself out of an oversized chair, shuffled on over, and gave me a warm Texas howdy.
Though the distance from the Continental Ã¢â‚¬Å“RiotÃ¢â‚¬Â House (riot as in every time a band stayed there [Zeppelin and The Who], there was one) to the Beverly Hills Hotel is less than two miles, the amount of musical terrain covered by the groupÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s six-year journey between Tres Hombres and Deguello is substantial. They twisted, tore and mangled the blues to finally make it ZZ-worthy. So, as Billy and Dusty settled back into postures of repose, I set the tape to record, and we took a long intellectual stroll over the mountains and into the valleys of the ZZ topography.
By 1973, when I first met them, the band had already been together for four years, having risen from the ashes of two competing Houston-based psychedelic bands, GibbonsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ own Moving Sidewalks and American Blues, the former home of Hill and Beard. BillyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s band achieved some local success with the single Ã¢â‚¬Å“99th FloorÃ¢â‚¬Â and, on the strength of this notoriety coupled with the propitious meeting of future manager Bill Ham, the band landed the opening spot on The DoorsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Texas tour. The Moving Sidewalks would go on to open for The Jimi Hendrix Experience (appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the left-handed wonder muttered, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Billy Gibson of the Ã¢â‚¬ËœLectric SidewalksÃ¢â‚¬Â when asked who the cool new guitar players were).
Accolades aside, Gibbons left his band and in 1969 teamed up with Frank and Dusty to form ZZ Top. There were several incarnations of the band before the final lineup, including a very brief period with keyboardist, Lanier Greig. But when the three finally found each other it was, as Hill described in our interview, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Real comfortable. The thing was, Frank and I had played together for a few years playing behind another guitar player who would jam. We were used to coming to corners at the same time. So we were pretty comfortable with each other and maybe thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why Billy thought there was more of a foundation to lay on.Ã¢â‚¬Â
This ultimate connection, coming on the heels of the keyboardistsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ walking papers, parallels the musical progress of another band that had gone through a similar metamorphosis. Van Halen, in one of its formations, saw a keyboardist in the fold, but they ultimately opted for the trio format.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know Van Halen had a keyboard player before they were signed. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not the first time the comparison has been made between the two bands.Ã¢â‚¬Â
These bands would walk down other similar trails: both groups ended up on Warner Bros. Records, and each of them would run the gamut of its own style — pumped-up, user-friendly electric rock for Van Halen and blues in all its permutations for ZZ Top — before, ironically, opting to add keyboards to the mix. Edward and company would first do it on Women And Children First when the guitarist bashed on a Wurlitzer electric piano on Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Cradle Will Rock,Ã¢â‚¬Â but would truly bring it to the forefront with 1984Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s “Jump.” ZZ Top would experiment with some early Mini-Moog synth textures on El Loco and Deguello (“Groovy Little Hippie Pad” and “Cheap Sunglasses,” respectively) before making keyboards a centerpiece of Eliminator. Both groups understood when/how to bring strategic new elements to the mix, and the bands certainly sensed when the ultimate lineup had been fixed.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“There really was a certain kind of chemistry that reared its head,” said Hill. “And touring with Hendrix, I came to the realization of what you could do with a trio was great. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hardly a feeling as gratifying as to really bash on the instrument and to get it to work right and to fill up the holes that are presented with the format of a trio. You go, Ã¢â‚¬ËœMan, let me tear this thing up.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Like cross slats on a barn doorÃ¢â‚¬Â is how the guitarist described the bandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s name that, now in its final configuration, spent several years ripping it up and refining their sound by playing regional shows. Certainly this Ã¢â‚¬Å“soundÃ¢â‚¬Â was grounded in the blues (on ZZ TopÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s First Album, the genre was cryptically prefaced with abstract), but to limit the group by tagging them solely as a blues band is misleading. And stupid.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Is ZZ Top a blues band?Ã¢â‚¬Â quipped a rhetorical Gibbons. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Are the Rolling Stones a blues band? Well, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re interpreters of blues bands. The wave of blues we enjoyed, not only being a part of but influenced by, was ushered in by the English guys. The Stones, Clapton, Beck, which is kind of what got us thinking: Ã¢â‚¬ËœHey, we can hot rod this stuff and make it really fun to play for ZZ Top.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢
