By Cliff James
This story was inspired by actual events. It’s the true if re-imagined tale of an Electric Bluesman who roared out of the Texas Badlands with the throttle jammed wide open on a high speed train called the Billy Gibbons Express. I hear that train a comin’. You want some of this? You sure? Okay then, come with me on a soul stirring ride down to the crossroads. All Aboard!
I dial the number.
A raspy voice comes over the phone. “Billy Gibbons,” is what I think I hear, but the connection is breaking up.
“Billy Gibbons?” I ask just to make sure.
It’s him alright. No amount of bad circuits can obscure that gravelly tone. I charge in low and hard the way I used to tackle big running backs head on. It’s the only way to safely approach a Texas blues man and still emerge whole. “Billy Gibbons? You mean the kid from Tanglewood who got all tangled up in the blues?”
“Ha – yah.” A short burst of laughter goes off, “you got it brother.”
“You mean the mojo man of the cloth preaching the red hot re-imagined blues?”
“Yeah man,” he growls again this time just a little higher and louder, “Now, I’m liken’ it.”
And I’m likin’ it to because now we’re both laughing.
“Have Mercy. My name is Cliff James and I just want to let you know up front that it’s a real privilege to talk to you.” He must have heard that a million times from people throughout his storied career and yet his response strikes me as completely earnest.
“Well, thank you so much man.” He says. “This is an opportune moment to get into some of the good stuff – know what I mean?”
“I sure do. You know we’re about the same age; I’ve been a big fan for a long time and when I had the chance to do this for Guitar Connoisseur I jumped at it. So let me dive right in: In my humble opinion, there are three great rock guitarists who over time have demonstrated a consistent ability to crank up these big expressive sounds with red hot riffs, but delivered in a very unhurried or measured way. It’s like they’re coupled tightly to time’s internal logic or something but for me these are the guys who never try to jam ten notes into a space where three or four will do very nicely. For me, these Tres Hombres if you will are Billy Gibbons, Leslie West and Joe Walsh.
“Do you agree with me on that?”
“Yes I do and that’s pretty heady company. I’ve worked with both of those guys, Leslie West and Joe. They really have style and they do it with distinctive grace and I think there’s value in knowing when three notes are enough – instead of ten.”
“Exactly, you three always stood out in my mind and despite the distinctiveness of your individual styles and many other differences the one commonality that stands out in my mind is that you guys are like human amplifiers in the sense that you take a few notes, fill them up and amplify them emotionally to make a big impression in the minds of the listener. The other extreme I guess are the guys who try to jam twenty notes into a space for four or five and end up losing some or all of the intended effect.”
“Yes, although the exception to that rule is Jeff Beck who can indeed squeeze at least twenty notes into that same space and yet his technique is so appealing that the end result is nothing short of pure musical pleasure and entertainment. You know we were on tour together and I think we were both stimulated by two opposite ends of the extremes, but in a very friendly manner. We were able to stimulate and coax out the best in each other so that we played at a peak. You know the headlines were filled with BB Kings recent passing and I learned early on from him just that value. BB King could tear it up when he wanted to and yet still do it with such expressiveness and we could do a whole series of interviews on BB King, the man’s talent and influence, but that will have to wait for another time.”
“I understand. I also always wondered about whether or not the deliberate and unhurried pace of musical expression was a naturally evolving part of your style? Did you develop your playing technique that way because it better fit the galloping grooves of your musical compositions or were you intentionally trying to differentiate yourself from the guys who might be more speed obsessed?”
“Well, working in a trio pretty much keeps everybody on their toes and you end up actually working a bit harder, giving it 110% to make the sound as rich and robust as possible and at the same time the platform that is the ZZ Top rhythm section – Dusty Hill on bass and Frank Beard on drums, the man with no beard – we find it more effective to locate the sweet spots while playing and many times we realized that it doesn’t require thrashing from top to bottom. Sometimes it’s the notes you don’t play that complete an effectiveness that is really penetrating.”
“I agree, and that’s the economy of notes I’m talking about. I know you’re working harder in a power trio. Have you ever thought of adding another guitar or keyboard player to the ZZ Top line up or is that just anathema to you guys?”
“I think ZZ is pretty much carved in stone. We have acknowledged our benchmark. However, and this is pretty interesting, I received a phone call from a friend of mine who extended an invitation to participate in the Havana Jazz Festival. And you know when I was invited to perform in Cuba, my first thought was okay, how did my name get on a jazz roster? But not wanting to pass up the opportunity to visit Havana, I thought about it and then walked into the studio a couple of days later and announced to the engineers that we were going to embark on creating a genuine Afro – Cuban series of recordings. Initially they were a bit surprised but they were willing to embark into that uncharted territory and there was enough understanding of what represented Cuban sounds and compositions that we were forging ahead and got a lot of tracks; six in Spanish and five in English on electric. But we also added a B3, a GG Martine (he slowly and clearly spells out the name) from Argentina now living in Los Angeles and Mike Flanigin, the great B3 player from Austin Texas. (Again he deliberately spells out the full name for me without being asked.)”
“You’re always trying to steer the spotlight onto others. You strike me as being a pretty generous soul often concerned about others getting recognition and credit where it is due.”
“I believe that one can expand his horizons when engaging with others. It’s always fascinating to experience what that engagement results in. It brings forth so many varied things with many surprising moments – very unexpected moments.”
“Those are the happy accidents.”
“Indeed, that’s a great expression.”
Well I was rolling down the road in some cold blue steel,
With a bluesman in the back and a beautician at the wheel.
