Except for the fat, fleshy dildo sticking up from the center of its saddle at a salacious ninety-degree angle, the wooden hobbyhorse situated inside the door of the notorious Duty Hut in Tucson, Arizona, seems innocent enough: a sweet piece of salvage from some long-gone kiddy carousel. There’s nothing innocent about the rest of the room, though, least of all the lascivious chortle of its owner, a truly wild Westerner named Jim Anderson, as he details the potential delights of the big bondage wheel on the wall, the sex chair nearby and, most eye-grabbing of all, an imposing wooden pillory topped with the motto, “Don’t blow, suck” – this instruction pointedly appended to a woman’s name. “My ex-wife,” Anderson jokes.
Behind his luxuriant beard, Billy Gibbons erects a smile of polite amusement: He’s taken this tour of Anderson’s little cowboy-porn museum before. Gibbons is passing through town on a concert tour; this is a rare day off, and he’s been on the prowl for hours – cruising through funky South Tucson in his long, white Lincoln limo, from taco stand to tortilla factory and then on back up north toward the bars – in search of what he likes to call “maximum input.” After more than a year of mind-fogging road blur, the man craves sharp sensations, emphatic companionship. Gibbons is hardly a sex maniac, but he is an inveterate collector of characters, and Jim Anderson is a longtime prize.
As Anderson prepares to lock up the Duty Hut for the night, we step outside into a small, dusk-filled cactus garden, pausing to savor the sweet Southwestern air. It’s a short stroll back out front to the main building – a college bar, not far from the University of Arizona, called Some Place Else, which Anderson also owns. The decor here is equally arresting, the closest thing to a tasteful touch being a mounted deer head with a brassiere draped across its antlers. The place is beyond vulgarity, of course – this is vulgarity with real esprit. Maximum input. Or, as Billy might say, “Mighty fahn.”
In the midst of this grossorama sits a scattered handful of early drinkers, quietly nursing their beers. One old geezer – reputed to be a retired moneybags of the sort apparently drawn to Tucson in their golden years – wears a crude tinfoil crown on his head with a sticker pasted in front that says JIM ANDERSON FOR MAYOR. Gibbons, wearing a white ZZ Top tour cap and ruby-rimmed shades, his long, faintly graying hair plaited into a neat pigtail at the back of his neck and his trademark beard wending down his chest, acknowledges this additional flourish of eccentricity with an appreciative grin, then inquires after the house specialty drinks. These are powerful potions, memorably named: Blow Job (Kahlua, Amaretto and milk), Butt Fuck (liquor and fruit juices), that sort of thing. Billy orders a nice frosty Blow Job and pulls out a stool next to a kid who, it seems, is already deeply into the celebration of his twenty-first birthday. At the sight of the bearded superstar sitting next to him, the kid’s jaw drops. “Hahhh,” says Billy, by way of greeting.
By now, Anderson has reappeared at Billy’s side. A practiced raconteur, he launches into a jovial update of all his current exploits as a local character: his latest, legitimate campaign for mayor; his cars (the license plate on the BMW parked out front reads GOD); and the ongoing adventures of various cronies he and Gibbons cherish in common. Just then, the swinging doors behind us burst open, and in blows a burly, flush-faced figure with two obviously fun-loving women on his arms, one of whom has breasts the size of beach balls.
“Where’s this Gibbons?” the man roars in a raucous croak. Billy swivels to scope out this noisome new arrival. Although the guy parked his car outside, he still seems to be going about eighty-five miles an hour. Billy smiles: another character for the collection. Turns out he’s a locally celebrated hot-rod racer and – who isn’t these days? – a big ZZ Top fan. He distractedly orders drinks for his little party – not their first of the day, it is apparent – and then grasps Gibbons’ shoulder as if it were a tire he was hand-testing.
“I saw you at the Aragon Ballroom,” he says, delving deep into the memory banks, “ten years ago! We were blasted! I had to carry my wife into the place!” The two cookies at his side titter appreciatively, and Billy mumbles something modest into his beard. The talk quickly turns to cars, one of Gibbons’ main extramusical passions, and then to tales of ZZ and the band’s lately renascent renown.
Soon, though, it’s time to go. Billy slides off his stool, bestows a parting benediction upon his new pal, not to mention the babe with the balloons – “Fahn,” he says – then turns to the birthday kid by his side and enunciates the ZZ Top presidential promise: “A hot guitar on every table.” And with that, he ambles out through the swinging doors, leaving the kid sitting there goggle-eyed beneath Anderson’s ludicrous deer head.
“On my birthday,” the kid keeps saying. “On my birthday!”
