Though X was arguably the most important band to emerge from the Los Angeles punk scene, its members started a long way from easy punk credibility. Too self-conscious, artsy and ambitious to simply spew, Baltimore native John Doe (bass/vocals) and Floridian Exene Cervenka (vocals) had to package their bohemian lifestyle as new wave, delivering desperate meditations on sex and society at high velocity, happy to ride the coattails of more instinctual performers.
Named after the band’s hometown, X’s overheated debut album is fairly identifiable as a forerunner of hardcore; the simple, unrestrained energy often threatens to crush the “realistic” tunes (“Sex and Dying in High Society,” “Nausea,” etc.), but never does. Certainly, the elements that give X their majesty on later LPs are already present: the vibrant rockabilly/Chuck Berry guitar licks by Billy Zoom (a rock veteran who was in his early 30s by the time of X’s debut), thundering drums by D.J. Bonebrake (ex-Eyes) and the arresting male-female vocal harmonies, reminiscent of early Jefferson Airplane. Produced by Doors organist Ray Manzarek (how new wave was that?), who would do the same honors on the subsequent three albums, Los Angeles finds the gang rushing to dispatch such ambitious yet messy originals as “Sex and Dying in High Society” and “Johny Hit and Run Paulene,” plus a high-octane demolition of the Doors “Soul Kitchen,” as if they were anxious to catch the next train out of town.
Wild Gift constitutes a great leap forward, bringing Los Angeles‘ action blur into sharp focus. Zoom’s ingeniously simple guitar transcends its influences, and the Doe/Exene harmonies attain a knifelike sharpness. Also, their songs are frequently as incisive as their voices: “We’re Desperate,” “In This House That I Call Home” and “White Girl,” a spooky ballad, ambitiously peer into unglamorous realities without either diminishing or inflating their subjects. Wild Gift was such a success as an independent label release that the band’s jump to a big company (where greater success ironically eluded them) was practically inevitable.
Although the first two albums were combined on a single Slash CD in 1988, in 2001 they were reissued separately in expanded form with new liner notes and ample bonus material. Los Angeles has early demos, rehearsals (including a 1977 “Cyrano De Berger’s Back,” a song which would not appear on an X album until See How We Are a decade later) and recordings for Dangerhouse, the band’s first (pre-Slash) label; Wild Gift has seven items, including a live number from the Decline of Western Civilization soundtrack, another vintage concert cut, several single mixes, a rehearsal rendition of “Heater” and a demo of “Blue Spark.”
While Under the Big Black Sun displays more polish, it’s hardly bland. Doe and Cervenka’s best material achieves an arresting cinematic vividness — see the cheesy “Motel Room in My Bed” and “The Have Nots,” a poignant lament for the common man highlighted by a surprisingly swingin’ groove. And Exene’s touching performance of the heartbroken pre-rock chestnut “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” is sentimental in the best possible way. The 2001 reissue has extensive liner notes and five bonus tracks, including two versions of album tracks that were released as singles, two live cuts and a rehearsal number.
The problematic More Fun in the New World is the work of a band filled with energy and ideas, but unsure how to apply them. As a result, this thoroughly respectable LP is too much like Big Black Sun to be fully satisfying. Sizzling tracks such as “Make the Music Go Bang” and “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” would have worked fine on that previous disc, which is a bad sign for a band accustomed to growing by leaps and bounds. In “True Love Pt. #2,” X wonders about its own relationship to American mainstream music without arriving at a clear answer. After the LP, they attempted to make contact with Top 40 by covering “Wild Thing” and fell flat. The Rhino reissue adds previously unreleased Manzarek-produced demos of “Poor Girl,” “True Love Pt. #2,” “Devil Doll” and “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.”
Reflecting a growing uncertainty about how to proceed, the band got metalmeister Michael Wagener, who doesn’t show much of an affinity for X’s style, to produce Ain’t Love Grand. (Maybe that’s why they chose him.) The swan song for the original quartet is a hot (if styleless) rock’n’roll record that cuts the crap to bang out unprepossessing raveups like “Burning House of Love.” On most songs, lead vocals are taken by Exene or Doe alone; those not keen on their harmonies may find the reduction a distinct improvement. The biggest boner here, a misbegotten amateurish cover of the Small Faces’ “All or Nothing,” indicates that X — or at least some portion thereof — has no real clue about rock music’s heritage. On the 2002 reissue, that track is shamefacedly moved from its original position on the album to follow three bonus tracks — a long version of “Wild Thing” and demos of “I Will Dare” and “My Goodness.”
