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B-Side Stories: X, the Whisky A-Go-Go, a Tragic Night, and 'Under the Big Black Sun'

The Whisky A Go Go on the Sunset Strip in the 1960's was bohemian paradise. Much has been made of the place in its prime (arguably 1966 to 1976), when the Doors, Love and the Byrds were house bands, chicks in neon miniskirts danced in cages hung from the ceiling and invented go-go dancing. There's a reason why there were riots on the Sunset Strip: It was place of fruit-loops and hoola-hoops. The corner of Sunset and Clark is where it all went down.

By the end of the 70s, it wasn't the same club. The rock had wandered elsewhere -- which is when the punks saw an opportunity: Taking cues from the squalor of Brighton and the corners of St. Marks Place the genre reached the sun-dappled highways of Southern California in 1976, and from this mess came X, four kids who made their way to LA from places as distant as Florida and Baltimore.

During these times the band flourished creatively, playing almost nightly at such iconic punk spots as Club Masque and the Orpheum. The Whisky, also hit by the recession, conceded to this new, lewd sound and became a locus for a nascent movement. Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for the Doors, first heard X at the Whisky, and asked to produce the band. In 1980, X released the seminal album Los Angeles. It's cover featured a burning X, an effigy announcing not only the bands arrival as one of punk's heavy hitters, but decrying the state of this once golden State. The hills were alive with the sound of sirens.

B-Side Stories: X, the Whisky A-Go-Go, a Tragic Night, and 'Under the Big Black Sun'

The album was a critical success and the band was well on its way to cementing its place in punk's pantheon when in 1981, tragedy struck in front of the Whisky. Lead singer Exene Cervenka's life has seen its share of drama, and she's turned these events into classic words and songs. According to friend and photographer Jenny Lens, one of the bands earliest hits, "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline," was half inspired by a poem written by Exene's sister Mirielle, about a driver who hit her and ran when she was fourteen.

Lens remembers when Slash Records -- the offshoot record label of the LA fanzine -- released Los Angeles. They celebrated at the Whisky. "We had no idea the next night would bring such tragedy to Exene," she recalled in Marc Spitz's history of LA punk, We Got the Neutron Bomb. Mirielle died in a car accident on the way to the show.

Word made its way to Exene, who was getting ready to take the stage with X at the Whisky when she learned that her sister had just died. Close friend Jane Wiedlin recounts in Beyond and Back: The X Anthology "One of the most poignant moments of X's on-stage career was the second set of a 1981 Whisky show. The band went on-stage just minutes after Exene's beloved sister, Mirielle, was killed on a Hollywood side street by a drunk driver. Some people in the audience were oblivious, but word spread quickly. A lot of people in the crowd were crying. It was one of the most painful moments I've witnessed ever, let alone in the realm of rock and roll."

Artist Judith Bell, who designed the cover to the Gun Club's Fire of Love, recalls in We Got the Neutron Bomb that X and John lost it up onstage: "They went out there and destroyed all their equipment and screamed and yelled and a lot of people who didn't know what happened thought it was the best show they'd ever seen. (In the great music documentary X: The Unheard Music, Exene stands in the Whisky's upstairs dressing room and identifies broken glass still on the windowsill where John Doe punched out a window after he heard the news. No word on whether the glass is still there 20 years later.)

Mirielle's death rocked the punk community. It also opened a dark yet productive period for the band,sending their music, and specifically Exene's lyrics, beyond the landscape of the city and into the deeper wells of her emotional core. All of which resulted in the beautiful, dark, angry love poem known as Under The Big Black Sun, the band's third album. Songs such as "Riding in the Car with Mary," "Come Back To Me," and "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes," were all written for Mirielle or about her death. It is no surprise then that despite the album's sad inspiration, it would become Exene's favorite. "You know, my favorite record is Under the Big Black Sun," she has said. "I'm saying if I had to sit down in a room and put on an X record -- which I don't generally do -- I have recently listened to some X records but I generally don't listen to myself -- the record I would pick to listen to would be Under the Big Black Sun."

In 1982, a year after the accident, the Whisky closed its doors. That magic fairy dust of youth and punk moved downtown toward Al's Bar, Madam Wong's and the other places the movement would go to take root and flourish. The bar remained quiet until 1986, when a bunch of rowdy kids from the Valley started to hit Sunset with coifed, fire-hazard hairdos and leather spandex: Hair metal consumed the strip, and it's stayed at the Whisky ever since. In the nineties traveling grunge bands playedthe club, as well, bringing their own rallying cries. But they weren't our bands. Today the club hosts a lot of metal bands and cover acts, and is a shrine to its halcyon days. The Echo, the Smell and other east side haunts have snatched the D.I.Y. and punk scene from the Strip. (Fewer douche bags, better parking, IMHO).

But the stories remains, the memory endures, and Under the Big Black Sun packs the same hardened, mournful punch.


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