By Kriss Perras
X is the most successful punk offspring of band’s like The Ramones and The Doors. They were a sound that mixed Exene Cervenka and John Doe’s fluid lyrical vocals with Billy Zoom’s Rockabilly guitar and DJ Bonebrake’s hard edge drum style into sonically groundbreaking music that emerged into what we now know is American punk rock. They are what many know as the band that defined the punk sound of the Los Angeles scene.
X formed in 1977. Their debut 45 was released on the seminal Dangerhouse label in 1978. The band’s first two studio albums, Los Angeles and Wild Gift are ranked by Rolling Stone among the top 500 greatest albums of all time. They had seven studio albums released from 1980-1993. They’ve topped the charts regularly and performed on Letterman and American Bandstand. Now that sound heard as part of the first wave of American punk that became legendary and quintessential of that generation’s music will echo in the Canyon as X headlines Topanga Days May 27 from 5:30 – 7:00 pm.
“We knew we were part of something that was gonna have an impact, whether it was five years or twenty years, we didn’t know.”
With so many bands from that era broken up and now just a record or CD in our collection, one has to wonder how a punk band that flips off the establishment so well stayed together for this long. The line-up is the same as what we have all come to recognize as X: Cervenka, Doe, DJ Bonebrake and Billy Zoom. When asked, front woman and original Goth doll Cervenka gave insight.
“Mostly luck,” said Cervenka. “Luck that we are all still here and able to play and sing. We get along better than ever, and there is a large measure of gratitude to our fans and never wanting to let them down.”
Back in the late 1970’s when X first formed, there were shows and songs that defined the group and era of music. We asked if she recalled where she thought man, this is it. We can see we’re cutting ground on a new genre of music.
“That was how I felt about the scene back then,” said Cervenka. “It wasn’t so much about X but more about all of us creating something radical and new. And good also!”
Doe had similar thoughts about whether or not X was making a lasting impact.
“We knew we were part of something that was gonna have an impact, whether it was five years or twenty years, we didn’t know, and we didn’t really care,” said Doe. “When we started selling out shows at the Whisky, I knew we’d arrived at something. But you’re too busy just doing what you’re doing to think, ‘I’m hot shit.’ Maybe if you’re selling out arenas, you’re holding up your pants and going, ‘Holy fuck.’ But we were just hoping to get through the first six months.”
Cervenka remembered something from back in the day. She was at the Masque, a small punk club in central Hollywood that thrived from 1977-1978. It was a central part of the Los Angeles punk scene. Cervenka was sitting and enjoying her drink. She said she remembers, “saying to myself at the age of 22, I just paused for a moment in the middle of my drinking and thought, ‘This is an amazing thing, you’re really lucky to be here right now.’ I realized in that moment how special it all was. It was hard because we were so successful in it. We were able to tour. It was mind blowing. Nobody was planning on a career. It was just a bunch of misfits who didn’t know what they were doing, playing music and inventing fashion. People would pull over on the side of the road and flip you off. You knew that it was important because people were fighting it.”
From Cervenka’s writing, poetry and other videos, it is clear she was very close to her sister. We asked how much of her lyrics were about her sister?
“Well, obvious ones are on the Big Black Sun record,” said Cervenka. “Also though, Phone’s Off is about our first real trip to play in NYC, and she is mentioned there. That was before she died. The other songs are after.”
Cervenka’s sister was Mirielle. The band was celebrating at the Whisky the fact the label Slash Records released their album Los Angeles. Mirielle died in a car accident on the way to the show. She was hit by a drunk driver on a Hollywood side street. Cervenka got word of the tragedy as she was about to take the stage for the show. She learned her sister had just died. Many people in the crowd were crying, according accounts in the book Beyond and Back: The X Anthology. Recounted in the book We Got The Neutron Bomb, Cervenka and Doe went on stage and destroyed their equipment after they heard the news of Mirielle’s death. Some in the audience were unaware, thinking it was all part of the show. This tie frame is when Cervenka wrote Under The Big Black Sun. Her lyrics became very dark. The punk community was hit hard by this tragedy. A year later the Whisky closed its doors until 1986 when leather spandex and hair metal came around.
