When seminal Los Angeles punk band X takes the stage at Belly Up Tavern on April 9, they'll be celebrating an incredible 31 years together. What makes the accomplishment even more remarkable is that they'll do it with the original lineup of Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake. The band's secret? Cervenka insists there isn't one.
“We just didn't quit,” Cervenka says. “We didn't die, and we didn't quit.”
X is the exception to the live-fast-die-young rule, having outlasted and outlived a who's-who—Black Randy, Darby Crash, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, to name a few—of the original Hollywood punk scene.
That's not to say X hasn't seen tragedy and tribulation. But even during periods of intense personal conflict (Doe and Cervenka married in 1980 and split in 1985), they soldiered on, making recent dust-ups over naming rights among hair-metal bands like L.A. Guns and Faster Pussycat seem like petty arguments among 12-year-old girls.
In the early days, punk rock had no past and no future. Hell, even the present was tenuous. The music was mythically, maddeningly elsewhere—on the other side of the country and across the sea—and there was no way for California fans to get at it.
There was no MySpace, no MTV. If you were lucky, you knew someone who had a brother who saw The Dictators at CBGB in New York, but if you went to the record shop to ask for The Dictators Go Girl Crazy, the clerk would laugh you out of the store. Then some burly dude with tassels hanging from his suede jacket would follow you out to the parking lot to teach you a lesson for wearing a safety pin in your ear.
That was Los Angeles circa '77 in a nutshell, minus the cheap quaaludes.
But then The Damned came over from England and The Ramones rolled in from New York. Kids came from all over Southern California to watch them play. Afterward, they looked at one another and said, “Damn, I can do that.” And they did. Like a contagion, the punk-rock virus spread across L.A. Bands formed in neighborhoods like North Hollywood, East L.A. and Hermosa Beach. They played at The Masque, The Starwood and Madam Wong's. The styles were as diverse as the city, from The Blasters to Black Flag, The Chiefs to The Go-Gos and Los Lobos to The Weirdos. The result was a scene that Cervenka calls “the most important and the most interesting.”
Some of the lucky ones got record deals—notably X, The Dickies and The Knack (we won't speak of The Knack—not here, not ever). But most didn't. When asked which band she'd sign to a record deal if she could go back in time, Cervenka answers “The Plugz” without hesitation.
It was trickier back then, before iPhones, Blackberries and beepers. While on tour, the band would have to pull over and call the club from a pay phone.
“You know we're coming, right?” Cervenka recalls, her voice caught somewhere between nostalgia and whimsy. “And there would be tons of people there. No one could get a hold of us.”
Most old punks consider a trip from San Diego to L.A. a hectic weekend. X is in the middle of a three-week tour, but Cervenka insists that this is the easy part. Perhaps it's because she's done it so many times, but she makes touring sound like any other 9-to-5. “You get up in the morning, you eat some breakfast or have some coffee, get in the van, listen to music, talk on the phone, do interviews, get to the gig, sound check and do the show,” Cervenka says.
In Make the Music Go Bang: The Early L.A. Punk Scene, a chronicle of punk's evolution in Southern California, Cervenka wrote, “Being on stage in X was no different to me than standing in the crowd at a really good show.”
Those days are long gone.
“You play your show and you're whisked off to do an interview,” she says. Then “another show, another interview. You're lucky to meet up with a friend. It's hard.”
Despite the rigors of the road, Cervenka knows the effort is worthwhile. During the current tour, X has teamed with the charitable organization Sweet Relief to raise money for musicians without health insurance who are suffering through various medical problems. The band's connection to Sweet Relief underscores how fortunate X fans are that the group is still around after all these years. But let's face it, X's days are numbered.
While the band obviously isn't showing any signs of slowing down, the odds are stacked against them. Most of their peers have either broken up or passed away. The bands from the '70s that still play together do so with new members. But if there is a secret to X's longevity and success, Cervenka says, “It's all about the audience.”
That's why, if you go to an X show, you'll hear the fan favorites. Not just one or two, but all of them. X hasn't recorded new material in years, and they've consequently pared their set list down to what the audience expects to hear and the band loves to play—passionate and provocative songs of unquiet desperation like “White Girl” and “We're Desperate.”
X wasn't the first, and they won't be the last. But they've endured, through better and worse, and you can't tell the story of punk rock without them.
X plays at 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 9, with Skybombers at the Belly Up Tavern, 143 S Cedros Ave., in Solana Beach. 858-481-8140. www.xtheband.com
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