Like a fully immersive experience; like blazing images on a colossal IMAX screen; bigger than the sky, bad as can be, brighter than a thousand suns and twice as hot. That’s how I see it. That’s how I feel it. And you do too. WHAT? Oh yes you do, and don’t pretend otherwise: Go ahead, take a look over there – see that rooster tail of dust headed our way? Hear the approaching roar of American muscle – that big block V-8? Hear those snarling blues riffs? Watch out now, it’s coming fast through the dusty desolation and gold shot sparkle with flames and smoke and it’s bearing down on us. VROOOM. Whoa! See that? Did you feel it? There he goes through the wind and the light and the heat into the teeth of the world. That was him: Spellbound Billy Gibbons, resolute as ever in his shade hat sombrero leaning back in the front seat of some heavy big tucked and rolled two tone convertible with chromed up grill, rear skirts and a wide load of attitude because don’t you know Billy loves big skirts hugging the rear wheels of smokin’ hot cars the way he likes little skirts hugging the rear ends of smokin’ hot ladies – especially Lucky Strike smoking ladies – not to mention all this rumblin’ tumblin’ low slung glory pounding across those Texas plains with the killer blues blasting and that magnificent old bluesman hunched over in the back seat playing the sides off that tortured, tattered, bruised and battered axe like the days of rapture coming down fast and….
——– CUT ———
Once more from the top. LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION – ON THREE, TWO, ONE:
Like a low slung wash of adrenaline unspooling at high speed straight for the promised land because it MUST be done not later today or tomorrow or the next day but right here right now in this one and only soul stirring moment because that’s how the Reverend Willy G. rolls – especially when he’s got a hot tip on a vintage guitar that he absolutely MUST see, MUST hold and MUST play which is why I MUST warn you never to get between the Right Reverend Gibbons and the sizzling axe he covets. Have Mercy! Can you say, “Pearly Gates?”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
“Did you ever hear of a guy named Monty Alexander?”
“No,” Billy pauses for a moment, then says, “I can’t say as I have.”
“He was originally out of the Caribbean, was in Bob Marley’s back-up band, performs with a jazz ensemble and now plays a kind of swing jazz fused with other styles.”
“Now that you mention it, I was thinking and the Monty Alexander I know is a pianist.”
“Yes – that’s the one. I once interviewed him for an article and I only throw that name out if you’re searching for knowledgeable sources of music from that part of the world.”
“And I have a great amount of respect for him. You know there’s another example of crossing a wide range of expressions because as you point out he might have started out centered on Caribbean music but went on to many other musical destinations with a full – fledged swing band kind of thing.”
We’re going downtown in the middle of the night
We was laughin’ and I’m jokin’ and we feelin’ alright
For how many years have I watched Billy Gibbons play a slow burn guitar slung low in that effortless down tempo style of his? For how long have I heard him growl low in that lived in voice he possesses? You know what I’m talkin’ about. The man’s a living breathing “effects unit”, the kind that alters the listener and reshapes the moment into a melodious stalker that haunts you like a fever dream.
While nobody knows for sure, as best I can tell there are at least three Billy F. Gibbons: the bearded flesh and blood bluesman, the iconic myth, and the elusive reality that hovers somewhere in between. I’ve seen it a thousand times – this guitar slinging, cheap sunglasses wearing, sharp dressed man with his head tilted back wearing the serene smile of someone lost in the bliss of his own making. And while I can’t prove it I just know his eyes are shut tight behind those shades as he channels the muse and communes with the ghost of Lightning Hopkins or Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Listen now – the pinch harmonics
He works it close to the bone
Listen now – the notes melodic
The man is one with tone
Listen now – the deep groove rhythm
This sonic riff is good
He even calls it easy
“Just meat on metal on wood.”
This I suppose is how Billy Gibbons remains just out of reach but not out of sight. Okay, fair enough. I conducted parts of this phone interview with my eyes closed to let that gravel intonation carry me away into the shadow of the valley of the badland blues and that was when I realized what a thoroughly decent and friendly guy he is. Did I say he was thoughtful, unpretentious and possessed by a generous spirit? Yeah – that too. Righteous dude, bad ass bluesman, nationwide riff master – Billy F Gibbons is a piece of work – a baffling combination of preacher, prophet and pilgrim with some mystic medicine-man thrown in for good measure. Some even believe he’s the re-incarnation of a famous pirate, but more on that later.
“To the deserts go prophets and hermits, through deserts go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape reality but to find it.” ……… Paul Shepard (Man in the Landscape)
For reasons that remain unclear no one knows for sure if the Reverend Willy G is a Pentecostal Preacher, an ordained minister, neither, both or something else entirely. Nor do we know which if any sectarian denomination lies at the roots of his theological training. Some half crazed disciples swear that back in the early 60’s he became a man of the cloth in a shack like seminary just outside La Grange, Texas. You know what I’m talkin’ about. Still others insist he once had a burning bush encounter with a peyote plant deep in the heart of Texas, or off in the wilds of the Mexican desert – no one knows for sure. My point is that regardless of Reverend Gibbons’ ecclesiastical background, he, like all great religious figures, knows his way around the desert’s vast wilderness where he retreats from time to time in search of reality. And who are we but amazed onlookers as his scintillating reality fills up fast with hot cars, hot blondes and furry rotating guitars. Yes, I’ll admit, it’s the case here as it is with all prophets before their time that skeptics can be found. Are we not after all the present day descendants of doubting Thomas? But let me ask a simple question that cuts right to the heart of the matter: if Billy Gibbons isn’t loaded to the rocker panels with supernatural gifts and spiritual endowments then just how on earth did he know with complete confidence that Jesus was bound for New Orleans after he pulled up stakes and left Chicago? Answer me that. Or that our Lord took a jump through Mississippi turning muddy water into wine. See what I mean? Can you say divine inspiration? So ahead, say it. And I thank you.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
“Who came up with, “That Little ol Band from Texas?” It’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask Billy. “Do you remember who first coined that phrase and where and when it happened?
