X Look Back on 40 Years of Punk Iconoclasm
“Right now is my favorite time in the band,” says Exene Cervenka, the L.A. den mother of punk poetry and singer for the band X. “I have this feeling of awe like I did when we started. I remember going to [L.A. punk club] the Masque and watching bands and feeling awe, bliss and gratitude at how amazing the scene was, even though there was pee on the floor and drunk people walking around. It was transcendent, and I feel that now. We are still alive. We’re still playing music. People are still coming to see us – lots of young people – and they tell us our music got them through bad times or their kid turned them onto us or their parents turned them onto us. Everybody that comes to see us has a story. … This is exactly how punk was supposed to end up.”
But it almost didn’t happen this way for X, whose members also include singer-bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake. Since 1977, they have ridden a roller coaster of hope and heartache as they’ve earned their status as one of punk’s most resilient bands. In recent years, Zoom has overcome two bouts of cancer, and Cervenka has learned to live with an undiagnosed neurological disorder. In addition to their health worries, they’ve endured the divorce of Cervenka and Doe, lived desperately in the name of art and weathered prickly personnel crises, only to return to the lineup they started with. It’s a story the L.A.-based quartet has told with aplomb on a series of records that presented punk through the lens of Americana, featuring country flourishes, journalistic lyrics spiked with sarcasm and jagged chord changes. Now they’re celebrating their ruby anniversary with a tour, kicking off this week, and a Grammy Museum exhibit, which opens on October 13th and will feature artifacts like instruments, clothing and the typewriter they used to write lyrics.
The reason they’re working so hard to mark this anniversary is because they understand the significance of it. Ahead of the tour, Cervenka posted a message to the band’s fans on its website: “We are still here! Just some friendly advice – you should probably come see us play while you still have the chance. Not that X is going away anytime soon! … Aren’t you glad X is still around? I am!” When she wrote it, she had been thinking about her son and how he’d seen many great bands but missed out on the Ramones because they’d retired by the time he was old enough. “I think I understand regret in life more than I ever did,” she says. “And I understand people have reasons not to do things, but you never know with people and with bands. There are so many people who didn’t see the Cramps or the Gun Club. They break up or go away, and what’s the excuse? None. We’re still around. It’s a miracle.”
X formed in 1977 when Doe and Zoom both placed ads in the same issue of L.A. classifieds publication The Recycler saying they were looking to form punk bands and decided to meet up. “Billy looked like he was from outer space,” recalls Doe, now 64. “He had bright blond hair and a silver leather jacket.” Similarly, it was Doe’s look that struck Zoom first: “He had these blue suede shoes that were real pointy and had brass caps on the toes and heels. He looked really sharp and he had really good song ideas.”
Zoom had moved to L.A. from Illinois in the late Sixties with hopes of doing session work and wound up playing sideman on gigs with the Drifters, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Big Joe Turner and Gene Vincent, who “wasn’t very popular back then” but he says it was worth it for the fun of it. Largely, he was turned off to the “all the bullshit that popped into the Seventies, all those over-produced, super-processed, over-sensitive, ‘we’re so arty’ arena bands,” so he was ready for something new.
Doe moved to the City of Angels because “it’s the place of dreams, my friend.” He was attracted to it because it seemed like people could reinvent themselves. “It was a visceral thing,” he says. “And I was a fan of the writers that came from L.A. and an old movie buff – the underside of Hollywood, and right after that, [Kenneth Anger’s scandalous] Hollywood Babylon book came out and that was just the best.”
After settling, he enrolled in a writing workshop at a Venice bookstore, where he met Cervenka, another transplant who says she was just “trying to get out of Florida.” “The [other] people looked like what you would expect poets to look like in 1976,” he says. And what does that mean? “Um … frumpy or nerdy,” he says with a laugh. “Exene stood out ’cause she was really unique and beautiful and you could tell there was something deep in there.”
“I was just sitting there and he came down and sat next to me,” she says. “We were talking and he said, ‘You wanna go next door to the jazz place and get a drink?’ So we did that and he told me about punk.” They started going to shows and before long they were dating and Doe was bringing her song “I’m Coming Over” (and her along with it to sing it) to X rehearsals.
After playing with a few drummers who never fit their sound, they hooked up with Bonebrake – a Valley boy who’d impressed them by wielding a giant, loud parade snare onstage with the band the Eyes – and X’s classic lineup was complete by early 1978.
Their first single, “Adult Books,” tumbled along with a calypso-esque beat as Doe and Cervenka sang about boys and girls with love lives complicated enough to fill a Valley of the Dolls sequel. Eventually, they crossed paths with Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek. “He came to the Whisky to hear another band we were opening for, and we started playing ‘Soul Kitchen,’ and his wife, Dorothy, had to elbow him like, ‘Look at that,’ and he’s going, ‘Huh?'” Bonebrake recalls. “He didn’t recognize it.” He became enamored with X and tried to get them signed to Elektra but to no avail.
