X emerged from the L.A. punk scene as the most critically lauded American band of the early '80s. X helped to vindicate the West Coast scene, which had lagged behind New York and London's early punk and new-wave movements. But while X's music then was properly labeled as punk, the music and lyrics were more sophisticated than the hardcore sound that would later define the genre. And for all the speed and thrust of their playing, X claims roots in rockabilly and old-time country music, which echoes in the vocal harmonies of John Doe and Exene.
The band began in 1977, when John Doe and Billy Zoom met through classified ads in a local publication. Doe's family had moved all around America when he was growing up, and he settled in L.A. in 1976. Zoom had played guitar and sax with Gene Vincent for a while in the '70s and also fronted his own rockabilly band, who had cut several songs. Exene first met Doe at a poetry workshop in Venice, California, and the two soon became lovers and bandmates. The couple, who later married and divorced, also write all the band's lyrics. With D.J. Bonebrake, they began playing at the Masque, Hollywood's seminal punk club. A local following grew quickly, and in 1979, after seeing a performance at the Whisky, ex-Door Ray Manzarek became their producer.
The band's debut LP, Los Angeles, out on local Slash Records in 1980, sold over 60,000 copies, an incredible number for a small label, and 1981's Wild Gift also eventually sold well. In L.A., they were considered superstars. Their music touched on rockabilly, heavy metal, punk, and country, plus a bit of the Doors with Manzarek's organ and their sped-up version of the Doors' "Soul Kitchen." Both records were highlighted by Exene and Doe's minor-key vocal harmonies and by the incisive lyrics. Both LPs topped critics' year-end best-of lists; and in 1981 the band was also featured in two concert films: Penelope Spheeris' punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization and Urgh! A Music War. In 1981 the band signed with Elektra, which released its third LP, Under the Big Black Sun.
Exene continued her work in poetry, doing spoken-word performances, writing a 1982 book of poetry with Lydia Lunch for Grove Press called Adulterers Anonymous; and recording a spoken-word album, Twin Sisters, with poet Wanda Coleman. John Doe began a side career as an actor, appearing in Border Radio (1987), Slamdance (1987), Great Balls of Fire! (1989), and 1992's Roadside Prophets (which costarred Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz). Exene starred in the 1987 film Salvation! And in the mid-'80s, Doe and Exene formed the country-folk acoustic band the Knitters, with Blaster Dave Alvin on guitar, for one album, Poor Little Critter on the Road (1985), and live performances. However, X itself was about to go through a period of upheaval. Six months before the release of X's next album, Doe and Exene divorced, though they have remained close friends. After 1985's metal-leaning, critically panned Ain't Love Grand, Zoom left and eventually quit live performing. He was replaced by guitarists Alvin and Tony Gilkyson. Shortly after recording See How We Are (which included the Alvin-penned "4th of July"), Alvin left for a solo career. Both Doe and Exene embarked on solo careers as X began the first of several periods of hiatus. Gilkyson collaborated with Exene on the rootsy Old Wives' Tales and Running Sacred.
In 1990 X (with Gilkyson) began performing again and three years later released Hey Zeus! on a new label, Mercury, and undertook a national tour. Though critically well-received, the band failed to garner much commercial success. Exene continued concentrating on poetry, releasing in 1995 the spoken-word album Surface to Air Serpents on Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 label; Doe's second album, Kissingsohard, was issued by Rhino the same year. Unclogged featured live acoustic versions of 15 years' worth of X songs. Just as the band became active again, Gilkyson quit and X broke up. Doe began focusing more on his acting career, appearing in Georgia (1996) and Boogie Nights (1997). Playing guitar, Exene formed the punk band Auntie Christ with Bonebrake and Rancid bassist Matt Freeman, releasing Life Could Be a Dream in 1997. That same year Elektra issued Beyond and Back: The X Anthology, a collection of album tracks, live recordings, and outtakes. Renewed interest in X ultimately led to a reunion with Zoom for several sold-out live shows in 1998. The reunited quartet continued to perform sporadically and recorded (with producer Manzarek) the Doors' "Crystal Ship" for the film soundtrack of The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998). The same year Doe released an EP, For the Rest of Us, which included "This Loving Thing," a collaboration with Foo Fighter Dave Grohl. Freedom Is... followed in 2000. In 2001 Zoom (a born-again Christian since the late '70s) was working on a gospel album. He also operates Billy Zoom Music, specializing in amplifier design and repair.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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