#490: ZZ Top, "Tres Hombres" (1973)

When we were nineteen, my twin brother Dylan was in a cover band called the Pink Ladies, which he said was funny because none of them wore pink and none of them were ladies.  I thought it was stupid, but when I told him so, he told me I didn’t understand irony.  He flicked an imaginary rubber band at me after he said it, and I pretended to bat it away.

This was back in 1997, in those first months after high school, before I married-divorced, married-divorced, before Dylan and I stopped speaking.  I was waiting tables at the Perkins by the freeway during the day and taking English classes at the community college in the evening, and on the weekends I’d go with the Pink Ladies to their shows.  I’d lug around their guitar cases and bring them warm beers that I kept stashed in a duffel bag in the back of the van.  They played weddings mostly, and high school dances, but Dylan, like most musicians, dreamed of striking out on his own and being discovered. 

The way he talked about it always made me think of the prospectors heading out to California to strike it rich mining for gold.  Dylan was one of the late miners.  He’d missed the rush in ’49, was coming along in ’50 or ’51, and all the good claims were taken.  It wasn’t his fault.  He was born too late for the rock and roll movement, which was what he really loved, and in the wrong place, a small town in northern Minnesota where being famous meant having your hot dish be the first to go at church potlucks.  That whole year, our first one out of high school, he talked nonstop about leaving, moving down to the Cities or farther.  There were nights when I went to bed feeling heavy and certain that he’d be gone in the morning. 

Dylan had the right temperament for greatness, with the ability to twist girls around his finger, to sink into a depression that lasted days, to always get his way, to pitch a fit over something tiny, like when I used one of his washcloths to clean the makeup off my face one night.  He was good.  He could play guitar, he could sing, make his voice low or high as he needed, growling out lyrics, going up into a falsetto, but he was missing something.  He wasn’t great, and he wasn’t original.  He was a mimicker.  He’d watch videos of concerts, memorize how the musicians twisted and gyrated, and he’d copy that.

I remember one night, Dylan convinced the rest of the band to play ZZ Top.  They didn’t normally go in for the rock sound.  They kept it lighter, was how Dylan put it, and he always sneered when he said it.  Golden oldies for the weddings, pop hits for the high schoolers.  ZZ Top just wasn’t in their repertoire.  But Dylan loved them, and he loved Tres Hombres.  I’d hear him singing in his room, humming guitar riffs, tapping the beat on his stomach.  He’d start with “Waitin’ for the Bus,”  then move along through the album.  It was infectious.  He’d started calling me La Grange after he caught me doing it too, and soon that was all any of the Pink Ladies called me.  It didn’t make much sense as a name, but it was better than Sexy Sadie, which was what they’d called me before.

It was January, and it was cold the way only Minnesota can be, with that stabbing air that brings tears to your eyes and immediately freezes them on your lashes, streets so slick you could skate on them, mornings of cars refusing to start.  The Pink Ladies had been invited to play at a church social, which wasn’t their usual sort of venue, but also wasn’t unusual, since in the middle of January, we were all willing to do just about anything for entertainment.  I helped them set up in the basement, untangling cords and testing microphones, which they didn’t need in a space smaller than the elementary school cafeteria, but which Dylan insisted on.

  Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

You could blame the cold for how it went, the fact that there’d been trouble with the heating and no one had told the Pink Ladies that, so when Dylan hit those opening chords of “Waitin’ for the Bus,” his fingers tripped and froze.  You could blame the audience, say they didn’t appreciate the music, say they were uncultured, say that Dylan and the Pink Ladies never had a chance.  You could blame Dylan for choosing that night to play ZZ Top instead of in a few months, when they’d play at the high school prom, for a group that might’ve been able to better appreciate it.  Singing about Jesus turning the Mississippi into wine would never fly with the good Minnesotan Lutherans.

The whole set was a disaster.  It wasn’t just that Dylan couldn’t play the chords right.  When he tried to imitate Billy Gibbons’ voice, he squeaked, he cracked, like he was thirteen again and couldn’t figure out how to carry a tune.  The fluorescent lights overhead cast a yellow sheen on his skin.  Even from where I stood, at the back of the room, almost hidden behind a stack of metal folding chairs, I could see he was sweating.  Dylan always sweat when he got nervous.  You could just see the rest of the Pink Ladies shrinking into themselves, like they thought that if they backed up far enough, they might be able to just disappear. 

When he’d finally played the last chord of “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” the room was silent.  Or not silent—someone coughed, a few other people sniffled, trying to clear their sinuses.  If one person had started clapping, everyone else would have joined in, but no one started.  Not even me.  It wasn’t like I stood there and thought through the moment, weighed the pros and cons of initiating the applause, finally choosing not to.  It was instinct, telling me to stay silent so that no one would notice me.

It might have been okay if I hadn’t looked back up at Dylan.  But I did, and he was looking at me, and our eyes met.  We didn’t have many twin moments, Dylan and me, but we had one then.  I knew, looking at him, that he would never leave our town, would never amount to much of a musician, would be forever dreaming of what his life could have been, and he, looking at me, knew that I knew this, and something flashed up in his eyes, the type of hatred and revulsion that children have for certain foods, that visceral certainty that if they even smell it, it will make them ill.  I could see it in Dylan’s face, and I could feel it in myself, too.   Then someone else in the audience put their hands together, tentatively, and the other church ladies joined in. But I didn’t. I dropped my eyes and pretended to knock my elbow against the folding chairs so that I’d have an excuse.

After the show, Dylan joked about it, said every musician needed to have a big flop so he could understand what failure was.  And it’s true that for a while, he seemed motivated to get out, to try harder, but that all came to nothing.  The Pink Ladies had disbanded by fall, and Dylan started working at the Fix-it-Rite across town, and he never left. 

Sometimes I think back to that night, to that moment of our eyes meeting across the church basement, and I think that everything else in our lives followed from that spark of hatred that we shared, and I think that I would do anything to take it back.

  Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

But then I think, no, that was just another night, just another show, and everything that happened would always have happened, and it was nothing I did or didn’t do that caused it.  Then I usually stay up too late watching reality TV reruns and drinking Diet Coke and pretending that the reason Dylan and I don’t speak isn’t because he can’t stand that I know of his failure, but because he’s traveling the world, playing concerts to sold-out crowds, and that any day now he could show up on my front steps just to surprise me.  I can see him, the way he used to look after a show, his face pink and damp with sweat, his shirt untucked, the gel dripping from his hair, him running his hand through it and then wiping the grease on his shirt, leaving stains.  Or sometimes I see me.  I’m back in the church basement, and Dylan’s just lifting his hand from the guitar, his final riff still echoing through the room, and before he can even settle back into his regular slouch, I’m stepping forward, and I’m clapping, clapping hard.

—Emma Riehle Bohmann