By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Something magical was in the air back then. Maybe not everyone knew it, but there would be change a-comin'. The year: 1976. Neo-hippies dominated fashion, forcing contrarians in LA and San Francisco to peg their jeans, rip their shirts and spike their hair as a big middle finger to all that peace-and-love bullshit. Sweltering under the California sun, these kids were angry, grasping for something new and fresh -- anything that didn't stink of suntan lotion, patchouli and surf wax. They were broke but didn't want cash. They wanted a revolution they could call their own. So, at dive bars and VFW Halls, they convened en masse to enjoy the soundtrack to their frustration, as penned by seminal punks Black Flag, the Screamers, the Germs, the Blasters, the Weirdos and the Go-Go's.
Among the horde of "the"-fronted bands was a group simply known as X: bassist/singer John Doe, singer Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake. X embodied the rebellion and bored-stiff attitude of Los Angeles at the dawn of a new era. "We're Desperate" from 1981's Wild Gift became the anthem for an entire youth subculture: "Every other week I need a new address/Landlord landlord landlord cleaning up the mess/Our whole fucking life is a wreck." They were desperate, but did they ever get used to it?
Exene (born Christine) Cervenka -- poetess, underground icon and half of the songwriting duo of X -- was at the ship's helm. She moved to Los Angeles from Tallahassee, Florida, in 1976 at a time when everyone was diving into the changing currents. "There was a 15-year period from the mid-'60s, up until the time I moved to LA, where there was a radical movement against everything," the 47-year-old singer remembers. "It was an explosive time, and everyone felt it. The culture shock of coming from Florida to California was nothing, because it was such an exciting time. I was really young and a bit naïve, but I embraced what I found."
After attending a poetry workshop in Venice Beach called Beyond Baroque, Cervenka met future bandmate and husband John Doe. "We had to make a list of our top-ten poets, and I was sitting next to John. I kept cheating off his list," she says with a laugh. "Making a living as a poet was the last thing anyone wanted to do. But the punk scene was just starting, and for me, the two just went together."
After that chance meeting, Doe and Cervenka began writing songs together. Before long Zoom and Bonebrake joined, solidifying the lineup. Together the foursome ate, drank and embodied the L.A. lifestyle in the late '70s and early '80s. "It didn't matter if you were in a band then," Cervenka says. "You could fit in just because you showed up to a show. It was a community, a family. Everyone was accepted." The songs on X's 1980 début, Los Angeles, and its follow-up, Wild Gift, are grainy, autobiographical bursts of anti-establishment voyeurism, sleaze, poverty, booze, sex and dying in not-so-high society. John and Exene sang as if they were on the verge of either fighting or fucking, drawing from a love/hate relationship with each other, their city and the house they reluctantly called home. The mid-'80s stopped many LA punk bands dead in their tracks. There were drug addictions, artistic differences and the advent of a more violent brand of metal. "Lots of people died," Cervenka says dryly. She sounds as if she might be chipping away at her nail polish or fidgeting with her jewelry.
In Penelope Spheeris' 1981 LA punk documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, Exene looks as if she crawled straight from the glitzy gutters of Hollywood. Her hair is a rainbow crown of red, black and bleached-blond streaks, her eyes lined Egyptian-princess style, her wrists loaded down with bracelets. Of course, this makes her screams of "Last night everything broke!" even more enchanting.
"Everyone in the scene was living pretty hard back then," she recalls. "The ladies in the scene stopped the hard living and took responsibility, became mothers. I guess you could call it intuition." Don't mistake her offhandedness for apathy. Cervenka has a right to sound jaded. The decline of the punk underground left many musicians holding their anticipated revolutions to their chests for dear life. Maybe it was a bit of that aforementioned women's intuition, but X took a break in the mid-1980s after the release of 1986's Ain't Love Grand. Zoom left the band and was replaced by Tony Gilkyson. Cervenka and Doe both played in side projects such as the Knitters, and Cervenka and Bonebrake played in Auntie Christ. Doe and Cervenka divorced, and Cervenka went on to other projects. She teamed up with Lydia Lunch for the book Adulterer's Anonymous and more recently penned Virtual Unreality and A Beer on Every Page. She also recorded several spoken-word albums, such as Surface to Air Serpents, and in 2002 fronted the Original Sinners, with ex-Distiller Kim Chi on bass, Mat Young on drums and former St. Louisan Jovian Kind, now known as Jason Edge, on guitar.
In 1997, Elektra issued Beyond and Back: The X Anthology, a compilation of the band's best moments. "And then Tony quit, and we were like, 'Now what?' We realized we needed Billy back in the band," Cervenka says. "Billy hated the music industry, but he was what we needed." Last year, Rhino bankrolled another major reissue campaign, releasing the first five X albums with bonus tracks galore.
And so the story goes. X has come full circle, reaching the maturity that many bands of that era failed to attain. What does a woman who still lives and breathes LA punk think of the current "revival" and commodification of punk rock? "You can't create something like that twice, no matter how hard you try," she says with a chuckle. "Culture sucks again, like it did when we started playing. I don't particularly follow trends. I'm not going to make an electronic album. I still listen to punk music."
And what about singing songs she wrote with Doe when they were together? Isn't that close to Fleetwood Mac territory? "I don't live in the past, I don't get nostalgic, and I'm not 20 anymore," she declares, casually exhaling. "But it was sure as hell fun when we started out. Now, if I look into the crowd and see a young kid singing along, that makes my day."
Nothing desperate about that.