“Yes, we were in Jacksonville, Florida and we weren’t well known and so to break the ice as the spotlight hit me just before we started playing, I said “hey, we’re that little ol band from Texas.” We started in and it stuck and so we just kept using it. I mean that was early, like 1971.”
“Yeah, not only has it stuck, but it’s outlasted most of the others. I remember when for years, the Stones were always referred to as “the greatest rock n roll band in the world.” And there was time period when Bruce Springsteen was almost always referred to as “the future of rock n roll,” and yet “that little ol band from Texas,” is I suspect, a phrase better known today by more people across several generations than the others.”
“Ha,” Billy cuts loose with another short burst of delight. “It’s kind of flattering to think that you know, that simple phrase really does sum it up.”
“When Jimi Hendrix said on Dick Cavett’s TV talk show back in the 60s something like, ‘This cat Billy Gibbons is the next big thing as a guitar player,’ how did that feel? After all, here was the official seal of approval and praise from on high.”
“Well, prior to ZZ Top I was working in a four piece outfit called the Moving Sidewalks and one day we got a phone call from our business manager and he said, ‘you’ve been invited to join a tour with a performer named Jimi Hendrix.’ I was just stunned because not long before that I had picked up a copy of Are you Experienced and had been just absolutely mesmerized by it, and I mean every groove on that disk. And so we had immediately set out to learn a few of Jimi’s numbers. So we accepted the invitation and I remember, we didn’t have quite enough material without the three Jimi Hendrix songs that we had learned to fill out the allotted time slot so there we were opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, playing three of his songs and he was standing on the side of the stage with this big grin all over his face and I know he was thinking, ‘these guys have a lot of guts.’”
(We break into Laughter)
“Did you tell him in advance which three songs you were going to cover?”
“No, we just went out and performed Foxy Lady, Purple Haze and Hey Joe, and he was grinning ear to ear because we did them all back to back and from that moment on we bonded. It was quite a strident friendship that just blossomed and it was really something. I think there’s a couple of old photos of us together in some backstage areas and before we conclude here I’ll try to send one to you.” (Billy grabs a pen and paper and takes my e-mail address so that he can send me an old picture of the Moving Sidewalks with Jimi Hendrix backstage.)
“Thank you Billy. That’s very generous. I’d love to have a copy of that photo. Did the movers and shakers in the business, did the fans or other musicians at the time treat you differently after that comment by Hendrix?”
“Well, as you point out, it was getting high praise from the pinnacle and in once sense it was, wow, there’s all this recognition and at the same time there was this intense pressure that really turned up the heat to live up to it all. And so man I went straight to the woodshed to practice some more.”
“Well, you know that’s the kind of positive motivation that may have made a big difference in your career.”
“I would tend to agree. You know, the ferociousness of what it brought on, the exposure, and for me really to be taken that seriously and so yeah man – we need to live up to this.”
“When I heard Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower I was just flat blown away. I couldn’t believe that it was originally written by Dylan.”
“Yeah, in fact I didn’t know it be a Dylan tune initially,” Billy says in agreement. “It was a pretty amazing rendition.”
“It’s a tragedy that you and Jimi didn’t have more time together. Although years later there was another guitar super star who began singing your high praises. I remember seeing a video of Jeff Beck giving you an award of some kind and he said that at some point back in the mid-80s he was really feeling down and that everything he was hearing on the radio was just “absolute shit” and that when he heard some of your stuff it restored his faith in blues rock music. Do you remember that?”
“Oh yeah, we talked about it at some length. Just recently, a week ago, we wrapped up the tour with Jeff in Atlanta. Jeff would do an hour and we would follow for an hour and then we would close with Jeff joining us for 15 – 20 minutes. And one of the unexpected offerings was that he insisted on doing Rough Boy. He expressed the impact that that song had made on him. He told us that was going through some personally troubling times and that somehow that song had personally resonated and he said, ‘It soothed my soul.’”
Oh, I’m bad, I’m nationwide
I’m bad, bad, bad, bad, bad – I’m nationwide.
Okay – here’s something else I want to clear up right now. You know that whole Texas Chainsaw Massacre thing? Well, I’ve got it from reliable sources that Billy Gibbons was not involved. That’s right, the dude is totally innocent. Sure, he woodsheds a lot with his universally famous axe collection and those dark glasses obscure eyes that shine with a thousand yard stare. But official records confirm he never owned least of all rented one of those yank start / two stroke chainsaws – not in the Lone Star State anyway and that’s were all the blood-letting and limb severing took place. So don’t even go there because he was never, I repeat, never charged. He wasn’t so much as questioned by authorities which ought to tell you something. It tells me he wasn’t a suspect or as they like to say these days, a “person of interest.” Yah sure, I know, it’s a well-known fact that Billy Gibbons has done everything a man can do with a guitar without getting himself arrested. But again, Axe- yes; chainsaw – no. Believe me – I know about these things. I’ve been a person of interest. “I been bad – I been good; Dallas Texas, Hollywood.”
