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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.

"I was angry that people didn't take our newer work as seriously as they took our older work," Doe says. "It's a hard thing as an artist to accept or come to terms with, to realize that a lot of people will make the judgment that your best work is behind you. That's a fucked-up thing to realize if you want to think that what you're doing now is important."

Through four consecutive albums, from 1980's Los Angeles through 1983's More Fun in the New World, X enjoyed an intense cult following, matched only by the band's critical support. The band's every move was chronicled in the music press, including a loving documentary titled The Unheard Music. That cult was shaken in 1985 with Ain't Love Grand, the final recording by X's original lineup and the first and last to flirt with a mainstream metal sound. The album had some fine moments, but certain tracks sounded dangerously close to Journey or Def Leppard, the kind of bloodless, overproduced rock X had rebelled against. (Even Billy Zoom, who remains fond of the record's production values, says now, "[Producer Michael Wagener] was trying to make it sound more like Michael instead of like us. I don't think he was that familiar with us.") Even worse was that when X lost the cult, there weren't many people left, other than some puzzled pop radio listeners enduring the single "Burning House of Love" en route to something they liked much better.

Zoom left the band, to be replaced by Gilkyson and, briefly, the Blasters' Dave Alvin in time for 1987's See How We Are, which included a title track that was as moving and insightful as anything X had ever recorded. But there was no going back. X had let its moment slip away.

Doe is now dealing with X's loss by compiling a box set chronicling the band's history. The collection will be released later this year by Elektra and will include previously unreleased outtakes, demo tapes, early rehearsal tapes and live tracks. Listening to the old tapes now with Cervenkova and Bonebrake doesn't transport him to a better time, he says. But today Doe is better able to appreciate the band's early successes.

"I was sad to see it pass, but it was necessary," he says. "I went through all the range of emotions that you would go through. I knew that Exene and I needed to work separately. And for my contribution to X, the baggage became a little too heavy to write X songs and not just write songs. There is a difference."

Doe has kept busy. Recent projects include collaboration with Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl on the song "This Loving Thing," a countrified ballad recorded for the upcoming Paul Schrader film Touch. Doe has either acted in or recorded music for five independent movies in just the past year, which inevitably left him less time for X. "We just decided if it wasn't going to be the main priority in everyone's life, why do it?" he says. "That's what a band has got to do."

Yet the group's legacy will likely haunt Doe. On a recent solo acoustic tour, Doe crossed paths with the Descendents, who were playing X's "Johny Hit and Run Paulene" and "Los Angeles" on the road. For one night, Doe even joined them. "It's inevitable that X will become less important as time goes on," Doe says. "That's America. If you don't make a lot of money, you're less good, unless you're a genius like Charlie Parker or someone who really turns things upside down. We changed things, but we didn't invent anything that other people weren't also inventing."

Auntie Christ was originally to be a quartet, with L7's Donita Sparks on lead guitar. The new band even rehearsed that way a few times before turmoil within L7 meant Sparks had to abandon the side project, leaving Cervenkova to handle guitar by herself. She's still new to rock guitar, and at the Alligator Lounge show she keeps looking down at her instrument, checking the position of her hands and fingers.

She's helped by the presence of Freeman, whose razor-sharp sideburns give him a kind of rock and roll Mr. Spock flair. "I still can't quite believe he's doing it," Cervenkova says of the bass player, who casually volunteered for the gig. "He has a lot of respect for me and D.J. People in Los Angeles tend to take me for granted. My peers, people who are my age and older, I don't think they take me very seriously, because I'm a woman and because I've been around for so long."

Cervenkova was doing this when it definitely wasn't about to get anyone on the cover of Vanity Fair. It was far more likely to attract the attention of the LAPD, which sometimes had riot police waiting outside certain Hollywood clubs during punk's early days, ready to pounce. It was a running battle that would seem laughable now were it not for the real injuries suffered by fans. "People got arrested, shows got closed down, people got beat up all the time," Cervenkova remembers. "In general, people were just screaming at you. Everywhere you went you felt like people just hated you and thought you were vile, filthy and hideous."

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