A Lively Round-Table With the Still-Dangerous X
X In 1979: Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, John Doe, D.J. Bonebrake
Photo by Frank Gargani
X were (and still are) the kind of band that makes critics salivate endlessly. Writing fiercely literate songs with barbed insight about feral youth lurking in the shadows of decrepit Hollywood, the band's cutthroat melodies and rockabilly-clogged music contrasted the gnarly noise of their contemporaries, who were often more addicted to aggression than poetry. With Exene Cervenka and John Doe trading vocals on the front lines of the band, they peppered songs with lust, love, confusion and loss. They revisited these themes with new insights on each record while drummer DJ Bonebrake and guitarist Billy Zoom, both children of well-rounded musical skills and heritage, carved out a seminal sound rooted in classic country, exuberant jazz, 1950s rock and roll and the Ramones. Though many tried, no one ever quite sounded like X, especially as tell-tale songs like "The Have-Nots" smashed punk's borders by marrying Nashville-like barstool ruminations with barely submerged punk nerve endings.
Recently, the band re-released their first Dangerhouse single, the taut and manic "We're Desperate" and crooning "Adult Books," whose vintage vibe proves their musical creed went well beyond year zero. The Press' David Ensminger caught Doe, Bonebrake and Cervenka right before they embarked on their spring tour that pulls into Warehouse Live tonight.
Houston Press: As the band re-releases the 1978 Dangerhouse single, do you feel it represents the pre-Manzarek era of the band, something more raw? How did that single (both "We're Desperate" and "Adult Books") end up re-recorded on the second record, rather than the first? John Doe: That single marked only the second time we had been a recording studio, so 'yes,' very raw. Ray [Manzarek] loved raw and honest above all else. He helped us get the best performances we could. Those songs were a bit lighter than the rest of the Los Angeles record.
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DJ Bonebrake: I don't think it's more raw. I just don't think the first single was recorded as well. When we recorded Los Angeles, we wanted to present songs that hadn't been recorded. We re-recorded "Desperate" and "Adult Books" for the Wild Gift album because we realized very few people had heard the Dangerhouse single. It was a very limited pressing.
DJ, you painted a house to earn the money to buy a Ludwig marching snare used in both a Buddhist marching band and the early X material. But what is a Buddhist marching band, and did you want a snare so loud it cut through the noise at dingy clubs? Bonebrake: It was Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. I was a member for about five years (1967-72). They had a marching band and a big band. I started in the marching band but later graduated to the big band.
I bought the Ludwig marching drum in about 1970 but later used it in the Eyes and then in X. I wasn't necessarily louder, but it was deeper-sounding.
In their native L.A., 1981
DJ, with its low-key, vintage style and rhythms, "Adult Books" seems to anticipate your contemporary work with bands like the Bonebrake Syncopators. Was that musical direction something you desired after leaving the more straightforward the Eyes? Bonebrake: I get bored easily. I've always played different styles of music and played in multiple bands. The period between 1978 and 1987 was the exception. I was playing almost exclusively with X during that period. In 1988, when X took a break, I started freelancing with various rock and pop bands and for fun joined a jazz band and a community orchestra.
It was also the period I began studying percussion again: Murray Spivack (snare drum) and Dale Anderson (marimba and vibes). If you visit L.A., chances are you'll see me around town playing in an Irish band, a jazz band, a blues band, a fusion band, a wedding band, a surf band, an orchestra, a salsa band, a rockabilly band, a country band, a blue grass band, a folk band...I'm sure I've left out a half-dozen genres.
DJ, the band represents a stylistic hybrid, converging rockabilly, country and the Ramones with equal aplomb, and much more. Plus, you and Billy were by no means amateurs. Did the process of writing songs inherently cause any tension -- balancing the poetry of John and Exene with the musical flourishes and you and Billy? Bonebrake: Just the opposite. Our experience allowed us to be more pliable. We experimented and twisted the songs in the direction they needed to go.
"We're Desperate" was also the title of the photo book by Jim Jocoy, who shot X, the Avengers, the Cramps, and others. As one review said, "the stars" were almost indistinguishable from the "nobodies" in the photos, meaning the barriers had broken down due to punk. Was that important to you? Doe: Some people on the punk scene embraced that ethic, I certainly did, but everyone was in it for different reasons.