X was recently honored by the Los Angeles City Council, which declared October 11, 2017 as X Day. We wondered if Cervenka ever foresaw X as having a lasting effect on music when punk was first emerging? Or if she foresaw punk as having such an effect?
“I don’t think anyone thought like that,” said Cervenka. “Not us, not the other people in the scene. Everyone had a role back then. It was more than bands. There were writers, fanzine creators, cartoonists, photographers and so much more. I think those in the middle of a new movement don’t t really have time to wonder like that about the future. It wasn’t contrived. It was just very happening now.”
Bonebrake says the band is better than ever, “We’re a tighter band because of all our experience, and we have a lot of energy. Exene’s a better singer than ever before, and John sounds amazing. Billy’s in a really good place. Everyone’s in a positive mood, and you can hear it when we’re on stage.”
The group hasn’t lost anything from the past. In fact their energy seems to have transcended the times.
“We certainly haven’t lost much, and it’s really inspiring to see an enthusiastic young audience,” said Doe. “It has to do with being a part of something that’s real and not virtual. We feel like the last gunslingers”
Zoom’s enthusiasm for the group seems to have intensified over the years.
“We’re working up some more X songs that we haven’t played in years,” said Zoom. “The whole thing seems very energized.”
The group’s beginnings were kismet, fate, predestined, whichever word you choose to use, X was meant to be. On the same day with nearly the exact same wording, two want-ads appeared in a local music rag. Zoom sent one ad and Doe the other. Zoom was a rockabilly rebel who’d performed with Gene Vincent. He had read a negative review the Ramones, a band that had only recently started a few years prior and had been spearheading punk music. He’d heard the Ramones only played three chords, which they played too fast. This naturally made Zoom want to see the Ramones. The show was at the Golden West Ballroom in the Los Angeles suburb of Norwalk in early 1977. The moment the Ramones started to perform, Zoom knew musically he’d found exactly what he wanted to do with his life. Doe, who was originally from the Baltimore area, was already down with the East Coast CBGB’s scene. By the time Zoom and Doe got in the same room after responding to each other’s ads, it was meant to be. They performed a few shows with various drummers before a poet with no ambition of being a singer would enter the picture: Cervenka.
She was found at a poetry reading in Venice Beach. Doe offered to perform Cervenka’s poems in his band. She said no offense, but if anyone is going to perform my poetry, it will be me. Soon Cervenka was in the band. Zoom was at first skeptical about a girlfriend being in the band. After the first show, Zoom knew there was magic with her as a member of the group. After a succession of drummers, Doe was at the Masque in Hollywood checking out the band The Eyes. This is where he met Bonebrake. The group was now complete.
Cervenka and Doe would later go on to divorce, but the band never broke up. They would go on tour multiple times, including a recent tour celebrating their 40th year together. Their ruby anniversary was also celebrated by a Grammy Museum exhibit this last October — X: 40 Years Of Punk In Los Angeles. The exhibit recounts how X are legendary leaders of the punk generation. It displayed original gear, clothing and handwritten lyrics by Cervenka and Doe, original instruments, concert flyers and rare photographs and artwork by Cervenka. It also screened X: The Unheard Music film.
“This exhibit will place a much-deserved spotlight on the history of punk music in Los Angeles and one of the bands who played a vital role on the genre’s impact on Southern California,” said Grammy Museum Curator Nwaka Onwusa. “Visitors got a unique, behind-the-scenes look at the development of X’s career and how, after 40 years, they remain one of the few bands to continue to tour with all four original members.”
When asked about the band’s Kickstarter project, and if the music would be shared, Cervenka had a disappointing answer.
“Those that contributed have already received most of the rewards, including the music,” said Cervenka. “Nothing from the campaign will be for sale or distributed; it was just for fans who wanted to contribute.”
Topanga Days are May 26 – 28. There will be live music, a parade, main stage acts and games.