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Behind the Curtain: Billy Gibbons and ZZ Top
Every day now for two weeks, I heard the song rise from what must have been a pair of seriously-powered speakers the size of refrigerators. Floating out over the hills of Hollywood like sweetly-scented sonic spores, the music had to be screaming from those distant monitors because the riff of Billy Gibbons’ guitar scuttled the birds in the trees and the vocals came down the canyon walls like the voice of God himself.
If the Lord spoke with a southern twang, sported a beard that tickled his belly button and played the meanest blues guitar in the world.
Precisely at 11 a.m. every morning, ZZ Top’s Manic Mechanic was spit out into the ether, signaling to the inhabitants of Laurel Canyon that it was time to start the day — and what better way to greet it than with a serenade from those trés little hombres from Texas?
Today, in a synchronous turn of events, I’d actually be meeting with the band for an interview in Beverly Hills. Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard were holed up at the Beverly Hills Hotel and awaiting my arrival. As the world’s greatest alarm clock woke up every other late sleeper in the gently sloping foothills, the song’s third verse took on even more serendipitous significance: “Showdown you bet/And I haven’t saddled my pony yet.”
Well, I wasn’t heading for a showdown so much as a stimulating and witty exchange of musical theories. And no, no equine to speak of, but there were some ponies under the hood of my Mazda RX7 and the truth was, I was just about to saddle up. I mainlined a cup of coffee, gathered up my cassette player and the band’s newest Deguello album, jumped in the car and as Horatio Alger urged, headed west.
Laurel Canyon sits at the eastern end of the Sunset Strip, a mile-and-a-half stretch of Sunset Boulevard real estate that is home to record labels, management companies, famous eateries, infamous hotels/motels, and an assortment of clubs, record stores, book shops, bars, and miscellaneous businesses. I pass the Hyatt West Hollywood, an upscale hotel now located on the same spot where the Continental Hyatt House once sat, the infamous and legendary home-away-from-home for visiting rock bands.
In fact it was here, six years earlier in 1973, that I first met the group. Tres Hombres had just been released and the Hyatt House was a reasonably priced facility for a band still counting pesos. Today, however, I pass right by the chrome and glass structure, crossing Doheny Drive, the Strip’s western boundary, and make my way to the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Opened on May 12, 1912, the facility is now considered one of the most exclusive establishments in the city. Private bungalows attract music and movie elite and the one-bedroom Presidential suite prices out at $3,400 per night. Of course, that’s where I find Billy and the boys. Not bad for a Little ol’ Band from Texas who, in the previous half-decade plus, had recorded five albums, risen from a regional blues band into an international hit making machine, and were now just a couple days away from headlining the 12,000-seat Long Beach Arena.
I pull into the front parking area of the great and gilded palace, obtain a parking receipt from the attendant, and make my way to the secluded residences at the rear of the hotel. A gentle knock on the appropriate door and I’m greeted by the great, bearded Gibbons, the Grand Wazoo, Guitar Wizard, and Thinker Extraordinaire.
Dusty Hill wrangles himself out of an oversized chair, shuffles on over, and gives me a warm, Texas howdy. I tell them about Manic Mechanic screaming over the hilltops of the Hollywood Hills and they bust into bearded grins.
Though the distance from the Continental “Riot” House (riot as in every time a band like Led Zeppelin or the Who stayed there, there was one) to the Beverly Hills Hotel is less than two miles, the amount of success required to make the move from the Hyatt/Riot to the BHH is substantial. The amount of musical terrain covered in the group’s six-year journey between Tres Hombres (their album at the time they were staying at the Continental Hyatt House) and Deguello (their current record) was substantial. They twisted, tore and mangled the blues to finally make it ZZ worthy.
Billy and Dusty settle back into postures of repose, I set the tape to record, and we take a long intellectual stroll over the mountains and into the valleys of the ZZ topography.
By 1973, when I first met them, the band had already been together for four years, having risen from the ashes of two competing Houston-based psychedelic bands, Gibbons’ own Moving Sidewalks and American Blues, the former home of Hill and drummer Frank Beard.
