X Ray Vision
|Photo by Wild Don Lewis|
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 Xs direction, and Riversides blasting soulsters the BellRays, who joined the fray in the mid-90s, are one for sure.
We thought wed 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: Live in Los Angeles, 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 theyd 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, its the last show, its been broken for a week, why should we fix the air conditioning? It was a hundred and seventy-five degrees, with 200 percent humidity, if thats 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: Youve seen those heat-circulating things in ovens, havent you? Probably its so you can get done all over, real evenly.
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. Its great. You dont feel like shit! Mentally, you feel better. I write more songs.
WEEKLY [to Fate]: So how did you come to be on the bill with X?
FATE: It was some guys dream gig. The club people just asked us to play the show, and they said, X is gonna play. And well fly you out.
WEEKLY: How did you feel?
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 didnt 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 Id heard their stuff, and I said, Yes! [ A baby at a nearby table shrieks .] Thats exactly what I said!
WEEKLY: I take it that you guys were somewhat familiar with Xs music before . . .
FATE: I brought a copy of Xs Los Angeles, and I want you guys to sign it.
WEEKLY: How old were you when you first heard X?
KEKAULA: I was 15, 16.
WEEKLY: What was your initial impression?
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. Thats a great move. Most bands would hit D major, but you hit D minor two measures, not one. Thats real smooth.
KEKAULA [to Doe]: 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 Id been to New York enough times to realize that was pretty much set. I saw the Heartbreakers at Maxs Kansas City, saw the Ramones and Talking Heads at CBGBs. I was, like, 22, and I thought, this is here, its 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. Whatever could happen . . .
KEKAULA: Aint 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: What about the way they rock?
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 didnt want to see it, but . . .
CERVENKA: But maybe the Doritos were covered with worms.
WEEKLY: Thats the part you missed, because you were from out of town. You didnt realize it was performance art.
FATE: Thats the part I missed.
WEEKLY [to X]: When you started, things had cooled out musically, and it seemed like people were ready to bust out.
CERVENKA: Its 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 dont 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: Its more insidious, because its 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 youve gotta be a porn-star rock star with a drug addiction, youve got to have a publicist whos pushing that angle. Its so hard to shock people anymore.
FATE: When I listened to the old punk bands, say 1976, I didnt 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 thats 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, youre not gonna play the game? Thats fine. No problem. Fuck you. Youre done, thank you very much. Theres gonna be no Newsweek magazine talking about the new rock music. Its gonna be about Sid Vicious threw up on somebody.
CERVENKA: Yeah, but then you had Los Angeles.
DOE: Still, at that point it was sort of over, I think, for the mass media. I dont know, maybe it was a good thing. Maybe it has a more deeper-reaching subculture effect.
FATE: Thats 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. Its 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 didnt happen in 1976, its happened over the years. All these guys that got older, they became architects and film directors and what have you.
CERVENKA: Id like to see punk rock architecture.
DOE: Youd just leave a lot of beer cans all over the place.
WEEKLY: Anger was 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? Im sure they had the same concerns weve 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. Thats marketing. If thats all it was about, itd be a very limited type of music. You could only listen to five songs, and youd get really bored.
DOE: I know those five songs. Anger comes from being socially alienated. Im left out of this game, in general, because I dont 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 its 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 Reagans a dick! Thats my song.
CERVENKA: Like country musicians, we were writing about ordinary life.
WEEKLY: In This House That I Call Home ...
CERVENKA: We were a funny band. Our lyrics were funny. We thought everything was pretty funny.
WEEKLY: Sometimes punk-related musicians dont get the respect for being musicians. Do you think there was a huge gap between the best of the punk-type musicians and Toto?
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. Its straightforward. It has one voice. You can play a bunch of licks, it doesnt make any difference.
WEEKLY: When youre getting up onstage now, whats the difference in the way you feel toward your audience?
CERVENKA: Its not a difference for me at all. The audience is different from night to night, and the audience makes the show.
WEEKLY: You didnt have a big audience when you started, but you had an enthusiastic audience.
CERVENKA: It got big real quick, though.
WEEKLY: So you didnt experience what a lot of bands go through, trying to get over to an audience that doesnt quite understand you.
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 its X or the Knitters or solo. You get to a point where you really like to sing or youre done. When youre at that point, you either keep going or you dont. And I love singing.
WEEKLY: I suppose musicians do get to that point when they just say, Im goddamn sick of this, but I dont know how to do anything else.
KEKAULA: Theres loads of em that start that way. I can feel it. I feel like somebodys lying to me, and theyre talking about what they want to do, but theyre not convincing me that thats what they really want to do. I think a lot of that has to do with singing songs that they dont like singing, which makes them not like what theyre doing, but they might be making millions.
WEEKLY: Youve had to jump over a lot of hurdles to do what you want to do.
KEKAULA: Oh yeah. Youve got to focus. And theres so many bands that dont really have a focus as to why theyre there doing it. We say all the time, Hey, bands, if you dont need to be out there, then dont be there. Get out of the way so the people who want to see us can see us. Youre blockin the sun!
WEEKLY: People see that hour onstage, but they dont see what went behind it.
CERVENKA [straight-faced]: Oh, X doesnt work that hard. We dont rehearse or anything like that.
FATE: People dont know about the rehearsing, and the transmission that broke down on the way to the gig . . .
DOE: Thats Indiana talkin right there.
KEKAULA: Thats bein in the van talkin.
WEEKLY [to Doe]: At the beginning of that new video, you were talking about how you never thought youd get to the 25-year mark. At what point did you start worrying about that?
DOE: Id 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 didnt use it for effect, and we didnt use it to try to sell records.
WEEKLY: But everybody does that now. If they dont have a drug problem, they make one up.
CERVENKA: As long as they die on the Ex-Lax, Im all for it.
WEEKLY [to Kekaula and Fate]: Either of you have kids?
KEKAULA: Yep. A daughter. About to graduate from high school.
KEKAULA: Thanks. I feel like its a major accomplishment.
WEEKLY: Is there any one thing you thought about when you were gonna have a kid, like, Heres what my parents did, and Im not gonna do that?
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: Johns daughter and my son graduate next year from high school. I have to agree with people who say parenthood is lifes hardest job . . . I just made my son watch The Decline of Western Civilization. Theres your mom. Turn away.
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