How X Became L.A.'s Least Likely Iconic Band

X outside legendary punk-rock club the Masque in 1979EXPAND
X outside legendary punk-rock club the Masque in 1979
Frank Gargani

On Wednesday night, X singer Exene Cervenka threw out the first pitch at an L.A. Dodgers game while the organist played the tune of “Blue Spark,” a track off the band’s 1982 album Under the Big Black Sun.

The song, like many written by Cervenka and the band’s bassist and co-singer John Doe, captures Los Angeles — a city with so many different identities that it's often hard to define without relying on clichés like palm trees, smog and traffic — at its most dark and unsettling, without ever mentioning it by name. Instead, it gives us place ("a beach apartment"), a color ("blue spark"), an action ("loudspeakers and search lights") and two unnamed characters, self-absorbed and loyal to nobody, in stereotypical Angeleno fashion ("She’s forgotten him for the bodies around her"). It could be a song about sex or seduction or infidelity but, like most X songs, it’s a poem in which the meaning doesn’t matter so much as the images, the characters and the way they make you feel when paired with Cervenka and Doe's haunting vocals, Billy Zoom's rockabilly guitar licks and DJ Bonebrake's rolling drums.

X songs aren’t intended to be easily digestible, which is why hearing an organist at a major league baseball game — about as traditional, family-friendly and all-American a sound as you can get — perform “Blue Spark,” a song whose title could double as a tribute to the Dodgers, was surreal. The occasion for the appearance was the band’s 40th anniversary, which the Dodgers honored by inviting Doe — who wore a Dodger-blue suit, his dark charcoal hair slicked back — to sing the National Anthem on the field while his bandmates watched, their last names plastered across their custom Dodgers jerseys. It’s an honor typically reserved for pop stars and burgeoning mainstream acts, not poetic-leaning, aging punk bands whose most popular songs — about being poor, desperate and victimized in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles — are still largely underground. But after four decades of playing music together in relative obscurity, the original foursome are finally getting their due in the city their debut album was named after.

The band, who just finished a tour opening for Blondie, play a city-sponsored free concert at Pershing Square on Saturday. In October, they will be the subject of a retrospective at the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live that will feature costumes, instruments and handwritten song lyrics. Forty years in, X might be one of the most beloved and venerated bands in Los Angeles — but they also remain oddly unknown, a band still seldom played on the radio, with a catalog most non-fans are completely unfamiliar with.

It’s a paradox that seems fitting for a group that’s always been hard to classify: a little bit country, a little bit rock & roll (at the risk of quoting Donny and Marie Osmond), not commercially viable but reliably brilliant, liberal in their lyrics and yet conservative in their politics. They're also one of the few bands in existence in any city in the world today that have toured for as long as they have with their original lineup fully intact.

How the band's members have managed to keep going, despite setbacks including Cervenka and Doe’s divorce in 1985, Cervenka’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis in 2009, and Zoom's diagnoses of both prostate cancer and bladder cancer, isn’t just a matter of luck or perseverance. To Cervenka, that the band never became rich or famous is also one of its greatest assets.

“The only answer to that question of why are we still together is because we didn't make enough money to break up, to quit or die,” Cervenka says in a recent phone interview. “And it makes sense. Like if we were so famous and rich that we all got into drugs and overdosed or we didn't have to do it anymore [financially], those are the reasons you stop. Otherwise you keep playing, because you’re musicians.

“We’re not wealthy, but we’re lucky. We still love doing it. And we can still make somewhat of a living doing it,” she adds. “I don't see a reason to ever stop until we have to — especially now, because now it's like a dare. It's like, OK, 40 years? Watch this.”

That the band never achieved widespread fame and success appears to be, at least in part, by design. Though X's music is memorable, their name is anything but: An X is ambiguous, a character intended to symbolize an unknown number or variable. Cervenka started going by Exene as a subversive variation on her given name, Christene, as if to challenge others to fill in the blank. Even Doe’s stage name — taken from the moniker given to unidentified corpses — is intended to provoke confusion, positioning the singer and bassist as yet another anonymous person in the world, his name and identity rendered unimportant.