Having said that, and in the interest of full disclosure, let me now say this: Neither Billy Gibbons nor anyone associated with him offered me anything of value in exchange for the statements above; not money, not drugs; not hot women, fast cars, screaming guitars, good cigars, not even strong whiskey. Not none of it. You better believe I’d have taken it all lickity split, every damn bit, but it wasn’t offered. Nor have I been threatened in any way. My statement above was not, I repeat was not made under duress – not no way, not no how.
But, and this is either a big but or a little but depending on your attitude about such things, my statement WAS composed in the shattered midst of my most recent psychotic break. There, the hell with it, it’s out. But hold your horses and note what I did not say. I did not say my worst or most devastating psychotic break, only that it was the most recent. Which is why despite my active hallucinations, inappropriate behavior patterns and semi -coherent rants – despite it all, I stand by what I’ve said, or what I thought, or what I thought I said or maybe even wrote. Every single word – I think. Or, I thank you. Or something.
Okay look, my hold on reality is – well, my doctor calls it fluid when he doesn’t call it tenuous. When I asked him if by tenuous he meant shaky, he said, “Hell no, Neil Young is shaky. Your grip on reality is tenuous.” So while I earnestly hope I’ve offered up a convincing case that Billy is innocent before God and man of massacring screaming fools with power tools….the dude IS indisputably BAD. WHAT? What are you looking at? I’m telling you the granite truth. He’ B – A – D bad and he publicly admitted it long ago. He’s bad – bad – bad – bad – bad; he’s nationwide. Yeah, that too. “Nationwide.”
I like that. I like it a lot. I wish I’d thought of it, I really do, but I didn’t. Billy Gibbons did. He thinks of lots of things – wonderfully creative far out very bad things which is what you’d expect of someone who’s not just bad, but nationwide. I’ll admit I don’t exactly know what the hell “Nationwide” means but the syncopated way it rolls off the tongue and into my feverish brain evokes images, begs questions, provides answers and stirs feelings. Oh yeah, and I really like the way it follows five, count em, five “bads” all lined up like birds on a wire. It just appeals to me in some lyrical way. Okay see, I get the “bad” part, especially when it’s repeated again and again but “nationwide”? Is he talking about himself, what he represents, or something else entirely? “Lord take me downtown, I’m just lookin’ for some tush.” Yah, I know EXACTLY what that means. And, whooee, I can relate to it. But, “Nationwide?” Who knows why some words or phrases indelibly imprint themselves in that place where memories gather, but in my case these surely have; ever since the heedless days of my ruinous youth. Which is one more reason why the man is bad – and nationwide – and why Billy Gibbons doesn’t hold it against me if I’m unhinged. It doesn’t faze him it all. Not many things do. He’s still back on Jeff Beck.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
“So we performed Rough Boy and then as another unexpected offering we learned an arranged version of the old song from the 50s – Sixteen Tons. It was an old Tennessee Ernie Ford song and a big hit for him. We hot rodded the hell out of it and for a song that’s sixty plus years old it came out sounding good. And every night, no matter where, every arena was filled with people singing along with those memorable lyrics. (Billy raps out the lyrics to Sixteen tons.) Everybody knew it – old folks, kids, everybody.”
“I remember it well. You know in that vein – you guys should crank up all that old Link Ray and Peter Gunn stuff. Remember all those guitar hits back then?”
“Indeed. We were coming back from, let’s see, I was with Matt Sorum, the drummer from Guns and Roses and he and his bride – well actually I had taken Gilligan because she wanted to come along to South Africa. This is a couple of months ago and ZZ Top was on a brief break and Matt put together a really interesting line up called the Kings of Chaos. And so we did four appearances in South Africa and there was Matt on Drums, myself, Duff McKagen – the Guns and Roses Bass Player, Gilby Clarke on guitar, Stevie Stevens from Billy Idols bunch, Nuno Bentencourt, Robin Zanders was handling some of the vocal stuff along with Steven Tyler, and Glenn Hughes with Deep Purple – it was really an eclectic line up of musicians. But we stopped in France on the way back. Matt had wanted to hang out in Paris and I said fine that’s cool and so we stayed for a week. And then one day we were out and about I decided we were going to travel from France down to Spain to visit our buddy Nacho Banos. Nacho, as you may know, is the author of that great work on the first five years of Fender Guitars known as the Blackguard Book. You’ve probably seen it, the definitive work on the first Five years of Fender. And so we were planning to take the high speed rail down to Valencia and hang out with Nacho and his bunch.
While I was there I went to that famous Avenue of Guitar Shops. It’s one street that runs three or four blocks and is nothing but guitar shops. It’s really an interesting place and if you have a six string or bass guitar on your mind that’s the place to go. I was aiming to get a birthday gift for Nacho and I thought gee whiz, let’s go down to the guitar street and see what we can find and because of his notoriety having created this work on Fender, the very first shop we stumbled into this guy goes, ‘hey Billy Gibbons come on in, you’re great.’ He spoke good English and attended guitar shows and was just a very knowledgeable and friendly guy and when I explained what I was after, he was grinning and he said, ‘I’ve got just the thing for you to give to Nacho.’ So he opened up a showcase and he pulled out a fuzz tone with a little peddle and I looked at it and said, ‘man, I don’t remember Fender ever making this.’ And he said, ‘Look closely.’ And it was one of these fake Fender gadgets, very hilarious, but while there we wound up looking on the wall and I said, ‘would that be a 1961 Les Paul?’ and the guy said, ‘oh yeah, it sure is.’ And so he took it down and I wound up playing the sides off that thing and ultimately we made a deal and then I dragged it back to France from Spain and then all the way back to stateside.”
