Billy Zoom Was My Hero

March 12th, 2014

Billy Zoom

When I was sixteen, Billy Zoom, the guitarist for the seminal (overused but yes, it’s the right word here) band, X, made me realize why I would never be cool.

Mind you, I’m aware that the geek status many adults bestow retroactively upon their youths is a well-traveled trope.  More so these days than when I was growing up, when the rule of thumb was that the older the man telling the story, the better an athlete or raucous a fraternity brother he used to be.  And though I probably wasn’t nearly as geeky as I thought I was, it was always clear that any honor even remotely related to the term “cool” would never be gracing my yearbook photo.

It wasn’t so much the untamable plume of hair (a single wisp of which I’d gladly swap for vital organs these days) that burst spectacularly from my forehead like a bulbous, turd-brown galaxy bubbling through the lens of the Hubble telescope.  It wasn’t my tastes in pop culture or friends, both of which had sagely led me to the Whisky A Go Go on the Sunset Strip the night in question to see the Blasters, (another seminal Los Angeles band) in concert with three other rockabilly performers.  I wasn’t disturbed, or atypical, or really exceptional in any way; by and large, I was a polite, academically sound, well-adjusted kid.  Again, no retroactive, subjectified padding required here.


No, my lack of cool was rooted more in my excitable nature — a heat-seeking miss of rudderless energy that would give today’s Big Pharma a big woody.  I simply couldn’t see the value in sitting still.  I seemed to have an unyielding need to say, to think, to share.  I say “seemed, because while I’d convinced myself that unavoidable greatness as a writer lay just a few flicks of the fingertips away, I had yet to write anything more substantial than a classroom exercise about a summer camp romance.

Which is why, at the Whisky that night, all became clear.

X hadn’t been scheduled to appear, but at some point before the Blasters and the Rockin’ Rebels (don’t ask me; I’d never heard of them either) took the stage, there they were, cranking out the opening strains to “Hungry Wolf.”  And in the resulting pre-mosh crush of leather, hairspray, and teenage flesh, I was thrilled to, for once, be the least excitable presence in the room.  And then I looked at the stage and got a load of Billy Zoom.

As a musician, Billy was a revelation: a genre-blending assault on rockabilly, punk, and roots licks, all sharpened to precision by his pickaxe of an ax.  His riffs were more furious than fast (although they were plenty that), but never feedback-frenzied or out of control.  And here was the kicker: throughout the entire concert, the guy just stood there, unmoving and seemingly unmoved, smiling inscrutably at the audience.  Forget breaking a sweat; I’m not sure he so much as blinked.

XPicture this: you’re on a stage, grinding out high-octane licks that would drive Vin Diesel to speeds yet unreached. You are awash in the adulation of hundreds, thousands of pretty damn cool people every night, because let’s face it: X wasn’t for losers.  And you are SO FUCKING COOL that you can accomplish this while standing perfectly still, the bemused, effortless smile on your face the only indication that you’re even registering being there.  Hell, the guy’s pompadour (blond, natch, and I’ll bet no one ever called his ‘do a Jew fro) didn’t notch so much as a bead of sweat.

And I realized, with equal parts marvel and dread, that cool was staring me right in the face – quite literally, as I was standing at the front of the stage, all of ten feet away from Billy’s inscrutable gaze.  That having that much life force inside you while affecting nothing outwardly, as opposed to vice-versa, was why Billy was Billy and I was me.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting X’s lead singer, Exene Cervenka.  When I told her the concert at the Whisky was possibly the best I’d ever attended, she smiled and said “Gee, I wish I could remember it.”  Suffice it to say I did, and had Billy been standing next to her, I would have told him that the experience from the vantage point of a nebula-headed, still-forming teenager was nothing short of… well, seminal.

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Idi Amin and Independence Day

March 9th, 2014

July 4th, 1976 was remembered by most as the nation’s Bicentennial, its celebration of two hundred years of independence.  For a hundred or so people, nearly ten thousand miles away that day, the notion of liberty had a much more immediate connotation.

I was nearly one of them.

On June 27th, an Air France plane departed Israel’s Tel Aviv International Airport.  It had a termination destination of Paris, France, with a stop-over scheduled for Athens, Greece.  My family had just spent a week touring Israel and had tickets for the flight.  Our plan was to spend a week in Paris, see some sights, then return home.  We had an option to get off in Greece, where we were on the wait-list for a cruise of the Aegean Islands.

July 4, 1976 | Israel | Uganda

Israelis greet commandos returning from rescuing over 100 Israeli hostages from Idi Amin’s clutches at Entebbe, Uganda, on July 4, 1976.

A few days before the flight was scheduled to depart, we received word that a spot had opened up on the cruise.  My parents, realizing that a week aboard a luxury boat with occasional, light sightseeing stop-offs might be a more enjoyable family vacation than a week navigating the famously surly Parisian citizens stuck in the city for the summer, opted to book us on the cruise.

Several hours after we deplaned in Greece, we saw on the news that a plane had been hijacked by terrorists and flown to Entebbe in Uganda, where the hijackers had been given sanctuary by the nation’s dictator, Idi Amin Dada.  From all accounts, Amin bizarrely greeted the hostages as though he was the host of a Club Med and told them he hoped they would be very happy during their stay.  Even the terrorists were a bit put off.

Idi Amin Dada

Idi Amin Dada

We heard little more about the hijacking (this was, after all, in the days before ubiquitous, flat-earth communications), enjoyed our trip and flew home. We celebrated along with the rest of the country on July 4th, 1976, the 200th year since America’s liberation from England.  And as we watched the fireworks and explosives light up the sky from the safety of our homes, about 100 people were overseas, huddled in a dark airport, when a group of Israeli commandos burst in, lit up the sky with a different class of fireworks and explosives entirely, and liberated the hostages in what the Israelis dubbed Operation Thunderbolt.

As more and more details came in, my father and mother listened to the news reports, their faces registering something more than odd, something more than chilling.  I heard their hushed voices, saying things like, “Honey, was that…?” “Should we tell them…?” The kinds of conversations that many of my classmate’s parents were having all across my state, given their newfound embrace of California’s no-fault divorce laws.  Independence from each other, from unhappiness, from staring down their status as hostages in conformist structures for which they seemed unaware of ever having signed up.  Several of my friends, many of whose blank stares I would later liken to those of sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome, had overheard these conversations when the adults either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were listening.  In my case, however, my parent’s conversation had a far more literal bent, and my peripheral involvement was rewarded not with a trip to my favorite restaurant, but with a trip to the some of the world’s most famous remnants of other ruined civilizations.

The newspapers came and did a feature on the family that had narrowly missed an encounter with Idi Amin Dada and a brush with history.  The Air France pilot, who had been offered the opportunity to leave by the terrorists on account of not being an American or a Jew but had remained, insisting that he had a responsibility to see his passengers to safety, was fired, prompting my father to observe that only in France could someone be fired for a lack of cowardice.  The red white and blue tints that had been so prevalent in our lines of vision disappeared from our landscape entirely, the Bicentennial coins that had been circulated were spent or banked or pressed into commemorative plastic, and another school year started with a whole new batch of broken homes and shattered civilizations, the remnant wisps of terrorists, hostages, and history forgotten once again for another year and another time, but very much doomed to be repeated.

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