Dusty Hill has died.
You’ve heard this news by now, I’m sure. ZZ Top, the band he was in for over 50 years (half a century!), was renowned all over the world. His voice, his bass playing, his face (and beard) were all iconic.
I didn’t know Dusty, of course. But I’m saddened, nonetheless.
Dusty Hill and ZZ Top were part of my childhood.
Songs from the ZZ Top albums Rio Grande and Tres Hombres were on the juke box (yes, juke box) in the gym at High Island School. It was tiny, with only 200 kids from K-12 – that’s Kindergarten through 12th grade, y’all, 200 kids total, in High Island, Texas. I arrived at the school at the end of 5th grade, and in 6th grade, joined all of my classmates in Junior High and High School at the Friday night dances in the gym. I was a rail-thin nerdy 11-year old with buck teeth and stringy hair in 6th grade, and learned to dance to the La Grange, Just Got Paid and Jesus Just Left Chicago, among other classics. Those were good times.
I can never hear those ZZ Top songs without thinking of “good ol’ H.I. High,” in the words of the school song. I admired the upperclassmen and upperclasswomen so much, imitating their moves and wishing I was as cool as they were, as beautiful as they were, as smart as they were. All these years later, I still feel the same way about them. They know who they are (because I’ve told them, via Facebook connections).
Later, I was blessed to see ZZ Top in concert twice, once just after high school on their 1981 tour with the Rolling Stones and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and once a few years later on the Eliminator tour.
In 1981, I was barely 18 years old, and had just gone off to college in San Marcos, TX. I flew to Houston on a short hop from Austin to attend the concert at the ‘Dome with my boyfriend from back home and some of our other high school friends, all of whom were boys. I still adhered to the rule I’d learned from my Mom: “ladies always dress well when they travel” and wore a long, flared mauve skirt and (probably tight) mauve sweater on the plane, with heels, of course, and carried on a little bag for my concert garb, which was jeans and a t-shirt, with tennis shoes. That was the last time I “dressed well to travel” – that little bag was an albatross as I carried it all over the Astrodome after waiting in line to change in the always-crowded / always-a-long-line women’s restroom. I have no idea why I didn’t just change in the car; perhaps I was too modest. None of the boys offered to carry my bag, for which I don’t blame them.
My wardrobe mistake aside, it was a great concert, and I can remember standing precariously on my stadium seat, singing along and yelling myself hoarse. It was AWESOME to hear this band that was my first foray into modern music play live. The Rolling Stones were great, too. I can’t remember anything about the Fabulous Thunderbirds…maybe I was waiting in line for the restroom when they were playing, LOL.
Before High Island, which was a wonderful place to be yourself and come of age, we lived in Beaumont, TX, where my Dad was a “junior executive” at a big oil and gas company. In 5th grade at Caldwell Elementary School, which was LARGE, I’d been invited to a swimming party for someone’s birthday party, and we were all supposed to bring our favorite two records. What!!??? I didn’t have any records of my own! My favorites were what my parents listened to. I would’ve chosen The Kingston Trio or Simon and Garfunkel or Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, for goodness sakes. (Who doesn’t love their versions of Who Wouldn’t Love You, Green Eyes or I Don’t Want to Walk without You??)
I’d have been laughed outta the sleeping bag or the first one to get toothpaste on their face if I ‘fessed up to my musical preferences at that 5th grade swimming and slumber party. What do do? I wanted to be cool! So I asked another girl, who was popular, what her favorite songs were, and then got my Dad to buy “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” and “Stuck in the Middle with You” based on her answers. I like both of those tunes, but whenever I hear them, I’m instantly an uncool kid in 5th grade with a ruffled bellybutton-high bikini at a birthday party of cool girls I didn’t really belong with, trying to be like them instead of being myself.
That’s why High Island was so refreshing when we moved there (actually, nearby Gilchrist) based on my parents’ decision to “get out of the rat race”. It was so small that there wasn’t really a model for who to be / what to be. We were all just our own selves, and ZZ Top music on the juke box remains anthem-like for me in that respect.
All good musicians and musical acts evolve. ‘Early’ ZZ Top, the stuff on our juke box in the gym, was rock and blues, and the boys I went to high school with were a little nonplussed when Eliminator came out in 1983, with a fresh, updated sound. I loved it! The ‘boys’, one of whom I was briefly married to from 1984-1986, calling the sound “New Wave ZZ,” a little derisively. They felt sad about losing the more traditional rock/blues sound, but they also really enjoyed the energy of Sharp Dressed Man, Got Me Under Pressure, Gimme All Your Lovin’, etc. It was funny to hear them debating “Old ZZ vs. New Wave ZZ”…in my book, All ZZ was Good ZZ. Some of the boys learned how to dance in the new wave style, which I can’t describe, but you know it if you’ve seen it, or done it. There was a lot of bouncing and kicking, and I never did master it (still the nerd, I guess).
My late younger brother also loved ZZ Top, at least in those heady “New Wave ZZ” days, when he was just reaching college age. Here he is at my apartment in about 1983 in his Cheap Sunglasses phase, when he was 17 and I was 22 and married two years (what was I thinking??). I can’t hear the song Cheap Sunglasses or Sharp Dressed Man without thinking of him as he was getting ready to go out on dates in that awkward late high school phase.
So no, I didn’t know Dusty Hill. He was talented, iconic and prolific, and many, many individuals and news outlets have written excellent obituaries and tributes to him. I don’t know enough about him to add anything to the canon of Dusty Hill or ZZ Top history, but just want to say to him and his colleagues Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard, for being a part of my childhood and evolution to adulthood, in the words of the 1979 song from their album Degüello:
I thank you.
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