Watching X perform live, it's impossible to shake the feeling that Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, John Doe and DJ Bonebrake will always give everything in their soul to the fans. The years keep passing but these four musicians leave every ounce of their creative being on the stage in each and every show.
And it’s been like that for decades. Last year, the dynamic group — remarkably still entirely intact — celebrated its 40th anniversary when “X: 40 Years of Punk in Los Angeles” premiered at the Grammy Museum.
That's pretty impressive, considering many of their punk peers — Johnny, Dee Dee and Joey Ramone, Joe Strummer, Lux Interior, Sid Vicious, David Bowie, Johnny Thunders, Stiv Bators, etc. — are no longer among the living. Meanwhile, countless other punk troupes have imploded thanks to infighting, drugs, a lack of money or a combination of the three.
This is a busy month for X, who are currently on their A Los Angeles Story tour with Los Lobos; they'll perform on Dec. 27 and 28 at the Observatory.
Doe attributes X’s staying power to "good fortune, good genes, good health, forgiveness.” Not to mention a love of performing. “It just is what we do. Young and old can come to enjoy and maybe get inspired. Performing and playing music keeps you young and is good for the soul.”
The enigmatic Doe has been writing, working on his second book, More Fun in the New World, profiling L.A. punk rock history from 1982 to '87. It's his nonfiction follow-up to the punk history best-seller Under the Big Black Sun.
“This is the sequel to the book we wrote in 2016 and deals with 1982 to '87. We used a similar format by having several people write chapters about subjects they are experts in,” the singer-bassist said.
Doe is one of those rare writers who doesn’t let himself get distracted. “I write anytime, anywhere, anyhow, and oftentimes that's not convenient," he says. "If you hear something, stop what you're doing and write it down.”
In Big Black Sun, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Spoken-Word Album, the punk-rock historian discussed the punk scene in the O.C.
“The outdoor life that young people of the time grew up with made the O.C. scene much more physical and sometimes violent. We only experienced it when we played there, which was much less often than the L.A. area,” he says.
When he’s not playing with X, Doe is involved in myriad projects, executive producing the podcast Beyond + Back, collaborating with Particle Kid and playing folk music with the John Doe Folk Trio.
Comparing the two music styles, the singer-songwriter said that while punk is “decidedly louder and faster,” folk may require more finesse. Still, “The subject matter and honesty of both is surprisingly similar,” he says.
Recently, Doe was in Oklahoma at the Woody Guthrie Center, discussing Bob Dylan’s latest album, performing some of his songs and inspired by his influence.
“Looking at his 3x5 memo notebooks was like looking at most other journals/notebooks but carried a lot more weight. Because there were parts of his well-known songs scribbled down in whole chunks. It reminded me to continue a constant work ethic.”
Doe has acted in more than 50 films and television productions. With Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody film being so successful, could the next band to have their life story told onscreen be X?
“I don’t think there will be a movie about X anytime soon,” Exene Cervenka says. “Maybe someday, who knows? We don’t think about that kind of thing much.”
Cervenka is very “grateful and stunned” that X have stayed together all these years.
“We worked hard, went through great and some hard times, stayed alive somehow and still love playing shows,” the singer acknowledges. “But really, it’s because people still come out to our shows and support us.”
X are heading back into the studios in January, working with Fat Possum Records. “We’re getting ready to record some old songs that never made it onto our albums, plus a few new ones, and at least one cover song,” she says. “We will see how far we get, but there are five or six songs we want to rehearse and work out. It’s really exciting.”
Cervenka is ageless, with a charismatic, youthful spirit. Recently, she wrote a song with Kelli Mayo from Skating Polly. A song that she and Doe co-wrote with Garbage, “Destroying Angels," was just released for Record Store Day.
Perhaps the key to X’s success is the desire to keep things feeling fresh.
“You can think that every time onstage may be your last, or you can feel like it’s all brand-new,” Cervenka says. “I’m always motivated to play shows. It never gets old to me, though it can be physically grueling, for sure.”
Cervenka has her eye on a few O.C. bands. “The May Company are a cool band that reminds me of The Cramps with a woman guitarist/singer. They are very moody and spooky. I also like The Hurricanes, Big Sandy — the more rootsy music a lot.”
The veteran punk icon has always been intrigued by creating poetry, fiction and short stories, spending her downtime writing.
“For a long time I wasn’t motivated, feeling I had done it all before,” she says. “Writing is fun when you are inspired, but there’s a lot of work to do after that. Now I am going to workshops and applying myself. So I’m very content with all of that.”
Cervenka writes mostly at her home in Orange. “But I can do it anywhere; I really like downtown Santa Ana, the Frida movie theater, the new shops, the artwalk.”
Cervenka was thrilled that X’s music has sparked the muse for a young-adult writer named Camille A. Collins, whose first book, The Exene Chronicles, debuted in September.
“I really loved the book and communicated with the author,” Cervenka says. “It is so cool."
Rick Nyburg, who often photographed the band, was just as much attracted to Cervenka’s words as he was their music.
“I told Exene early on, it was her poetry that kept me devoted to the band,” Nyburg says. “That is how it started. My best friend from college was Jay Jenkins, who met Doe and Cervenka at the Beyond Baroque poetry workshop in Venice. When they decided to form a band in 1977, he became their manager.”
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Jenkins asked Nyburg to be the band photographer.
“I was on the permanent guest list from that time on ... from '77 until they passed their peak around '87. What always impressed me at every show was the incredible energy in the room, the devotion of the fans, and the raw power from the band onstage.”
Occasionally, Nyburg would go to Cervenka and Doe’s house for dinner, and would bring a slideshow of images he had shot to that point.
“Watching X perform was truly an exhilarating experience," he says. "They were making music with a power and message that I had never heard, and that was contagious!”