Well, imagine bearding Billy Gibbons on your birthday. Or any day. Lots of people apparently do. I first realized that ZZ Top had become the most famous rock & roll band in the land only a few nights before, after a sold-out concert in Albuquerque. Afterward, back at the hospitality suite at the band’s hotel, a message arrived from New York to be sure to catch Saturday Night Live, which, it was vaguely relayed, would feature some sort of skit concerning ZZ Top. At 11:30, Billy and his bandmates, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, duly tuned in. But the first sketch they saw – a savage parody of singer Linda Ronstadt’s current incarnation as a ballroom chanteuse – had Dusty moaning into his beard (which is blond and every bit as impressive a bush as Billy’s). “Oh, no,” he muttered. “What’re they gonna do to us?”
As it happened, there was no need to worry. The show’s central conceit was a nationwide phone-in asking viewers to pick a Democratic presidential candidate. All of the familiar stump-thumpers were enumerated: Mondale, Glenn, McGovern, Cranston, Hollings, Hart, Askew, Jackson. Then comic Don Novello (a.k.a. Father Guido Sarducci) tossed into the ring his own personal choice for the presidency: ZZ Top. He held up a picture of the boys, looking sharp in dung-colored slouch hats, cheap sunglasses and wall-to-wall whiskers. The studio audience loved it.
So did the viewers: more than 260,000 votes were called in, and when the balloting was tallied at show’s end, the first runner-up was Jackson (with 66,968 votes), and the hands-down winner, with a total of 131,384 votes, was – who else? – a three-piece boogie band from Houston, Texas.
It was a pretty funny stunt, and Billy and the boys got a tremendous buzz off of it. But being president might seem a comedown for ZZ Top today. A no-frills rock & roll unit that’s been blasting away since 1970, ZZ sold more records last year for its label, Warner Bros., than any of the company’s other acts – and that includes such mainstream moneymakers as Rod Stewart, Christopher Cross, Paul Simon and Asia. The all-conquering album that turned this trick is ZZ’s ninth, Eliminator, an LP boosted by a trio of slick, witty videos that have spawned two smash singles: “Gimme All Your Lovin” and “Sharp Dressed Man.” Eliminator was released in March 1983, and nearly one year later, in February 1984 – a month that marked the band’s fourteenth anniversary – the record was still selling more than 100,000 copies a week.
Suddenly, beards are big news. Gibbons and Hill, the two hirsute Top members (drummer Beard is – heh-heh – the only ZZ without a beard), cannot step out into the street, walk through an airport, sit down in a restaurant or even stop by one of their beloved taco stands without being besieged by fans. From gurgling tots to good-time grannies, everybody, it seems, wants an autograph, a snapshot, a touch of the hairy ones’ hem. It’s ridiculous; ZZ isn’t just massively popular – the band has actually become hip. Avant-garde star Laurie Anderson showed up at their postconcert party in New York last fall to talk tech with the ever-obliging Billy; and when ZZ played London’s Wembley arena not long ago, who should turn up backstage but Pink Floyd figurehead Roger Waters, eager to gab with Gibbons about the blues. (So eager, in fact, that he invited Billy to his home to hear some newly recorded tracks, one of which featured Eric Clapton soloing all over a song that, according to Gibbons, “sounded like Pink Floyd on Mars – it took the blues back to Fifties sci-fi.”)
This sort of heavy attention has taken some getting used to. “Yeah, we’re hip now,” says Frank Beard, the band’s amiable drummer, golf nut and high-stakes gambling aficionado. “In England, they used to lump us in with the Southern rock bands – Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allmans. Now they say we’re like John Fogerty. It’s weird.”
‘Twas not always thus. For years, ZZ Top was an all-purpose critics’ punching bag, derided as a boorish boogie anachronism and castigated for their alleged sexism (particularly in the wake of the 1975 ass-man anthem, “Tush”). Touring as many as 300 days a year, the band built up an intensely loyal following among heartland record buyers (who’ve snapped up more than 13 million ZZ albums to date); but with their spangled Nudie stage suits and outsize cowboy hats, the Tops were always too off-the-wall, too unpretentiously populist, for the critical fraternity to get a fix on. Coolness eluded them. Frank Beard recalls an emblematic incident that occurred years ago, during the band’s first Nudie-bedecked visit to New York City. They were staying at the Gramercy Park, a hotel that caters to English trendies and homegrown hipsters – in short, the heart of enemy territory.
“We were in the lobby, waitin’ to go to the show,” says Beard in his seen-it-all drawl, “when the elevator opens and this guy gets out. He’s wearin’ hot pants and black fishnet tights and a feather boa and makeup, and he’s got a bullwhip over his shoulder and two leatherette women on his arms. He marches through the lobby, and I’m elbowin’ Dusty, goin’, ‘Goddamn, look at that.’ And we look around – and everybody in the whole place is starin’ at us.”