“Man, you added another one to the collection.”
“Yeah and I wound up using it. When we returned to the states we resumed the ZZ Top tour and I was amazed at how many fans and followers remarked, ‘Whoa, we’ve never seen you play that kind of Les Paul before. We expected you to play Pearly Gates.’ And I said, ‘we’ll yeah, but this thing sounds great and is doing the job.’ And in order to make a statement I sat down in Las Vegas with John Bolin our guitar builder who’s out of Boise Idaho. So I said, ‘John, I’d like you to reproduce this original 1961 Les Paul but let’s make a stylistic change so that we can create a derivative work,’ which we did. The body is terraced, it’s two inches thick on the upper part with a sweeping S curve that comes from the lower cutaway across the middle of the body and then it wraps around toward the tail piece. And so he immediately set about fabricating this design and it turned out to be remarkably appealing. So much so that I was in Nashville and I ran into Henry Juszkiewicz and Rick Gembar from Gibson’s custom division and they said, ‘What’s this we hear about a stylized Les Paul?’ And I said, ‘well, if you like I’ll bring it over,’ and then they flipped when they saw it and said, ‘Gee, why didn’t we think of that?’ Now that is a high compliment.”
“It sure is, coming from the Gibson custom shop folks.”
“More than likely they’ll go into production on it, maybe limited special edition or something.”
“I know there’s the Billy Bo Gretsch out there, but are you going to be associated with this?”
“Oh yeah. In fact they were so taken by it that they wouldn’t let me leave with it. One of their guys just grabbed it and wouldn’t give it back.”
(We’re both laughing)
“I’ve got a couple of snap shots of it, I’ll send you one. Are you near your computer?” Billy asks.
“Yes I am.”
“Well I found and I’m sending you that picture of Jimi Hendrix with the Moving Sidewalks from years ago that we talked about.”
“Oh wow, I just received it. Man, who’s the guy without the beard?”
(We’re both laughing at the photo of five guys, one of which is a much younger beardless Billy Gibbons.)
“I mean I see you and Hendrix but who are the other guys?”
“Okay, from left to right the first guy is Tom Moore, he was the Moving Sidewalk’s keyboardist. The guy in the hat and glasses, that’s Don Summers – he was our bass player. And on the far right was Dan Mitchell, our drummer. It was the beginning of a long lasting relationship and I’m still pals with all of the sidewalks. We re-assembled after four decades and did two shows in NY with one night at BB Kings and we had a blast. It was like we never left. And Mr. Moore had squirreled away the set list that we had developed and so we went back and revisited that and I said, ‘well, what really got us going and put us on the map were the times we opened for Jimi playing three Hendrix songs back to back.’ So we rocked B.B.’s place doing three of Jimi’s numbers.”
“I know I’m switching up on you here, but who was the guy in the 13th Floor Elevators? Roky Erickson?”
“Yes, he was the lead singer and rhythm guitarist and we were quite close to that whole band. There was Tommy Hall, Stacy Sutherland was playing lead guitar – The Elevators recently did a regathering of the original band, at least most of them just a few weeks ago down in Austin. They played the Austin Psych festival. I was going to attend, they wanted me to perform with them. I’ve done a few shows with Roky over the years but we were still out on the road. But I heard that they knocked them out man and today, Roky is such an inspirational figure, not only his singing which is over the top and beyond description but…”
“Weren’t they instrumental in moving you guys toward the psychedelic sound of the late 60s?”
“Oh, without question. The sidewalks ended up moving into a house – a Louisiana House. It was a mansion and it had been abandoned by the family that occupied it because they built a freeway with an entrance ramp on the left and an exit ramp on the right and the family just didn’t like it and so they ended up dividing it up into livable cubicles like tenants in a larger building. And various folks lived there and then the Moving Sidewalks took occupancy – but they were a big influence on us as well as many others without question.”
Jesus just left Chicago and he’s bound for New Orleans.
Well now, Jesus just left Chicago, and he’s bound for New Orleans.
Okay, as we get into some backstory I’ve got to warn you about something that is every bit as challenging as it is important. Here it is: You really, really must try really, really hard to understand Billy F Gibbons. But I caution you, this is not an easy thing to do. In fact, despite its importance there are many here among us who should never attempt it without the assistance of a physician (Preferably one with access to massive inventories of powerful psychotropic drugs). None other than Winston Churchill himself once famously referred to Gibbons as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” And Lord knows many people, this writer included, have tried to figure the man out only to suffer devastating nervous breakdowns in the process. After all, who among us can fathom the unfathomable? But somethings are just too consequential to ignore regardless of the cost in ruined lives and deranged minds. So – ready or not, it’s now your turn to confront the legend that is Billy F Gibbons. WHAT? You said you wanted some of this. You boarded this train of your own free will didn’t you? You’ll just have to deal with it:
To the extent we all cling to and are shaped by bits and pieces of where we come from Billy Gibbons can’t much help himself. I’m not making excuses for the man, only trying to explain the fact that larger forces went to work in the life of a certain young boy from the Houston suburb of Tanglewood the moment he first heard the siren sound of the notorious X stations. These were the insanely powerful prime movers, the border blaster radio stations tunneling through the electro-magnetic night pulsing north from the Mexican desert like a hot glowing mushroom cloud. The Outlaw spirit was alive and well, foot-loose and walking around in the fifties and a half deranged, foaming at the mouth fugitive named Wolf Man Jack (“Dis is da wolf-man talkin’ atcha.”) was firing heavy ordinance down range with 250,000 watts of rock n roll rhythm & blues power. It was the untamed west; the crossroads of the new frontier and into it rushed a heady stream of outlaws, horse thieves and other assorted desperados with nothing to lose. They included crazed fixers capable of almost anything from both coasts who staggered into town calling themselves consultants.
