The more years of American punk history get in the rear view, the more distinctive and unlikely X’s legacy becomes. Their set of influences and objectives differed from most of the rest of the international punk community in the ‘70s. The then-married duo of Exene Cervenka and John Doe challenged the frontperson dynamic by their mere existence, but also brought a sense of literacy and cognition to their lyrics. Guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake drew their inspirations from original rock ‘n’ roll and even pre-rock sources, but channeled them into a straight-ahead attack that went unduplicated in rock.
Whatever their pecularities, X’s legacy may be the most pervasive of all their Southern California peers. Their original lineup is on the road this autumn celebrating their 40th anniversary on a West Coast tour, spending four nights each in Seattle, San Francisco, Hollywood and San Diego, with one-night stops in Portland, Sacramento, San Jose and Fresno in between. Their endurance into their fifth decade speaks to their proletarian work ethic, and somehow defies the over-romanticization of ‘80s nostalgia at the same time.
Exene Cervenka reflected on the history of X and the context of their durability in a phone call from Ithaca, New York, four days before the American election.
Treble: This is the 40th anniversary tour. I was wondering what exactly the anniversary was. Was it the first time that you met?
Exene Cervenka: Well, first it was John and Billy (Zoom). Then John and I met and started hanging out. Then we started looking for a drummer, and then in ’77, kind of right after the three of us started fooling around with songs and stuff D.J. joined. So the whole year is our anniversary, it’s the official year that X began.
Treble: The origins of the band itself were when John and Billy posted ads in the Recycler. How did you get involved?
EC: I moved to Venice in ’76, John moved to Venice at the end of ’76. I was working at a non-profit job, back when the government spent money on arts and stuff. There was this place called Beyond Baroque. It was a hippie kind of place for poetry and stuff. I was in a work program ‘cause I was a high school dropout. I learned typesetting and layout, which is of course the precursor, before computers and all that. I lived upstairs from the room the poetry workshops were in. So I went down there, because I was a poet, you know. I didn’t know what I was doing in California, just had to get out of Florida. John sat down next to me. It was his first night there too. We started talking, then we hung out there after. He tells me there was this punk thing going on in Hollywood. He had a car, and I didn’t. He said, “Let’s drive over there and see what’s going on.” So we did that. And (LA punk epicenter) The Masque was happening, all that stuff. It was pretty cool.
John knew a lot more about what was going in the world that I did. I was very young. Probably didn’t have any idea what was going on in that world. It was just a great time. Everybody found each other.
Treble: I imagine most punk movements came out of the immediacy of the situation, and not really a lot of careful planning. But did you have some sort of goal or M.O. about what you wanted to do with X from the beginning?
EC: No, because the future was limitless. There was no video, there was no computer, there were no cell phones. It was word of mouth. I’m reading a book right now about how things go viral in the world, not just on the Internet but in life. How things trend, all that kind of stuff. Even today—when most things happen because of the internet—it’s still word of mouth. You can read about a restaurant, you can read about a band, you can do all that. But if your friends say, “I had this amazing night last night, I went to this band,” you’re more likely to go. That’s all we had then.
It worked really well. College radio and small publications like Slash, all the New York mags. There were a bunch of people making their own rules. It was an incredible movement. It’s still very underground the more you think about it. People don’t even know what punk is, they think it’s hardcore. Which is an element of punk, but—it’s not even punk, they’re not even the same thing. It’s just weird. When I tell people my band is playing, they ask “What kind of band?” “A punk band.” They look at me like, “You’re not a 15-year-old boy.” I’m like, “No, I’m Exene. It’s a punk band.”
Treble: At the time that you started, the punk scene had begun in New York and England. Was there something about Los Angeles and Southern California’s punk scenes that differentiated it from other places?
EC: Of course. They were 100 percent completely different from each other. San Francisco and L.A. were completely different from each other. Because again, America was still in the 1970s, in the way that bands toured and the way people got their information. You wanted to see a band, you had to go see them. If you wanted to know what they looked like you had to go look at them. There weren’t pictures, there weren’t movies, there weren’t films, there weren’t videos, there weren’t cell phones. So everybody was different because we weren’t cross-fertilized, you know? You went to New York and you saw James Chance and Lydia Lunch and the Cramps, the Bush Tetras, Richard Hell, and Suicide… it was amazing. It had nothing to do with the Screamers, the Weirdos, the Plugz, the Alley Cats. Which had nothing to do with the Avengers, the Dils and the Nuns. Each city had their own version of what all sprung up spontaneously.
