Sunday, February 4, 2007
The first time I saw X was on the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon sometime in the mid 80s. Now that might seem an odd place to be introduced to punk rock but I'll never forget how my 11 year old mind reacted to seeing Exene Cervenka for the first time. I don't remember what song they were playing but the sight of Exene looking like some sort of crazed homeless goddess screaming into the microphone and a very perplexed Jerry Lewis offering half-hearted applause left an indelible impression on me.
A few years later I saw a show on cable called Women In Rock which would introduce me to several people that would go on affect me profoundly including Maria Mckee and Patti Smith. The show was most memorable though for re-introducing this strange creature known as Exene to me. Being interviewed she came across as so intelligent and you could detect the poet inside her in these short clips, the brief on stage shots showed the crazed woman I remembered from the telethon though and I was hooked. This strange Sister Hyde like figure that would emerge on stage as opposed to the shy soft-spoken pretty lady would serve as a perfect symbol for the band X.
I soon bought my first X album, I was 15 or so at the time and the massive double lp Live at The Whisky collection was a perfect introduction. The songs were wild sounding slices of crazed rockabilly punctuated by some of the most poetic American lyrics ever written. Exene and John Doe's haunting harmonizing placed on top of Billy Zoom's slashing guitar work and the thundering DJ Bonebrake on drums has very few peers. X were like like group before and no one since has come close to duplicating their sound.
X soon became one of my favorite bands and I devoured their early records especially the first four (Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under The Big Black Sun, and More Fun In The New World). The remaining records with and then without Billy Zoom would have moments of greatness but suffered from over-production. X in the 80s were, along with The Replacements, THE band that should have made it but something never clicked with the public at large. It's forgotten just how much X were critically acclaimed, they came right at the tail end of Rolling Stone's days as a quality magazine and that publication's reviews of the early records are exceptionally well written and thought out.
X had developed such a huge cult following that a film was actually made about them called The Unheard Music, one of the best music documentaries ever made. It also showcased a band desperate to sell records but not compromise. When all was said and done they didn't do either.
This is all a long winded introduction to remembering two live shows I saw. It seems important though to note just how respected X were in the 80s and how much they meant to their fans. This all had changed when X initially returned to the scene in 1993.
The album that marked their return in 1993 was titled, oddly enough, Hey Zeus. Long out of print and virtually ignored today by fans and the band itself it was actually a strong, slightly overworked, album that stands up all these years later. Their was a real excitement for me when that album was released and then it was announced that X would return to the road. I couldn't figure out why Hey Zeus was all but ignored. It wasn't that the critical reception was poor, it was non-existent. Perhaps it was too close to the 80s for their legacy to be appreciated. I always thought it was because true punk never really broke, sometime in the early 90s record companies figured out how to market something resembling punk, but it had no poetry and groups like X and The Replacements were buried.
I saw X twice on their Hey Zeus tour, once towards the beginning and once towards the end. The experience of those two nights was almost like seeing two different bands. The first show at Bogarts at Cincinnati was one of the most exciting shows I had ever seen. I was right in front of the stage on John Doe's side and the opening Burning House Of Love seemed to shake Boagart's walls and it brought tears to me eyes. The band gave a tight, confident show drawing heavily on Hey Zeus as well as their previous See How We Are album. Guitarist Tony Wilkinson provided a sharp and substantial counterpoint to the still missing in action Billy Zoom. Bonebrake is still one of the best drummers I have ever seen, bringing a jazz inspired intensity to his playing that kept the always chaotic Doe and Cervenka grounded. John Doe was beautiful, like Sam Shepard as a rock star. Doe's voice is one of the most underrated in rock history and you have to see them live to really understand how great of a singer this guy is. Exene was magnificent to see live, sexy and crazed singing like she was being possessed by some ancient Native American spirit sent for revenge. The words pouring out of her like she had no choice in the matter and then in between songs slinking back shyly becoming that withdrawn young girl again.
Hey Zeus had just been released and during this show X seemed like that same hopeful band that had been in seen in the Unheard Music. They looked excited, like they thought they were finally going to take over the world.
I met John Doe after the show and he was incredibly friendly and autographed his first solo album for me. I didn't have the nerve to speak to Exene thinking I would say something stupid like 'you changed my life'.
Later that year I heard they were coming to Nashville to play a show. Hey Zeus had already disappeared and their 'comeback' hadn't happened. The club is Nashville was smaller and grimier than Bogarts. The stage was just a few feet off the ground and there was no barricade so literally you could get within inches of the band as they played. I was next to the barely elevated stage and when X hit the stage they looked like a different band. They seemed to have aged ten years, John Doe hadn't shaved and Exene looked depressed and possibly drunk.
They changed their opening number from Burning House of Love to the savage Once Over Twice. The playing was more chaotic, Bonebrake was even playing more like he had early on in their career. Every number, even the slower ones, seemed slashed out and the band looked disgusted. The show was one of the most disastrous I have ever seen with the band looking like they could fall apart at any moment, disastrous and absolutely spellbinding. If punk rock ever actually existed then it reared its most authentic head that night in that small Nashville club.
Just before leaving their stage Exene announced, spitting sarcasm, that they were going to do their biggest hit. X then launched into a beyond brutal Back To The Base and the sight of Exene screaming "I'm the king of rock and roll, if you don't like it you can lump it' will never leave me. The house lights came up and the band looked savaged and done. Exene handed me the set list she had been standing on and they were gone.
X disappeared after that for most of the 90s. The decade that they had done so much to inspire ignored them and destroyed all of the youthful energy they had always carried with them.
Several years ago the great Rhino records began to re-issue their astonishing back catalogue, lovingly remastered with bonus tracks and doting liner notes. Their importance finally noticed and they hit the road again, this time with Billy Zoom. The show I saw in Lexington a few years ago was probably one of the best I had ever seen but it also disheartening. With no new music to promote they just smoked through their first four perfect albums and ignored the later flawed ones. It was too easy, I was no longer seeing a band getting ready to take over the world. They had become like that characters in their greatest song, The Have Nots, 'the working class' just playing 'the game that moves as you play'.
It's just a legacy now, a beautiful and important one that most would trade their lives for but they were worth more. Two of the greatest and most authentically American songwriters are all but hidden from view, in their place resides just another great band and a generation who refused to believe music had the ability to change things. I have moments I'd like to go back to, I'd like to see them again in that little Nashville club, I'd like to replay that moment right before youth began to escape not only them but me. If I could have that moment back when Exene handed me that set list I'd say something like, 'don't worry, it wasn't you who blew it. You did everything right.' Perhaps I would even tell her she changed my life, either way I wouldn't remain silent.