ZZ Top


I put on my beard. A genuine bargain at 9 dollars forty, the beard hooks seamlessly over my ears. 12 inches deep, bushy as candyfloss, its texture recalls a mix of afro, cobweb and pubic hair. The label says ‘real human hair’ and ‘made in Texas’.

Donning a huge, handsome Stetson and a pair of dark glasses, I am ready for the interview. In a trance, I walk across the room and greet the two bearded members of Z.Z.Top.

Dusty and Billy smile but as they do I reach out and grab two fistfuls of beard and yank them down violently. The sweet tear of Velcro rips through the air as the beards come off, exposing two glistening virgin chins. I knock their hats away with the back of my hand and snatch away the sunglasses to reveal two fresh-faced record company stooges from Milwaukee.

The room is suddenly silent. I have exposed and shamed Z.Z.Top. The world is a sadder and sorrier place.

Of course only a dreamer, or a fool, could seriously doubt Z.Z.Top’s authenticity. You could actually turn up to interview Z.Z.Top in a false beard and they wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Tall hats, dark glasses and big beards are the norm round these parts.

The fact is, the gentlemen of Z.Z.Top are so genial and relaxed, they’ll let you touch their beards (for nothing). They’ll let you give them a surreptitious tug. You could hide out in their beards anytime.

The beards are, genuinely, huge, staggering; experts estimate it would take me 176 years to grow a beard as long or as fine. They understand the beard fascination – “it’s a beard thing”, being the Texan/Top version of “it’s a black thing”: “Anyone with a long beard usually ends up coming to the show – just to compare,” explains Dusty Hill.

They have captured the beard market. This is a plus – along with hiding the double chins, not having to wear ties, and rebuffing winter winds. The minuses are: eating spaghetti, playing the guitar sitting down, dead ends (dead end beards), and suffering the summer sun. And the fame factor: “Most pop stars can put a beard on and disguise themselves. Or a hat. What can we do?”

Beard-disguise tricks include splitting it up and folding it round the sides or tucking it down their shirts. As Billy Gibbons confirms though, this looks as if you have a short beard and a freakishly, unhealthily hairy chest. Dusty tells of the time one strip of beard came untucked. “I thought I looked anonymous. In fact, everyone was lookin’ at me. I had half a beard, just down one side.” Scary.

The scene is a brightly lit “hospitality room” – more akin to a Nazi bunker – backstage at the Z.Z. ‘Recycler’ tour, Denver, Colorado. The room is packed full of Texans (Texan exiles, tycoons and fine Texan gals), crew members and dancing girls. Several have beards (not the girls) – some obviously fake. As the night wears on, inebriated cowboys will throw things into the beer bin, or delve deep into the warm trash feeling for a cold Miller Lite, with growing frequency.

Fittingly, the Top’s show girls are like curvy cartoons, still in stage gear: Timberland boots, denim shorts (held up, tight, by braces/suspenders), skimpy white tops, shades and construction worker hats. Long, tanned legs, dazzling smiles, the girls have figures that stop conversations, turn Texans timid. Repeatedly, cartoon Texans turn and stare, gulp, look at their drinks, shake their heads: cartoon time.

I ask one if she doesn’t get tired of being stared at all the time (this went beyond sexism: even the women stared). She thought about it, frowned and smiled brightly, “No.” Where did you get that tan? I ask her friend. She grinned and fluttered her eyelashes, and said in a wild Louisiana tilt, “’Fake and Bake’”.

The band arrive sporting light pink Z.Z.Top caps but still managing to look sort of sinister. Every great group runs on one great joke. Z.Z.Top’s is that Frank Beard is the only one without a beard. Tonight is the night of Frank’s wedding anniversary and the band have arranged for Frank and his wife to be serenaded by a (petrified) Elvis Presley impersonator (complete with Herpes lips).

Beard became a musician after seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Good-humoured and energetic, he suffers the drummer’s curse (always answering band questions first), has “little-bitty feet” and a fine Texas twang in his voice (“mayan, it wurz gurd”). Asking Frank if he likes any rap will inspire a sour, unpleasant look as if you’d just asked him if he molests children. “I’m not into rap,” he says bluntly. “Not at all.” Just the thought of it makes him grumpy.

He and Dusty Hill once had a blues band, The American Blues, whose gimmick (blue hair) cost them a fortune in hotel pillow slips. Hill is a dusty, jovial troll who’s been listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins since he was a boy. He wears a Deputy Sherriff’s badge on his jacket that belonged to Elvis. His white Gibson guitar weighs as much as the average wardrobe. “Let me lay mah burden down,” he’ll say, taking it off. He describes its sound as “kind of like shitting through a cloud.”

