As X's Billy Zoom Battles Cancer, Bandmates Rally: 'We're Giving Him a Percentage' of Tour Earnings

Frank Gargani

X (left to right): Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, John Doe and D.J. Bonebrake

Frontman John Doe talks to Billboard about the beloved guitarist who "can play Chuck Berry s--- and it's still punk-rock."

Rarely in rock and roll has any musician generated so much endearment while keeping as closed-mouthed as X guitarist Billy Zoom. “Because he’s mysterious!” says bandmate John Doe. “People project their ideas of who Billy Zoom is. He’s nice but he doesn’t say much” -- both qualities that are hard to come by in music nowadays. No wonder he’s beloved, even before you factor in how his clean, economic ferocity proved “you can play Chuck Berry shit and it’s still punk-rock.”

Now fans are saying a lot more about Zoom than he’s ever said about himself, as they leave comments of appreciation on a GoFundMe page that’s been set up to raise money for the musician and his family as he begins chemotherapy for bladder cancer Monday. As of Saturday evening, $67,000 had been pledged -- well over the original $50,000 goal -- by more than 1,400 fans, less than three days into the drive.

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“I wasn’t shocked, but I figured it would be maybe half of that this quickly,” said Doe, sitting down backstage Friday night before the second gig of a four-night stand by X at the Observatory in Anaheim, marking Zoom’s final shows with the group before he takes time off for treatment. “It is so touching and rewarding. Because Exene [Cervenka] and I were talking about how difficult it’s gonna be to play songs and not look over and see Billy there for a couple of tours. It’s gonna be like, holy shit, this is hard. But we have to continue, and he wants us to.”

The cancer was discovered practically on the eve of a series of Observatory shows that has the band playing their first four late ‘70s/early ‘80s in their entirety, wrapping up with a performance of More Fun in the New World Sunday night. The next day, Zoom heads for Cedars-Sinai, while the rest of the group heads out on a national tour with Jessie Dayton, a regular in the John Doe Band, filling in for Zoom. The group returns to California August 8 for an outdoor show with Dwight Yoakam at the Annenberg Center in Century City, and there’s a possibility Zoom might show up for that homecoming gig, if he’s feeling well enough.

Although the group already had “Support Billy Zoom” shirts on sale at the Observatory, Doe says the public learned about the diagnosis almost as soon as Zoom and the band did. “We’re not the type to calculate how we do anything, except to make sure that we show up and look fairly good and don’t fall off stage,” Doe said. “We’re honest and want to get Billy treatment. He finally found out, oh, I think it was just before the Fourth. He was uncomfortable for a couple of weeks before that. For a week we thought it might just be the one treatment, and then found out it would be more. He’s starting a six-week course next week, and we’re going on tour next week. So we have to forge ahead, because we can’t pull out a week before. We need to pay our bills, and Billy needs to pay his. We’re giving him a percentage of what we make on tour, so it’s all good.”

At Friday night’s gig, Zoom leaned against a stool for most of the 100-minute show, except for a number that found him supplying a surprisingly supple saxophone part. Doe seemed to take it upon himself to offer some of the visual dynamism that was missing because of Zoom’s immobility, even adopting the wide stance that’s one of Zoom’s usual trademarks. Zoom smiled and even mouthed some of the words to “Adult Books,” sounding as spectacular as ever, even if it was clear he wasn’t up to his usual showmanship. There was no mention from the stage of his condition, except when Cervenka alluded to it by referring to Phil Alvin, of opening act the Blasters, as being someone who “knows a little bit about being sick.” Fans, of course, are curious about how far along Zoom’s cancer is.

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“I’m not a doctor,” said Doe, “but so far the prognosis is really good. It’s very treatable. It’s not stage 3, it’s stage 2. And it’s not a chemotherapy that’s all bloodstream chemotherapy. It’s confined to one area. It’s like birth control pills: When they first started, they were five times the dose needed. And now chemo is much less invasive, so we’re very thankful for that.”

The most trivial question possible: Will Zoom’s trademark coif -- still a thing of beauty, even as he’s rounded the corner of 68 -- be different after the chemo? “We’ll see. It’s supposed to come back thicker!” Doe laughed. “Thicker and curlier. So who knows?”

The language on the GoFundMe page speaks of a scene that takes care of its own. “Exene wrote that, and I added a few things to it,” said Doe. Giving back “is a punk-rock thing to do. Exene and I and the Blasters and different people have raised money for everybody, from opening an after-hours art gallery called the Zero One, to helping people with medical bills. In L.A. there’s always been collaboration; there’s always been caring for people. Other scenes I’ve heard are not as cohesive.”

The commentary on the fundraising page is partly about Zoom alone and partly about the overall impact of X, which stands as one of the three truly great, world-shaking bands to have represented Los Angeles over the decades, alongside the Beach Boys and the Doors, although they haven’t found their way into a Hall of Fame alongside those other two.

“I read some of the comments -- just really sweet stuff about what effect our music and Billy’s playing has had on people,” Doe said. “You make things and people take it to heart and it means something to them. It’s kind of the best reward you can have, right? Even if it’s 20 bucks, people are saying that he’s made a big difference in their life. But that’s been what X is all about anyway. When I tell somebody who I play with, they either say ‘Who?’ or ‘You changed my life.’ And that’s a good place to be, rather than ‘Oh yeah, weren’t you that band that had one hit and a stupid haircut?’”


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