Once upon a time, in the mythical kingdom of the American 1970s, there lived a group of young musicians who seemed to many as though they could summon all the ghosts of the Golden Coast. Of Old Hollywood and the Venice canals, and the Greyhound station in Santa Monica where so many young hopefuls arrived, and even of the place along Interstate 10 where the desert finally recedes and a vast oasis of green appears as if from nowhere. And when they played it was like a séance with our past, where through hypnotic guitar sorcery and the spell their words cast, they channeled the sounds and stories of everyone who had ever been compelled to go West, from the Okies to the Flower Children, to those who came to prey upon them.
At this point, I should clarify that I am not talking about the Eagles, who have probably written the most famous song about being lured in by the mythology of California, only to pay the ultimate price. I am referring to the band X, who not only were seen at the time as the leading lights of the early Los Angeles punk scene, but also produced a body of work that now serves as a gateway to the time and place they inhabited. And in full view of history, their music sits alongside the works of Jim Morrison, Charles Bukowski, and a small handful of other great poets, as art that is forever etched in the cultural fabric of the city of Los Angeles.
This weekend, the band's original lineup of vocalist Exene Cervenka, singer and bass player John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer DJ Bonebrake will appear at El Club in Southwest Detroit for two back-to-back performances. On the first night they will be playing their 1980 debut LP Los Angeles, and then on the second evening their 1981 album Wild Gift.
Doe, Cervenka, and Zoom are all transplants from other parts of the United States who each found themselves drawn to Los Angeles. Doe and Cervenka first met at Beyond Baroque in Venice, at one of the literary center's very first poetry workshops. When I speak to the pair in separate phone conversations, Doe describes a setting where many of the original area Beats still hung around Venice Beach, which today is West LA's only remaining enclave of self-identified bohemians and weirdos.
"LA never really had any respect for its landmarks, and still doesn't," Doe says. "It's always a city that's changing. It's got a certain wide open, 'anything can happen' [vibe]. And that's what the East Coast did not have for me. That's why I left. The East Coast is much more negative and people saying, 'Oh you can't do that, its too hard,' and "Don't try that.' It's like, 'OK, why don't you just stay here and you do that, and I'll do something else, and we'll see what happens. Have a good time. Go fuck yourself.'"
Earlier this year, Doe released his book Under the Big Black Sun — a collection of essays by some of the most prominent artists in the LA punk scene — which shares its title with X's third studio album. It is his attempt to capture the creativity and eclecticism that typified the Los Angeles scene, which has often been portrayed as ugly, violent, and semi-literate. The book features chapters by Doe and Cervenka, as well as figures like Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's, who describes her time in LA's punk rock flop house the Canterbury.
Other contributors include Wiedlin's bandmate Charlotte Caffey, Mike Watt of South Bay art-punks the Minutemen, and Teresa Covarrubias of the Brat, who gives a much-needed account of the criminally underrated and under-documented Latino punk scene in East LA. Hardcore is also given its due within the pages of Under the Big Black Sun. Along with a chapter by Henry Rollins, Jack Grisham of TSOL offers a somewhat terrifying perspective on the nihilism and anti-social violence which so famously typified many punk shows at the time, and was a major fixture in the mainstream media's coverage.
But it is balanced by a far more optimistic vision, and when I ask Cervenka what she remembers about the area, it sounds like she never soured on the city or its inhabitants, unlike the infamous protagonist of their song "Los Angeles." Precarious accommodation — the kind young transplants tend to inhabit — seems like a recurring theme in the band's work (see "We're Desperate" or "In This House That I Call Home"). But when I bring up the subject, she takes exception to my choice of adjectives.
"Back then, you could live in a 1920s apartment for $300 a month. It wasn't 'shitty,'" Cervenka says. "It still had vestiges of Old Hollywood. Schwab's Drugstore was still there, where Lana Turner supposedly got discovered, which was a myth. The old architecture was still there. You'd get around on the bus. It was incredible. It was an incredible place."
Early punk music is famously minimalistic, and sometimes anti-intellectual. But beneath the seemingly basic foundation of many of their songs lies incredibly sophisticated songwriting ability, and very un-punk proficiency by players Zoom, Doe, and Bonebrake. While their early work is more identifiably "punk" than New York artists like Patti Smith or Television, X can perhaps be seen as bringing a similar literary and artistic sensibility to the West Coast. From his current home in the Bay Area, Doe describes the cultural context in which their sound emerged.
"The thing is, in '74 or '75, everything started changing, where people finally drew a line and said rock and roll music has gone too far afield from where it started," Doe says. "We wanted to get back to rock and roll music being dangerous and being fun and being short songs and not just all technical — how many notes you can play and things like that. So that's why it happened in New York and London and LA all within 18 months. Because people were just ready for it, and it was in the air. And that's what I wanted to be part of."
X spent several years as the most popular unsigned act in the city, before eventually being picked up by local independent label Slash. Then, in 1980, they finally released their first full length, Los Angeles. It is not only one of the great records of the early punk era, but a truly perfect album in and of itself. Songs like "Nausea," "The Unheard Music," and the album's title track combined the noir storytelling of Doe and Cervenka's poetry with truly primal, locomotive chord progressions, fused with the searing feedback of child prodigy Zoom's lead guitar.
