Under their black sun

Pub date December 18, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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I have a fantasy that 100 years from now all formalized history as we know it will be lost. Museums will lose funding and fall by the wayside. Libraries will find their contents spontaneously dumped onto city streets. And those curious enough to wonder what came before will be left with the chunks of culture that have outlasted apartment moves and world wars: personal detritus and castaway junk. Eventually, this future generation will stumble upon faded photos of a queen in a tiara and a potato-sack dress. Her king had a pompadour, and their soldiers were regal. Her name was Exene Cervenka, and she was the queen of Los Angeles. Would it really be so bad for a band to be remembered as royalty?

X is usually remembered as the collaboration between vocalist Cervenka and bassist John Doe, but the band was actually founded by guitarist Billy Zoom. Already an accomplished musician who had toured with the likes of Gene Vincent and mastered his own special blend of elaborately structured punkabilly, Zoom placed an ad looking for musicians in the Los Angeles Recycler in 1977. The guitarist, in his typically wry fashion, is reluctant to sprinkle the golden dust of nostalgia over his initial meeting with Doe and merely cracks via e-mail that the latter "had really cool shoes, clever lyrics, and looked OK."

Doe brought more than his songs and his shoes to the table, though. He had met budding poet Exene Cervenka at a writing workshop and, impressed by her work, had encouraged her to join a band. Although the distance between poetry recitals and fronting a punk group might seem like a quantum leap, Cervenka soon realized that the two are quite similar. "It was more like punk poetry," she explains over the phone on her way to Milwaukee with the Knitters. "You would allow yourself to get really angry while you were reading. It wasn’t rigid sitting down. It was a free-for-all!" Cervenka exceeded the boundaries of her diminutive stature, evolving into a lyrical punk princess — a heady mix of tiaras, anger, and lipstick decades before the so-called kinderwhore girl bands of the ’90s aspired to do the same.

Cervenka and Doe forged the initial, inescapable hallmark of an X song: their vocal interplay. Untethered by formal training, Cervenka developed her plaintive counterpoint to Doe’s growling tenor: his smooth, cool bark had just enough glissando to sail up, through, and over their songs of love, barflies, and the politics in the sprawling metropolis they called home. Cervenka acknowledges that as collaborators, the couple — who married and divorced during the band’s lifetime — had a connection that surpassed the ordinary. "I was in the kitchen writing, and he was in living room playing the bass," she remembers. "I came into the living room and said, ‘I’ve got some lyrics here for a song,’ and he goes, ‘Well, that’s good, because I just wrote a song.’ And I swear to god that those words just fit that music." She laughs and reveals the rigors of a long, storied career. "I don’t even remember what song it was. That’s the kind of thing that can happen when you collaborate with someone for a long time."

Doe and Zoom had been on the lookout to complete their rhythm section and found X’s fourth member in the form of DJ Bonebrake (his real name, not a punk-inspired moniker), a drummer with local band the Eyes. His decision to join X proved fateful not just for him but also for Eyes bandmate Charlotte Caffey, who took his departure as the opportunity to join her next band, the Go-Go’s. The all-girl band was equally active in the early LA punk scene and would share a rehearsal space and several bills with X, while Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin even credits Zoom as a teacher of sorts. "He taught me my first bar chords and how to use an amplifier," she writes in an e-mail. "He was by far the best guitarist on the scene." Zoom’s finesse stood out during those early years, when disintegration and chaos were at times the status quo in the scene. Bonebrake recalls over the phone from the road that other legendary bands that weren’t so eager for polish: "Some bands would make a career or a show out of acting like they weren’t together. The Germs were a perfect example. Pat Smear would show up and go, ‘Hey, does anyone have some strings? I only have two strings.’<0x2009>"

What Zoom brought to X was a firebrand guitar — equal parts carefree rockabilly and complex melodic riffage — that came to represent X on each successive album until he left the band in 1985 and was replaced by Tony Gilkyson. "John wrote all of his songs with his bass, so there were no chords," Zoom explains. "That gave me a lot of freedom to experiment with more complex chords and unusual voicings." Although he has gone on record as being displeased with the production on almost all of the X albums he appeared on, he cites their first, Los Angeles (Slash, 1980), as his favorite because it was recorded almost entirely live and thus sounds the most like the group. Asked the same question, Cervenka chooses their third full-length, Under the Big Black Sun (Elektra, 1982), calling it "the purest X album. To me, it’s like the cover. It’s a very black-and-white album. That was a really weird time. My sister had died. The second album had come out, but I hadn’t really written about it. Wild Gift [Slash, 1981] came out, and then Under the Big Black Sun was more about death."

In the end, after eight studio albums and innumerous hiatuses, X still see fit to reunite and tour sporadically. Three decades on, Cervenka is still content to perform X’s catalog of love-stained, liquor-soaked rebellion — future libraries and galleries notwithstanding: "Life is doing something to be remembered for, whether it’s building your grandkids a tree house that they pass on to their kids or making a record that changes people’s lives." In my version of the future, those are the records that rise up to claim history, in a giant blazing X obscuring all else, symbols of a feisty queen with a wink and a cigarette and her court of angry, vagabond cavaliers. *


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