Veteran Performer Returns
“Don’t be surprised if Billy Zenn’s songs fall into a regular rhythmic pattern of about 82 beats per minute during his show Saturday at the Shrunken Head.
Zenn has an internal metronome that ticks at about that rate, as measured by the monitor he wears on his wrist. Both are reminders of the quadruple bypass surgery he underwent on Oct. 19, followed by months of tough rehab.
Saturday’s show, in fact, at what was formerly Victorian’s Midnight Café will be Zenn’s first full-length performance since suffering a heart attack. But though there may be a monitor on his wrist, don’t expect him to wear his heart on his sleeve. That’s just not his style.
“I hate it when people get onstage and do this maudlin shit,” said Zenn. “I know there’s going to be a certain sense of relief from a lot of friends there who will get to see, ‘He’s OK.’ And sure, it will mean something to me, too.”
“But I just want people to have fun. That’s all I ever want. That’s what feels good to me.”
Zenn, 59, moved to Columbus from Mount Sterling in 1969 to attend Ohio State. He already had a guitar in hand, as did many of his generation.
“I was in the seventh grade when the Beatles played on The Ed Sullivan Show,” he said. “Everyone started a band the day after that.”
He’s mostly been performing around Central Ohio since then, playing in cover bands in hotel lounges through the 1970s, fronting bands like KGB or the Funk Bunnies, filling up Ruby Tuesday on Thursday nights in the 1980s, playing bass with Donna Mogavero in the 1990s, hosting open-mike nights at Club 202 and the Thirsty Ear in this decade.
“I’ve never had any complaints about my level of success,” Zenn said. “I’ve done exactly what I’ve wanted to do.”
Driving home from a band rehearsal on a Thursday night in October, however, Zenn said he suddenly felt a “searing” pain all over, “my back, my arms, my chest, my head. Being a guy, in denial, I went home and laid down. I thought it was the flu. But then it got hard to breathe. My wife took me to the hospital, and boom—like that—you’re in the machine. They say, ‘Well, it’s not the flu.’ I had my myocardial infarction, and welcome to it.”
Zenn learned he had a leaky heart valve and badly blocked arteries. The quadruple bypass surgery was scheduled for the following Monday, and he was released on Saturday. “That’s when the real work starts,” he said.
Zenn said he smoked more than two packs a day for many years, but he quit that October day. He changed his diet, worked hard at his rehab.
“I couldn’t walk for a minute without wearing out when I got out of the hospital,” he said.
In November, Jeff Kendall, a guitarist in his current band, the Ringers, put on a benefit for Zenn at Vic’s. “I was able to go for about an hour,” Zenn said. “It was overwhelming. It was humbling.”
In January, he began hosting open-mike nights at Vic’s, and he did a 45-minute set on Valentine’s Day. “It was kind of spooky. The first time I got up and started playing, I felt my heart rate rise. It got up to about 114 beats a minute and I thought, ‘Oh, boy.’ But it was OK.”
Zenn’s plan to return to the stage was part of what kept him going through the long months of rehab.
“It was nice to have that goal to help the healing process,” he said. “I don’t sit around and think, ‘Why me?’ I know why me, frankly. But I always had this intuitive sense that everything would be OK.”
“That said, it’s no picnic,” Zenn said of the ordeal he’s undergone over the last five months. “I don’t recommend it. And yes, there were some mood swings, trying to put everything in perspective. But the rehab works. I had one life for 30 years, and now I have another one, and I’m not going to be an idiot. I’m not going out for a cigarette and a Coney dog anytime soon. But I still like to write and I still like to play.”
“I’ve never been a person who’s been fearful of life, and at this point, it’s a little late to start.”
Eric Lyttle The Other Paper 2010
Musician Kicks Off Doors
“Adversity, it is said, either makes us bitter or better.
The sledgehammer that slugged local musician Billy Zenn in the middle of the chest while he was driving home from band practice in October could have pushed him toward either.
He found himself looking up at ICU lights while learning he had just survived a quadruple bypass.
He obliged the weeks on end of cardiac kindergarten and graduated from heart rehab yesterday. On Saturday, though, he was up on stage with his band, the Ringers, to celebrate the return of the music he has been making in this city for decades.
During his recuperation, his wife's health insurance helped pay for the heavyweight heart plumbing. Meanwhile, his musician friends held a benefit to help cover for the money doctors wouldn't allow him to earn as a part-time librarian at Grandview Heights Public Library, as emcee at the Thirsty Ear and as bassist for singer Donna Mogavero.
The local musicians whose lives he'd touched by playing scores of benefits showed up for Zenn's on Nov. 29. He was still too weak to take the stage, but you couldn't have swung a cat by the tail in Victorian's Midnight Cafe without hitting one musician or another.
When Zenn stepped onto the stage at Victorian's this past Saturday night, it was to let the Columbus music scene know that one of its most beloved was back. Wife Vicky was there 10 feet from the lead microphone in case anyone wanted to buy the CD (40 Days) and to make sure that her man didn't kill himself doing a comeback.
The newest band addition, Joy Keller, was in rare form on You Made Me Love You. Keller had been waiting five months to put her soul into the song that was supposed to be her debut with the band when Zenn's heart went south in October.
"I practiced hard to nail it, own it, slap it on the ass and tell it to fix me dinner," she said a few nights ago.
It cooked a six-course meal.
"Standing next to those guys and performing March 13 was surreal, like levitating," Keller said, "and all of Billy's friends had been waiting for that night for months."
The heart-mended Billy wowed them with If You Think Something's Wrong (Then You're Probably Right) and kicked the hinges off the door for a set-closing Love Lifted Me.
Billy Zenn, Jeff Kendall, Doug Edwards, Joel Steward and Joy Keller are back in force. And as a listener might have been tempted to murmur at the end of Love Lifted Me, "Praise God!”
Mike Harden The Columbus Dispatch 2010
"... Billy Zenn had such a rich and lustrous set of pipes and a pop/soul/rock songwriting knack second to no one I know locally...it may have been the most unexpected and best night of local music I've heard in my entire life."
John Petric The Other Paper 2009
"Billy is a superior songwriter in a variety of styles. I've seen and heard him solo, in duos and bands and he has always delivered a polished performance with a keen appreciation for entertaining his audience. I've known him for more than 30 years and was impressed hearing him within the past year and realizing his voice seemed as strong as ever."
Frank Gabrenya The Columbus Dispatch 2008
"Inspired by vintage rock, soul and country, Zenn's songs are a tapestry of American music.
Curtis Scheiber The Columbus Dispatch 2006