Billy’s band achieved some local success with the single 99th Floor and on the strength of this notoriety coupled with the propitious meeting of future manager Bill Ham, the band landed the opening spot on the Doors’ Texas tour. The Moving Sidewalks would go on to open for the Jimi Hendrix Experience (appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the left-handed wonder muttered, “Billy Gibson of the ‘Lectric Sidewalks” in response to who the cool new guitar players were).
Accolades aside, Gibbons left his band and in 1969 teamed up with Frank and Dusty to form ZZ Top. There were several incarnations of the band before the final lineup, including a very brief period with keyboardist, Lanier Greig. But when the three finally found each other it was, as Hill described, “Real comfortable. The thing was, Frank and I had played together for a few years behind another guitar player who would jam. We were used to coming to corners at the same time. So we were pretty comfortable with each other and maybe that’s why Billy thought there was more of a foundation to lay on.”
This ultimate connection, coming on the heels of the keyboardists’ walking papers, parallels the musical progress of another band that had gone through a similar metamorphosis. Van Halen, in one of their later formations, saw a keyboardist in the fold, but they ultimately opted for the trio format.
“I didn’t know Van Halen had a keyboard player before they were signed,” Gibbons would later comment. “It’s not the first time the comparison has been made between the two bands.”
These groups would stroll down other similar trails: both of them ended up on Warner Bros. Records, and each of them would run the gamut of their own styles – pumped-up, user-friendly electric rock for Van Halen and blues in all its permutations for ZZ Top – before, ironically, opting to add keyboards to the mix.
Edward and company would first do it on Women And Children First when the guitarist bashed on a Wurlitzer electric piano on The Cradle Will Rock, but would truly bring it to the forefront with 1984’s Jump. ZZ Top would experiment with some early Mini-Moog synth textures on El Loco and Deguello (Groovy Little Hippie Pad and Cheap Sunglasses respectively) before making keyboards a centerpiece on Eliminator.
Both groups understood when and how to bring strategic new elements to the mix, and they certainly understood when the ultimate lineup had been fixed.
“There really was a certain kind of chemistry that reared its head,” Billy admitted. “Touring with Hendrix, I came to the realization of what you could do with a trio was great. There’s hardly a feeling as gratifying as to really bash on the instrument and to get it to work right and to fill up the holes that are presented with the format of a trio. You go, ‘Man, let me tear this thing up.’”
Like “cross slats on a barn door” was how the guitarist described the band’s name that, now in its final configuration for many years now, spent a lot of time ripping it up and refining their sound by playing regional shows. Certainly this sound was grounded in the blues (on the liner notes from ZZ Top’s First Album, the genre was cryptically prefaced with the adjective, abstract) but to limit the group by tagging them solely as a blues band was misleading.
“Is ZZ Top a blues band?” quipped a rhetorical Gibbons. “Are the Rolling Stones a blues band? Well, we’re interpreters of blues bands. The wave of blues we enjoyed, not only being a part of but influenced by, was ushered in by the English guys. The Stones, Clapton, Beck, which is kind of what got us thinking, ‘Hey, we can hot rod this stuff and make it really fun to play for ZZ Top.’
“However, the examples that were set before us laid a challenge to say, ‘Hey, this is art.’ There’s a handful of Americans, a handful of guys from England, a handful of guys from points around the world that recognized the value of the impact of this strain of music that goes all the way back to Africa. And I’ll be honest with ya, I still dig it.”
What Billy dug was made available to the masses with the releasing of ZZ Top’s First Album, a collection of Texas-styled blues hymns funneled through the peculiar and whimsical brainpan of Mr. Gibbons.
“The only thing that kept us going on that first album was the fact that we had the opportunity to release a record on the same label as the Rolling Stones (London Records),” the guitarist confessed. “I’m serious; that was it. It was recorded when we first formed in 1970. I had assembled a personal catalog of songs when Frank and Dusty entered the picture. We commenced rehearsals to learn a dozen songs which I thought would be appropriate for the group and during that process both Frank and Dusty added their personal touches, changing a word here or a phrase there.
“But, true to the core, it was 12-bar blues or bust. The playing was there, the tempo was good, and it was very bluesy. I listened to it for the first time in a while and said, ‘Man, we sure were bluesy.’ And that pretty much described how we started and it kept on with Rio Grande Mud. We may have been able to refine our music writing abilities to more genuinely reflect a truer sense of our honest emotions on the second album but a lot of our earlier work was chronicles of Texana and events that were of substance for the guy living in Texas; certain things you experienced when you’re coming up there.
