Put yourself in Billy Gibbons’ shoes. Back in the eighties, you fronted one of the biggest bands in the world. You sold tens of millions of albums, toured the globe incessantly, and became the weird, bearded face of Texas cool. But that was a generation ago, and now you and your bandmates are in your sixties and want to prove that you’re still relevant. What could you possibly do?
Well, you could take a fourteen-year-old hip-hop song about using cheap plastic lighters to sell crack, and you could cover it. Which is exactly what ZZ Top did. And “I Gotsta Get Paid,” released in June on a four-song EP called Texicali , is the band’s best song in decades. It opens with a nasty, distorted guitar riff, one of those simple hooks that Gibbons has been creating forever, the kind that sounds as if it was cribbed from Lightnin’ Hopkins or John Lee Hooker but also feels thoroughly postmodern, summoned by a guy obsessed with hot rods, leggy blondes, and cheap sunglasses. Then Frank Beard’s drums and Dusty Hill’s bass kick in, and Gibbons gets to the point: “Twenty-five lighters on my dresser, yessir, you know I gotsta get paid.” In the verses he reads a litany of mystery. “I got twenty-five lighters for my twenty-five folks,” Gibbons sings. “Gonna break the bank with twenty-five more.” His guitar growls like a lawn mower. “Twenty-five fly diamonds in my ring, twenty-five twelves in the trunk to bang.”
Remember the first time you heard “La Grange” and knew something was going on—something secret and dirty—and you had no idea what it was, but you really wanted to know? It’s the same with “I Gotsta Get Paid.” What are those lighters doing on the dresser? What’s a fly diamond? A twelve? “I Gotsta Get Paid” has got that thing that the great ZZ Top songs have: a combination of playfulness (“I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide”), gnarl (“La Grange”), and inscrutability (“Master of Sparks”).
It’s that thing that once made the group so huge, with MTV megahits like “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’.” But that was a long time ago. ZZ Top hasn’t had a platinum album since 1994 or a song in the Billboard Hot 100 since 1991. The group’s last three albums, all for RCA, were largely murky and dull. The band hasn’t even released an album since Mescalero, in 2003. Three years later the group severed its contract with RCA and ended its longtime relationship with manager Bill Ham, who is often credited with being the architect of its sound and image.
Something had to change. In 2008 ZZ Top announced it was doing an album with Rick Rubin, the Grammy-winning producer who had a hand in reviving the careers of Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. Rubin’s specialty is artists who have lost their way—or just their mojo. He helps them get back in touch with what they do best.
Sitting at a table in the Las Vegas Hard Rock Cafe last December, Gibbons was excited about the album, which is still untitled but due out this fall. It sounded, he said, like a cross between Tres Hombres and Eliminator , ZZ Top’s two best albums. The band had initially gone to Malibu, where Rubin lives, to write, rehearse, and record, all under his direction. Rubin has a reputation as a front-end producer, a guy whose influence is heard more in the things the artists do before they actually get in the studio, like writing. He’s a Zen-like figure who pushes musicians to, in Gibbons’s words, “spend more time reaching down deeper than they normally would.” But the band just wasn’t happy with the recorded results. “We never got anything [good],” Gibbons said. The trio ultimately went to Gibbons’ studio on the west side of Houston, Foam Box, and rerecorded the songs. “We did it all in Houston,” he said.
He talked about some of the songs—a cover of Mississippi blues singer Willie Brown’s “Future Blues” as well as an original he called “If I’d Only Been a Mexican.” But he was most excited about “I Gotsta Get Paid”—and about its provenance.
“ ‘Twenty-five lighters on my dresser’—it’s old Houston ghetto slang,” Gibbons said. “Twenty-five lighters on my dresser, yessir, I gotsta get paid.” He first heard it back in 1998 in a huge local hit by a Houston producer and rapper named DJ DMD; since then Gibbons hadn’t been able to get it out of his head. “These guys figured it out: you could go to a convenience store, buy a box of Bic lighters, twenty-five to a carton, take them home, disassemble them, take out the fluid and the inner workings, and clean them. A very nice, inconspicuous method of transmission—you can stand on the corner and sell crack. The line [the customer’s] got to know: ‘Say, man, you got a light?’ ”
Gibbons in person is as skinny as a skate kid. On this particular day he was wearing slacks with suspenders, a white shirt, and that strange hat that looks like a hairy shower cap pulled down low, just above his eyes and over his ears. It was breakfast time, and he wasn’t wearing his sunglasses. The man who has looked 32 for three decades now finally looks all of his 62 years, with wrinkles and creases under his eyes.
Gibbons speaks in a thick drawl and shows a keen interest in everything around him, from autograph seekers to the breakfast dishes of his companions. One of them was Stewart Skloss, the chairman of Pura Vida, a tequila company Gibbons has invested in in a very public way, doing ads and promotional gigs. Ten years ago you would never have seen any member of ZZ Top stepping out of the group. The band had a rule against that. But now Gibbons has become a visible entrepreneur, selling his own hot sauce, shirts, guitar strings, and picks. He has a recurring role on the TV show Bones