It did not take long for the group to develop a base of equally talented fans. The album features keyboards by Doors' pianist Ray Manzarek, who also worked as producer on Los Angeles, as well as three more successive albums. The album's follow-up Wild Gift picks up where it left off, and includes some of the band's most overtly punk songwriting ("I'm Coming Over" and "Year 1"). Their third album, Under the Big Black Sun, was released on Elektra, a major milestone for the band, having grown up on the music of labelmates like Phil Ochs, Love, and of course, fellow Los Angelinos Morrison and Manzarek. By the release of their fourth album More Fun in the New World, the chasm between Orange County hardcore and the roots-inflected sound of LA bands like X, Gun Club, and the Blasters had grown. Their references to populist forms like country and folk became more explicit. It seemed clear that the music of X was evolving into something more advanced, more accessible.
The mainstream media could no longer ignore them, and appearances on Letterman and American Bandstand served to elevate the band's profile. In 1985, they parted ways with producer Manzarek, and released what Doe has since described as "that questionable heavy metal album." Ain't Love Grand certainly marked a shift in production values for the group. But it also includes some of their most memorable songs ("Burning House of Love" and "Around My Heart"), as well as some of Zoom's greatest guitar shredding ("What's Wrong With Me"). By the mid-'80s, especially if you were a young person in Southern California, this music was probably a part of your life.
The same year that X released Ain't Love Grand, something interesting happened. A 20-year-old author named Bret Easton Ellis, himself a Los Angeles native, published his first novel, Less Than Zero. In stark contrast to the world inhabited by X and their friends in the early punk scene, Less Than Zero was a tale of privileged West LA teenagers. But Ellis' novel is bookended by references to X's music, and begins with a reference to, of all things, their song "The Have Nots."
"Oh, I remember him calling me up and asking if he could use that quote, and I thought, 'Well, we didn't write that,'" Doe says. "That was actually on a board game that we took that phrase from. So knock yourself out. I don't give a shit. And then that was the last I heard of him. And then I kept hearing there's this book where we're mentioned. And I found that actually very weird and we have no connection with any of those types of people — any of that sort of young, rich Beverly Hills crowd. So I thought was very odd. I mean, it didn't really ring true to me."
I suggest to Doe that maybe this is part of the story as well — that in our world, there must be losers in order for there to be winners — and that maybe Clay and his friends in Less Than Zero are the Haves to the Have Nots portrayed in X's lyrics. He is more receptive to this idea, but insists on keeping the two separate, and when you compare the vibrant and diverse artistic community described in Under the Big Black Sun to the ugly narcissism of Less Than Zero, he is probably right to do so. "That's what we were fighting against, or trying to," Doe says. "To show that Los Angeles does have an artistic part of it, not just the superficial movie star bullshit."
They continued to attract a range of high profile and influential fans in the art and music world, including John Mellencamp, who invited them to perform at Farm Aid. "The Have Nots" is one of X's few explicitly political songs, but the band lent their influence to a number of causes throughout the decade, including several benefits in support of El Salvador and Nicaragua at the height of the Iran-Contra scandal. "People were being victimized by those policies," Cervenka says. "And then they were sending the drugs up here and the guns back and forth. We weren't allowed to send them aspirin."
Billy Zoom left X in 1986, and was briefly replaced by Blasters' guitarist Dave Alvin for the band's sixth album See How We Are. Over the next decade, X continued its pattern of growth experimentation, producing a truly incredible live album with guitarist Tony Gilkyson, as well as an album of country and folk songs under the pseudonym the Knitters.
As a solo artist, Doe has produced an impressive body of alt-county and folk, which have been well-received by music critics and journalists, finding its way into motion pictures like The Bodyguard and Black Snake Moan. "Country music, if you can even call it that anymore, is just all about 'Who wants a beer?'" Doe says. "Is that it? That's the song? 'Who wants a beer?' It's such bullshit. But you know, the same thing with a lot of pop stuff. It all sounds like jingles for Pepsi and stuff. But beneath that, or alongside it, is a lot of great music. The music business is in shambles, but music is doing great."
Speaking to Doe and Cervenka, it is clear that the music they grew up listening to is as important to them as LA punk. Appearing on NPR earlier this year, Cervenka told Fresh Air host Terry Gross that much of X's music was a warning — that our true culture would one day be coopted by the corporations that had once foisted their arena rock upon us, to be used against the American people. I ask her if she thinks the re-emergence of LA punk in the media and popular consciousness means it has been appropriated by the powers that be. She doesn't. "It's too much of a wake-up message," she tells me. "I think at the end if you can live and be happy, and have a great, fulfilling life, and love your friends and family, and do creative things, that is the best response."
On Saturday, Aug. 21, X performs Los Angeles; On Sunday, Aug. 22, X performs Wild Gift, at El Club; Doors at 9 p.m.; 4114 West Vernor Hwy., Detroit; elclubdetroit.com; Individual nights are $35-40, and two-day passes are $50.