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Zooming in on X

Founding guitarist returns to legendary punk band

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Emerging from the raging fires of the '70s California punk scene, X was universally acclaimed as the perfect "L.A. band," one whose songs captured the character and pulse of the city's underbelly better than any group since the Doors. The urgent vocals and unsettling lyric poetry of Exene Cervenka, who sang dark duets with bassist and co-writer John Doe, set the group far ahead of its profane counterparts. X delivered these remarkable vocals atop equally memorable music, and drummer D.J. Bonebrake pounded his kit with impressive precision and verve. But the scene-stealing star of X's shows was always guitarist Billy Zoom.

A veteran player who once worked with rockabilly legend Gene Vincent ("Be Bop-A-Lula"), Zoom had no patience for the "guitar hero" practice of grimacing and straining while playing simple, two-note solos. Instead, Zoom stood with his legs wide apart, executing the searing Chuck Berry-style licks of X's "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene" with a million-dollar smile, not even glancing at his trademark silver Gretsch -- making it look easy (his orchestrated guitar parts were anything but).

"He's one of the best American guitar players in history -- ever," asserts Cervenka when asked to rate Zoom's contribution. "He created an entirely new sound and style, mixing rockabilly and punk. Obviously John and I wrote the songs, but without Billy it wouldn't have been what it was. He's been back in the band for about five years, but we've not played in Georgia until now."

Doe recalls when he and Zoom first connected. "We were both into the Velvets, the Stooges and Patti Smith. Exene and I moved to L.A. at about the same time, and I'd just met Billy when I met her. It all came together really quickly. I'm proud of these X reunion shows. They give the younger audiences a chance to see us with Billy on guitar."

Zoom, now 55 ("I started playing guitar before Elvis hit it big," he notes), is still quite capable of those wide-legged splits he performed back in X's formative years. "There's a story there," he laughs. "Very early in our career, we were trying to get some good press photos, so we hired a photographer when we played at The Whisky. I'm a lot taller than Exene, and when we got the photos afterward, he had cut my head off in all but about five pictures! We made him come back the next time we played, so I stood very close by Exene and spread my legs farther and father apart until the top of my head was level with hers. After the show, I saw all these young punkers playing air guitar and spreading their legs apart, trying to imitate what I'd done on stage. I knew I was onto something then."

Zoom dismisses the much-repeated rumor that he originally left X to become a Christian. In fact, he became a Christian the same month he founded the band. One of his stated purposes in rejoining X was the hope of generating money to found a Christian music label, an idea he has since sidelined. "This is not a good time for labels," he notes, "with everything being downloaded and exchanged for free."

Often in demand as a session player, Zoom has even recorded an entire album of X covers, done in the twangy instrumental style of the Ventures, called Johnny Walk Don't Run Paulene. He also runs a thriving amplifier shop in California where customers include the Black Crowes, Brian Setzer, L7 and actor Bruce Willis.

"I do regular repair work," he says. "I also build custom amps. I had this one guy come in a few years ago, and he wanted a foot-switch so he could push a button and sound like Jeff Beck." Zoom chuckles. "That's not done with a button -- that's fingers!"

greg.nicoll@creativeloafing.com

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