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Jun 6, 2019

By Adam Pollok

Exene Cervenka

The Meaning of Punk

In 1977, while every punk’s attention was focused on London and the Sex Pistols new single “God Save The Queen,” Los Angeles exploded with a punk scene of its own, and by the following year bands including the Germs, Screamers, Avengers, Dickies, and many others were challenging The Ramones and the rest of the New York establishment for west coast supremacy. Eventually it would be the NYC’s more commercial sounding Blondie and Talking Heads who rose the highest, but out west LA’s X quickly commandeered the top slot with a ferocious live show and early albums that were immediately regarded as classics. Combining blues and rockabilly riffs with punk’s speed and aggression, and flavored by the arrestingly dis-harmonic dual vocals of singers, and couple, John Doe, also on bass, and Exene Cervenka, X set the standard for late 70s modern rock, and cemented a legacy that stands 40 years later. 

Except for a few breaks here and there the band has remained active ever since, and currently tours with the original line-up, which includes guitar player Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake, and this spring will oversee the remastered re-releases of their seminal early albums, Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under The Big Black Sun, and More Fun In The New World, on all formats including vinyl. With preparations for a May tour underway Exene called in to catch us up on X’s legacy, and what lies ahead. 

40 years later these are some of the most definitive records of that scene and however great bands come together it worked for you guys, did you feel that in 1978?

No, I think, um, you know, I’d never been in a band. So personally, I was in awe of John and DJ’s abilities because they were born musicians, they’ve been musicians since they were children and they were really, really good and super accomplished. In Billy’s case playing with Etta James and people like that, and you know an amazing guy who can play like five or six instruments. And I can’t do anything. I’m just like, I’m just a crazy lyricist running around being like just kind of, I don’t know what I was, but, well, no, I didn’t think we were the greatest band. I thought they were the greatest band.

Can we talk about the LA scene, looking back at it now looks so creative and exciting and also very much about being well, trying to be democratic and give voice to a lot off female musicians and kind of helping women find a place. 

I was in a band with three guys. We had a lesbian road manager for a long time and there were women in a lot of the bands, not half but kind of close to, and there were other women like Pleasant Gehman you know, like, uh, who else? Trudy, Trixie, those gals, they were really important in the scene because they were, they were very cohesive. They kept everything fun and were doing fanzines and just were supportive and they just, they were creative geniuses and they contributed a lot. But we never thought about gender. At least I didn’t. I was really focused on just being in a band and working really hard and making art and going to see other people and hanging out and going to different cities and traveling. It was a great life, but gender and sexual identity and gay straight, all that stuff, I never thought about that unless I had a crush on somebody. And then I didn’t know if he was gay or straight and half the time I was wrong, I just, I never know what anybody was. I didn’t care.

I kind of know the answer to this question already, but you know, things have changed so radically in 40 years it’s almost ridiculous to ask what’s the differences in the scenes now, but do you see, and are you aware of, Los Angeles having a decent DIY, artistic creative music scene?

I have no idea what’s going on nowadays with people. There are thousands and thousands of bands in this country, and, and I gotta tell you, except for a couple of bands, you know, I go see bands all the time and there’s usually a bad opening band that I don’t know. I think I liked that band Death Valley Girl(s). One of my favorite bands is Skating Polly, yeah, I’ve met them, they’re, look, they’re still really, really young, but I’ve known them since they were little kids, they’ve been a great band since they were like 10. Yeah. I think there’s a lot of stuff that it’s really derivative and if you’re not really well versed in music from the past you would go, wow, that’s amazing that they’ve got those two guitars leads going at the same time. Well that’s the Allman Brothers, right? Or that’s just The Cramps, or Chet Atkins. When we started out, we were riffing on Chuck Berry, because we could, it was our language and it was fun, but rock and roll is 70 years old now so of course there’s going to be derivative moments. It’s a lot harder, I think a good band now is, is a big accomplishment. Like an original fucking band is a really big accomplishment. 

Los Angeles was the second release on Slash (Records) I think, so what was the vibe around that, obviously Slash was a very indie label, so it was okay to sign with them and were you excited?

No, no, no, no. There was, remember there weren’t any labels, there was a magazine that put out a Germs record, they weren’t a label really. And there was one distributor in the whole entire country for independent labels. Right. And that was called Jem I think; their job was to stock jukeboxes. It was probably a mob thing out of New Jersey, you know? Yeah. Put this on your jukebox. Sure. And so they didn’t care if our records were in stores. I think they were overwhelmed because all of a sudden there were 100,000 records to be putting in stores. We would go on tour. That’d be no records. Yeah. And we do an in store. There’d be no records. And uh, eventually it all became Warner brothers. Just like everything else we’ve ever done or anyone else has ever done, eaten up by Warner Brothers. Sure. No choice. I mean, we signed the same crappy contract with them (Slash) we signed with Electra, you know, we own your records and you can’t have them back, sign here and then maybe we’ll pay you some day. That’s the only deal that I know.

And now you have this new deal with Fat Possum. 

After 35 years all of a sudden, we got our music back (from Warners) and we can make a living because we get the money from the records, or movies or whatever, you know what I mean? It’s just like insane. It’s like total liberation if only I had known, so anyway, but Fat Possum wanted to license them (the albums) and we wanted them to stay in print, they’ve never been out of print. So, we did, and they are really great, I really love them, they’ve got great people on their label it’s kind of like, you wouldn’t expect at this point in our career we’d have a label that was so enthusiastic about having us, that happens when you’re, when you’re young. It doesn’t happen when you’re older. It’s like, no, they think of us as kind of like, hey, we’re a real band and we’ve got to promote this.

What does punk mean these days? That was just something I wrote down. I don’t know if I have an answer or if you even care to think about it.

I don’t know, what does beatnik mean? What does hippy mean? Yeah. What is greaser or what does redneck mean? What does flapper mean? I mean those are time and place names.

And you know, this is, this is not punks’ day, punks’ days are gone. You live a long time and you start to realize, oh, now I understand how, how people can move in something new and replace something old. And then the young people don’t know that they don’t even miss it and don’t know what they’re losing, like, you could say it with nature, you could say that with old downtowns, you can say that with the culture in general. You move things out and you need something else in and the young people go, I don’t know, I don’t remember what building was here. But over the last few years its been like existential mass destruction of the past. Its like oh man wholesale slaughter, really?

But that’s what X was always about, “New World” and all those songs about old bars and little towns. I love, I love this country and I love the way it was, and I hope that it can continue to be a country, you know?

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