Ã¢â‚¬Å“However, the examples that were set before us laid a challenge to say, Ã¢â‚¬ËœHey, this is art.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a handful of Americans, a handful of guys from England, a handful of guys from points around the world that recognized the value of the impact of this strain of music that goes all the way back to Africa. And IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll be honest with ya, I still dig it.Ã¢â‚¬Â
What Billy dug was made available to the masses with the releasing of ZZ TopÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s First Album, a collection of Texas-styled blues hymns funneled through the peculiar and whimsical brainpan of Mr. Gibbons.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The only thing that kept us going on that first album was the fact that we had the opportunity to release a record on the same label as the Rolling Stones [London Records]. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m serious, that was it. It was recorded when we first formed, in 1970. I had assembled a personal catalog [of songs] when Frank and Dusty entered the picture. We commenced rehearsals to learn a dozen songs which I thought would be appropriate for the group and during that process both Frank and Dusty added their personal touches, changing a word here or a phrase there.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“But, true to the core, it was 12-bar blues or bust. The playing was there, the tempo was good, and itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s very bluesy. I listened to it for the first time in a while and said, Ã¢â‚¬ËœMan, we sure were bluesy.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ And that pretty much describes how we started and it kept on with Rio Grande Mud. We may have been able to refine our music writing abilities to more genuinely reflect a truer sense of our honest emotions [on the second album], but a lot of our earlier work was chronicles of Texana and events that were of substance for the guy living in Texas; certain things you experienced when youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re coming up there.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“And 1973 enjoyed the release of Tres Hombres and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the famous Mexican food album. We stretched out and went down the boundary, if you will. Although the song Ã¢â‚¬ËœLa GrangeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ was the first ZZ Top Top 10, it remained well within the reaches of the blues, capital B. On which we base the band to this very day.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Indeed. Ã¢â‚¬Å“La GrangeÃ¢â‚¬Â was the blues stripped down naked, a thumping one-chord boogie riff that showed Billy at his churlish, rudest, down-home best. Writing about a whorehouse somewhere out there on the vast Texas plains and singing in that snarling, bear-just-woke-up, scratchy-throat voice that would become his signature, this son of a professional keyboardist conjures visions of a carnal knowledge not typically taught in school. And manages to do it in just a handful of lines.
Rumor spreading Ã¢â‚¬Ëœround/in that Texas town
Ã¢â‚¬ËœBout that shack outside La Grange
You know what IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m talkinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ about
Just let me know/if you wanna go
To that home out on the range
They got a lotta nice girls-a
Aheh how how how/Aheh ahow how how
The lyric was utterly simple and masterfully penned. There is no mistaking the message — you couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t even if you tried — and with the success of the song, the band continued down this same artistic road, writing about women, writing about lusting after women, and writing about nothing more than lust itself. ZZ was driving down the blacktop towards their fourth album, a half-studio, half-live album called Fandango!
Billy had been looking out the window of his tony suite, staring at a young lady barely contained by a two-piece swimsuit. This is California, where cellulite isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t allowed, and bodies like hers do not exist in nature. She bends over for a moment, exposing an exquisitely sculpted rear end — and this may be real — and as if the moment had been orchestrated, his lips part to invoke Ã¢â‚¬Â¦
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Tush,Ã¢â‚¬Â oh, yeah,Ã¢â‚¬Â as if forgetting for a brief second what we were talking about. And who wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t? Ã¢â‚¬Å“We wrote that in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and boy, it was hot and steamy. We were at some rodeo building and we came up with that. It just happened; we wrote it on the spot at a rehearsal. We were playing some show that night and wrote it before the show. Dusty sang it and never changed it. It was fun.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The live side is fast, we played everything real fast. I guess it represents pretty well what we were doing at the time.Ã¢â‚¬Â
What they were doing was still blues, and Ã¢â‚¬Å“TushÃ¢â‚¬Â is a textbook example of the I-IV-V form. Musically, the track might even have appeared on the debut album but lyrically, The Rev. Billy G was pushing the envelope.
I ainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t lookinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ for muuchhh, hmmmm
I said, Ã¢â‚¬ËœLord, take me downtown/IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m just lookinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ for some tuuush
Though subtle, rhyming much with tush was a hint that Billy was becoming more adventurous in his wordplay. The lyrical landscape was growing, and the songs would soon be populated with strange concoctions of people ending up in weird places doing crazy things. All in the name of love. Subject matter would begin to stray beyond the thrills and travails of love and lust in a modern world, but at the heart of every song beat the same ZZ topic — the thrill of the chase.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve just stayed in the blues tradition, well within the secret language lesson that lives right there in that Chess recording decade. One of my all-time favorites was Chuck BerryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s song, Ã¢â‚¬ËœOh, Carol.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ He comes up with a word which is a twist on the paste tense of wish when he says, Ã¢â‚¬ËœYou know you canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t dance/I know you wush you could.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ I guess thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s spelled w-u-s-h which rhymes with our t-u-s-h. We tried to open up the flexibility factor; verse structure didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have to be four lines and then a repeat. And with Ã¢â‚¬ËœTush,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ we got into the John Lee Hooker school of non-rhyming.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Though the threesome had been touring since its inception in 1969, they finally broke into the ranks of the big time when they headlined the RompinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ and StompinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Barndance and Barbecue held in Austin, Texas on September 1, 1974. Labor Day. Appearing with Santana, Joe Cocker, and Bad Company (this latter group making its American debut), the band performed in front of 80,000 fans at the Memorial Stadium on the University of Texas campus. Ranking as the biggest concert in the stateÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s history, this was really the inaugural event that would change their image from A Little OlÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Band into a marketable national act.
Building on the success of this show, and on songs like Ã¢â‚¬Å“FrancineÃ¢â‚¬Â (from Rio Grande Mud), Ã¢â‚¬Å“La Grange,Ã¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“Tush,Ã¢â‚¬Â in 1975, they embarked on the massive Worldwide Texas Tour. On stage, the band was a slick, well-oiled machine, virtuoso players just pulsing with Houston heat, with that southern-styled combination of wicked musicianship cross-bred with the TexanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s flair for bigger-than-life showmanship and acrobatics. Accompanied by haystacks, ranch paraphernalia, live buffalo, a longhorn steer, rattlesnakes, and buzzards, the band never allowed itself to be overshadowed — or eaten alive — by their bovine brethren.
By this period, Gibbons and Hill had orchestrated that cowboy choreography theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d continue to develop for years. Billy would sidle up close to Dusty and theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d drop guitar necks at exactly the same moment, do a little half-turn accompanied by a leisurely stroll back to FrankÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s drum kit, and then return in synchronized precision to the microphones just in time to catch the next vocal. There was none of the usual posturing or histrionics, the guitar neck thrust up into the air while the player bends his head back and closes his eyes in deep supplication to the Guitar Gods above. None of that faux cheerleading where the lead singer prevails upon the audience to say, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Yeah,Ã¢â‚¬Â or Ã¢â‚¬Å“Clap your handsÃ¢â‚¬Â or inquires in mock interest, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Is everybody feeling OK, tonight?Ã¢â‚¬Â The litany of overused stage patter and ridiculous stage moves would fill a book.
This is perfectly acceptable fodder in the world of rock Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and a majority of bands knew the script, verse and chapter. But they never depended on the props; they used them as embroidery, as icing on a multi-tiered set of music that was typically flawlessly executed and paced to perfection. In fact, what truly set the band apart was the subtlety and economy reflected in their music/studio work, the way in which song structures gradually expanded and the manner in which the group just naturally evolved its sound and style. Billy was maturing, or rather, changing as a composer and author, reaching out into the zany world he occupied and telling us about it. This evolution would come to a head with the 1976 release of Tejas and songs like Ã¢â‚¬Å“Arrested for Driving While BlindÃ¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“El Diablo.Ã¢â‚¬Â Blues? Yes, but just barely. ZZ never stopped being a blues band; they just stopped thinking about it so much.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“On Tejas and Fandango! I was isolated in a booth, Frank was in a booth, and Billy in the room,Ã¢â‚¬Â explained Dusty. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We had windows and headphones and microphones to communicate with each other, [but] there was no real eye contact as weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve always had. It changed the sound. We were once again trying to do things properly in the studio and get the best sound, and at the same time thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what we thought was the way to do it.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“There was an antiseptic and sterile kind of situation on those albums,Ã¢â‚¬Â agreed Billy.
