Punk rock erupted in 1977. As bands like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Television and The Damned pushed the boundaries of what it meant to play fast and loud music, the genre’s counterculture appeal to societal outcasts and misfits sprouted a series of DIY punk communities across the world.
In Los Angeles, X was still three years away from releasing its highly influential 1980 debut album, Los Angeles. But with atypical chord progressions and John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s eerie intertwining vocals, X eventually earned notoriety as L.A.’s greatest punk band and was later considered one of the best bands in the world as its sound progressed from punk to include folk, rockabilly roots and a strong sense of storytelling. Rolling Stone lists Los Angeles as the 287th greatest album of all time.
On Friday, X will perform with its original lineup at McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom in Portland for the band’s 40th anniversary tour. All original members will be present, including Cervenka, Doe, drummer D.J. Bonebrake and guitarist Billy Zoom, who is returning after a recent bout with cancer.
After 40 years, the members of X are far from exhausted with each other, their music or the punk culture they helped inspire in Los Angeles. In fact, Cervenka says touring is the most enjoyable it has ever been.
“I like it more than ever,” Cervenka said. “It’s easier now because we know more who we are and we’re comfortable with everything that we’ve done. We don’t have to prove anything.”
Although the band has taken breaks from touring as X, the members have stayed close to each other over the decades. After X’s initial hiatus, Doe, Cervenka and Bonebrake formed a folk group called The Knitters. Cervenka and Bonebrake also played in Auntie Christ together, and this summer, Doe stopped at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge with Bonebrake accompanying him. On Doe’s most recent solo album, The Westerner, he covered Cervenka’s song “Alone In Arizona.”
Zoom is returning to the lineup after battling bladder cancer. He previously fought prostate cancer, but for the time being, he is finished with all of his chemotherapy treatments. Cervenka said he has a “pretty clean bill of health, which is a miracle.”
She added, “[Zoom] is one of my absolute best, favorite people ever in the history of the universe.”
For the 40th anniversary tour, X has invited Craig Packham to be the band’s fifth member. He plays guitar and drums, which allows Zoom and Bonebrake to play saxophone and vibraphone, respectively, on certain songs. Cervenka is particularly excited about bringing “Come Back To Me,” which features a saxophone solo from Zoom and “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” arguably the band’s best song, into their repertoire. These songs received their live debuts about a year and a half ago.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh we’re getting older. We’re slowing down.’ We wrote those songs in the early ‘80s,” Cervenka said. “We just couldn’t play them because we didn’t have the extra person. So we can do any song now. … It adds more dimension. It adds more depth. I think people now are used to hearing things that are more quiet and conscious. They don’t always want to hear loud, fast, fun. We do that too — we do that really well — but we don’t just do that.”
Cervenka and Doe were married from 1980-1985, and they used to write all of X’s songs together. As a couple that wrote in tandem, they were able to explore an artform neither of them had much experience with. She recalled how they would often write songs separately, yet their ideas always seemed to sync perfectly.
“We were renting a little house somewhere in a little neighborhood,” Cervenka said. “I’d be sitting in the kitchen writing and he’d be in the living room playing bass and kinda just zoning out with his instrument, and then I would go into the living room and say ‘I just wrote this.’ And he would just be playing the music for it already. It was weird. We had a very psychically-in-tune kind of thing going on always. We always have.”
The Los Angeles punk rock scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was a tight-knit group. Bands such as X, The Germs, The Circle Jerks, FEAR and Catholic Discipline banded together to create a community rarely seen in the music world. At first, the bands had a strong sense of humor and were not highly competitive as the music was raw and unpolished, according to Cervenka.
“We took ourselves seriously in the way that we thought we were pretty, I wouldn’t say important, but we thought what we were doing was necessary for society and for us, and it was what we wanted to do,” Cervenka said. “It was a time when you could do that. I mean, you could buy a 1955 car for $500, guitar for $100 and an amp for $50 and start a band…”
“People your age have no idea how much fun life used to be,” she said. “It was so much fun when you could rent a house with a couple of people and work a couple days a week and just have fun and be carefree and be wild and drink and have fun.”
In April, John Doe’s book titled Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk was released through Da Capo Press. It features first-person accounts from many of the major players in the L.A. scene, including chapters from Doe, Cervenka, Henry Rollins of Black Flag, Mike Watt of the Minutemen and journalists who covered these bands. It offers a diverse look at the entirety of the punk scene including the fun, the unfortunate and the fatalities.
“What John did with that book was really interesting because we did all these other books and oral histories where we were really shocked about what people would say and how different people’s perceptions were and their opinions of other people. It’s like, ‘That didn’t happen!’”
“So what his idea was, was to get people — and not everybody is around anymore — who are knowledgeable about an aspect of it, and address that aspect so that person could be trusted to say, ‘Well this is my overview of it. This is the area where I was most involved and what I saw, and how I interacted with people.’ They’re all very smart people in the book… All in all, it’s a very truthful book and very fact-checked.”
Despite being a prominent figure in punk’s history, Cervenka does not equate an outlandish, glamorous rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle to being successful. Instead, she prefers simplicity: “The measure of success is being able to have some freedom to pay your bills and go out to eat and go buy records or something.”
Cervenka is well aware of the band’s age and the band’s assorted health issues, beginning with Zoom’s cancer battle. In 2011, Cervenka was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, which she later declared a misdiagnosis.
“I’m always aware that this could be the last show. I used to tell myself that when I was younger. It was one of my ways to make sure I played a really great show,” Cervenka said. “If this is my last show, how do I want people to remember it?”
X has a strong legacy and is often called L.A.’s greatest punk band. They have a limited but passionate fan base, but the fans are X’s reason for touring.
“We’re very grateful that we can keep doing this,” she said. “When people say, ‘Did you think you’d still be doing it?’ No. And, ‘How come you can still do it?’ It’s because people still care about us enough to come see us, which is phenomenal, and that makes us very happy.”
Cervenka’s goal for the future is simply to keep playing and strive for greatness.
“I like the idea that everything in life, for everybody, that your best work is still ahead of you,” Cervenka said. “That your best relationship is still ahead of you. That your best time, your best, most creative moment, your best poem — whatever it is — that it’s still ahead of you.”
Watch the music video for “Because I Do” below: