When you think of Los Angeles music, the X synapse is one of the first to fire. Most regional rock artists would be glad to dip a tributary guitar neck in X’s direction, and Riverside’s blasting soulsters the BellRays, who joined the fray in the mid-’90s, are one for sure.
We thought we’d convene some members of both bands and talk about music and our city, past and present. X bassist-singer John Doe and singer Exene Cervenka flowed with the reflective mood generated by the release of the smokin’ concert DVD X:LiveinLosAngeles,which celebrates a quarter-century of grit and burn. BellRays howler Lisa Kekaula and guitarist Tony Fate were about to load up for a Northwest tour. We shot the shit at a Mexican restaurant around Pacoima. Seems they’d all met somewhere a couple of years previous . . .
DOE:Does anyone know whether the joint that we played together in New Orleans has reopened?
KEKAULA:I heard that was down. The Shim Sham, where the air conditioning broke the night that we were playin’.
DOE:It broke a whole week before. We were the last show that was gonna be there, so they figure, “Fuck, it’s the last show, it’s been broken for a week, why should we fix the air conditioning?” It was a hundredand seventy-five degrees, with 200 percent humidity, if that’s possible. And they had these giant fans that were, like, 8 feet tall, aimed out in the audience. What the fuck is that gonna do? Nothing!
L.A.WEEKLY:You’veseenthoseheat-circulatingthingsinovens,haven’tyou?Probablyit’ssoyoucangetdoneallover,realevenly. DOE:The biggest convection oven in the South. After that show, Lisa, I started running. I thought I was gonna fucking die that night, I swear to god. After that night, for the rest of that tour, I started jogging, up to 45 minutes a day, about four miles. It’s great. You don’t feel like shit! Mentally, you feel better. I write more songs.
WEEKLY[toFate]:SohowdidyoucometobeonthebillwithX? FATE:It was some guy’s dream gig. The club people just asked us to play the show, and they said, “X is gonna play. And we’ll fly you out.”
FATE:We get to go to New Orleans, out in the French Quarter, we get to play with X, and we get paid on top of that.
KEKAULA:No, we didn’t get paid! That was part of the thing. We did it because we wanted to play with X.
DOE:You are so rock! When we heard they were gonna play, I was thrilled, because I’d heard their stuff, and I said, “Yes!” [Ababy at a nearby table shrieks.] That’s exactly what I said!
WEEKLY:ItakeitthatyouguysweresomewhatfamiliarwithX’smusicbefore... FATE:I brought a copy of X’s LosAngeles,and I want you guys to sign it.
WEEKLY:HowoldwereyouwhenyoufirstheardX? KEKAULA:I was 15, 16.
WEEKLY:Whatwasyourinitialimpression? FATE:I really thought it was cool. I saw you guys in 1980. And then I saw you again about seven years later. I was real impressed by X, and I saw the Weirdos right after that, too. The first song I ever heard of yours was “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” and that hit me. You know, it goes F, and then D minor, then it goes to C. That’s a great move. Most bands would hit D major, but you hit D minor — two measures, not one. That’s real smooth.
KEKAULA[toDoe]:Where are you from originally?
KEKAULA:So you came west to get away from the cold like Tony?
DOE:No, I came west to get the hell off the East Coast. The times were a-changin’, and I’d been to New York enough times to realize that was pretty much set. I saw the Heartbreakers at Max’s Kansas City, saw the Ramones and Talking Heads at CBGB’s. I was, like, 22, and I thought, thisis here, it’s all done. So I wanted to do something, but not there. I wanted to change. I liked the whole idea of L.A. And when I came down here, I came for a couple of weeks, and I thought, this is it — the light— it was random, crazy. Whatevercould happen . . .
KEKAULA:Ain’t that the truth.
DOE:It was so enticing. And the Hollywood sign was falling down, so there was this whole decadent element to it.
FATE:It took me years to get over the culture shock, from Indiana to here. Everything was different out here, the way the people talk and act, and the weather.
