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X marks the 80s

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The current X reunion tour has all the makings of a gnarly nostalgia trip. And maybe it's true that you can't go home again, but when the band recently took the Cabaret Metro stage and launched into "The Hungry Wolf," they proved it's possible to at least drop in for a visit--not bad, considering they hit the scene well over a decade ago, in 1980. That year gets tagged as the start of the yuppie decade, the years when those of us who fell into the tail end of the baby boom were supposed to be raking it in hand over fist. This experience eluded me and most of the people I know, however. As an acquaintance recently said, our crowd spent those years scrambling around under the couch hunting up cigarette change.

And X was spiritually right alongside us, finding marginal amounts of freedom in offbeat minimum-wage jobs, shopping at Salvation Army, smoking generic cigarettes, dodging landlords, and sleeping on somebody else's couch. Their fiery debut Los Angeles provided the sound track for all that. A scorching postpunk statement, a blend of hard melodicism, skillful songcraft, and ingenious harmonies, Los Angeles was a dark and nervy package, but minus the crushing nihilism that infected other hard-core bands erupting in droves on the west coast.

X found a soul mate in producer Ray Manzarek, who stayed on board for four albums. The former Doors keyboardist brought experience with both rock and roll and crazy poets. Manzarek contributed some of his trademark organ riffs to the project, but most important he captured on record the fledgling band's fusion of raw power and amphetamine prose.

X stood out from the pack in lots of ways, most notably in its members' singular stage personas. There was bassist and singer John Doe, tall, tattooed, and flat-topped. Musically he crossed punk with a country-blues sensibility, weaving through LA's mean streets, with detours back to Bakersfield via Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Guitarist Billy Zoom was the quintessential punk glitterbilly, planted onstage with a freakish plaster smile he cultivated to the point of caricature, but always dead-on serious when it came to the playing. He delivered his raunchy rockabilly with a punk twist, giving a strong nod to the battering fretwork of Sex Pistol Steve Jones while accelerating vintage Link Wray licks into metallic overdrive. In the middle stood singer Exene Cervenka (later Doe's wife, and still later ex-wife). Part street poet and part shrieking chanteuse, Cervenka came on like a punk Norma Desmond in her antique dresses, powdered face, and 50s Goldblatt's jewelry. Drummer D.J. Bonebrake was the quiet one who backed it all up with thundering drums.

Lots of bands claim their lyrics are poetry, but X actually delivered the goods. Doe and Cervenka wrote songs about modern times on the harsh side of town, in their case Los Angeles. Like crime novelists from Raymond Chandler to current master James Ellroy, Doe and Cervenka illuminated their haunts, with their users and losers, in grotesque and beautiful terms. "There are no angels / There are devils in many ways / Take it like a man," Cervenka sang in "The World's a Mess; It's in My Kiss." Doe and Cervenka were pessimists, but they were never wimps or whiners.

Two more albums, Wild Gift and Under the Big Black Sun, extended their musical and lyrical ranges in startling ways: the punk drive took on increasing elements of hard country, blues, and a bit of western swing. But after these stunning three records, X began to lose their edge, though the band continued making records with occasional flashes of their old fire. Zoom eventually split and was replaced, but the rest of the band in essence broke up in 1988.

Before and after that time, Doe and Cervenka pursued a number of musical and nonmusical projects, but nothing they were doing came close to the magic they made with X. Among other things, Cervenka hooked up with Lydia Lunch for the turgid poetry book Adulterers Anonymous, and split a spoken-word album with LA poet Wanda Coleman. But stripped of the music, Cervenka's verse fell flat. Doe acted in a number of films, and in some notable cases was far better than the material--he's pretty good in the atrocious Jerry Lee Lewis bio Great Balls of Fire! and in the Patrick Swayze vehicle Road House.

Trying to remember how X's old concerts made me feel, I reached for an essential visual aid--The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris's 1981 documentary chronicling LA's early punk/hard-core scene. A graphic, charged time capsule, this film offers an amazing constellation of images: an audience slamming to the pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag, Fear's Lee Ving hurling fag insults at a rabid crowd, folksinger Phranc playing guitar in the quirky Catholic Discipline, the Germs' Darby Crash staggering toward a suicidal drug overdose, which waited just beyond the final film credits. It's a portrait of a truly alternative American music underground, and X was there.