X todayEXPAND
X today
Daniel Coston

Decades later, the band’s name is not just ambiguous but also virtually unsearchable — try finding X on iTunes or Spotify. Their logo, also an X, appears to be less mass-produced than the logos of Black Flag and The Germs — now-defunct bands that were part of the same L.A. scene as X and also featured in the era-defining documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. But for X, obscurity is just fine as long as it means longevity.

The band’s tribute at Dodger Stadium, arranged for the Dodgers’ game against the White Sox because Cervenka, Doe and drummer DJ Bonebrake all grew up near Chicago, was “the biggest thrill of all time,” Cervenka says. It also made her nostalgic for X’s formative years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when they used to go to Dodgers games together “all the time.” There was plenty of crossover between the worlds of music and sports back then: Her friend Belinda Carlisle, of The Go-Go’s, was dating Dodgers outfielder Mike Marshall, and Gary Leonard, who famously photographed the early punk scene, was photographing the Dodgers at the same time.

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“L.A. seemed so small then; it was just such a neat time,” Cervenka says. “It’s just a little harder now. Cities are crowded now and there’s a lot of new younger people and they want different things and restaurants change and bars change … you know, the jukebox is gone and now it’s this different music or whatever.”

Cervenka has been critical of California in recent years, describing it as a “liberal oppressive police state [with its] regulations and taxes and fees” in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2014. Does she still feel that way? “Every place is kind of a police state now in one way or another, whether it’s liberal or conservative or just hysterical. It seems like there’s so much hysteria right now, doesn’t it?” says the Orange County resident, who insists she loves California and adores its largest city, even if it is in a state of constant redevelopment. “That’s the thing about L.A. It was always like that. ... It was not built to be a permanent city. It was like a soundstage, you know, like a set. [Structures] can be here today, gone tomorrow, which is again kind of the neat thing about it.” Case in point: The “big old beautiful” house near Western Avenue and Sixth Street, where Zoom lived and where the band used to rehearse in the garage, was torn down a few years later, in the early 1980s, according to Cervenka.

Cervenka fueled negative press and questions about her mental health in 2014 when she suggested in a series of now-deleted YouTube videos that the Isla Vista massacre, in which Elliot Rodger killed six UCSB students before taking his own life, was a hoax carried out by former President Barack Obama. When asked about her political views now, Cervenka says it’s a topic she’s no longer willing to discuss. “I’m in a band, I’ve got three other people in my band, we’ve got rents and mortgages and still kids and lots of dependents and none of us have very much money and I can’t say or do anything that I think might even possibly make anyone sad,” she says. “I’m not blaming people, I think we all are really supercharged emotionally right now about what we believe in or think or know, or what we’re afraid of. … There’s a lot of scary stuff going on and I don’t want to add to it.”

X's actual music has never been overtly political. They're not the band you listen to when you’re looking for hope — they're the band you listen to when you’ve given up on everything else. Their lyrics mix Americana with cynicism, nihilism and despair, which is why some of their songs have taken on a new kind of weight in the age of Trump. And when they do flirt with politics, they can be prophetic: Their 1983 song “The New World” captures an America in decline by calling out politicians' false promises and name-checking cities like Detroit; Flint, Michigan; Buffalo, New York; Gary, Indiana; and Mobile, Alabama. “It was better before, before they voted for What’s-His-Name/This was supposed to be the new world,” Doe and Cevenka croon in the chorus.

Despite Cervenka's remarks in 2014, X today appear to be more celebrated than ever, at least in their adopted hometown of Los Angeles — its perpetual, volatile muse, its ever-burning blue spark. The recognition this year is significant considering the band never had a major hit. Cervenka and Doe will likely never be as famous as former Black Flag frontman (and L.A. Weekly columnist) Henry Rollins, or as legendary as The Germs singer Darby Crash, who has been memorialized in countless books and movies since his overdose death in 1980. But the band have now been honored at Dodger Stadium, and come October, they'll have an exhibit at the Grammy Museum, further cementing their legacy as one of the most iconic bands under the big black sun of Los Angeles.

X play a free show at Pershing Square with Meat Puppets on Saturday, Aug. 19. More info.

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