Nobody really planned anything out. I think that’s why in many ways it never really took off and never became popular. Also the media. They did their usual wonderful job of destroying things they don’t want to happen. If they don’t want it to happen it just doesn’t happen. There’s that.
Treble: One thing that strikes me as something that’s uniquely yours is the complexity of your lyrics, almost from the beginning. Los Angeles was very driving album, but a lot of the lyrics were very poetic in ways that a lot of other bands didn’t quite emulate.
EC: Well, you had two actual writers in the band. We weren’t just kids who wanted to play music. I’m not putting that down because those are some of the best bands in the world, the ones that want to play music, don’t get me wrong. It’s more like Jim Morrison, or Charles Bukowski if he’d been in a band. Charles Bukowski is Black Randy, basically. I was a writer, I didn’t want to be in a band, I didn’t know anything about bands. And that does set us apart. Because we had the primal, Billy Zoom rockabilly kind of stuff. Billy actually played with Gene Vincent, and now he’s in a band with people who were more like Jim Morrison or Charles Bukowski. Very crazy mix, for sure.
Treble: Was the way you wrote something that might’ve attracted Ray Manzarek to produce your first few albums?
EC: Oh, sure. His wife Dorothy brought him to see us. She’d read a lot of press. He came to see us at the Whiskey. We hit it off pretty well. We’re talking about six years after the Doors stopped playing, X came out.
Treble: John spoke about how the origin of your influences made you different from other bands in the LA punk scene as well. Billy was in the old-time rock ‘n’ roll from the beginning, DJ was very influenced by jazz.
EC: I think the Ramones, even though it didn’t seem as obvious, were Ronnie Spector-influenced, for sure. That music was stuff everyone grew up with. The younger kids grew up with KISS and Black Sabbath, and the music their mothers listen to or whatever. I grew up with Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones and that stuff. Billy grew up with the original rock ‘n’ roll people because he’s older. So of course that was our influence, and the Doors, and the Allman Brothers, and all that stuff.
Don’t forget, if you’re young now then your influences are much broader, you have everything in the world. You have 75 years of music, or 100 years to grow up on, that’s crazy. We only had 35 years.
Treble: That’s a good point, I think there are a lot of young bands who have much more music history to learn with, and they’re actually doing it.
EC: There are a lot of good young bands out there now. For our 40th anniversary…we’re having so many great young bands play with us. People we love, it’s going to be such a good year for everybody. I’m just so excited about it. Because those bands are great, they’re doing great stuff. And they don’t need to be. I have a bunch of friends are into ’20s jazz. They don’t listen to the Internet, they listen to 78s, you know? They’re young, they’re in their 20s. Everything’s available now.
It makes it harder and easier I think. It’s hard because I think a lot of people would say, “Oh, this is too daunting. Everything’s been done.” Punk was an original concept. It was original, spontaneous, human-driven, not corporate. A bunch of people threw their heart and soul into and made this music. I don’t think that’s possible anymore. But that doesn’t mean great things aren’t possible. That just means there are different things involved.
Treble: I recently watched (the 1986 X documentary) The Unheard Music again, and was really amused by the interviews with major label executives who really had no idea what to do with X as they were developing. How have you all related to that aspect of the music business?
EC: Not really well. We’re getting our records back from Warner Bros. now. Everyone had to sign contracts that said they own your records forever and ever and there’s nothing you can do about it. Then they engaged in some very creative bookkeeping. We still don’t have a gold record for Los Angeles. We probably sold 2 million Los Angeles records. We still don’t have a 500,000 sales figure. Because Slash only kept records to a point and then gave that information to… I don’t know who they sold it to first. But it ended up with Warner Bros., as did everything we ever made. And those suppliers aren’t going to ever pay us. They’re never going to pay us. They’re never going to say we sold records. It’s been that way since the beginning of sheet music.
The music business is one of the most corrupt things, next to politics, that there is. The entertainment business. If you make a movie end it does really well, you declare bankruptcy, and open a new movie company. Movie stars don’t get paid. They have to sing for their money. That’s why people that are huge superstars start their own record labels and make their own deals. Slash was just as bad as everyone else, as everyone realized. That’s just the way it goes. People are greedy and corrupt.
