Last week, Dusty Hill died. He was the bass player for ZZ Top.
ZZ Top is one of those bands that has been a part of the soundtrack of my life pretty much ever since early-adolescence, when I first became aware of rock music. They’re one of those acts that seems like they’ve been around forever, partly owing to their look: famous for their long beards, they cultivated an air of being old when they were still quite young. But there’s also a timeless quality to their music, which plays equally at ease on a classic rock station and an 80s throwback station, and more.
ZZ Top was always known most for its look: black suits and very long beards. They never updated that look at all. ZZ Top was not one of those “chameleon” kinds of acts that shifted with the times; their musical style and their look was always the same. They knew what they wanted to do, who they wanted to be, and the kind of music they wanted to make. And they made a lot of very fine music, too! Maybe they’re not quite at the level of, say, a Bob Seger or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but ZZ Top is every bit as essential to knowing the last forty years or so of popular music in America. (ZZ Top’s own history began in 1969, so they’ve been a thing for more than fifty years.)
By never much changing while maintaining a high standard of excellence, ZZ Top managed to seem like they’d been around forever and always will. They always had that air of “grizzled old veterans of rock”, even if they were only in their mid-30s when I first encountered them, with their big hit, “Legs”.
My favorite ZZ Top song is one of their less-known ones, a power ballad from the Afterburner album. “Rough Boy” is really quite a lovely song, with lyrics suggesting a boy trying to impress a girl even though he’s, well, ‘rough’. Those lyrics go well with Billy Gibbons’s raspy tenor, and the verses alternate with some frankly beautiful guitar playing.
Here are three videos: first the song itself as recorded (and later remastered) for the original album, and then a live version in which the band is joined by guitar legend Jeff Beck. And finally there’s an example of one of my favorite new genres, the “reaction” video, in which a listener with an open mind listens to “Rough Boy” for the very first time ever. (The reaction video is great, but her experience is slightly marred by the fact that she’s also watching the song’s official video for MTV, which is, I must admit, one of the weirder videos out there, and it’s a video whose content has almost nothing to do with the song itself. But her enthusiasm is real; I love these reaction videos!)
And Dusty Hill: Thanks for the music. It will live long!