ZZ Top has hardly changed at all since those days; they’ve simply waited out an entire pop cycle – from early Seventies hard rock to soft rock to disco to punk and New Wave. Never once did they compromise their sound – in fact, during the disco boom, they took a three-year vacation. Now, with an influx of pretty-boy synth-pop merchants upon us, ZZ still specializes in straight-from-the-hip hard rock (they’ve done only one ballad in their entire career). It’s music that’s rooted in the blues and rampant with Gibbons’ endless supply of squalling guitar riffs and Dusty Hill’s paint-scraping vocals. And if such single-entendre lyrics as “I got the six, give me your nine” sound more than a little anachronistic in 1984 – well, hey, this is rock & roll, remember? Dusty concocted the lyrics to “Tush” during a sound check in Florence, Alabama, in ten minutes flat – do you really want to think about what that song means? It means turn up the guitars. Maximum sonic input. Those in search of philosophical disquisitions should go back to their Police records.
Given ZZ Top’s musical stance, then, meeting Billy Gibbons comes as something of a surprise. Although he sometimes enjoys coming on like a king-size cornball, Gibbons is no simple shitkicker. True, he was born in Texas thirty-four years ago, just like Hill and Beard. But Billy’s father was a New Yorker, a classically trained musician who moved to Texas in the Thirties, spent time in Hollywood as a film-score arranger and later returned to Texas to conduct the Houston Philharmonic. Not your standard redneck upbringing.
And so, Billy seems to straddle two worlds. When he’s with the boys in the band, for example, it’s pure back-to-the-Fifties locker-room regression. On the plane into Tucson, for instance, a box of Milk-Bone dog biscuits was discovered among the band’s ever-present cache of tacky snacks.
“Don’t throw them away,” said Billy. “We may need them if Dusty brings one of his girlfriends on board.”
“I ain’t never seen you with no pedigrees,” said Frank.
“That’s because they’re all thoroughbreds, motherfucker,” said Billy.
“Well,” said Dusty, “they’re registered, anyway – I’ve checked their collars.”
Like that. In private, on the other hand, Billy can be – dare we say – surprisingly reflective. When the opportunity for a second day off in Tucson arose, Billy decided to charter a plane and zip up over the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas. Maximum input. Upon arrival, a limo was waiting, and Billy directed the moonlighting thug behind the wheel to head straight for the MGM Grand. Action for sure. He was real excited. But the Grand was dead – a virtual desert of screaming psychedelic carpet overhung by crystal-blimp chandeliers. Billy dutifully bought a hundred dollars’ worth of chips, and within half an hour, he was up fifty – but bored. We adjourned to a dining room and ordered Mexican combo platters, heavy on the hot sauce, while Billy recalled the days, back in the Fifties, when he used to come to Vegas with his parents. Those were high times on the Strip. One day, Billy’s father flew the family up for a birthday party at the Tropicana for Dick Powell. Being kids, Billy and his younger sister, Pam, were dispatched to the swimming pool to seek out their own amusement. The poolside was packed; not a seat in sight.
Then Pam spotted him – Bogey. Yes, it was Humphrey Bogart. And he was talking to them. “You need a chair, kids?” he said. “Here. Siddown.” And he bought them a Coke. After a while, their father appeared, wondering where his children had gone. “These yours?” Bogart inquired, with that famous crooked smile. “They’re nice kids.”
There was something so touching, so long-ago-and-lost-forever about this little tale that….But the spell was suddenly broken. As Billy thoughtfully licked the last traces of a mediocre burrito off his fingers, a waitress appeared at his side and, with a lewd, knowing grin, leaned in real close. “I just love your beard,” she purred.
And without missing a beat, Billy Gibbons, back again in ZZ world, looked up at her and said, “Honey, I’d like to show you more of it sometime.”
So Billy grew up in Houston surrounded by classical music, which he never much related to. Nor was he particularly taken with the hard country sounds that abounded. One night, in the depths of the Fifties, he saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan TV show and immediately thought to himself: “That’s the guy.” Soon, he was tuning in local radio station KYOK, where deejays with names like Zing Zang and Hotsie Totsie were laying down roots-level black rock: Little Richard, Jimmy Reed, Larry Williams, the whole head-bending pantheon. His parents, of course, disapproved. But despite their upscale financial status, Billy was never deprived of rock & roll: When he wanted the records, he got the maid to smuggle them in.
On Christmas Day 1963, Billy’s father finally gave him the guitar he’d been begging for. He immediately figured out two-finger versions of “Big Boss Man” and “What’d I Say,” and after that, there was no turning back. He formed his first band, the Saints, at age fourteen, later moving on to an outfit called the Coachmen. Then, around 1966, came intimations of a new sound – psychedelia! – and a totally crazed new Texas band called the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. According to Texas legend, it was the Elevators who actually coined the term psychedelic, and who, on a pioneering visit to San Francisco, turned on a fledgling folk group called the Jefferson Airplane, thus instigating, for better or worse, West Coast acid rock.
