Rightly, the PA at the Roxy on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip blasted nothing but Ramones records in the hour before showtime. But on a day, July 12th, charged with the news of the passing of that band’s last, surviving original member, drummer Tommy Ramone, it was fitting – and heartening – to hear and see another foursome from punk rock’s first golden wartime, L.A.’s X, intact and in searing-rebirth form, on home ground.
Singer Exene Cervenka, singer-bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake were in the middle of a long-weekend run devoted to complete in-sequence performances of their first four, virtually perfect albums. I missed the July 10th and 11th recitals, respectively, of 1980’s Los Angeles and 1981’s Wild Gift, arriving in L.A. in time for X’s major-label debut and willful departure from loud-fast orthodoxy, 1982’s Under the Big Black Sun. “You showed up for the saddest record we ever made,” Doe noted wryly to the sold-out crowd, before X gently veered into “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes,” Side Two’s cantina-swing recasting of a Leadbelly song. Earlier, “Come Back to Me” broke the Side One rush of “The Hungry Wolf,” “Motel Room in My Bed” and “Riding With Mary” like a stripped-back ghost of Otis Redding’s “Pain in My Heart,” with Bonebrake stalking Cervenka’s bittersweet pleas with gentle, metallic footsteps on a vibraharp and Zoom doubling on guitar and barroom moans of saxophone.
“Yes, they saved us,” Cervenka said at one point, responding to an audience shout for the Ramones and acknowledging X’s debt of inspiration and blown-open doors. But in playing the whole of Big Black Sun and, on July 13th, 1983’s More Fun in the New World, X acted on the long roots and broad, expressive ambition already running through the concentrated hardcore of Los Angeles and Wild Gift but still, in that frenzy, more inferred than exploited. “This is how schizophrenic we were back then,” Doe admitted on the 12th, after that Leadbelly cover, before X bolted into the redoubled fury of “Real Child of Hell.”
The next night, in New World‘s “We’re Having Much More Fun,” Cervenka and Doe – a former couple, singing as if still bonded by affection, difference and unfulfilled need – propelled the song’s irony and ebullience in their singular, undiminished tandem: Cervenka’s voice clear and scalding, Doe’s deeper and bluesy, skinning each other on the way up, intersecting like crossed swords. In punk, a music of often-denied precedent, X’s vocal ballet was a gripping advance on Sixties folk harmonizing and the acid-church spires of Marty Balin and Grace Slick in Jefferson Airplane. A few bullets later, Cervenka was a grateful, swooning rockabilly coquette in Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Breathless,” with Zoom – who always looked like he’d walked into L.A. hardcore right out of 1957, like a zen, blond Eddie Cochran – firing immaculate spit-curl licks.
Each Roxy night came with a second set drawn from across the early years, ensuring that the faithful got enough of the best from all four platter. On the 12th, a preview of the New World country-noir “Drunk in My Past” was followed by a dramatic u-turn back to “White Girl” and, near the finish, the oft-forgotten Los Angeles grenade “Sugarlight.” The hits segment on the 13th opened with the first track on the latter LP, “Your Phone’s Off the Hook But You’re Not” – immediate evidence, in 1980, that X were writing real songs, not just ranting challenge. There was also a blast from jump street: “Adult Books,” the first side of X’s 1978 debut single.
Full-album gigs are now a common enough celebration among bands of a certain vintage. X have the catalog to carry that conceit and their greatest hits in the same show. Their summer tour will include more full-album runs – in New York in late August, then Chicago and Cleveland in September – as well as acoustic shows later this month and the usual, electric one-night stands. Still whole, still strong, X are playing, deep in their fourth decade, like a band in renewal – and poised, if they choose to write again at this level, for renaissance.