La Grange was the blues stripped down naked, a thumping one-chord boogie shuffle that showed Billy at his churlish, rudest, down-home best. Writing about a whorehouse somewhere out there on the vast Texas plains and singing in that snarling, bear-just-woke-up, scratchy-throat voice that would become his signature, this son of a professional keyboardist conjured visions of a carnal knowledge not typically taught in school. And managed to do it in just a handful of lines.
“Rumor spreading ‘round/in that Texas town/‘Bout that shack outside La Grange
You know what I’m talkin’ about/Just let me know/if you wanna go
To that home out on the range/They got a lotta nice girls-a/Have mercy
Aheh how how how/Aheh ahow how how.”
The lyric was utterly simple and masterfully penned. There was no mistaking the message – you couldn’t even if you tried – and with the success of the song, the band continued down that same artistic road, writing about women, lusting after women, women in cars, and women lusting for cars.
Billy had been looking out the window of his suite, staring at a young lady barely contained by a two-piece swimsuit. This was California, where cellulite wasn’t allowed, and where bodies like hers did not exist in nature. She bent over for a moment, exposing an exquisitely sculpted rear end and as if the moment had been orchestrated, his lips part to talk about the ultimate homage to the gluteus maximus.
Tush, oh, yeah,” as if forgetting for a brief second what we were talking about. And who wouldn’t? “We wrote that in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and boy, it was hot and steamy. We were at some rodeo building and we came up with that. It just happened; we wrote it on the spot at a rehearsal. We were playing some show that night and wrote it before the show. Dusty sang it and never changed it. It was fun.”
Tush was a textbook example of the I-IV-V form. Musically, the track might even have appeared on the debut album but lyrically, the Reverend Billy G was pushing the envelope.
“I ain’t lookin’ for muuchhh, hmmmm/I said, ‘Lord, take me downtown/I’m just lookin’ for some tuuush.”
Though subtle, rhyming much with tush was a foreshadowing of Gibbons’ growth as a wordsmith. The lyrical landscape was growing and the songs would soon be populated with strange concoctions of people ending up in weird places doing crazy things. Subject matter would begin to stray beyond the thrills and travails of love and lust in a modern world, but at the heart of every song beat the same ZZ topic – the thrill of the chase.
“I’ve just stayed in the blues tradition, well within the secret language lesson that lives right there in that Chess recording decade,” the bearded one philosophized. “One of my all-time favorites was Chuck Berry’s song, Oh, Carol. He came up with a word which was a twist on the paste tense of wish when he says, ‘You know you can’t dance/I know you wush you could.’ I guess that’s spelled w-u-s-h which rhymes with our t-u-s-h. We tried to open up the flexibility factor; verse structure didn’t have to be four lines and then a repeat. And with Tush, we got into the John Lee Hooker school of non-rhyming.”
Though the threesome had been touring since its inception in 1969, they finally broke into the ranks of the big time when they headlined the Rompin’ and Stompin’ Barndance and Barbecue held in Austin, Texas on September 1, 1974. Labor Day. Appearing with Santana, Joe Cocker, and Bad Company (this latter English group making their American debut), the band performed in front of 80,000 fans at the Memorial Stadium on the University of Texas campus. Ranking as the biggest concert in the state’s history, this was really the inaugural event that would change their image from A Little Ol’ Band into a blues/rock troika with balls.
Building on the success of this show, and on songs like Francine (from Rio Grande Mud), La Grange, and Tush, in 1975, they embarked on the massive Worldwide Texas Tour. On stage, the band were a slick, well oiled machine, virtuoso players just pulsing with Houston heat, with that southern-styled combination of wicked musicianship cross-bred with the Texan’s flair for bigger-than-life showmanship and acrobatics. Accompanied by haystacks, ranch paraphernalia, live buffalo, a longhorn steer, rattlesnakes, and buzzards, the band never allowed itself to be overshadowed – or eaten alive – by their bovine brethren.
