Punk was the hurricane that helped turn the tide of American music in the 1970s-1980s, a decade that followed the end of the Vietnam War and encompassed both the moribund, mostly forgotten Carter presidency and the controversial Ronald Reagan era. The bands differed far and wide, but what drew both Violent Femmes and X, who are appearing together at House of Blues on May 10, under the umbrella of punk was their infectious, stripped to the bone, dark, nerve-tingling songwriting; their quest for bracing musical honesty (keep it real, not fake); and their fusions of styles that made each record a freshly scrubbed affair.
In the hands of John Doe and Exene Cervenka, succinct poets of the West Coast (though they each migrated from elsewhere – Baltimore, MD and St. Petersburg, FL, respectively), X forcefully emerged from the tumultuous underground scene of Los Angeles in 1977. They, however, became much more than a ‘loud fast rules’ ornery soundtrack. They inherited beatnik counterculture sensibilities too – a metaphoric undertow. They spoke to the forgotten, ignored, and borderline — those lonely and beaten-up ones.
Both X and Violent Femmes pursued and played highly synergistic music. X albums exuded small flashes of Memphis soul, hard-churning rockabilly, 1930’s dance tunes, country howls, punk vitriol, even disco-funk, but all were easily recognizable. Yet, when asked, “Do you see yourself as a kind of ambassadors of American music?” Cervenka kept her response to my recent inquiry almost timid. “Well, we just write and played what we felt, and our influences were rock and roll, jazz, country, etc. People might see us as ambassadors now.”
In addition, they mixed and matched end-of-the-century artistic attitudes by combining film noir alleyway luridness with deadpan writer Charles Bukowksi vibes, or converged film threats like James Dean with a sense of savage motorcycle boot cool. Plus, their narratives brimmed with a jouissance, a jarring physicality: each song felt like a compressed tale oozing with drugs and booze and mirrored the engulfing world of glaring porn shops, burning trash cans, and dank clubs filled with graffiti.
Or, in the case of songs like “The Have-Nots,” they catalogued the scrappy world of working class blues, the endless rundown bars that have disappeared; well, first they became dwarfed, then eliminated, by the Disney-fication of Los Angeles. That same sense of loss is pregnant with meaning in “The New World” too, which offers a lens panning across rust-belt America – Flint, Gary, Buffalo – and seemingly bemoans the evaporating culture of America in late-stage capitalism on the cuff of the robot economy and the digital nexus.
X emblazoned such songs with narrative grit and granular detail about people, bars, cities, and political vibes. “To some extent,” the songs represent a map of loss, “which is why we were chronicling them,” explains Cervenka. “We started touring when the manufacturing was being phased out, leading to the ‘rust belt.’ Sad to see. But many smaller cities have really recovered. People are staying in those places and making them vital again, so that’s very good.”
Hence, hope has not entirely dimmed: their tour sites have begun rejuvenation.
Yet, the golden age of fanzine networks and college radio, so different than now, both in terms of culture and economics, that gestated the band may be a mystery to a young person. “I don’t think it’s possible to explain real freedom of that sort to people who have never experienced it,” avows Cervenka.
Their sense of America felt transgressive, forbidden, and alluring, like an algorithm of anarchic tendencies. Just note their record covers, like their debut album from 1980 featuring an overlarge X burning furiously in the dense black night. Cervenka has always been a pointed, offhand intellect with a knack for making pastiche-style, expressionistic journals and sculpting, when she was not singing, castoff material into punk folk-art that blends Hispanic traditions with her own wonky visions.
John Doe, his own name torn from a black and white detective movie, meanwhile, was a staggeringly keen writer with slightly debased, gaunt Hollywood looks. His ventures in movies (Great Balls of Fire!, etc.) and television (guest slots on series like ER) seemed inevitable as his voice became more robust, graceful, and crooning on beloved tunes. Early on, each song retained a 1950s dirty chrome vibe, blistering and nimble punk rock guitar attack, slightly swinging drums, and dual-sex vocals that felt vulnerable and jaded.
Doe’s voice and complex persona have only deepened ever since. And X’s recent touring with their original line-up, with adroit powerhouse Billy Bonebrake on drums and masterful Billy Zoom on sizzling guitar fretwork, always delivers the past as a silver dagger to slice through the muck of current music.
Still, as punk history becomes revised again and again, some aspects get whitewashed or go missing. I feel young writers don’t understand the pivotal role of distinct personalities – radio personality Rodney on the ROQ, or punk visionaries like Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters, Darby Crash of the Germs, John Denney of the Weirdos, or Alice Bag of the Bags, and fanzine editor Claude Bessy, as well as Exene and John. They imprinted their own pulsating uniqueness on the genre.
“I think the smaller details get left out,” Cervenka says.. “Many people think hardcore and punk are the same, and that’s kind of true, but the two were also at odds. Our scene is still kind of underground. It was a long time ago. Things get lost.”
So, as UCLA begins to collect and build their punk archive, and punk inches towards being institutionalized, in Los Angeles or in San Francisco, where singer Penelope Houston of the Avengers is collecting material for the San Francisco Public Library, those acts do matter.
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“I didn’t know either of those collections were happening,” admits Cervenka, but “better to preserve things.”
Hence, each song revisited by X on the stage every night also becomes its own form of cultural recovery: the songs bristle with ‘year zero’ punk promise to build an art that speaks to duress and intrigue, fiction and fury, real-life restlessness and agitation. They catalog the world as it once unfolded across scratched, dented vinyl albums, pregnant with darkness and redemption.
And each night X makes them feel vital, re-ignited, and candid, shored-up by pressing energies that should not be missed.
X is scheduled to open for Violent Femmes on May 10, 7 p.m. House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. For information, call: 888-402 - 5837 or visit houseofblues.com. $42.50 - $62.50, plus fees.