Treble: And those who aren’t, like you said, probably pretty bad bookkeepers.
EC: Well, they’re both. Creative bookkeeping means you got that one guy that’ll hide everything for you. It takes a village to destroy things. And that’s the way it is. And that’s OK, because that’s the way life is. There’s not a lot we can do about certain things and we all understand that. Try to be smart and not get ripped off. A lot of young bands are really hip to all this now because of the people like us who’ve said this stuff. They’re not going to sign these things, they’re not going to let people take advantage of them. They don’t care.
Treble: I think with young bands, especially in the ’80s and ’90s, they just saw checks with all those zeros after the number.
EC: No, I’ll tell you what they saw. We’re playing in Boston and there’s 1,000 people there, and our records aren’t in the store. Why? Because Slash doesn’t have distribution. Who does? Elektra. Why are we touring and no one can get our records? We want our records in the stores. So that’s why we did that, because with Slash there was only one distributor. There was one distributor for independent records in the country, and that was JEM. They mostly did jukeboxes. It was like a mobster thing. It was them or it was a major label. You have to go with the label at that point. And then of course the downfall starts, because that’s the trade-off with… now the records are in the stores and now people know about it. Now we’re never going to make any money because, you know, things are fucked.
Treble: Let’s get back to the music. The subject matter of your songs: Los Angeles was very direct. It seemed like a really gritty look at your immediate surroundings. Later album seem to be a bit more, maybe not personal, but they cover topics that weren’t quite so graspable. Did you sense that kind of growth as it was happening?
EC: Well, I was 20 when X started. So yeah, I did write differently as the years went by. Me and John wrote about different things. I wrote more about relationships, except I wrote the words for “The New World” and “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.” But we wrote about everything. We wrote “The Have Nots” about working class people like my dad. We are all over the place. Some of the songs on Under the Big Black Sun were written about the same time as Los Angeles, they just came out over time. You couldn’t put every song on the record like you can now. Because records are shorter than CDs.
Treble: One thing I’ve noticed over the last 15 years of being a music journalist is that I’ve been covering a lot more anniversary shows. We have the 25th anniversary of Nevermind, and so on. We never used to celebrate anniversaries in rock music.
EC: Well, we never did, until we were 40. I mean, some people celebrate 10 years of anything. I’ll celebrate anything, because I think it’s fun. It’s happy. If you want to celebrate your second month of being together, go ahead and do that. You want to celebrate your dog’s birthday, do that. Whatever you want to celebrate the more the merrier, because really, those are our victories. Our victories are that we’re still here against all odds. I’m glad bands are still together. I mean, we’re together. I don’t think any other bands are around as long as those bands, with all original members, some may be going out with other people.
Treble: What do you think has sustained X for 40 years?
EC: The fans. The fact that we never had to stop touring. People keep coming to see us. A lot of young people come to see us. And grandparents, and parents. Aunts and uncles and friends. Boyfriends bringing their girlfriends. If it wasn’t for them of course, we wouldn’t be doing this. It isn’t easy at our ages to do this. We don’t travel in luxury. We have our van. We have a soundman, and one crew person who does everything: road manager, roadie. We have a merch person. And the four of us. Or the five of us, we have an extra person who plays when Billy plays sax or DJ plays vibes. We stay at the Holiday Inn Express. We get $10 buyouts at the club so we can go get dinner across the street. We make a living. Two of us have work besides X. Two of us don’t. It’s not easy. I think that’s kind of what keeps us together, and makes people want to keep seeing us. We love what we’re doing. I like it more now than I ever have, and I think I can say that’s true for everybody. Even though physically it’s a lot harder. The traveling and everything is a lot tougher. I’m still happier doing it now than I’ve ever been. We’re very grateful. Can you imagine how you’d feel after all that time? To still be able to do it.
Treble: I did want to ask how Billy was doing.
EC: He had his second cancer. He’s doing as good as he can. He’s done with chemo for now. He’s worried about the next one. “This one’s not so bad, but the third one might be worse.” He just has a great sense of humor about it. We’ve lost a lot of friends to cancer, and other things. We just keep moving forward. Like everyone else.
Paul Pearson is a writer, journalist, and interviewer who has written for Treble since 2013. His music writing has also appeared in The Seattle Times, The Stranger, The Olympian, and MSN Music.