Exene Cervenka: Exile in the Ozarks
Apron in hand, Exene Cervenka greets a visitor to her 175-year-old Missouri farmhouse with a sorely needed cup of coffee. The garment is no stage prop, but instead a handy way to carry scissors, Sharpie markers and other tools of the collage artist. Still, the image of punk godmother and X’s lead singer as homemaker is momentarily jarring — as is the talk of vegetable gardens, cleaning house and other mundane chores around a home listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Virginia Lee Hunter
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The artist who once sang "I could throw my lipstick and bracelets like gravel and move to Alabama" has chosen the Show-Me State instead (and married a Honkey).
Nearly 30 years after first singing “She had to leave Los Angeles” and two years after doing so, Cervenka seems to have fully embraced life in the rural Missouri home she shares with guitarist/drummer Jason Edge, her third husband. He’s now a member of the Original Sinners, the roots-punk band Cervenka fronts.
The two met in 1999 at a St. Louis concert by the Honkeys, a surf-punk instrumental band Edge played in. They married on a Mississippi River boat in a ceremony presided over by El Vez, a.k.a. longtime L.A. punk fixture Robert Lopez. “My friends are scattered all over the country,” explains Cervenka. “My son is at Columbia University. I was leaving a few really close friends in L.A., but I spent so much time there,” she says. “It’s a different place than when I first got there. It’s just really overpopulated and difficult to navigate. ... I think I lived there long enough.”
With seven and a half acres and a barn that dwarfs the size of her Los Angeles house, Cervenka, 52, no longer has to create collages on her bed. There’s ample space in the barn, even amid the boxes of old photos, vintage 78s, exercise equipment and musical instruments. Though the occasional X reunion tour still pays most of her bills (the band plays June 14 at the House of Blues in Anaheim), art is what seems to most inspire her these days.
A collection of her recent collages, along with daily journals from a 25-year period, is now part of a Claremont Museum of Art exhibit, “Vexing: Female Voices From East L.A. Punk.” Her newest solo exhibit, “Sleep in Spite of Thunder,” is on display at DCKT Contemporary gallery on New York’s Lower East Side through mid-July. The show, her second N.Y. exhibition, is anchored by the found family photos and other “castaway cultural ephemera” she collects on regular forays to flea markets and auctions throughout the Missouri Ozarks and Arkansas.
Admittedly, life in flyover country can be a bit isolating. For Cervenka, that’s by design. Here, in the shadow of the Missouri state capitol — a place where lawmakers recently closed a legislative session debating ways to crack down on illegal immigrants and make it harder for poor people to vote — no one recognizes the reigning queen of punk. She’s more than happy to accept the anonymity in exchange for the occasional stare.
“I dress like this here, and no one else does. I have an apron on and little black shoes and white stockings and weird pins. Sometimes kids look at me, teenagers, and try to figure out if I’m Amish. Or what I am.” At the same time, Cervenka lauds what she calls the community’s libertarian spirit.
“People just don’t get into each other’s shit. They just leave each other alone. They’re very polite.” For diversion, or a decent restaurant, the university town of Columbia is a mere 30 minutes away — practically around the corner in Southern California time. St. Louis and Kansas City are two hours away, and tours with X, the Knitters, the Original Sinners and her art exhibits provide Cervenka with plenty of exposure to the outside world. “We don’t have to go anywhere when we’re here,” she says. “We just sit up here, make art, eat macaroni and cheese and just hang out.”
Life in Colonel Lewis Bolton’s old homestead has also proved itself a fertile environment in which to write music. In the past year, Cervenka has written two-dozen songs, she says. A solo album for Bloodshot Records is planned for 2009. A collaboration with first husband John Doe on some new X material is also a possibility — news sure to quicken the pulse of those who have waited 15 years for an album’s worth of new material.
Cervenka admits that some of her friends have had a harder time wrapping their heads around her decision to move to Missouri, a place she says resembles her childhood home of Mokena, Illinois, before the encroachment of Chicagoland suburbia. “There’s a lot of fear of Missouri,” she reflects. “People think it’s a redneck, Bible Belt, Baptist, you’re-gonna-get-dragged-down-behind-a-pickup-truck place. That’s a big misconception.” An artist’s solitude is worth the misunderstanding, she adds. “The remoteness of it, and that you can live here and not have to leave every day, is so worth it. The country is so beautiful.”
In 24 hours, Cervenka and her bandmates will be onstage in Detroit, the tour’s first stop. There are bills to pay, suitcases to pack, affairs to get in order. Time to turn off the coffeepot.
There’s just one more thing, Cervenka says. A reminder to her friends and fans in Los Angeles, the city that she and Doe and Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake helped both to puncture and to define for a lost generation, or two: “Tell them I’m happy here,” she says. “Tell them I’m happy.”
Exene Cervenka will perform with X on June 14 at the House of Blues in Anaheim. Her artwork is being shown through August 31 as part of the Claremont Museum of Art’s exhibit“Vexing: Female Voices From East L.A. Punk.” Her newest solo exhibit, “Sleep in Spite of Thunder,” is currently on display at DCKT Contemporary gallery in New York City.
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