How Dusty Hill Avoided Becoming a ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll A–hole’
ZZ Top's Dusty Hill said that a late-'70s stint as an airport worker helped keep him from turning into "a rock 'n' roll asshole."
Exhausted from years of nonstop touring and recording, ZZ Top took what was initially supposed to be a 90-day break in 1977. The hiatus instead extended to two years, during which Hill and bandmate Billy Gibbons independently grew their trademark chest-length beards.
As Hill told UCR in a 2019 interview, the break gave him a chance to become reconnected with a more grounded reality.
"We’d seen it happen, and we had been in other bands that it had happened to - that you just wear out," he said. "We didn’t want that to happen, because we loved the band we were in. Now, it just happened to be at the time that [drummer] Frank [Beard] needed some time [to deal with heroin addiction]. Of course, that break wasn’t supposed to be as long as it was. I needed to go, if you want to call it that, get grounded."
You can hear the entire interview below.
Seeking a sense of normalcy, Hill turned to a friend working at the Dallas airport who helped him get a job.
"I’ve been a singer since I was eight, and I’ve been a musician since I was 13 and pretty much on the road since I was 14," he explained. Before that, "I had a lot of jobs for a month at a time or a week or whatever, but I wanted to have that regular experience. You know, you go to work, you do your work, you pal around, you go to beer joints and maybe you hang around and try to hit on the waitress or whatever. I used to go to the drag strip on the weekend, race a little quarter mile and things like that. And it really helped me out."
The hiatus probably wouldn't have worked at any later stage in the band's career; ZZ Top were just short of widespread fame and recognition. "It was right before the beards," he said. "We were pretty well-known ... we were big enough to where we were making really, really good money and people were starting to know who we were. But we weren’t so big [that] I couldn’t go anywhere if I dressed differently and acted differently. So I believe it helped me a great deal. It was my own rehab but for different reasons.
"I had a short beard, regular length, and if you take off the hat and shades and wear work clothes and put 'Joe' [Hill's given first name] on my work shirt, people are not expecting to see you. So it’s not that hard to pass yourself off. Now, a couple of times, a couple of people did ask me, and I just lied and I said, 'No! Do you think I’d be sitting here?'"
Looking back, Hill was grateful for the perspective his temporary career offered. "I was very close to my mother and a couple of other people in my family, and they never let me get away with shit," he noted. "My mother, I’d call her and she’d go, 'Oh, well, where are you at now, big shot?' So I was pretty well grounded. But I did not want to turn into some sort of a rock 'n' roll asshole, you know, that I [would] absolutely expect people to open the door for me. I don’t want to do this 'part of the people' and all of this stuff, but that’s what I am.
"Where I came from, everybody was in the same boat, and it was a small, leaky boat. I knew I didn’t want that, and I wanted to get the hell out of there, but I did not want other people to think that I thought I was full of myself. But the main thing is that I didn’t want to start feeling full of myself. So I did it to ground myself."