The offstage moments in The Decline of Western Civilization are as riveting as the concert footage. Doe gives homemade tattoos in a scruffy living room decorated with religious iconography. Zoom looks on, refusing a tattoo on the ground that it would be too trendy. Cervenka ponders a time when their audience might view their success and sneer, "Sure, they're desperate." Spheeris captures X at a critical moment--they're top dog on the punk club circuit, flushed with first success and growing recognition but with punk credibility still intact. They are desperate, but still young enough, and underground enough, to enjoy the feeling.

Given that image of a young band bravely testing the waters, the idea of a re-formed X seemed pretty dicey. Their new album, Hey Zeus!, is OK, but X in their prime were never just OK. Musically their new songs rock out for the most part, but there's not much that hits the gut. The major beef is with the lyrics--overall they're forgettable, but when they're not it's for the wrong reasons. The fairly standard political commentary on "Country at War" comes down on the liberal-lefty side (no surprise there), but the hackneyed observations supply neither answers nor the threat of insurrection. It's correct, but it sure doesn't cut.

Cervenka's vocals are also problematic. I guess some would say they've gotten better, but she did make her mark singing off-key, not on. That's reversed here, and the album suffers because of it. Cervenka abandons her older bite for a higher, prettier, more polished sound, but this starts to cloy. On "Everybody" she delivers the lyrics with all the muscle of Edie Brickell, and continues this trend on "Arms for Hostages."

Back in the old days, even when touring behind albums that were less than the band's best, X was always stunning live. Onstage at the Metro in 1993 was no different--mercifully nobody looked dated or inconsequential up there. Cervenka took center stage mike in hand, her face shielded by hair, rocking back and forth in beat-up jeans and T-shirt. Doe played bass like he always has--slinging it easily, hammering out solid, mobile lines. Together, these two replicated their magnificent trademark vocal duets: onstage, Cervenka's voice was back in form, her sharp wail slicing through Doe's deep, supple croon.

Bonebrake was always a powerhouse behind his kit, and at the Metro his playing remained potent and battering. But the look had changed. The once baby-faced, clean-cut Bonebrake had metamorphosed into Mr. Clean's doppelganger--shirtless, heavily muscled, and sporting a completely hairless head. The reason for the bald pate might have been to cut down wind resistance, to eliminate pesky, sweaty hair, or just to get noticed, since drummers tend to be overlooked. Whatever the reason, aesthetic or practical, Bonebrake in his ballsy drumming was a truly scary sight.

That leaves only one member. X's current press must be a depressing read for odd-man-out guitarist Tony Gilkyson. It can't be a pleasant experience getting told time and again that you don't stack up against the legendary Billy Zoom. With apologies to Gilkyson, a serviceable but unexciting player, I must add my voice to the chorus. Zoom's platinum spirit hovered, just out of reach, over the entire show, a missing piece that proved impossible to replace.

But the band forged ahead despite Zoom's absence. They wisely packed their set with old songs, but this never felt like a rundown of golden oldies. "White Girl" and "Nausea" were scorching. "Los Angeles" brought the house down, a full frontal bass-and-drum assault with Bonebrake hammering away and Doe, foot planted on his monitor, looming over the crowd. Cervenka strummed guitar on the rocking Dave Alvin-penned "4th of July." In the face of such a rich past, most of the current stuff sounded like filler.

But even X's castoffs are a cut above most bands' top material. As their set roared along I sang "Auld Lang Syne" in my heart, and actually got misty-eyed about a time marked by Quaaludes and disconnect notices. When X finished up and left the stage, smiling and waving, not a soul in the house was ready to let them go. Doe led the way, bounding back onto the stage, evidently happy to be called back.

The only sour note came during their second encore, one of their new songs. I was wending my way through the Metro's packed balcony trying to get a good look at Bonebrake's head, so I didn't catch the title: "Stinky Dirge" will have to suffice. Cervenka had strapped on her guitar again, and between shrieks she knelt in front of her amp. Maybe she just wanted to hear herself playing, but I think she was trying for feedback--a truly dreadful earmark of the guitar dilettante. The rest of the band melted down into a jam charitably described as an unfocused sonic experiment. The muse has always been inordinately kind to X, but on this tune she'd flown.

The band bounced back from this musical mess with their final number, "Wild Thing." When they covered it in the 80s this song sounded tired and beneath their considerable talent, but onstage at the Metro it sounded just right. Stupid, goofy, and too easy a choice maybe, but next to "Louie, Louie" it's still the ultimate party song. After all, X spent a brilliant career negotiating dark curves at breakneck speed. They've earned the right to rock simply and joyously at the end.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ebet Roberts.

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