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X’s Billy Zoom on Fans Supporting His Cancer Fight: ‘I’m Overwhelmed’

On the scene in L.A. as the guitarist plays his final show before undergoing treatment for bladder cancer

billy zoom

X's Billy Zoom onstage in California on July 11th, 2015. The guitarist is taking a break from the band to fight bladder cancer.

Harmony Gerber/Getty

“Billy Zoom! Billy Zoom! Billy Zoom!” The dazzling rock & roll name chanted last night in Orange County, California, belonged to the famously grinning guitarist from X, that first-wave punk band who were minutes away from finishing four consecutive dates at the Observatory. These were also the final moments Zoom would spend onstage for a long time, as he begins chemotherapy for bladder cancer this week.

Zoom is bowing out from the rest of the band’s summer tour, but public affection for the guitarist was made very clear. Barely three days in, the GoFundMe page set up to raise money for Zoom and his family had far surpassed its initial $50,000 goal. T-shirts that read “Support Billy Zoom – Nice guy, punk legend” sold out quickly.

It’s his second cancer scare, after surviving a prostate cancer diagnosis more than five years ago. “I thought I was through with it,” Zoom, 67, told Rolling Stone. “It’s upsetting to know it’s still there. I try to do it a day at a time, because it’s too scary if I go further than that.”

An hour before showtime last night, Zoom looked relaxed in the back of X’s touring van. He wore a T-shirt with the image of his friend Johnny Ramone, who died of prostate cancer in 2004. “He was a good friend,” Zoom said. “What he did is perfect. He stuck to the formula and I never heard him make a mistake. He played stuff that is really hard to play.”

When Zoom got his first cancer diagnosis, one of his first calls was to Ramone’s widow, Linda, who recommended a “rock-star oncology guy.” He got his original diagnosis the morning of a big X concert at L.A.’s Wiltern Theatre, but the band kept the news private. “I got a snooty review about how I wasn’t smiling like I usually do,” Zoom recalled. X were sidelined for nearly a year.

Though Zoom’s health recovered, his family’s resources were exhausted, despite health insurance. This time, he turned to online fundraising. As of today, it has reached over $72,000.

“I’m overwhelmed. I can’t say enough about things people are doing and their concern. I have to wonder what was different five years ago,” Zoom said with a laugh. “It certainly takes a lot of the stress away. I still have the part about being sick and everything, but it’s made a huge difference as far as panicking about how are we going to pay the mortgage, how we’re going to do this or that.”

Donations were accompanied by heartfelt notes expressing thanks to Zoom and the band. “I’m not surprised by the comments,” said singer-bassist John Doe, who founded X with Zoom in 1977. “I’m touched but not surprised: ‘For all the joy you’ve given me over the years, and ‘You’ve changed my life.’ That’s been X’s story. Someone will say, ‘Oh, you play music. What’s the band?’ and it’s either ‘Who?’ or ‘You changed my life.’ There’s not a whole lot of, ‘Oh yeah, you had that one song and a stupid haircut for a while?'”

The money will be administered by Sweet Relief, the musicians support group. Anything not used by Zoom will be set aside for a fund in his name for other musicians in need. “We’re looking to help people who didn’t get the response that Billy got in their time of need, and we’re looking to pay it forward,” said Mike Rouse, X’s manager and a Sweet Relief board member.

Zoom faces two six-week sessions of chemo, followed by a reassessment of his progress. “It’s so far probably less life-threatening but probably more painful,” he said of his prognosis. “All cancer’s bad.”

For Zoom, the interruption comes just as his playing with X had become especially satisfying for him, with new arrangements of the old punk songs and nights dedicated to single albums. On Sunday, the band performed 1987’s More Fun in the New World, which Rolling Stone described in its original rave review as a “furious, fuzz-amped tear through the lives of the underclass and the willfully decadent.”

The X quartet was joined by a keyboardist and second guitarist, and the band included songs rarely performed in the past. “Since we started not doing everything exactly the same, I’ve been looking forward to every show since then. It was getting a little stale for me. I’ve been really enjoying myself.”

Zoom plans to be back in time for the band’s annual holiday “X-mas” tour. Until then, he hopes to be well enough to continue building his series of handmade Zoom Custom Shop amplifiers, which are used by a range of players, including Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Moby and Rev. Horton Heat.

“Medical costs can be high, but being unable to work for a long time is really scary,” Zoom said. “This time I’d be in really dire straights if people hadn’t stepped up.”

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