So they decided to do it on their own with Manzarek producing. Although they had enough unheard music for two LPs, they picked nine songs, including their raucous “Soul Kitchen” cover, for what would become their stunning 1980 debut, Los Angeles; the leftovers later became 1981’s equally brilliant Wild Gift. Both came out on the indie label Slash, after which Manzarek finally got Elektra to open its doors to X. The Manzarek-X collaboration would last another two albums – 1982’s Under the Big Black Sun and the following year’s More Fun in the New World – and provide the majority of the songs the band would play live over the next three decades.
The songs X recorded for Los Angeles were the most typically punky they had in their repertoire – the Ramones-y opener “You’re Phone’s Off the Hook, but You’re Not”; the ominous “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” with its “Johnny B. Goode” intro; the pure sludge of “Nausea,” offset by Manzarek’s organ. Doe based the springy title track’s sardonic lyrics on a friend who’d moved to London and subsequently had a nervous breakdown. “She’d just gotten fed up with it,” he says. “She had lived there for a couple of years and she became more and more racist and stereotyping people. And to be honest there was a lot of shock value in tended in the lyrics. I wanted to show the dark side or underbelly of Los Angeles. People like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Nathaniel West did – the Doors did it – so it was time for an update.”
The songs they reserved for Wild Gift were generally a bit more melodic, including a cleaner-sounding version of “Adult Books.” “I used to wake up writing,” Cervenka says. “My eyes would open and I’d already be writing. I’d go to parties, we’d all be drinking and drunk, and I’d go lock myself in the bathroom and use the back of the toilet as a desk and sit there writing. People are like, ‘Let me in,’ and I’m like, ‘Just a minute – I’m writing.'” At the time, Doe and Cervenka lived meagerly – the frantic lyrics of “We’re Desperate” and their scenes in The Decline of Western Civilization give a glimpse into X’s life then – but their love was strong and they made it official in 1980. “We’d played a gig in San Diego and just drove down to Mexico,” Zoom recalls. “They got married in Tijuana the next day in a little justice-of-the-peace office. I remember I hired a mariachi band to come over and play, and everybody drank a lot of tequila.”
Although X were born in the Seventies and wrote most of their first two albums before the decade was up, they came into their own in the Eighties as they moved away from punk’s rigidity and embraced oppositional politics and self-reflective lyrics. Under the Big Black Sun, which came out in 1982, had bouncy rhythms (note the tom-tom section in “The Hungry Wolf”) and lyrics about the death of Cervenka’s sister, Mirielle, who had died when struck by a drunk driver in Hollywood, on three songs. The accident had shaken her up, but she poured her grief into her music and the band moved forward, putting out More Fun in the New World – the band’s cleverest and least punk album – the next year. Songs like “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” (borrowing a title from a Native American mantra) and “The New World,” written during the middle of Regan’s first term, sound as though they could have been written today. “It was better before, before they voted for what’s-his-name?” goes “The New World.” “This was supposed to be the new world!” (Incidentally, the political interests of the band members cover the spectrum, as Zoom identifies as a conservative.)
A year later, though, X were having no fun in the new world. Doe and Cervenka divorced in 1984 but they decided to keep the band going. “I felt like our creative partnership was more important, so even though I was hurt and she was hurt, we kept going,” Doe says. “She was a friend before she was my wife. And she was still a soulmate when we sing ’cause we sung together for so long.”
They went into 1985 with two projects. The more unexpected of the two was Poor Little Critter on the Road, a joyous alt-country record attributed to the Knitters that found them playing with Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin; they’d later reunite for a second album, The Modern Sounds of … , in 2006. The other was the critically panned new X record called Ain’t Love Grand!, which was a departure for X musically, since it featured big, synthesizer-tinged songs and overproduced drums on the single “Burning House of Love.” Zoom quit the band, and his slot was filled by the Blasters’ (and the Knitters’) Dave Alvin for a bit and then Tony Gilkyson (who appeared on the band’s last studio album to date, 1993’s Hey Zeus!). They recorded a cover of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” which earned them some rare – and weird – visibility via its inclusion in the 1989 movie Major League, and both Doe and Cervenka explored solo careers while still staying active with X.
They drifted through much of the mid-Nineties until an improbable source, TV’s The X-Files, led them back to Zoom. The sci-fi show was gearing up for its first movie and a friend of the guitarist’s, who worked on the show, approached him asking if he and Cervenka would film ad spots for it. He was a big fan of the show and agreed to go to the shop where Cervenka worked, named You’ve Got Bad Taste, in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood. “He showed up with his silver guitar, his silver jacket, sunglasses on and his amp, and I just pretty much started crying,” Cervenka recalls. When Zoom looks back on it, he says, “It was kind of fun.”
He’d spent his time out of X getting off drugs, going back to college and starting an amp-repair business. Although he was game for some X-Files promo, he didn’t want to rejoin the band. So the band twisted his arm. When they put out the compilation, Beyond & Back: The X Anthology, in 1997, they began haranguing him to participate in a Tower Records signing. “X’s manager kept calling me and I said I’m really kind of busy,” Zoom recalls. “He said it would stimulate record sales. I said, ‘I don’t get paid royalties. Remember, you already screwed me out of the royalties. I don’t get anything.’ So I finally work out a deal where I think he gave me 50 copies of the box set and I took those back to my shop and autographed them and sold them for 20 bucks a piece. [The signing] generated a bunch of press and then people started asking if we were gonna get back together and then that got really annoying because I didn’t want to.”