WEEKLY:Whataboutthewaytheyrock? FATE:In the Midwest, either you kick ass or your ass will be kicked off the stage. And out here, it seemed like almost anything went. If you just sat on the stage eating Doritos, that was your act and there was an audience for that. I didn’t want to see it, but . . .
CERVENKA:But maybe the Doritos were covered with worms.
WEEKLY:That’sthepartyoumissed,becauseyouwerefromoutoftown.Youdidn’trealizeitwasperformanceart. FATE:That’s the part I missed.
WEEKLY[toX]:Whenyoustarted,thingshadcooledoutmusically,anditseemedlikepeoplewerereadytobustout. CERVENKA:It’s kind of gotten back to the way it was here when we first came. The upscale, limousine, tawdry . . .
FATE:There were the big arena bands, and the focus was on that being the music scene.
DOE:If I was an up-and-coming musician, I would think that that would be a relief. “Okay, I don’t have to worry about ‘making it,’ all I have to worry about is being credible and finding a style.” I agree that it is very similar now.
KEKAULA:It’s more insidious, because it’s more polished now. I hate to be one of those people who looks back and says, “Oh, it was much better then.” But now it seems like you’ve gotta be a porn-star rock star with a drug addiction, you’ve got to have a publicist who’s pushing that angle. It’s so hard to shock people anymore.
FATE:When I listened to the old punk bands, say 1976, I didn’t hear the Sex Pistols as shocking, I heard them as a great rock & roll band that could really write, that could play — Glen Matlock was a great bassist — and that’s all they needed. All the spitting and the rip-this-up, tear-this-up — that was an affectation. But the music stands on its own. It still kicks ass.
DOE:I would go a step further and say all the accouterment was a real pain in the ass and really fucked stuff up for everybody else. It made me so incredibly angry that the mainstream press immediately dismissed punk for that sort of attitude. “Oh, you’re not gonna play the game? That’s fine. No problem. Fuck you. You’re done, thank you very much. There’s gonna be no Newsweekmagazine talking about ‘the new rock music.’ It’s gonna be about ‘Sid Vicious threw up on somebody.’ ”
CERVENKA:Yeah, but then you had LosAngeles.
DOE:Still, at that point it was sort of over, I think, for the mass media. I don’t know, maybe it was a good thing. Maybe it has a more deeper-reaching subculture effect.
FATE:That’s what punk rock has become. Instead of being just one explosion that happened at one point in time, the explosion has lasted all these years. It’s gone very underground and very deep. I thought the whole punk-rock thing was gonna be music and film and literature and fashion and architecture and whatever. But it didn’t happen in 1976, it’s happened over the years. All these guys that got older, they became architects and film directors and what have you.
CERVENKA:I’d like to see punk rock architecture.
DOE:You’d just leave a lot of beer cans all over the place.
WEEKLY: Angerwas a big part of punk rock to start with. How much is it still a motivation? FATE:The thing about punk rock being an angry kind of music, I guess it is in some way, but to me, punk goes farther back than just the Ramones. It goes back to blues singers and Hank Williams, way back. So what were they singing about? I’m sure they had the same concerns we’ve got. People are stylistically different, but the intent is the same. This idea that rock music and punk rock has to be this angry, screaming thing, I think a publicity firm came up with that. That’s marketing. If that’s all it was about, it’d be a very limited type of music. You could only listen to five songs, and you’d get really bored.
DOE:I know those five songs. Anger comes from being socially alienated. “I’m left out of this game, in general, because I don’t have certain advantages.” I still have to control my anger with just dumb people and dumb business decisions and all kinds of things. And I think it’s still valid. But a bad song and a weaker band was the band that just wanted to yell about Ronald Reagan being a dick. “Ronald Reagan’s a dick! That’s my song.”
CERVENKA:Like country musicians, we were writing about ordinary life.
WEEKLY:“InThisHouseThatICallHome”... CERVENKA:We were a funnyband. Our lyrics were funny. We thought everything was pretty funny.
