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Is there a better "couple band" in rock 'n' roll than X? Never mind that most Fleetwood Mac fans wouldn't know the L.A. punk group from the Australian one of the same name, or that the couple in question separated 19 years ago (collaborating as exes ever since). To punks of a certain age and temperament, singers John Doe and Exene Cervenka are pretty much synonymous with the feeling of nothing left to lose but each other.
X's 1980 debut, Los Angeles, sounded like a welfare check cashed against Valentine's candy and gin--Sid and Nancy with a happy ending! And if Yo La Tengo are the couple band of long walks and evenings by the fireplace, X were the couple band of screaming matches and sex outside the club. "The world's a mess; it's in my kiss," cried John and Exene. They were bragging, not protesting.
"We were living the dream," says John Doe now, speaking over the phone from his farmhouse 90 miles north of L.A. "You're in your early-to-mid-20s, feeling like a grown-up, feeling like a bohemian, feeling like you're carrying the torch for Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and Jimi Hendrix...'course that's also wishful thinking, a bit of ego. But we didn't give a shit about business. We didn't give a shit about next week, as long as we paid the rent."
Tattooing one another in Penelope Spheeris's 1981 L.A. punk documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, the poets and artists of X wallowed in the puddle of their own bliss. You could imagine the alcoholic panhandlers of Spheeris's 1998 sequel, Decline... Part III, scoffing at the artiness of it all--walls papered with Christian pamphlets, skulls everywhere, plenty of toy cars (the ones Darby Crash tried to eat). L.A. bohemia has since given way to the garbage squat, and things have gotten more desperate since X sang "We're Desperate." The town seems to have lost its capacity to be shocked by anything since the '80s: "It wasn't hard then," Doe remembers. "All you had to do was wear tight Levis and a leather jacket, and you might as well have been naked. And this was Hollywood!"
This Tuesday at First Avenue, X make their first local appearance with the original lineup since the '80s. They've been touring since 1997's Beyond and Back: The Anthology (Elektra) with founding guitarist Billy Zoom, who left the band 11 years before. Rhino has since re-released X's first six albums with generous liner notes and bonus tracks (the first two CDs are essential). And Doe reports that the band's lost 1986 documentary, X: The Unheard Music will finally be released on DVD "imminently." For those who don't know X from X, in other words, it seems like a good moment to learn.
In fact, so much has been written and filmed about the band (maybe the most documented rock group per units sold in history) that it's tough to know where to begin. What I always come back to are those voices. Zoom now admits to being irritated at first when bassist-singer Doe brought his girlfriend in to sing. Yet without Cervenka, X would have been just another warm-hearted, hard-working proto-alt-country band--albeit with an unusually powerful drummer, D.J. Bonebrake. Doe credits Cervenka with ramping up his vocal style into something ghostly: X arguably did for boy-girl harmonies what Sonic Youth did for guitar tunings--they bent notes until they found new ones. Cervenka also encouraged Doe's more daring descents into violent and morally ambiguous subject matter, lyrics that made Zoom's rockabilly guitar sound queasily incongruous (imagine Chuck Berry singing about rape and you'll know what I mean). Still, the mad strummer's sunny drive was the perfect musical corollary to his eerie perma-grin onstage. And you could hear Nirvana's whole career presaged in the ominous riff of 1981's "White Girl."
X never "hit," exactly. Cervenka is now a folk singer and spoken word artist. Doe has become a solo singer (see City Pages' "X Factor," 2/26/03) and character actor, with some 40 roles to his name. (He recently had a recurring part on the HBO series Carnival.) Today, the punk laureate of urban decay admits that he has just purchased 40 bales of hay: Doe has four horses, two acres, three kids, a wife, and plenty of cats and dogs. When he's done tending to the animals and trimming the trees, he says he goes into L.A. for auditions. When the kids are in school, he writes songs--but nothing for X anymore. Doe says he's not encouraging his children to get into music, either. "I've been fairly lucky--and I still have very little security," he says. "And as you get older, that becomes more important."
So how does he relate to the old songs about L.A. love, life, and murder? "It may not have the immediacy that it once did," he says, "where you're just sort of reporting the news, like: 'These four songs represent the last four months of my life.' But once D.J. has said the number 'four'--as in 'one, two, three, four'--you're in. You have to be."