Looking for Billy Zoom

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

Yet for all the mainstream rage against Mohawks and safety pins, what mattered was the new music. It was more than a simple rebellion against the likes of Genesis and Peter Frampton. Doe and Cervenkova sang of a Los Angeles aswirl in an ocean of decadence and decay, where not even an endless supply of drugs, sex or false Hollywood glamour could disguise an unspoken class system. Balanced against the brutal pounding of Bonebrake and the super loud rockabilly-meets-the-Ramones guitar of Zoom, their voices blended unevenly, raw and desperate, tapping into the deeper American experience like a pair of post-nuclear Weavers.

The music and culture were dangerous then. In 1980, Cervenkova couldn't get on a bus or be served in a restaurant with her tattoos and blue hair; now it's fodder for a thousand boutique shops. "What they've done is defanged, declawed anything that could be a threat -- it's now co-opted immediately by the advertising industry," Cervenkova laments. "This is the first generation to my mind that can't rebel, they just can't -- okay, maybe Tupac Shakur. It's really sickening. No matter what they do, ten seconds later it's on a Nike ad. What more can they do besides shave their heads and put on huge nose rings and eyebrow rings and tattoos? I suggest bombs and overthrowing the government, but you go to prison for that, I suppose. They don't care about that anyway."

The only solution is to keep working. Cervenkova already has nine X albums and two solo CDs behind her, along with a continuing spoken-word career. And now, with Bonebrake and Freeman, there's Auntie Christ. "At some point Matt's going to have to go back to Rancid," Cervenkova says casually. "That's the deal. Then I might not want to do this anymore. I don't want to go through this replacing people. You can't replace people. I didn't want to replace Tony either. They're not like things. They're people. They're artists."

Breakfast at the Ma Maison Sofitel seems just like home to Michael Blake, a genial hardhead in fresh denims who once prowled L.A.'s lowly streets in classic starving artist mode. That was before Kevin Costner made a movie from Blake's script, Dances with Wolves. So this morning he's dining in the hotel restaurant, joking with friends Tony Gilkyson and D.J. Bonebrake about the old times, back when X was king.

Bonebrake can still remember a 1986 gig when he found Blake outside the band's hotel writing out his Wolves story in longhand. Now Blake, Gilkyson and Bonebrake have just collaborated on the writer's first spoken-word album, End of the Century, which puts music behind Blake's dark musings. It's the first project for Gilkyson since he left X. The music was produced by Gilkyson and stretches from the up-tempo roots of "After Seeing John Doe at Raji's" to the edgy guitar rock of "Boy in the Rain."

It's also louder, but not necessarily darker, than the solo album Gilkyson is now recording. Ballads such as "Home in Angelino" are closer to his country work with Rosie Flores or old Flying Burrito Brothers records than to punk -- which indicates that for Gilkyson, X's possible return to its primal sound was not a welcome suggestion.

"I didn't want to redefine my guitar playing to the point that I felt I was compromising who I was as a guitar player," Gilkyson says. "I had given X ten years of my life, and a lot of that time I had to sit and wonder if this was really working -- for me and for them.

"When we would go on tour I would encounter nostalgia for the old band. I figured after ten years, that's a pretty good shot. If the band was going to reroute and become a hard core punk-rock band again, I can go along with that to a certain degree, but there's other stuff that I want to do."

For Gilkyson, filling the space left by the dynamic, bizarre figure of Billy Zoom wasn't easy. "The Billy thing was something none of us could ever really deal with," Cervenkova says now. "If we had known the bullshit we would have to go through to try to stay together and play music, we never would have done it after Billy quit. It was so hard. It was really hard on [Gilkyson]. People didn't ever really give him the credit he deserved."

See How We Are was dominated by the brief partnership of John Doe and Dave Alvin, but Gilkyson fans could have found a reason to believe in "He's Got a She," a track from Cervenkova's first solo album dominated by some frantic Gilkyson playing. His true showcase didn't come until 1993's hey Zeus!, a decent enough record that was largely ignored.

"X was a band that gave everything it had," says Blake, who hopes to unite with Bonebrake and Gilkyson for a tour this year. "X was a band that really hung in there against all kinds of reverses, all kinds of rejection, despite the success that they had. They hung together a very long time. It was truly great what they did, but I think it's time for it to be over."

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