Fatigue may have been setting in. With the virtual non-stop touring schedule and the release of six albums in the past seven years (The Best of ZZ Top was issued in 1977), the band decided to take a hiatus. With the greatest hits package delivered to London Records, the trio had met the labelÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s contract requirements. With a clean slate, pockets full of money, and nothing to think about but tomorrow, Billy flew over to Europe, Frank cruised to the Caribbean, and Dusty went down into Mexico. They recharged the batteries and this eventual three-year layoff turned into a period of musical re-evaluation and growth — and not strictly in an artistic sense.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Behind the curtain, Dusty got lazy and I got lazy and so did Frank for not shaving. And here came the chin whiskers.Ã¢â‚¬Â
In emphasis of the comment, the Wizard of Ozz cupped his fingers into a half-circle formation, encircled his beard, and ran down the length of it. The follicle formation, indeed, makes him look like some voodoo witchdoctor casting enchanted sonic spells, like some eccentric explorer in search of new riffs, new sounds, a place to plant the flag of originality. In the same way they approached every new album, the Beard brothers (Frank eschewed the new look but how poetically perfect is it that he has that last name?) reconvened and began work on the next release.
Deguello, their maiden recording for new label Warner Bros., was ZZ Top phase two, the moment when the curtains parted even further (they would not open completely until Eliminator] and revealed the mad magician now manipulating the controls of a new language and sound. Punk had reared its twisted little head on the necks of the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Clash and others, and this was BillyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s response. Again, as with every record, Billy examined the new elements — more furious thrashing and bashing, expanded and more colorful subject matter — picked out what he liked, and discarded the rest. This is a graceful and natural progression. There are no signs posted in the press, pointing to Deguello and reading, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Punk album made by blues band. Beware.Ã¢â‚¬Â That would have been the kiss of death; intentionally conceived albums rarely work in rock. Gorging yourself on the latest sonic brew and regurgitating it in a barely disguised blob all over your next album rarely works. Gibbons understood that music is a slow moving beast, a creature that waddles from point A to point B not because it wants or has to, but simply because this is where it ends up.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This is our first record to be completed after the ushering in of the punk scene. And we can gladly tip our hats to the doors they opened. Here is a kickass brand of music that is making a statement. Ã¢â‚¬ËœTo hell with the FM playlist, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re gonna do it like we wanna do it.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ Independent record labels are popping up, so the voice is heard. And I think it allowed us to relax to the point where we could use it.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“There are some interesting offerings like Ã¢â‚¬ËœCheap SunglassesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ and Ã¢â‚¬ËœManic MechanicÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ which donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t necessarily leave the three-chord progression behind, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s definitely a step outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi. And then there are the Lone Wolf Horns. That R&B thing had started to become popular and we wanted to be part of it. We composed those two songs, Ã¢â‚¬ËœShe Loves My AutomobileÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ and Ã¢â‚¬ËœHi Fi Mama,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ in a strict Gulf Coast R&B thing. And it was basically block chord Little Richard backing. There was no solo work. We figured out there was a total of four chords that required the three of us to make a triad. So we had to learn eight different notes each; we knew our eight notes and that was it. Here you find the band starting to stretch out a little bit. It starts getting like, Ã¢â‚¬ËœOK, letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s get crazy with one or two here.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ And thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s where we are now.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Billy glanced out the window; our frolicking little maiden had apparently retreated back inside her own bungalow. WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d been talking for well over an hour at this point, and though I assume he has plans for the rest of the day, I asked him if heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d maybe want to come back to the house and look at some records? He took a thoughtful pull on the forest growing from his face and said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Yeah, boy, letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s do that.Ã¢â‚¬Â I re-packed my journalism toolkit — cassette player, pens, tapes — and we made the long walk back to the lobby. Heads turned. I mean, you have to try and not recognize Billy Gibbons. They pulled my powder blue Mazda around to the front, we took our seats, and I made the long swerve down the famous Beverly Hills Hotel drive. Right before I turned left at Sunset Boulevard, Billy asked, Ã¢â‚¬Å“DoesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t Eddie live around here somewhere?Ã¢â‚¬Â I pointed to Coldwater Canyon as we passed it on our left and told him, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Right up and over the hill.Ã¢â‚¬Â We headed east in the early afternoon sun, and as we passed the Hyatt West Hollywood and I wondered if B.F.G. remembers the place and the occasion, he said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Man, there it is. You and I first met there.Ã¢â‚¬Â I beamed from ear to ear like a teen on his first date. I took the left on Crescent Heights that immediately becomes Laurel Canyon north of Sunset Boulevard and headed up into the Hollywood Hills.