An album by the Knitters — a part-time, mostly acoustic band consisting of X (minus Billy Zoom), Blaster Dave Alvin and a stand-up bassist — proved to be a glimpse into the future when, in early ’86, Zoom left X to form his own band and Alvin gave up the Blasters (temporarily) to replace him. Critter on the Road records a sincere but futile attempt to imitate several varieties of folk and country music, from traditional to swing. The material mixes cleverly cliché-laden originals (and an acoustified version of “The New World” for anyone who didn’t realize what a weak song it is) with Merle Haggard and Leadbelly covers; Doe/Exene’s wistful “Love Shack” is the record’s standout.
See How We Are is a lot better. With Zoom gone, Dave Alvin stands in (although Tony Gilkyson is credited on the cover as the fourth X-er), contributing two of his most heart-rending compositions (the title track and “4th of July,” a wide-screen tale of terminal alienation that holds out little hope of redemption) and generally bringing the band back to earth, restoring its confidence. Under the unflashy supervision of producer Alvin Clark, this polished platter cooks on desperate rockers like the lead-off “I’m Lost” then tugs at the heartstrings with “You,” an old-fashioned love lament even non-fans should appreciate. The bonus material on the 2002 reissue includes a demo of “I’m Lost” and demo renditions of the title track and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Too bad Alvin had split by the time X recorded the fine 1988 live album, which features Gilkyson’s less distinctive but suitably driving axework. (Live at the Whisky A Go Go is not the soundtrack of X’s generally unseen feature film, The Unheard Music. On a related note, the live Masque compilation, recorded in ’78 and released by a label in which Cervenka has an interest, has seven X songs amid tracks by F-Word, the Alleycats and Zeroes.)
With that, X went on indefinite hiatus. Exene made a record with Gilkyson, who produced, co-wrote and played guitar and mandolin on Old Wives’ Tales. Dominated by her strong vocals (harmonizing in familiar ways with Gilkyson and others), the tasteful and varied mixture of folk, country, recitation and sturdy rock isn’t that great a stylistic leap from the essence of X (“He’s Got a She” is, in fact, a carbon copy), although the lyrics aren’t exactly what the group generally required (“He carved his initials in her uterus”?).
Running Sacred, again imaginatively produced by Gilkyson with much the same support staff, spans a wider range, with more artistic ambition. There’s a gentle acoustic guitar lullaby (“Clinic”), straight country-rock (“Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains from Your Hands”) and full-throttle electric rap-rock (“Real Estate,” written by bassist Duke McVinnie). Not everything works, but the discovery of new ways to sing and new things to sing about vaults Cervenka into her artistic own, allowing her some distance from the dormant band. Passing the album’s acid test, John Doe sings backup on “Missing Nature” without stirring up the faintest memory of their longtime partnership.
But that partnership was not truly over. At the end of 1990, to prove they hadn’t actually broken up, X (with Tony Gilkyson on guitar) played four shows in Los Angeles. By 1993, they were back in the racks with a new studio album. On hey Zeus!, the band’s first album in five years, X sounds creaky. Sluggish tempos indicate either the both passing years or a desire to reel in new, less adventurous listeners. Still, Doe and Cervenka mesh well, just like the good old days, making at least “Country at War,” “Lettuce and Vodka” and “Baby You Lied” worthy additions to the canon.
The acoustic X album, Unclogged, is a triumphant return from the lackluster hey Zeus! These shaggy, stripped-down renditions of such classics as “White Girl,” “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” and “Burning House of Love” are infused with a liberating playfulness never found in the band’s more ambitious work. Fifteen years after their debut, X finally learned to enjoy music for its own sake.
Beyond & Back: The X Anthology is an ambitious gift for fans, two discs that tell the band’s unreleased history rather than compile the highlights of its catalogue. Although the collection lightly samples the band’s albums (for “Los Angeles,” “Hungry Wolf,” “True Love” and a few more tunes, from the beginning through Unclogged), X’s basic repertoire is represented here by demos (“Sex and Dying in High Society,” “Johny Hit and Run Paulene,” “4th of July”), remixes (“I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts”), live recordings (“Beyond & Back”), singles (“White Girl”), rarities and other alternates to the basic canon.
