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Looking for Billy Zoom

X was the West's great punk hope. But now they're finding more fun in their new worlds.

So what did become of the great Billy Zoom? What happened to the man in the silver motorcycle jacket, the yellow pompadour of absolute perfection, to the maker of those massive, shimmering riffs? With X he'd been a rocker of icy, dangerous cool, remaking himself as a parody of every smarmy rock god he'd ever encountered. Zoom's guitar parts were never played with a showy expression of agony or ecstasy but with his legs planted far apart on-stage, a shiny Stepford grin across his face.

Yet when it was clear that 1985's Ain't Love Grand wasn't going to be the commercial breakthrough the band had hoped for, he left X, fed up with the endless nights on the road and a rock and roll rat race he'd first entered as a teenage surf guitarist in 1963. Two years later, Zoom headlined the outdoor Sunset Junction festival, looking a bit heavier but still super cool with his silver guitars. It was just a money gig to pay the rent, with a repertoire limited to oldies salvaged from his pre-X Billy Zoom Band. And yet as he drifted into Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalking," he was still able to craft hypnotic passages that roared dreamily from the custom Zoom amplifier he'd built at home. When police ordered him to turn the amplifier down, Zoom replied, "It doesn't play any quieter." By 1988, he was gone.

Zoom now lives on a quiet street in Orange County, just a block from the Crystal Cathedral, that Disney World of Christian worship. He still plays guitar, but only in church on Sundays. The rest of his week is spent repairing amplifiers in his workshop or in a local studio producing the occasional local band. Right now, an amp sent in from No Doubt rests half-dissected on his workbench, under walls decorated with signed publicity stills: Social Distortion, Bruce Willis ("Peace!"), Brian Setzer, Susanna Hoffs ("Nice amp work, Billy!") and former Go-Go Jane Wiedlin ("How the Hell are you friend?!").

The guitarist doesn't miss the club scene he left behind in the '80s; he has contemplated recording a gospel album. And Zoom rarely does interviews now. What for? He enjoys his anonymity and happily notes that the www.rockabilly.com web page once displayed a photograph of Zoom with the words, "Do you know me?" and described him as "the subject of one of the most mysterious disappearances from rockabilly music."

As for X, he says, "I don't really think about it much. It wasn't my first band, it wasn't my best band. It's the one most people remember."

He's talking now to explain the release of an album of demos recorded by the Alligators in 1972, six years before he joined X. The Alligators were part of his old life, when young Zoom had turned to the wonderfully dated whiz-bang rave-up of old-time rockabilly. Zoom had even apprenticed with one of the masters, Gene Vincent, as the only member of Vincent's band who could stomach the likes of "Be-Bop-a-Lula." Not that he spends much time listening to rockabilly now. "That's what I did in the '70s because I hated '70s music," he says. Zoom now keeps his car radio tuned to jazz or R&B oldies stations, hoping to catch something by his guitar hero, Steve Cropper.

But during his one year with the Alligators, Zoom was committed to early rock and roll, not the nitro-charged sound he later created with X. The band even played behind such '50s survivors as the Penguins, the Olympics and the Drifters. And the new CD, titled Pre-X Zoom, reflects that commitment, though Zoom says he actually plays on just half of the tracks. "It was a demo tape for a bar band I played with in '72," he says. "For that it holds up pretty well, I think."

Don't look for a newly active Zoom as a result of the Alligators CD. He would welcome any opportunity for session work in a comfortable studio, which he still loves, but Zoom just isn't ready to hit the clubs again. Zoom says X's management contacted him after Gilkyson quit last year to see if he was interested in playing again. He wasn't.

"That was the loneliest period of my life," he says of his glory days with X. "I probably had fewer friends than I ever had at any time before or since. It's pretty much the opposite of what anybody would imagine. You're always in a tour bus or in a motel room, and the only people you see want something from you. You're never in one place for more than a couple hours. The only people I talked to were people who were interviewing me."

So you'll find Zoom at his workbench, a genuine tech-head, juggling vacuum tubes and soldering irons and plugging in his old Gretsch Silver Jet guitar only to test a broken amplifier. Look for Billy Zoom Music in the phone book. This may look like a sad fade-out to his fans, but there is nothing to suggest that Billy Zoom would have it any other way.

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