Bonebrake: When we started, the performers and the fans hung out. It was a small scene. A lot of the fans were or became performers.
Cervenka: You ask a lot about the people at that time. Yes, we were all nobodies and proud of it. The Midwest still had blue-collar cities and jobs, stockyards, breweries (not the fancy kind, the beer made in Milwaukee, St. Louis, East L.A.), and most kids had some hope and some kind of work they did to survive. Rents were cheap, cars were cheap, guitars and amps were cheap, and there was still an old-fashioned American way of life.
At Fitzgerald's Houston, 1986
Photo courtesy of Ben DeSoto
Since the beginning, when the band played in areas like East L.A., home of bands like the Plugz and the Brat, the band has been popular with Hispanics. Why do think that crossover audience happened? Bonebrake: You could call it a crossover audience, but really there is nothing to cross over. We live in the same city and most of us listened to the same music growing up, so it didn't seem out of the ordinary.
Cervenka: The kids and bands that came from East L.A., Boyle Heights, most of them were from middle-class families who had migrated a while back. It was a great mix of cultures, and we all respected each other. There was always a balance between guys and gals, straight, gay and those who wouldn't say. Texas, especially Austin, had a very similar vibe, as did Minneapolis, Boston and San Francisco. We all just meshed with each other.
One of the Texas band linked to X is the Big Boys, who produced an equally hybrid form of punk. This marks ten years since the death of singer Biscuit. What do you recall about the band or the spirit of Biscuit? Doe: Randy, "Biscuit," was undoubtably the most mischievous, positive, all-or-nothing person with a devilish wit and humor. It was all in his performance, writing, and visual art. Like so many, we were immediately drawn to him. He took a particular shine to Exene.
Cervenka: Biscuit was a very close friend, since the night the Big Boys opened for X at Club Foot. It was that show, or one right after, Biscuit was wearing strings of Christmas lights that were plugged in! The crowd started throwing beer to try to electrify him (well, not really, just in fun). Everyone had great senses of humor back then.
Exene, I believe "Adult Books" name-drops Tomata du Plenty of the Screamers, and other names are embedded as well. For you, was punk about evoking the very personal side of life, real people and moments, as in "Los Angeles" too, rather than generic, vague terrain? Doe: That's all we had, our bohemian life. It also owes something to John Waters, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and the "sort of famous" celebrity that we all thought was wonderfully twisted, sarcastic and poking fun of "real" celebrity culture. If only people would be hip to that nowadays.
Cervenka: I was thinking of all the celebs and rock stars and bands now who are in their early twenties, and how different their lives and goals are. It's either wealth and fame derived from sex or nothing, it seems. Still a lot of really amazing music and people are coming up all over, and that is great to see. New bands I love: Skating Polly from Oklahoma, Petunia and the Vipers from Canada, California Feetwarmers from Los Angeles, to name three.
I believe the band played the Deaf Club in San Francisco at least once, with the Bags and Urge: do you or Exene recall the venue, which is notorious for providing an alternative to Mabuhay and linking punk and Deaf crowds? Doe: Not much memory of the shows but several Deaf Club members came to sound check, wearing very straight clothes, because they were, and as we played did a mild version of head-banging. I suppose that they felt the vibration through the floor and air.
Cervenka: The Deaf Club was fun, and it was cool to see people enjoying the music in a way that was visceral -- the vibrations through the floor, the visuals -- and knowing the Deaf people got punk and loved it too.
Lastly, the band's politics seem as poignant and relevant than ever, especially as we grapple with endless war and corporate greed. What mattered most about punk - what was said and sang, or how the bands operated and what they did? Doe: As I mentioned earlier, everyone was and is into music and scenes for different reasons, even within the same band. It's a personal choice, but then people allowed for variety. Sadly, there will never be a time when the line, "The world's a mess/ it's in my kiss" or "It was better before they voted for what's-his-name" doesn't apply. Also, the second verse of "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts" will always ring true.
Cervenka: It was all very political, and revolutionary. A friend said to me recently, punk rockers would be considered potential domestic terrorists these days by the current regime. We had freedom, and I would rather have freedom than wealth and fame.
Really, we had it all. And in many ways, hanging on so long, and still loving what we do, is the best life I could have hoped for. Texas rules; don't give up your Constitutional rights there.
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