Listen up now because I know about these things. There were actual gunfights for broadcast booth control, unsolved homicides, kidnappings for ransom and tales of mad engineers seized by visions who’d gone over the edge trying to jack up the transmitter power to 500,000 watts. Uh huh, five hundred Kilowatts of pulsating output. That’s half a frigging mega-watt and ten times the legal limit of licensed radio broadcasters in the U.S. which is totally irrelevant if you’re running an unrestricted, unlicensed electro-magnetic launch pad just south of the border – which they were. Those wild boys knew how to crank it up until fuses blew everywhere, cacti were pulverized by energy waves and folks in Michigan were picking up AM signals with the silver fillings in their molars. Hell, when atmospheric conditions were right even the half mad overlords in Moscow would catch an occasional heavy jolt of prefigured Texas Boogie. It scared hell out of them too because that’s when they realized those crazy Americans would stop at nothing and that things were far worse than even Joe Stalin predicted.
For Nikita Khrushchev the menacing implications were abundantly clear; all the assumptions upon which the Doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction were based and upon which peaceful coexistence precariously teetered in the Thermonuclear Age were completely useless when dealing with a Texas Bluesman! “Those people are out of their freakin minds,” Khrushchev screamed at the Politburo as he slammed his hand on the lectern. “They can’t be intimidated, bought off or bargained with. Neither reason nor ridicule has the slightest effect upon them. Nothing works,” he howled while head butting the lectern until blood trickled down into his eyes. “They’re crazed zealots and fearless besides and I know they will never ever stop – never.”
Exiting the stage at the Great Hall of Comrades, Khrushchev later collapsed into a thrashing seizure and was rushed from the building strapped to a gurney wearing an oxygen mask. So what can we conclude from this? That’s right, the first righteous blows against the evil empire were struck by black and white Texas guitar slingers hard at work on the seminal chapters of the blues canon. It forced the Soviets into an agonizing re-appraisal is what it did. These were hard lessons. Can you say “long wavelength, low frequency electro-magnetic wave spectrum saturation?” Go ahead – say it. And I thank you.
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“You know Billy, everyone talks about the look and the guitar playing and the whole ZZ Top aura, but you unquestionably have one of the most distinctive voices in all of music – not just rock. In my opinion, all the music fans and critics – everyone – they simply don’t focus enough on your voice or your innovative vocal style. There are several truly unique and immediately recognizable voices – you, Joe Cocker and several others, but you have that plaintiff wail of a bluesman which in my mind instantly stirs up vivid images of wind-blown flats and gold shot sunsets. It’s a raspy, growling mix of words and sounds that you’ve developed over the years and while it’s definitely rock – I might surprise you here when I say that your cadence and the half talking, half singing delivery of words and sounds shares a lot in common with rap. So here’s my question, have any of the rap artists credited you with helping to develop some of the expressive vocal forms of Hip Hop?”
“Oh yeah, we enjoyed residency – I had a recording studio that was being re-modeled and ZZ Top was expected to go into the studio and we wound up spending time down the street at another facility run by our buddy John Moran. He was running a session and the studio he was in was on the right, we were in a studio on the left, and in the center was what I’ll call the lounge. And it was quite the destination for a bunch of the Hip Hop guys. All the Rap a Lot guys were working there as well as the Cash Money guys. They wanted to learn what I was doing and I in turn wanted to pick up on the beats that they were turning out and I think it was through that association that we wound up recording a popular rap number called 25 lighters and….”
“I Gotsa get paid. I’ve heard it and I love it. It’s on La Futura isn’t it?”
“Yes. If you get a chance go on You Tube and watch the original version of “Twenty Five Lighters” by Fat Pat and Lil Kiki. It’s so whacky – I mean it’s ultimately so whacked out that you’ll hear it, and it’s quite memorable – you won’t forget it.”
“Yeah, I already have, but I like your rocked up version with the snarly guitar licks much better. I can’t help it.”
“But that stuck in my head for what fifteen – nineteen years and one day Rick Rubin calls up and says, ‘Hey can you give me just one more song for the record?’ And I said, ‘sure, I don’t have anything in mind just yet, but I’ll call you back.’ And that fateful day, our two recording engineers, Joe Harding and G.L. were watching some Lightning Hopkins videos and they encouraged me to somehow combine a rap song – “Twenty Five Lighters” with Lightning Hopkins.
“You did it. It works. In fact I think it’s one of the better recent additions to your catalogue.”
“It’s one of our favorites and we play it all the time.”
“I think it’s a great gritty rendition of that song. But as I said, to my way of thinking you really pioneered this expressive way of singing and talking which had an influence on rap artists. In a similar vein it also occurred to me that you had and still have these very unique hand motions and body language on stage which are your very vivid and personal way of adding expressiveness and I’m not just talking here about the famous ZZ Top circular arm sweep made famous in the videos.”
“It’s the ZZ Top wind mill arm wave with the deuce hand but it’s more. It’s the way you cock your wrist and point, or point the deuce – all of those motions where you’re moving your hands and arms. It occurred to me that among all the white rockers, only Mick Jagger gestures as much in the middle of a song and of course it’s much easier for him because he’s not playing the guitar. But here again, rap artists are always gesturing dramatically by pointing or making other motions and I’ve got to think you’ve had an influence on this.”