WEEKLY:Sometimespunk-relatedmusiciansdon’tgettherespectforbeingmusicians.Doyouthinktherewasahugegapbetweenthebestofthepunk-typemusiciansandToto? KEKAULA:X is an exception to that, though. I think they were always credited for being good musicians.
DOE:I think there were some great musicians in punk rock, and some great writers. But it was more about intuition and simplicity. And I think that that goes through the BellRays, and any band that really works. You have three or four elements colliding to make the sound of a band. It’s straightforward. It has one voice. You can play a bunch of licks, it doesn’t make any difference.
WEEKLY:Whenyou’regettinguponstagenow,what’sthedifferenceinthewayyoufeeltowardyouraudience? CERVENKA:It’s not a difference for me at all. The audience is different from night to night, and the audience makes the show.
WEEKLY:Youdidn’thaveabigaudiencewhenyoustarted,butyouhadanenthusiasticaudience. CERVENKA:It got big real quick, though.
WEEKLY:Soyoudidn’texperiencewhatalotofbandsgothrough,tryingtogetovertoanaudiencethatdoesn’tquiteunderstandyou. CERVENKA:We changed places with the audience. We were in the audience for the Plugz and the Plugz were in the audience for us. It really was just one thing.
DOE:I come to the audience with much less of a chip on my shoulder, regardless of whether it’s X or the Knitters or solo. You get to a point where you really like to sing or you’re done. When you’re at that point, you either keep going or you don’t. And I love singing.
WEEKLY:Isupposemusiciansdogettothatpointwhentheyjustsay,“I’mgoddamnsickofthis,butIdon’tknowhowtodoanythingelse.” KEKAULA:There’s loads of ’em that startthat way. I can feel it. I feel like somebody’s lying to me, and they’re talking about what they want to do, but they’re not convincing me that that’s what they really want to do. I think a lot of that has to do with singing songs that they don’t like singing, which makes them not like what they’re doing, but they might be making millions.
WEEKLY:You’vehadtojumpoveralotofhurdlestodowhatyouwanttodo. KEKAULA:Oh yeah. You’ve got to focus. And there’s so many bands that don’t really have a focus as to why they’re there doing it. We say all the time, “Hey, bands, if you don’t need to be out there, then don’t be there. Get out of the way so the people who want to see us can see us. You’re blockin’ the sun!”
WEEKLY:Peopleseethathouronstage,buttheydon’tseewhatwentbehindit. CERVENKA[straight-faced]:Oh, X doesn’t work that hard. We don’t rehearse or anything like that.
FATE:People don’t know about the rehearsing, and the transmission that broke down on the way to the gig . . .
DOE:That’s Indiana talkin’ right there.
KEKAULA:That’s bein’ in the vantalkin’.
WEEKLY[toDoe]:Atthebeginningofthatnewvideo,youweretalkingabouthowyouneverthoughtyou’dgettothe25-yearmark.Atwhatpointdidyoustartworryingaboutthat? DOE:I’d say about the time I started having a few too many drinks and a few too many times with hard drugs and things like that. Living pretty fast and wild. Luckily we didn’t use it for effect, and we didn’t use it to try to sell records.
WEEKLY:Buteverybodydoesthatnow.Iftheydon’thaveadrugproblem,theymakeoneup. CERVENKA:As long as they dieon the Ex-Lax, I’m all for it.
WEEKLY[toKekaulaandFate]:Eitherofyouhavekids? KEKAULA:Yep. A daughter. About to graduate from high school.
WEEKLY:Congratulations! KEKAULA:Thanks. I feel like it’s a major accomplishment.
WEEKLY:Isthereanyonethingyouthoughtaboutwhenyouweregonnahaveakid,like,“Here’swhatmyparentsdid,andI’mnotgonnadothat”? KEKAULA:I want to make sure she knows I will talk to her about anything, and she can talk to anybody about anything. If she wants to find out about anything, have the strength to ask the question.
CERVENKA:John’s daughter and my son graduate next year from high school. I have to agree with people who say parenthood is life’s hardest job . . . I just made my son watch TheDeclineofWesternCivilization.“There’s your mom. Turn away.”