So what was it that brought Zoom back to X? “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he says. The way Zoom tells it, X’s manager harassed him to the point that he made an offer he thought was outrageous and they agreed. Although he won’t explain what that means specifically, he says, “On that tour, I made a lot more than the rest of the band and got my way.”
Regardless of such behind-the-scenes negotiations, the group has stuck together since then and none of the band members say they feel any friction with any of the others. When asked what it says about the band to be playing a 40th anniversary tour, Doe says, “It says fuck yeah.” He laughs. “The alternative sucks.” And as for why it’s working, he says the band members all “basically” like each other. “This is our career, so we have a vested interest in continuing,” he explains. “But it’s like a family, and I’m really grateful that everyone still wants to do it as well – and they didn’t die. I’m really grateful for that.”
Although they’ve occasionally whipped out Ain’t Love Grand’s “Burning House of Love” and See How We Are’s title track live, they’ve mostly focused their set lists on songs from the albums they made with Ray Manzarek, since they want to play music that originally featured Zoom. They’ve also expanded the lineup to include touring musician Craig Packham, so Bonebrake can play vibraphone and Zoom can play saxophone on some songs. Doe says Packham’s addition has made playing concerts “doubly rewarding,” since they’re now able to play a multilayered, supersized version of “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” that features both vibraphones and saxophone.
They’ve also learned to adjust their personal lives to performing. Cervenka has spent a good chunk of the last two decades yo-yo-ing between doctors trying to treat an undiagnosed neurological disorder. Some doctors said she had multiple sclerosis; others said she was normal. “I didn’t have insurance and it was super fucking expensive,” she says of all the medications she had to take. Over time, she says she’s figured out a way to live with how she feels, even if she doesn’t know exactly what it is. “I realized I’m gonna be as healthy as I can ’cause I’m gonna be a better doctor to myself than apparently half these people,” she says. “That’s all you can do, right?” Although Bonebrake says there have been a few shows where she wasn’t able to do encores because of how she felt, opting to go to an emergency room instead, she’s always pressed on to the next tour date.
Meanwhile, Zoom has survived two bouts of cancer – first affecting his prostate in 2010 then his bladder in 2015 – the latter of which forced him off the road for half a year as the band toured with a temp. He’s now feeling better. “I’m cancer-free, but they’re still inspecting me every few months to make sure it doesn’t come back,” he says. “But it makes me wonder what cancer’s next.” Although the 69-year-old isn’t crazy about the wear and tear of touring – not to mention standing in front of audiences, which has long made him uneasy – he says he’s excited to be wielding wild, country-punk fury on his instrument once again.
“[Billy] has been playing really well,” Bonebrake says. “I think he realized how much he wanted to play with the band, because Billy’s always complaining, like, ‘I like playing but I hate being on the road.’ And now he’s like, ‘I want to come back on the road.’ He’s enjoying playing again. I think that happens when you’re that close to death.”
And while they’re happy to be celebrating their legacy on the road, that’s where their legacy will likely remain. The re-formed band has recorded only a handful of tracks, the most recent of which was a two-song Christmas EP in 2009 called Merry Xmas From X. (Though they’re currently raising money to release a live LP documenting their 2011 South American tour with Pearl Jam.) When asked why they never made a reunion album, three quarters of the band say they’re open to the idea but that it doesn’t seem to be in the cards. “Families are complicated,” Doe says, choosing his words carefully. “There’s certain … Yeah, I’m not gonna go there.” He laughs. “I wish we would and who knows?”
Zoom, on the other hand, flat out says no way. “It wouldn’t work,” he says. “The chemistry wouldn’t be right. [Some band members] are in different places and stubborn, and I don’t want to go into detail, but it wouldn’t sound like an X record.”
Despite this, he says, it’s “kinda cool” that the band has made it as far as it has. “I think we’ve got a couple of years in us,” he says. “Barring health problems and just getting old in general, we’ll probably keep doing it for a while.”
“You have to face reality: Eventually something will happen to one of us,” he says, “but maybe we’ll continue on. It’s rare for a band to be together this long. I think we all realize it’s a special thing. I’m not waiting for the shoe to drop, but I know something’s gonna happen eventually. We won’t be able to continue this forever.”
“We’re like the guy who swings a sledgehammer,” Doe says. “Somehow the hammer is killing him, but it’s also keeping him alive. I wanna do it until we can’t. I see several more years, but not 40 more. That would be impossible.”
“We’re like country stars,” Cervenka says. “We’re never retired. You gotta keep working, gotta keep playing. We’re not businessmen; we don’t retire. In this business, the day you retire is the day you stop paying your bills. A lot of bands get back together for a tour and then they don’t do it anymore ’cause they can’t – they just don’t get along or whatever. Obviously that is not gonna happen with us. So you’re stuck with us for a while.”
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