A published poet, Cervenka has made spoken-word albums in tandem with Wanda Coleman and Lydia Lunch. On her side of Twin Sisters, an excess of pretense and a shortage of wit make the rocker’s efforts pretty heavy sledding, with the most notable moments being “Peas and Beans” (which belittles synth bands) and three pieces penned by her late sister Mary. Rage is a solo wordcore single; the 22-track Surface to Air Serpents essays audio collage by combining poetry, sound manipulation, actualities and music into a woozy portfolio of creative observations. Using her new (?) name, Exene entered the current events realm with a limited edition recording of her reading Excerpts From the Unabomber Manifesto. Ain’t art grand?
But for all the arty pretense of her spoken word work, Exene wasn’t through rocking. In 1996, she picked up a guitar and formed Auntie Christ, a trio with X drummer DJ Bonebrake and Rancid bassist Matt Freeman, replaced for road work by Janis Tanaka of San Francisco’s Stone Fox.
For her next trick, Exene assembled the Original Sinners, a younger set of players eagerly willing (and able) to crank out the country-punk roar of her past. While far from a radical leap in style, the quintet doesn’t simply ape the sound of vintage X — giving it a fresh coat of paint, they take it out for a raucous joyride. From the opening barn-burning roar of “Birds & Bees” to the country-fried punk of “Woke Up This Morning,” the tunes on Original Sinners find Cervenka revisiting the American musical landscape that has informed her entire career. Breathing new life into old ideas and sounding refreshed in the process, she evokes the zeitgeist of an era, even conjuring the spirit of Jeffrey Lee Pierce in the punk blues of “River City.” Nor do her lyrics stray off the roadways she has mapped over the last 20 years, through regions drawn out with angry tears (“Bringin’ Me Down”), outlined in well-aimed venom (the rollicking kiss-off “One Too Many Lies”) and colored by bitter laughter (in “Whiskey for Supper,” she sings, “Oh yes, I must confess / I need a little bartenderness”). Throughout, the wordplay is smart, the tone sincere, the playing aces and the end result utterly reinvigorating. The band (which includes ex-Distillers bassist Kim Chi) builds a solid foundation of buzzing guitars and whiplash rhythms that complement Cervenka’s ageless howl (augmented on a few songs by John Doe-esque vocal accompaniment from guitarist Jason Edge). A clearly happy marriage for Cervenka and crew.
Before making his solo debut, Doe threw himself into a successful acting career, ably appearing in such films as Slamdance, Salvador, Roadhouse, Border Radio and Great Balls of Fire. That was prudent, considering the abject failure of Meet John Doe. Attempting to make a looselimbed countryish rock record without the off-key camouflage of Exene’s voice or roaring punk noise, Doe (with producer Davitt Sigerson — who seems clueless here — and a host of supporters, including guitarist Richard Lloyd) winds up spinning his wheels on a bunch of hangdog songs (mostly originals, but also one by John Hiatt and some old Cervenka lyrics Doe finished off) that don’t suit his homely singing and undefined personality enough to be convincing. Doe, who’s built himself a solid little acting career in a number of cool films, doesn’t fare as well as Cervenka on his first solo album. Produced by Davitt Sigerson and featuring a high-powered support crew that includes guitarist Richard Lloyd, Meet John Doe is a misguided attempt to sell him as a slick album-rock star. Despite passionate singing, originals like “Let’s Be Mad” and “A Matter of Degrees” would’ve sounded much better on an X album than in these overproduced versions.
Credited to the John Doe Thing, the crackling Kissingsohard makes a far stronger case for his solo career. Avoiding the kind of sweeping statements that tend to bring such proceedings to a screeching halt, Doe zeroes in on the details of lives under extreme stress. “Fallen Tears” strikes a twangy country groove, while the punky “Love Knows” and the don’t-give-a-damn chaos of “Beer, Gas, Ride Forever” show he hasn’t forgotten the thrilling uproar of the old days. The standout track, however, is “Willamette,” a heart-rending anthem that peaks with the refrain “Will work for food.” It’ll leave a tear in your beer.