By this period, Gibbons and Hill had orchestrated that cowboy choreography they’d continue to develop for years. Billy would sidle up close to Dusty and they’d drop their guitar necks at exactly the same moment, do a little half-turn accompanied by a leisurely stroll back to Frank’s drum kit, and then return in synchronized precision to the microphones just in time to catch the next vocal. It was part Egyptian shuffle, part cabaret, and part Keep on Truckin’ ala R. Crumb.
It was wholly unique with none of the usual posturing or histrionics that tended to accompany the typical Guitar God Pose: guitar neck thrust up into the air while the player bends his head back and closes his eyes in deep supplication to the hard rock heavens above. None of that faux cheerleading where the lead singer prevailed upon the audience to say, “Yeah,” or “Clap your hands” or inquired in mock interest, “Is everybody feeling OK, tonight?” The litany of overused stage patter and ridiculous stage moves would fill a book.
Though ZZ Top utilized props, they never depended on them. Instead they used them as embroidery, as icing on a multi-tiered set of music that was typically flawlessly executed and paced to perfection.
In fact, what truly set the band apart was the subtlety and economy reflected in their music/studio work, the way in which song structures gradually expanded and the manner in which the group just naturally evolved its sound and style. Billy was maturing, or rather, changing as a composer and author, reaching out into the zany world he occupied and telling us about it. This evolution would come to a head with the 1976 release of Tejas and songs like Arrested for Driving While Blind and El Diablo. Blues? Yessir, but just barely. ZZ never stopped being a blues band; they just stopped thinking about it so much.
“There was an antiseptic and sterile kind of situation on those albums,” agreed Billy.
Fatigue may have been setting in. With a virtual non-stop touring schedule and the release of six albums in the past seven years, the band decided to go on hiatus. With a greatest hits package delivered to London Records – The Best of ZZ Top – the trio had met the label’s contractual requirements. A clean slate, pockets full of dough, and nothing to think about but tomorrow, Billy flew over to Europe, Frank cruised to the Caribbean, and Dusty went down into Mexico. They recharged the batteries and what turned into a three-year layoff became a period of musical re-evaluation and growth – and not strictly in an artistic sense.
\“Behind the curtain, Dusty got lazy and I got lazy and so did Frank for not shaving,” explained Gibbons. “And here came the chin whiskers.”
In emphasis of the comment, the Wizard of oZZ cupped his fingers into a half-circle, encircled his beard, and ran down the length of it. The follicle formation indeed made him look like some voodoo witch doctor casting enchanted sonic spells, like some eccentric explorer in search of new riffs, new sounds, a place to plant the fretted flag of six-string originality. In the same way they’d approached every new album, the Beard brothers (Frank eschewed the new look but how poetically perfect is it that he has that last name?) reconvened and began work on the next album.
Deguello, their maiden recording for new label Warner Bros., was ZZ Top Phase Two, the moment when the curtains parted even further and revealed the mad magician now manipulating the controls of a new language and sound. Punk had reared its twisted little head on the necks of the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Clash and others, and this new album was Billy’s response.
Again, as with every record, Billy examined the new elements – more furious thrashing and bashing, expanded and more colorful subject matter – and picked out what he dug and discarded the rest. It was a graceful and natural progression. There were no signs posted in the press, pointing to Deguello and reading, “Punk album made by blues band. Beware.” That would have been the kiss of death; intentionally conceived albums rarely work in rock. Gorging yourself on the latest sonic brew and regurgitating it all over your next album rarely worked. Gibbons understood that music was a slow moving beast, a creature that waddled down the road at its own pace and not because it was in a hurry to get anywhere.
“This is our first record to be completed after the ushering in of the punk scene,” the guitar player said. “And we can gladly tip our hats to the doors they opened. Here is a kickass brand of music that is making a statement: ‘To hell with the FM playlist; we’re gonna do it like we wanna do it.’ Independent record labels are popping up, so the voice is heard. And I think it allowed us to relax to the point where we could use it.
“There are some interesting offerings like Cheap Sunglasses and Manic Mechanic (the song that had filled the air earlier that morning) which don’t necessarily leave the three-chord progression behind, but it’s definitely a step outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi. And then there are the Lone Wolf Horns. That R&B thing had started to become popular and we wanted to be part of it. We composed those two songs, She Loves My Automobile and Hi Fi Mama in a strict Gulf Coast R&B thing. And it was basically block chord Little Richard backing. There was no solo work. We figured out there was a total of four chords that required the three of us to make a triad. So we had to learn eight different notes each; we knew our eight notes and that was it. Here you find the band starting to stretch out a little bit. It starts getting like, ‘OK, let’s get crazy with one or two here.’ And that’s where we are now.”