I banged a left on Kirkwood Drive and as the streets narrow and become steeper, I started thinking about how utterly textbook perfect, how Hollywood happy ending it would be if the delirious deejay was playing the song. But he never worked that late in the afternoon, so I let it go. We made the sharp right on my street and even from the end of the block you can hear it. I looked over at Billy, who was incredulous. Eyebrows furrowed and mouth dropped open in astonishment as he said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Is that Ã¢â‚¬Â¦?Ã¢â‚¬Â I told him, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Every day at 11, man, this guy goes crazy. This is the first time heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ever played it twice in one day. We should go find his house and knock on the door.Ã¢â‚¬Â That famous Gibbons guffaw spilled out the car windows.
This type of moment would happen again, coincidentally, enough, with Van Halen. Five or so years later, I was with Edward in New Orleans — he was there for a NAMM show — and a house band at some bar was playing Ã¢â‚¬Å“Jump.Ã¢â‚¬Â As we walked by, he stuck his head in the window. The guitar player literally froze on the spot and couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t play.
Anyway, we walked up the few steps to the front door. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Manic MechanicÃ¢â‚¬Â had ended and we both paused for a second to see if the Stereo in the Sky would play it again. It didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t. I said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s better this way.Ã¢â‚¬Â Billy nodded.
I ushered him into my small one-bedroom. Back in the ’60s, Laurel Canyon was home to all the bands playing along the Strip: the Doors and the Byrds, Zappa, Dylan, some of the Buffalo Springfield guys. You could rent a place for $100 a month. In 1979, I paid $125. So, we walked down this little hallway and lined up along this one wall or about three or four hundred albums. Billy seemed impressed. We continued to the end of this short corridor, took a step down into the bedroom, and when I turned on the light to reveal 8,000 or records, he outwardly gasped. At the time, I had a bigger collection than most stores.
And he started looking. Every album was alphabetized — itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the chronic journalist in me — and Billy kept asking, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Where are the Sir Douglas albums? Under S, or D, or Q (for Quintet)?” I had them under D — donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t ask — and Billy pulled out a couple, and then goes searching for some Hendrix and Cream, some blues stuff. I had it all. I had test pressings, English copies, boots, everything. I loved records, albums, the heft and weight of vinyl. CDs donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t, and never will, have the same impact.
Billy went crazy. I knew heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d appreciate the collection as much as I did. After about an hour or so, I sensed he probably had to get back. He had taken out a couple dozen albums, looked at the covers, read the liner notes, pulled the records from the sleeves. They were scattered all over the bed. I scooped them up into an orderly stack — Billy thought I was just arranging them to re-insert them into their proper filing locations. I grabbed up the pile and said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Here, man, for you.Ã¢â‚¬Â And he said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t take these,Ã¢â‚¬Â and I told him, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I want you to have them.Ã¢â‚¬Â And it was another fine moment, one of many that has taken place in our now 30-year plus friendship.
I returned him to the hotel and as he was vacating the car, he asked if I was coming to the show tomorrow night. I told him I wanted to and he said heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d leave passes and tickets for me at will call. And then he said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll have something for you there.Ã¢â‚¬Â I drove away, headed back home, and thought life leads up to these kinds of moments. That it couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t get any better — but it would.
