In a compact industrial space in Orange Country, California, punk-rock icon Exene Cervenka surveys the possessions she’s ditching. “I’ve read all these books,” she says. “Books are something you should share.” She points out a vinyl copy of the Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash – she’d like it to end up in the home of somebody who’s never heard it. “I have eight guitars – nobody needs eight guitars!” she declares. She holds up a black-and-white photo of John Doe, her former partner in both romance and the band X (the couple merged the two spheres with great, tough songs like “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not”). “This is great,” she says of the photo. “But I know this guy, so I don’t need a picture of him.”
Cervenka, who just turned 58, is having an estate sale this weekend. She’s in good health, but she wants to move to Austin, Texas, and doesn’t want to lug along all her stuff. So she’s putting thousands of items up for sale, including original artwork, clothes, posters and many of her thrift-store treasures from the past 45 years. (She prefers to buy everything vintage, with the exception of underwear and makeup.) “Everything in here that I bought in a thrift store for a dollar has cost hundreds now,” she confesses – meaning that she’s spent that much over the years to lug it around in moving vans and to rent storage lockers. “I’m just trying to lighten my load. I would rather have the freedom than the stuff right now.” She brightens. “But when I get to Texas, I can start up again! I want to buy folk art and yard ornaments and whirligigs.”
Yesterday, the day before the start of the four-day sale, a half-dozen women (vintage-minded friends of Cervenka’s) were efficiently moving through the space, organizing Catholic icons and pulp novels. Cervenka walked around, ending up in front of a wall of aprons: “Aprons are folk art,” she said. “Women were making something beautiful and utilitarian at the same time.”
She thumbed through a rack of clothes, pulling out a funky red jacket saying, “This is actually on an X record called See How We Are. It’s from somewhere in Central America.” Her friend Donna, who organized the sale, asked if Cervenka had any pictures of herself wearing some of her other clothes in X’s heyday – that would have increased their value. “I don’t know! I’m not an Exene fan!” was the self-effacing answer. Cervenka figures that if anybody recognizes her clothes or other particular items from old photos or movies like The Decline of Western Civilization, more power to them: they should buy it.
Since the announcement of the estate sale, Cervenka has been surprised and overwhelmed by the response: 50,000 people have viewed the official website. “I’m getting phone calls from all over the country and everybody wants to buy something,” she says. “That’s fantastic, but why are you buying a souvenir of a place you don’t visit? Come to my poetry readings and art shows!”
Explaining her potential move to Texas, Cervenka says, “I have tons of close friends in Austin, I love the music, I always have a magical time there.” She continues, “The other reason I’m moving, if the creek don’t rise, is that when I moved to California in 1976, Jerry Brown was governor. It was barefoot hippie girls, Hell’s Angels on the Sunset Strip, East L.A. lowriders, the ocean and nature. It was this fabulous incredible place about freedom. Now when I think about California, I think of a liberal oppressive police state and regulations and taxes and fees. I’d rather go someplace and have my own little place out on the edge of town. I’m a country girl at heart. It makes me happy when I see people in Texas open-carrying. It makes me feel safe. I’m not even a gun owner, but I’d like to see a gun rack in every pickup truck, like my boyfriend had when I was fifteen years old in Florida. An armed society is a polite society.”
She cracks a smile. “Now Jerry Brown’s governor again. He’s done some great things, like balancing the budget and libraries are open on Sundays. But things are getting to the point in this country where people are going to have to fight to survive and fight for their rights. I think not so much about where I want to live, but where I want to die.” Thirty-one years ago, in X’s “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” Cervenka and Doe sang about “the civil wars and the uncivilized wars.” What was once wordplay seems ever more real to her now.
Cervenka grins and changes the subject. “I like the idea of people having a three-dollar coffee mug they can say was mine,” she says. She’s not selling the rarest X treasures; those she’s keeping for herself or saving for her son. “I know a lot of people want to come here and see the first X show flyer, signed by X, the Weirdos and Black Randy,” she confides. “It isn’t here. Don’t come for that. Because it doesn’t exist in the first place! If it did, I probably would have given it away by now.”