“Oh definitely, I’ve been told that. And speaking of Jagger and his ways of maintaining those grand gestures, I was visiting that great guitar builder from Paris, James Trussart and I went over to see his place here in Los Angeles. And the guitar tech for Keith Richards rang him up and said, ‘Hey we’ll be coming to L.A. and Ronnie Woods asked me to see what you had available.’ And James said, ‘well, I’ve got several things going on I can show you.’ But Trussart stays busy, he’s delivering a guitar just about every afternoon and I’d seen one of his short scale, famous metal rust bodies that’s just the coolest of cool. I think he shortened the neck length by two frets and it’s the two bottom frets that are wider. And so anyway the Stones show up at Trussart’s place and guess who ended up with the guitar? It wasn’t Keith Richards and it wasn’t Ronnie Wood – it was Mick Jagger and he said, “I’ll be having this.” (We’re both laughing) They began playing it that very night down the street here at the Fonda Theater and then later at the really big show in San Diego.
Took a jump through Mississippi, well muddy water turned to wine.
Took a jump through Mississippi, muddy water turned to wine.
I don’t know – maybe it’s the refracted logic with which I’m both burdened and blessed, or the kind of magical thinking into which I frequently lapse but from my perspective, magical or otherwise, Billy Gibbons will always remain the most famous bearded bad ass since – well since Blackbeard himself. Yeah, that guy – AARRHH! I know, I know – Blackbeard the Pirate was a sword swinger on the high seas whereas our beloved BFG is a guitar slinger off the dusty plains but stay with me here in you can – me and my tenuous grip on reality.
Of all the 18th century pirates and picaroons who ever plundered treasure or pillaged port towns, no one did it with the flair and originality of Billy Gibbons. WHAT? NO WAIT. Did I say Billy Gibbons? I meant Blackbeard – I think. Blackbeard —– Billy Gibbons —– Blackbeard —– Billy Gibbons. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the lights are flashing again in all directions.
He was wiry and tall and unmistakably present. On the features of his face he wore a look that some found unnerving while from the chin of that face a beard hung down to his chest. As cool as he was clever, he did his best work between dusk and dawn when the spare illumination of the thin half- light concealed his whereabouts. And when he leapt into action it was always with a deadly instrument slung across his shoulder. They say that civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that lies something called the law of the sea. Further out still, far from the rules of landed society where ancient Neptune rules the blue depths each man enters the food chain, and not always at the top.
Even at night – especially at night, his piercing wild eyes flashed through the smoke and fire of slow burning cannon wicks dangling from the brim of his hat. Yes, he was a collector of many things, especially hats – all kinds of hats. And his favorite was from Africa. And those smoking cannon wicks? They were fiendishly effective at conjuring the image of a metaphysical mojo man; a placer of hexes catalyzed by voodoo and potions. Here was someone who was anything but ordinary – here was something else entirely. It was an image in which he delighted and upon which he relied. Friend and foe alike agreed, he had a distinct flare for the dramatic and the kind of presence that commanded respect. You could love him, you could hate him, you could do any damn well thing you pleased, but you could not ignore Billy Gibbons. WHAT? NO WAIT? Did I say Billy Gibbons? I meant Blackbeard – I think. Can you say 2000 mg of Thorazine? Can you say electroconvulsive therapy? Go ahead – say it. And I thank you.
But, let’s be very clear about this. I’m not, I repeat, I AM NOT in any way, shape or form suggesting that Billy Gibbons is some kind of wanted fugitive or violent international outlaw. Others have suggested it and Billy had every last one of them eliminated with such brutal effectiveness that each case was officially documented as Force Majeure – a category usually reserved for hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters sometimes referred to as Acts of God.
WHAT? WAIT! Did I write that or was I just thinking it? And either way, is it what I believe? What the hell’s wrong with me? Inside this hell-storm of reeling madness my synapses are firing wildly out of order. WAIT! I MUST find ah….ah YES – YES….here they are. STAND BACK! Give me room. Please, I NEED air and then ah…yes…I MUST chase down this fist-full of kick ass pills with a shot of strong whiskey so that OOOH YEAH………WHOOOEEE……hit me again with another shot of Jack and ah, wait a minute, where you going? Come back – PLEASE – for the Love of God man I NEED one more shot of Jack straight from the bottle because I MUST be properly fortified when dealing with a Texas Bluesman and…..ahem… that’s…oh yes, that’s SO much better thank you very much. Now what was I saying about hot women, fast cars, screaming guitars, good cigars and strong whiskey? WHAT? What do you mean we weren’t talking about hot women? What about beauticians at the wheel? What the hell do you think Tush is? WHAT? I AM calm. I AM sitting down. KETAMINE! NO, not that wretched horse tranquilizer. Get away from me with that. AAAAAHHHHH!
(Seventy Two Hours Later)
Ahem, yes….that’s ah….. that’s SO much better and I feel, well, I feel almost normal, which itself is a very rare and wonderful thing. So where was I? Oh yah. As far as I know Billy F. Gibbons, that hauntingly evocative singer / songwriter / string bending guitar slinger extraordinaire – that one and only leader of the “Little ol Band from Texas” – that dude has never been guilty of anything except preaching the fiery gospel of the low down, red hot, re-imagined Blues. And he does it with a fire and brimstone style all his own.