Hill’s beard is slightly more forked than Gibbons’, whose has fresh red streaks down each side. Gibbons reveals wryly “every now and then we’ll consider becoming Rastafarians – so we don’t have to wash them: dreadbeards.”

Hill concedes he and Gibbons started “working in tandem a long time ago. It was a natural thing. The look (same hats, same suits, shades, shirts, dance steps) just added to it. Like, we’ll be talking and swaying and won’t know we’re doing it. And it looks strange, you know – disturbs people.”

He looks surprised by this. Frank Beard confirms that although his five-year-old boys are identical twins, “they’re not as close as these guys. These guys are like twins of the soul.”

21 years ago, when Frank first brought Dusty to see Billy play at the Men’s department of a Department store on Halloween, Billy Gibbons was wearing mirrored bell bottoms. Gibbons still likes Glam Rock (“as you can see”) but not as much as he likes Depeche Mode. But then the only things Billy likes more than Depeche Mode are blues, guitars, automobiles, beer and women (“righteous women”). Not necessarily in that order.

He admires painters John Alexander and Robert Williams, Kraftwerk, the remix of Suzanne Vega’s ‘_____’, and some rap. “The blues is felt, if not heard, in rap.” When we meet for the first time he is singing along to Morrissey’s ‘Suedehead’. By the end of the night he greets me with the words, “Ah, Mr Shelley, how art thou?”

Thoughtful and quietly spoken, a true gentleman, with a wickedly dry wit, it is difficult not to see Gibbons as the brains behind the band (behind the beards?). He discovered rock and roll at the age of 6 when the family maid took him to see Little Richard. He carries two solid silver dice in his pocket, ready for an impromptu game of craps, drinks his vodka and lime chasers with a liberal dash of Tabasco and is currently reading Terry Southern’s ‘Red Dirt Marijuana’. His newest song titles are ‘Head Fish Head’ (a Sushi reference), and ‘I’d Try Anything Twice’. He is presently “fascinated” by Laura Dern.

On the bus Z.Z.Top watch Sam Kinnison videos (largely responsible for Gibbons’ bachelor status), exchange examples of “Texas crude” (“Ahm so hungry, ah cud ayt the crurtch out erv a rag doll”) and listen to a tape of Buddy Rich outbursts (“you white motherfuckers…”), which makes “Zay Zay Top” chuckle, chuckle like cartoons.

Ungraciously, I ask if they ever tire of looking like cartoons. Or course, they don’t. Life’s a cartoon. Life. Z.Z.Top’s (pop) life, in any case, is an affluent cartoon. But who wouldn’t mind looking like a cartoon if you could sell 20 million albums (CHECK) and _____ (Tour statistic: e.g. 1986 top concert draw in the USA). Madonna might have to grow one of those beards just to even start catching up.

On stage and in their brilliantly irresistible videos, Z.Z.Top are a clever contradiction: experimental traditionalists, modern Texans, hip hippies, contemporary blues boys, a loony blues cartoon: Zany Zany Top.

The ‘Recycler’ show is largely straight rockin’ good time music, with few gimmicks – the girls, a laser of “a cowgirl dancing on the ceiling”, a junkyard car-cruncher. It’s fun, above all, for watching ‘Wacky Races’ rednecks and solid cowboys boogyin’ on-down-y’all. Yee-hah.

Gone are the gimmicks of the ’76 tour where the stage was carved out in the shape of Texas and featured, recalls Gibbons, “buffalo, longhorn steer, 6 buzzards, several live rattlesnakes and a baby havelina, with a little rhinestone leash… I could never tell if the rattlers were pissed off or what they were.”

They don’t need gimmicks, of course, because they ARE the gimmick. Hill and Gibbons do everything as one: the Blues Brothers’ duckwalk, the Texan two-step, some cartoon robotics. They play the furry guitars. They play ‘Legs’, ‘Blue Jean Blues’ and ‘Sharp Dressed Man’. They could be miming under those beards, but hell, I doubt it – Gibbons says “we get to play – that answers the call for us” with too much eager enthusiasm.

No sign of the Cadzzilla, a 1948 Series ’62 sedanette (CHECK) featured in the ‘____’ video, on which I’d heard they’d spent over 2 million dollars having it customised. “Close,” Gibbons mutters with a quiet smile.

Z.Z.Top perhaps prove that it ain’t necessarily so that the bigger you become, the more boring the tour. Beard confesses he was “out there in the 70s. Dusty’s wild years were the 80s. Billy’s got the 90s. He’s been saving himself.” “’Cept he’s not been doing a very good job, as you can see,” chortles Dusty.