The next few hours are a bit hazy. I know, or think I know, that I called Edward. I probably told him about interviewing Billy because I knew he was a huge ZZ Top fan. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We used to do Ã¢â‚¬Å“La GrangeÃ¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“TushÃ¢â‚¬Â when we were playing GazarriÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s.Ã¢â‚¬Â What I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t remember is if I asked him to go to the concert or he mentioned it to me. In any case, I told him I had backstage passes and tickets. He said heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d drive.
He showed up the next evening in some type of Jeep. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d been to the house before and, in fact, I had shown him my record collection and pulled out a bunch of albums I thought heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d like listening to. Les Paul, Larry Carlton, Steely Dan, some other stuff. I remember going to EdwardÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s house and seeing the pile lying there. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d never listened to any of them. Anyway, the Wrangler or whatever it was had no windows, it was a vinyl top of some kind, and it was cold. By the time we got there, parking was useless. Ed drove up and over this small embankment and left the Jeep tilted at an angle, the passenger side tires up on the incline and the driver side tires on flat ground. We walked around to the box office and, good as his word, the tickets awaited.
Van Halen and Van Halen II had been released and Edward was immediately mobbed. But he kept his composure and when ZZ finally came on, everybody went back to their seats. The band was frighteningly good. They did Ã¢â‚¬Å“Manic MechanicÃ¢â‚¬Â — and I have to believe yesterday afternoonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s serenade was running through BillyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s head — and Ã¢â‚¬Å“TushÃ¢â‚¬Â and, of course, Ã¢â‚¬Å“La Grange.Ã¢â‚¬Â They were scary tight and for a trio they filled up the auditorium with dense waves of guitars and drums. After-concert festivities were being held at the Queen Mary, a once-mighty cruise ship now relegated to dry dock in the port of Long Beach. There was a restaurant on board and facilities for getting married. Edward and I walked up the entrance, the man checked our passes, and we walked inside. There was a huge banquet room set up with tables filled with food and desserts, and several open bars. We scored a couple drinks, were talking about the show, and then I saw from the other side that Billy was coming in.
I knew this was another moment — introducing Billy Gibbons to Eddie Van Halen. Ed hadnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t seen the Bearded Boy make his entrance, so I said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“CÃ¢â‚¬â„¢mere, man, I want you to meet somebody.Ã¢â‚¬Â I think he gave me a look that said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want to meet anybodyÃ¢â‚¬Â and I just said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“CÃ¢â‚¬â„¢mon.Ã¢â‚¬Â We walked across the floor and I still donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think Ed had seen Billy. Billy saw me but, curiously, I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think he knew who I was with. We were finally face to face and before I could say, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Billy, this is Ã¢â‚¬Â¦,Ã¢â‚¬Â Edward grabbed Billy and hugged him.
They proceeded to talk shop, guitars and Warners and first albums and Cream and Jeff Beck. Edward told him that he loved the band, that Van Halen used to do tons of covers in the club days. Billy was obviously moved and sincerely touched. Billy grabbed Edward, pulled him away, and said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I want to show you something.Ã¢â‚¬Â I realized I hadnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t been invited but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fine; I was there when they first met, and that was enough for me. Edward returned, with Billy, and had a mini-shaped guitar case in his hand. He didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t offer to open it and I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t ask. And then I realized — this was what Billy had for me. What was I supposed to do, tell Billy that heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d promised this to me?
They went off in a corner together and huddled there for an hour at least. I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know what they talked about, but I do know on that evening a friendship was created and cemented. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d go on to be friends to this very day. We drove back and Edward seemed pretty elated; I was feeling good about being there. He dropped me off and he headed home.
A couple months later, a package arrived in the mail. It was about two-and-a-half feet long and about a foot wide and I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t figure out what it could be. I started removing the wrapping and I saw it was a guitar case. Inside was a red Chiquita, these tiny little instruments with which Billy was somehow involved (he owned part of the company or helped with financing or something).
Now, 30 years later, I still remember those days clearly. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve interviewed Billy so many times since 1979. He had a house in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and he let me stay there twice. He calls from time to time and whenever a new ZZ Top album is released, we talk. The music may change, the direction may change, the sound may change, but what stays constant is his love for the guitar in all its incarnations. That never changes — and knowing that makes me happy.