And so yeah sure, while Billy Gibbons is bad, his badness is not mean. It’s bad in that very special good kind of way. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the way that whenever you see him you think to yourself, what kind of crazy wild thoughts are making those eyes blaze like fire behind the dark glasses on this fine day? Let’s put it this way, if the man is unmistakable, and he is; and if his sound is unassailable, and it is; then his impact is inescapable. Have Mercy.
I mean, how many electric blues rockers were once publicly acclaimed by Jimi Hendrix as “the next big thing in guitar players?” Only one – Billy Gibbons. How many musicians of any stripe are instantly recognized by hundreds of millions across the groaning continents? Only a few. How many electric blues rockers have owned a two stroke chain saw in the state of Texas? Not Billy Gibbons.
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“Billy, are you sitting near Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank?”
“We’re over here in West Hollywood. But you know, tonight is the big gathering at Bobs. Tonight is hot rod night.”
“Yeah, I’ve been there. It’s really cool during the Friday night hot rod cruise. I lived in SoCal for about 20 years and heard and read all about it and so I just had to get up there a few times to experience it. It’s like a scene out of a movie.”
“I know that Bo Diddley gave you the Gretsch Jupiter Thunderbird and legend has it that Jimi Hendrix presented you with a Fender Strat. I also heard somewhere or other that Jackson Brown gave you a guitar with best wishes – and – I mean geez man, what do you do when you meet these people? Do you pull a gun on them and say, ‘give me all your guitars and nobody gets hurt?’
(We’re both Laughing)
“Yeah. You know that’s not a bad idea. I might have to employ that technique the next time.”
“Seriously, you end up on the receiving end of a lot of wonderful gifts from famous musicians and I mean it’s got to be because they genuinely like and respect you. After all, these guys don’t generally go around handing out guitars to everybody.”
“Yeah, and one of the most surprising was Jackson Brown who was a big fan of what a lot of guys refer to as the Howlin’ Wolf Guitar. It’s the one with the amplifier on board and I have a famous picture of Howling Wolf posing with one.”
“You wouldn’t think that Jackson Brown would necessarily be into that, but it just goes to show that you never know.”
“We wound up in a Jam session down in Venice Beach. Mollusk Surf shop is the name and on certain nights they organize an invitation only kind of round the circle jam session or sit in type thing. As a matter of fact, I did a recording with Blake Mills and Matt Sweeney that was a number for Fleetwood Mac – a super slowed down, like half tempo version of Oh Well. And Blake said, “Hey man, why don’t you come down for our session?” So I did and there was Jackson Brown playing electric. It was really interesting – a lot of enthusiasm.”
“Speaking of all that, not everyone is aware of your early Hollywood connections as I call them. I mean everyone knows about your Texas roots and all that, but didn’t you once attend Warner Art School in Hollywood for a while in your younger days?”
“Yeah, I think I was 17 or something and my dad was one of the musical directors at MGM pictures way back in the day and that’s another session’s worth of stories for another time.”
“So you were down on the Sunset strip in the late 60s and probably ran into some pretty interesting characters.”
“Oh yeah, there were some great clubs – Sherry’s and next door to that was the Galaxy and then of course Pandora’s Box and so much of that madness. Much of it has changed now but those were some great times and I have very fond recollections of that scene. Gosh, I remember coming out in 68 and it was so popular that the four lanes of Sunset Strip, two lanes going east and two going west were jammed. And there were so many people walking and hanging out that they ended up having to close the curbside lanes in each direction just to make room for the crowds.”
“I thought you were going to say you were there on Sunset the night when Stephen Stills walked out of a club and into a riot, which prompted him to write “For What It’s Worth.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right – he did that.”
“Remember?” I speak the lyrics, ‘Somethings happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over there. Telling me I’ve got to beware.’ So as you were talking about the strip in the late 60’s I could picture this famous scene and I thought you were about to tell me you were there that night.”
“Well – we were there.” (We’re both laughing) I remember it distinctly. That’s an interesting bit of history because that’s where that song had its roots.”
“You know Billy, it seems like your life has been filled with all these magical connections or cosmic coincidences. Call them fateful encounters, call them whatever you like, but for example there was the storied past about you and Hendrix and then the gift guitars from legendary musicians, and I read once where you ended up with some roof timbers from Muddy Waters’ cabin that you had fashioned into a guitar. Then of course we’ve got the famous story of the 36 Packard called Pearly Gates which was turned into money which was then turned into what would become one of the most famous guitars in the world by the same name. See what I mean? It’s hard not to conclude that there’s been a heavy role of destiny or fate in your life.”
“Yes – that’s well stated. I couldn’t have put it better. I think it’s why one must be on the lookout for and should never take these omens with a grain of salt because the results of these things falling in line can really be cool. Hey, I just got a text about the Moving Sidewalks performing. Listen, why don’t we close for now? We’ve spend an hour together and I wouldn’t mind continuing our talk….what does your day look like on Sunday or Monday?
“I can accommodate you at any time on either day.”
“Okay, hold on and let me look at my calendar here. Okay, Monday works better for me.”
“Great, what time?”
“Let’s say noon – California time.”
“That works fine for me too. Do you want me to call you at this same number?”
“Yes, you got it.”
“I will. Well listen Billy, I know you’re an extremely busy guy so I want to thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me and thanks as well for sending the photos. I really enjoyed our conversation and best of luck always. And remember, as a certain Texas bluesman has been known to say, “You can’t lose when you play the blues.”
I want to thank you
Yes, I want to thank you.
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