Billy glanced out the window and our frolicking little maiden had apparently retreated back inside her own bungalow. We’d been talking for well over an hour at this point, and though I assume he had plans for the rest of the day, I ask him if he’d maybe want to come back to the house and look at some records? He took a thoughtful tug on the forest growing from his face and said, “Yeah, boy, let’s do that.” I re-pack my journalist’s toolkit—cassette player, pens, tapes—and we make the long walk back to the lobby.
Heads turn. I mean, you have to try and not recognize Billy Gibbons. They pulled my powder blue Mazda around to the front, we took our seats, and I made the long swerve down the famous Beverly Hills Hotel drive. Right before I turned left at Sunset Boulevard, Billy asks, “Doesn’t Eddie live around here somewhere?” I point to Coldwater Canyon as we pass it on our left and tell him, “Right up and over the hill.”
We headed east in the early afternoon sun, and as we passed the Hyatt West Hollywood I’m wondering if B.F.G. remembered the place and the occasion when he said, “Man, there it is. You and I first met there.” I beamed from ear to ear like a teen on his first date. I took the left on Crescent Heights that immediately turned into Laurel Canyon north of Sunset Boulevard and headed up into the Hollywood Hills.
I banged a left on Kirkwood Drive and as the streets narrowed and become steeper, I’m thinking how utterly textbook perfect, how Hollywood happy ending it would be if the canyon’s delirious deejay was playing the song. But he never spinned this late in the afternoon, so I let it go. We made the sharp right on Weepah Way and even from the end of the block you could hear it. I look over at Billy and he’s incredulous. Eyebrows furrowed and mouth dropped open in astonishment as he said, “Is that …?” I told him, “Everyday at 11, man, this guy goes crazy. But this is the first time he’s ever played it twice in one day. We should go find his house and knock on the door.” That famous Gibbons’ guffaw spills out the car windows.
This type of moment would happen again, coincidentally enough, with Eddie Van Halen. Five years later, I’d go with Edward to New Orleans and we’d walk by a bar on Bourbon Street where the houseband was playing Jump. As we strolled by, Ed would stick his head in the window and the guitar player in the band was literally frozen on the spot.
Anyway, we walked up the few steps to my front door. Manic Mechanic had ended and we both paused for a second to see if the song played again. It didn’t. I said, “It’s better this way.” Billy nodded.
I ushered him into my small one-bedroom. Back in the ‘60s, Laurel Canyon was home to all the bands playing along the Strip, the Doors and the Byrds, Zappa, Dylan, Joni Mitchell and some of the Buffalo Springfield guys. You could rent a place for $100 a month. In 1979, I was paying $125. So, we walk down this little hallway and lined up along one wall are about three or four hundred albums. Billy saw them and seemed impressed. We continued to the end of this short corridor, take a step down into the bedroom, and when I turned on the light to reveal 8,000 or so records, he outwardly gasps. At the time, I had a bigger collection than most music stores.
And he starts looking. Every album is alphabetized—it’s the chronic archivist in me—and Billy keeps asking, “Where are the Sir Douglas Quintet albums, man? Under S, or D, or Q? I had them under D—don’t ask—and Billy pulls out a couple, and then goes searching for some Hendrix and Cream, some blues stuff. I had it all: test pressings, English copies, boots, everything. I loved records, albums, the heft and weight of vinyl. CDs didn’t, and never would, mean the same thing.
Billy went crazy. I knew he’d appreciate the collection as much as I did. After about an hour or so, I sensed he probably had to get back. He had taken out a couple dozen albums, looked at the covers, read the liner notes, pulled the records from the sleeves. They were scattered all over the bed. I scooped them up into an orderly stack—Billy thought I was just arranging them to re-insert them into their proper filing locations—and I grabbed up the pile and said, “Here, man. For you.”
And he said, “I can’t take these,” and I told him, “I want you to have them.” It was another fine moment, one of many that has taken place in our now 37-year plus friendship.