“We have a good time, all the time. I think we have the ability now to be wilder than ever. Though touring with Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Bros, that was excellent. There was some real stuff goin’ on,” Frank recalls with awe. “Duane would be blowing smoke out of his nose, playin’ somethin’ beautiful. Billy’d wear hotpants…”

After the show, back in the hospitality room everyone present, including the ladies, is in oil or cattle and has their own ranch. A man from Chayenne, a friend of the band’s and “an honorary Texan”, approaches me and demands I tell him the name of Hitler’s rocket scientist. He then tries to sell me Hank Williams Senior’s autograph. “Very collectable,” he mutters ruefully when I decline. Gibbons describes him as “a purveyor of the unusual,” citing a 1000-dollar bill (tragically ripped in two in a restaurant) and several rare guitars as the sort of thing he finds them. “He recently had a pair of matched shrunken heads,” recalls Gibbons, confidentially. “Authentic Havaro Indian heads, from the 20s. Twin girls. I said, ‘no, I’ll pass on those…’”

As one friend of theirs remarks, Z.Z.Top’s greatest gift is their ability to fit into any social scene, from a country club ball to a Texan booze-up. Everyone likes them. The trio may travel to the gig in separate limos but otherwise they’re inseparable, only really comfortable when they’re together – finishing each other’s sentences, punning the others’ puns (“this album’s got more roots and it’s got the bark and leaves as well”). Among the current Top catchphrases are: “If it ain’t funny, forget it”, “Now there’s a man who can yodel”, and “If so, fine. If not, fuck it.”

‘Recycler’ isn’t really that much rootsier or more contemporary than its predecessors, ‘Afterburner’ and ‘Eliminator’ – Gibbons is a cautious soul, and far too wise to jeopardise the band’s success. “Techno-garage” gives you an idea of how Z.Z.Top have endured and though they have backed away from commercialism, largely because they were beginning to know too much about the machinery to use it as impromptu experimentalism any longer, nearly half the tracks have synthesisers. The title wryly acknowledges their recycled riffs, as well as making a cleverly contemporary nod towards environmental concern (the hairspray they use, “to dampen the duck”, is environmentally friendly).

Gibbons confirms the last two recorded tracks on ‘Recycler’, the rootsiest (‘2000 Blues’ and ‘My Heart’s In Mississippi’) started as jams while they waited for the sequencers and computers to be set up. “Just playing like that, jamming as a trio and feeling good about it – that was a surprise to all of us. This record is not a case of wild abandon. But maybe it’s the start of something.”

One suspects Gibbons feels the draw towards a less commercial most sharply. “Yes, but it’s also important to retain some sensitivity to what’s really lurking beneath the surface, even though one might get branded with a certain look. I don’t think we’ve turned a blind eye to where we came from. Flexibility might be the name of the game for a lot of aspects of living,” he laughs.

‘2000 Blues’ is an unusually personal statement from Gibbons, a stately, melancholic piece that reflects upon the choices in Gibbons’ life and the impact the band makes on it. While both Beard and Hill are settled, Gibbons describes his home as “anywhere between Texas and California – it’s pretty vague.”

In ‘2000 Blues’, Gibbons ponders the dilemmas of his celebrity, the demands of fame, as if the band may no longer be enough. “A $100,000 wouldn’t touch the price I’ve paid. For the 100,000 moments of the times I wish I’d stayed… Nothing does you any good/When you’ve got 2000 blues.”

“You’ve struck it right on the head. There’s a certain amount of sacrifice that you embrace when you’re in a band. The prospect of having to remain mobile, touring, for a year of one’s life is so unsettling, but also the glamour of the requirements so appealing… But, you know, we seem to have a lot of fun out here.”

‘2000 Blues’ hits very poignantly on the regrets that come with that fun. “It hurts,” he admits. “That song is the one. ‘2000 Blues’ might be the dialogue of real living. Three guys playing inside the love of music rather than some articulately calculated method or formula. I was fighting with two girls at the time and one of them said, ‘you think you’re such a big star you can get away with anything.’ ‘2000 Blues’ was the next song to be written, haha.”

A friend of Billy’s told me, “when Billy isn’t working? He has problems with women,” as if it was his official hobby, a second career. “That is hilarious,” Gibbons murmurs. “But true. I do seem to find it difficult settling down with one person, yeah. I never really have. I’m going to make a valiant effort though. I find it extremely difficult. God, we could do an hour on this. Days.”

His face gives nothing away. It rarely does. He sits at the table in his hat and his glasses and his beard, taking everything in. When I suggest there’s a lot going on behind there (behind the beard), he nods and says “there is”, more to himself than anyone else.

A night on the town beckons. As hoped for, Gibbons and I talk and drink for most of the night – big belly laughs, big hats, are exchanged. Many a tall story is told. I remember thinking how well it was going, how great these stories would be for the story. Needless to say, the morning after found them awash with whiskey and the sweet haze of drunken half memory. I forget almost all of it. I can picture Gibbons smiling at the whole thing, just the way he planned.