Two Bearded Pickers and a Drummer Who Packs a Piece Take Zz to the Top
Time, success and MTV have all changed ZZ Top, at least on the surface. Gibbons and Hill have sprouted chin hair that reaches nearly to their belly buttons—that's right, only Beard doesn't have a beard—and all three now perform in Italian jogging suits. Their Sharp-Dressed Man video, which beat back Def Leppard's Foolin' and the rest of the competition to cop video of the year on NBC's Friday Night Videos, has reached out to grab the young and the fair by their discretionary income. Now ZZ Top sings about TV Dinners; their ninth album, Eliminator, was Warner-Elektra-Atlantic's biggest seller of 1983 (3 million copies sold in the U.S. alone); they're rich; they are no longer a regional phenomenon. In fact, their appeal is now so widespread that they trounced runner-up Jesse Jackson in a recent Saturday Night Live phone-in Presidential poll by more than 64,000 votes.
But one thing hasn't changed. For Gibbons, Hill and Beard, reality is still stranger than fiction and funnier than anything they've put either on record, stage or video.
For example, the afternoon after the eight-month Eliminator tour ended recently in Biloxi, Gibbons could be found wandering around the antique-filled lobby of a tiny, exclusive New Orleans hotel, where he'd arrived on a whim, via limo, in the middle of the night. Pinned to his big black coat was an honorary Texas Ranger badge. In one pocket was a large bottle of Tabasco, which he sprinkles on everything. In the other was a supply of ZZ Top souvenir keychains, which he hands out—just like in the band's videos—to the fans who recognize and besiege him everywhere. The effect was that of a huge bear unpleasantly startled out of a long winter's snooze.
"Where's the maid?" he bellowed.
"Why?" asked the confounded desk clerk. "Do you want her to do your room?"
"No! I want her to braid my hair," he replied, utterly baffled when the clerk dissolved in giggles.
But then, Billy Gibbons' life is one of odd moments and impulses. His early childhood memories include running loose in Las Vegas showgirls' dressing rooms (his father was an arranger and orchestra leader) and being visited by LBJ (his mother was on the President's Texas staff). He once played a guitar made out of a toilet seat. As a teenager, his psychedelic Moving Sidewalks opened for the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, who presented Gibbons with a pink Strat and touted him as one of America's best young guitarists on the Tonight Show. His hero is a fellow Houston eccentric, Howard Hughes.
One of Gibbons' greatest regrets, in fact, is that the band is on tour so much he can't visit Hughes' Houston grave often. Disappointment also reared its droopy head when NASA turned down Gibbons' offer to have ZZ Top play the space shuttle, at least for the time being. The space shuttle, he was quite saddened to discover, is currently reserved for scientific experiments.
Nonetheless, he may yet get to the moon sooner than he gets to his own home, a $500,000 town house he's never bothered to furnish with much more than a couch and a jukebox. On those rare occasions when the band is off the road, he is more comfortable checking into a Houston hotel around the corner, where he entertains drinking buddies and dreams up new video concepts. Not all of his projects are out of this world, either—he holds five U.S. patents as the inventor of a miniature guitar. A onetime student at the University of Texas whose knowledge of modern art is surprisingly extensive, he now, at 34, takes his active involvement with Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum seriously.
Like Gibbons, bass player Dusty Hill, 34, finds it difficult to adjust to life off the road. Recently he woke up and couldn't figure out why he was having such trouble getting room service—until he realized he was in his own bed in Houston. He just didn't recognize it.
He began his career at age 8 singing Elvis and Little Richard hits in the beer joints where his mother worked as a waitress. Since 1965 he's been playing with drummer Frank Beard. Long before ZZ Top, the beards and punk, they dyed their hair blue in a band called the American Blues. Although Hill enjoys the rewards of the band's success—he sports the state of Texas in gold and diamonds on one finger and once got trapped in his De Lorean when the gull doors malfunctioned—he's still just a good ole boy whose ambitions and interests are as humble as Gibbons' are wide-ranging.
"I tend to fall into things," says the ruddy, doughboy-shaped East Texan, whose favorite pastimes are gambling and long, hot baths. "If I'd never made it out of clubs, that'd be all right," he says. "I don't have a grand plan. My grand plan is to play the next show.
"I like the celebrity of what I do," Hill continues. "But it's a little embarrassing at times. In an airport I don't know whether people are staring at me 'cause I'm in the band or 'cause I'm a weird-looking sonuvagun."
That's not Frank Beard's problem. "I am more of a complete human being than the other two," says Beard, 33, a man of many passions and contradictions. He's a golf nut who, with a partner, won his country club's tournament last year. He and wife Debbie (it's the third marriage for both) own a designer sportswear store in a chi-chi suburban Houston mall and a "wonderful" new house. As he rattles on about his desire for a son, the loaded pistols in both his Mercedes, and why he voted for Reagan, it's hard to believe Beard's ever been anything other than a hip-looking, conservative-thinking businessman with a penchant for Giorgio Armani. But by the time he was 16, he was an acid-popping, high school dropout and father. (He's only recently been reunited with his two teenage daughters.) And just seven years ago he was an alcoholic with an equally nasty heroin habit.
"Neither Billy nor Dusty has had to face the demons I have faced and come out a winner," he says, chain-drinking Tabs and chain-smoking low-tar menthol cigarettes. "Which has given me something they don't have. But to get to that, I had to lack something they had."
That understanding may be at the root of what makes ZZ Top so special. Despite the vast differences in personalities and lifestyles, the band's biggest argument was over the lyrics to Leila, the only ballad they've ever recorded. Offstage they rarely socialize or even speak to one another—but onstage they are tuned in to one another's quirky, individual frequencies.
"We just love to play," explains Gibbons, a fact that's obvious to anyone who's seen ZZ Top live. Although both Hill and Gibbons are showing the effects of too many enchiladas, their surprisingly graceful choreography—they say they improvise their inimitable knee bends, knee wiggles and duck-walk variations on the spot—might make a breakdancer envious. When they opened for the Stones in 1981, Mick Jagger was stageside making like any other fan—playing air guitar.
Despite the band's recent popular successes, ZZ Top has neither compromised its integrity nor dishonored its musical forefathers. Their songs pay homage to the bluesmen and early rockers who inspired their licks, though it's hard to know what those ancients would make of ZZ Top's jet-age collection of matching fluorescent, zebra-striped and toy-car guitars. It's no accident that Hill's backstage wardrobe case is covered with photos of Elvis and after-show visitors are often treated to Little Richard tapes. And ZZ Top never plays down to the kids. There are no drum solos, and when ZZ Top resorts to smoke bombs, it's a spoof. On the Eliminator tour, the smoke went off, the scaffolding fell down and a dummy roadie fell from the rafter to its "death."
So when ZZ blows its top in concert, the question isn't why they're so popular but why it took MTV to make them—as they once sang in an early FM radio favorite—"really bad and nationwide."
And that's just one of many mysteries that surround these upwardly mobile cowpie-kickers. The boys will offer the keychains from their pockets and the diamonds from their fingers, invite you to their favorite restaurant, cemetery or country club, and tell you about their ex-wives and sex lives, but no one will reveal where the name ZZ Top came from.
Frank: "Damned if I know. I always thought it was the name of some old black blues guy we had on a sticker when we started out."
Dusty: "It means something dirty in French, but we didn't know that till we went to France. I think only Billy knows what it means."
Billy: "You'll never get me drunk enough to tell."