I returned him to the hotel and as he was vacating the car, he asked if I was coming to the Long Beach show the next night? I told him I wanted to and he said he’d leave passes and tickets for me at will call. And then he said, “I’ll have something for you there.” I drove away, headed back home, and thought how life led up to these kinds of moments. That it couldn’t get any better – but it would.
The next few hours were a bit hazy. I know, or think I know, that I called Edward. I probably told him about interviewing Billy because I knew he was a huge ZZ Top fan. “We used to do La Grange and Tush when we were playing Gazarri’s,” he responded. What I don’t remember is if I asked him to go to the concert or he mentioned it to me. In any case, I told him I had backstage passes and tickets. He said he’d drive.
He showed up the next evening in some type of Jeep. He’d been to the house before and, in fact, I had also shown him my record collection and pulled out a bunch of albums I thought he’d like listening to: Les Paul, Larry Carlton, Steely Dan, and some other stuff. I remembered going to Edward’s house and seeing the pile lying there. He’d never listened to any of them. Anyway, the Wrangler or whatever it was had no windows, it was a vinyl top of some kind, and it was cold. By the time we got to the Long Beach Arena, parking was useless. Ed drove up and over this small embankment and left the Jeep tilted at an angle, the passenger side tires up on the incline and the driver side tires on flat ground. We walked around to the box office and, good as his word, the tickets left by Billy awaited.
By 1979,both Van Halen and Van Halen II had been released and Edward’s face had been plastered on the covers of ever music magazine in the world. Fans immediately mobbed him but he kept his composure and when ZZ Top finally came on, everybody went back to their seats. The band were frighteningly good. They did Manic Mechanic – and I had to believe yesterday afternoon’s serenade was still running through Billy’s head –Tush and of course, La Grange. They were scary tight and for a trio they filled up the auditorium with dense waves of guitars and drums.
After-concert festivities were being held at the Queen Mary, a once mighty cruise ship now relegated to dry dock in the port of Long Beach. There was a restaurant onboard and facilities for getting married. Edward and I walked up the entrance, the guest-list man checked our passes, and we walked inside. There was a huge banquet room set up with tables filled with food and desserts, and several open bars. We scored a couple drinks, were talking about the show, and then I saw from the other side that Billy was coming in.
I knew this was another one of those moments– introducing Billy Gibbons to Eddie Van Halen – and I wasn’t going to miss it. Ed hadn’t seen the Bearded Boy make his entrance so I said, “C’mere, Ed, I want you to meet somebody.” He shot me a look that said, “I don’t want to meet anybody” and I just said, “C’mon.” We walked across the floor and I still don’t think Ed had seen Billy. Billy saw me but, curiously, I don’t think he recognized the figure beside me. We were finally face to face and before I can say, “Billy, this is …,” Edward had grabbed Billy and hugged him.
They proceeded to talk shop, guitars and Warners and first albums; Cream and Jeff Beck. They shared many of the same loves. Edward told him that he loved the band and that Van Halen used to do tons of covers in the club days. Billy was obviously moved and sincerely touched. Billy grabbed Edward, pulled him away, and said, “I want to show you something.” I realize I hadm’t been invited but it’s fine; I was there when they first met and that’s enough for me. Edward returned, with Billy, and has a mini-shaped guitar case in his hand. He didn’t offer to open it and I don’t ask. And then I thought, “Is this what what Billy had for me?” What am I supposed to do – tell Billy that he’d promised this to me?
They went off in a corner together and huddled there for an hour at least. I didn’t know what they talked about but I do know on that evening a friendship was created and cemented. They’d go on to be friends to this very day. We drove back and Edward was pretty elated and I was feeling good about being there. He dropped me off and headed home.
A couple months later, a package arrived in the mail. It was about two-and-a-half feet long and about a foot wide and I couldn’t figure out what it could be. I started removing the wrapping and I saw it was a guitar case. Inside was a red Chiquita, a mini-guitar sent to me by Billy Gibbons.
Now, 37 years later, I still remember those days clearly. I’ve interviewed Billy so many times since 1979. He had a house in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and let me stay there twice. He calls from time to time and whenever a new ZZ Top album is released, we talk. The band’s music, direction and sound may change, but Billy doesn’t.
He still loves the guitar in all its permutations and I love him because he never changes. And knowing that makes me happy.