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Looking for Billy Zoom

X was the West's great punk hope. But now they're finding more fun in their new worlds.

No one will ever make a movie about D.J. Bonebrake. Not while punk culture is overcrowded with easily glorified martyrs such as the Germs' Darby Crash, that badass party boy and even worse Iggy imitator whose life and fabulous suicide will soon be entertaining suburbanites at a theater near you. There's nothing quite so dramatic about the scene here at Los Angeles's Alligator Lounge, where Bonebrake is loading his drums onto the stage like some grizzled bop vet in his faded jeans and high-tops. And yet there's something absolutely honorable, almost heroic, about this moment.

Bonebrake's hair is gray now, but he doesn't look much older than he did back in 1980 as a member of X: pride of the L.A. punk scene, the band that was going to take it to the people, to the radio, to posterity. That band is gone now, but Bonebrake and X singer Exene Cervenkova (then known as Exene Cervenka) are here tonight not as punk casualties to be entombed, but as artists ready to start again.

The old X tattoos look somehow fresh against Cervenkova's bare arm as she stands on-stage in a long black dress, her hair dyed a dark blue. The scene is like something from another era, except this time the singer has an electric guitar in her hands. And she's ripping through some rough, agitated chords as she urgently wails, "The virus is hiding, it's changing its name / It's robbing your blood bank, it's running a scam / Your soul has been polluted, and you're not the same / You are the virus, and the virus is you!"

It's like old-school X, with simpler, sloppier guitar, but no less direct than the original music. This isn't nostalgia. During a tight 30-minute set, Cervenkova sings no vintage X tunes, just new numbers from her new band, Auntie Christ. And standing beside her is young Matt Freeman, on a break from his duties as bassist with retro-punkers Rancid; he's also a full-time member of this new trio. More important, the music they're playing tonight, from "The Virus" to Cervenkova's newest song of grim, unrequited love, "Rats in the Tunnel of Love," illustrates exactly why X had to break apart for the final time last year.

"I wanted to go back to the original sound, more direct and fast," Cervenkova explains. "I just wanted it to be like it was. That's what I like best about it, and I know that's what everyone else likes about it. I don't want to spend any time, more than I already have, compromising."

The result is music that is happily rough-edged and, Cervenkova hopes, both scary and amusing. Auntie Christ released its first single ("Bad Trip/Nothing Generation") last month on Lookout! Records, the independent label that launched the careers of Green Day and Rancid. An Auntie Christ album will follow later this year. That isn't to suggest that Cervenkova and the others are chasing after some commercial validation. "We're not trying to get discovered," Cervenkova insists.

In its final days, X wasn't just unable to agree on what to do next; it was unable to agree on whether to do anything at all. Singer/bassist John Doe and guitarist Tony Gilkyson leaned toward the band's eclectic rock sound of the past decade -- part Americana, part hard rock. Cervenkova and Bonebrake wanted to return to the direct punk assault that had launched them and brought X acclaim as the most important band to emerge from L.A.'s late-'70s/early-'80s club scene. It was a sound and movement led by X, the Minutemen, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, the Germs, D.O.A., Bad Religion and Social Distortion, among others, and they helped make today's post-punk/alternative/grunge thing possible.

But the suggestion that X go back to those days was a sore point in a band that had seen its fortunes wither as it drifted away from its original sound. That would be like admitting the entire past decade had been a mistake, that the band truly missed the sound of founding guitarist Billy Zoom as much as any of its critics did. When Gilkyson quit amid the stalemate last year, the other members of the band briefly considered finding a replacement. But then they decided not to, and dissolved X with little fanfare.

"I feel like X got really lost in a weird direction that was just kind of wandering around in the desert," Cervenkova says. "We couldn't really find a way out."

Later, Bonebrake adds, "I think everyone was glad the band was breaking up, because everyone was going off in different directions. It was almost a side project for the last couple of years."

When X disbanded the first time, it didn't do so quietly. It was the late '80s, and X blazed out with a pair of Hollywood shows that ended with John Doe standing on an outdoor stage waving at the fans and promising, "We'll see you later!"

Brave talk, and a sad moment for anyone who had been paying attention during the band's fast first decade. Later, when asked about X's apparent demise, Doe would wave off the questions with a brusque "We're just taking a break, that's all." In contrast, ambivalence might be a better description of Doe's feelings in 1997. Not that disbanding X for the final time was an easy decision. It was just necessary. The band had reunited for a new studio album called hey Zeus! in 1993, followed two years later by the acoustic Unclogged. Now Doe prefers to focus on his next solo album with the John Doe Thing or on some film acting role. The frustrations of being part of X, of the critical drubbing and the endlessly disappointing chart action, are behind him. Now he no longer has to endure the interviewers who kept asking what it was like to watch younger bands find fame and fortune with a brand of music X helped create.

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