Looking for Billy Zoom
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.
"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."
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."
So what did become of the great Billy Zoom? What happened to the man in the silver motorcycle jacket, the yellow pompadour of absolute perfection, to the maker of those massive, shimmering riffs? With X he'd been a rocker of icy, dangerous cool, remaking himself as a parody of every smarmy rock god he'd ever encountered. Zoom's guitar parts were never played with a showy expression of agony or ecstasy but with his legs planted far apart on-stage, a shiny Stepford grin across his face.
Yet when it was clear that 1985's Ain't Love Grand wasn't going to be the commercial breakthrough the band had hoped for, he left X, fed up with the endless nights on the road and a rock and roll rat race he'd first entered as a teenage surf guitarist in 1963. Two years later, Zoom headlined the outdoor Sunset Junction festival, looking a bit heavier but still super cool with his silver guitars. It was just a money gig to pay the rent, with a repertoire limited to oldies salvaged from his pre-X Billy Zoom Band. And yet as he drifted into Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalking," he was still able to craft hypnotic passages that roared dreamily from the custom Zoom amplifier he'd built at home. When police ordered him to turn the amplifier down, Zoom replied, "It doesn't play any quieter." By 1988, he was gone.
Zoom now lives on a quiet street in Orange County, just a block from the Crystal Cathedral, that Disney World of Christian worship. He still plays guitar, but only in church on Sundays. The rest of his week is spent repairing amplifiers in his workshop or in a local studio producing the occasional local band. Right now, an amp sent in from No Doubt rests half-dissected on his workbench, under walls decorated with signed publicity stills: Social Distortion, Bruce Willis ("Peace!"), Brian Setzer, Susanna Hoffs ("Nice amp work, Billy!") and former Go-Go Jane Wiedlin ("How the Hell are you friend?!").
The guitarist doesn't miss the club scene he left behind in the '80s; he has contemplated recording a gospel album. And Zoom rarely does interviews now. What for? He enjoys his anonymity and happily notes that the www.rockabilly.com web page once displayed a photograph of Zoom with the words, "Do you know me?" and described him as "the subject of one of the most mysterious disappearances from rockabilly music."
As for X, he says, "I don't really think about it much. It wasn't my first band, it wasn't my best band. It's the one most people remember."
He's talking now to explain the release of an album of demos recorded by the Alligators in 1972, six years before he joined X. The Alligators were part of his old life, when young Zoom had turned to the wonderfully dated whiz-bang rave-up of old-time rockabilly. Zoom had even apprenticed with one of the masters, Gene Vincent, as the only member of Vincent's band who could stomach the likes of "Be-Bop-a-Lula." Not that he spends much time listening to rockabilly now. "That's what I did in the '70s because I hated '70s music," he says. Zoom now keeps his car radio tuned to jazz or R&B oldies stations, hoping to catch something by his guitar hero, Steve Cropper.
But during his one year with the Alligators, Zoom was committed to early rock and roll, not the nitro-charged sound he later created with X. The band even played behind such '50s survivors as the Penguins, the Olympics and the Drifters. And the new CD, titled Pre-X Zoom, reflects that commitment, though Zoom says he actually plays on just half of the tracks. "It was a demo tape for a bar band I played with in '72," he says. "For that it holds up pretty well, I think."
Don't look for a newly active Zoom as a result of the Alligators CD. He would welcome any opportunity for session work in a comfortable studio, which he still loves, but Zoom just isn't ready to hit the clubs again. Zoom says X's management contacted him after Gilkyson quit last year to see if he was interested in playing again. He wasn't.
"That was the loneliest period of my life," he says of his glory days with X. "I probably had fewer friends than I ever had at any time before or since. It's pretty much the opposite of what anybody would imagine. You're always in a tour bus or in a motel room, and the only people you see want something from you. You're never in one place for more than a couple hours. The only people I talked to were people who were interviewing me."
So you'll find Zoom at his workbench, a genuine tech-head, juggling vacuum tubes and soldering irons and plugging in his old Gretsch Silver Jet guitar only to test a broken amplifier. Look for Billy Zoom Music in the phone book. This may look like a sad fade-out to his fans, but there is nothing to suggest that Billy Zoom would have it any other way.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.