In any case, the Elevators’ 1966 hit, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” blew young Billy Gibbons away. Inspired, he casually penned a song called “99th Floor” one day while sitting in math class. The Coachmen scraped together some cash and recorded the tune, and quickly decided to follow their new inspirations all the way.
“We made the jump from soul band to psychedelic band early in the summer of 1967,” Billy recalls. “That’s when the line was drawn. All of a sudden, nobody could understand what we were doing. We immediately changed our name to the Moving Sidewalks. We said, ‘Hey, we’re onto something – they hate us. Let’s go for it!'”
A rerecorded version of “99th Floor” became a hit and garnered them the opening-act slot on one of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first tours. Hendrix was using amplifier feedback to create a whole new sonic vocabulary for the electric guitar, and his playing was a revelation to Gibbons. “He had big hands,” Billy remembers, “and he could just wrap around that neck and take it up into the stratosphere, easy as pie.”
Hendrix was impressed by Gibbons, as well. He subsequently gave Billy one of his guitars – a vintage pink Stratocaster – and later, during an appearance on The Tonight Show, mentioned Billy’s name as an up-and-coming guitar hotshot. Billy remembers all of this fondly. But the biggest favor Hendrix ever rendered, he says, was a piece of instrumental advice that’s served him well ever since: “Jimi said, ‘The best thing you can do, brother, is turn it up as loud as it’ll go.’ “
The army took its toll on the Moving Sidewalks, and in 1969, Gibbons and the group’s drummer recruited keyboard player named Billy Ethridge from a Dallas-based band. This early version of ZZ Top (a name inspired by such bluesmen as B.B. King) approached a manager named Bill Ham for guidance. Ham cut a record with them called “Salt Lick.” Eventually, Ethridge suggested that another Dallas musician, Frank Beard, be brought in to play drums, and before long, Beard brought in bassist Dusty Hill, his longtime partner in a band called American Blues.
“The first time I ever heard Billy was when I played with him,” Dusty says. “We did a shuffle in C, and it lasted forty-five minutes. One song. It was good, you know?”
And it’s been good ever since. There was some resistance in the early days, according to Frank Beard, but Ham, a shrewd manager, overcame it. “When we were second on the bill,” Beard says, “he would always get us on a tour with a band that was through – that was fixin’ to break up and just doin’ a money tour. And we’d get out there and just kick their ass. We did Mott the Hoople that way, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple. They were through, and they didn’t care who knew it, so people would remember us.”
All those years of accumulated fan loyalty tided ZZ over the rough spots, and lately, videos have been helping a lot, too. But as a few spins of Eliminator suggest, the group’s songwriting seems sharper than ever. Where do the ideas come from? Well, the title of “Tush,” to go back a bit, was taken from an old Roy Head B side called “Tush Hog” (” ‘Tush’ is anything that’s ‘rico’ or ‘dino’ – plush,” Billy explains). “Sharp Dressed Man,” on the other hand, was partially lifted from the credits of a long-forgotten late-night movie in which one peripheral character was identified as a “sharp-eyed man.”
On our last night in Tucson, Billy Gibbons and I are sitting in the spacious, Southwestern-style lounge of the Tack Room, a very tush restaurant situated on an old estate called the Rancho Del Rio. Dinner – duckling soup, veal camarones, vegetables jardinière – was mighty, mighty fahn, and now, already awash in fine wines, we are blabbering at each other over iced Grand Marniers and cigars. Billy’s enjoying it; he seems to have absorbed all the input he needed, and is now ready for one last stretch of road work before heading into the studio to whip up the tenth ZZ Top album.
Life is good, Billy agrees. Soon he may even take his first plunge into matrimony with his girlfriend, whom he describes as “Diane Taylor, the blues wailer.” (Dusty’s one marriage collapsed long ago, and Frank is embarked – quite happily – on his third.) Maybe Billy will even get to spend a little more time at his various houses: one in Santa Fe; one on South Padre Island, off the coast of Texas; and a dilapidated cabin on a mountaintop in Moab, Utah. Could be nice. Clearly, Billy is in his elegant, reflective mode.
But what about the music? That, too, he says, may change, but only subtly. He’s fascinated by synthesizers and has, in fact, hours upon hours of Eno-like solo-synthesizer doodlings socked away in a vault somewhere. But synthesizers will never take over that bad ZZ Top sound. And how would he characterize that sound most succinctly? Billy Gibbons, the classical conductor’s son, puts down his pricey cigar, sips delicately from his glass of Grand Marnier and says:
“Like four flat tires on a muddy road.”