The cover of Original Sinners’ debut album shows a woman pouring green brew from a bottle into a glass. The woman is offering you the glass, along with the big cracked valentine heart that hovers behind. The heart has a skull and crossbones on it, and so does the bottle.
The message: Love is poison. Drink up!
We can‘t help quaffing the killer dose, says Exene Cervenka — poet, Original Sinner, Catholic girl formerly called Christ-ine. Love is a fallen creature, doomed to tear itself apart, like humankind itself. Cervenka has learned not to shoulder the entire blame, though the nuns back in small-town Illinois taught her otherwise: ”The downfall of the human race is Eve’s fault, and you‘re a girl. Therefore, it’s your fault.“
Love hurts, but being a songwriter, Cervenka at least has her compensations. You get involved with somebody. It ends badly. Later, ”You don‘t remember anything about him, but you’ve got four songs. It isn‘t planned that way, it just happens. Songs are your consolation prize.“
Original Sinners is a passel of love songs — quick and to the point, same as Cervenka’s speech, but way noisier. And here‘s a band to help her yell and cry, a rockabilly train with a full head of steam and no brakes. As you’d expect, echoes of X, Cervenka‘s past and present band, aren’t too faint, especially on ravers like ”Who‘s Laughin’ Now,“ ”River City“ and ”Pretty,“ which plain scoop you up and drag you off. A few instrumentals, while sporting surfy touches, flee the sunshine down the sewer, bleeding with speed-freak craze. And when the Sinners crank the rhythm down a notch to a heavy thud, as on ”Aluminum Flavored Honey,“ they squeeze maximum torture out of their guitars between verses like ”The only vow you‘ll ever takeIs till death do us party.“ Despite all the nods to traditional country and blues, this record trashes purist reverence, crashing borders in pursuit of hell’s baddest hounds.
Following a number of solo projects, Cervenka started writing with guitarist Sam Soto of Sluts for Hire a couple of years ago, digging his combination of rockabilly twang and Johnny Thunders dirt. ”I‘ve known him since he was, like, a kid,“ she says. ”He still is a kid, really.“ She lucked into the group’s ace drums-bass unit, Mat Young and Kim Chi, when they split the Distillers. Cervenka first ran across Louisiana son Jason Edge when he was playing drums in a spy-surf band called the Honkeys, but plugged him into the Sinners as a guitarist and singer several months ago, just before the Sinners commenced recording sessions for Nitro, a large independent label started by Dexter Holland of the Offspring.
The band‘s combination of shared and diverse influences gives Cervenka a kick. ”It’s nice when you speak a common language. Like, ‘You know that Gun Club song?’ And everybody goes, ‘Yeah!’“
It‘s obvious that the other four are glad to be hanging with her, too. They should be; Cervenka is performing at a lifetime peak. Her writing is bitterly funny (”Try to live it upTry to live it down“). Her singing is stronger than ever, and more adaptable: Shades of anger, triumph or despair slide from her tongue so naturally, you feel like you’re eavesdropping. And the way her voice blends with Chi‘s equally feminine howl, she almost seems to be harmonizing with herself. Even her guitar brings the goods — cock an ear to the Damned-able riffing on ”Bringin’ Me Down.“
Cervenka‘s multicolored cat-eyes glow when she talks about going on the road. She plans to take the Sinners out as soon as possible; they’ve played only a few gigs so far.
”I love America, I love traveling, I love driving around the country, either with a band or without. I love towns and Route 66 and cities and farms and food and people. Wal-Marts, grocery stores, bars and taverns.“
Notes from recent and past road experiences form hunks of Cervenka‘s latest book, A Beer on Every Page, which you can order at www.exenecervenka.com. It also has poems and a lot of drawings — drawing, she says, is easier for her than writing. And if you’re expecting details of band experiences, you may have to change gears for her highly personal observations: ”It‘s like, ’I‘m in my hotel room, I’ve got a broken cigarette . . .‘“
In addition to working on the Sinners and the book, Cervenka has burned highway radials recently with X as well as with the Knitters, the country outfit she formed for one album back in 1984 with John Doe, D.J. Bonebrake, Dave Alvin and Jonny Ray Bartel, an attraction that surprisingly still packs ’em in. She‘s also raising a teenage son, and working part time in his school library for fun. How’s she do it? One thing at a time? ”No, three! Five! Seven!“
Periodic reunions with the other three original X members — Billy Zoom, Doe and Bonebrake — following an Elektra anthology a few years back have been less of a strain than anyone anticipated given the frictions that built up back in the day. ”It‘s so different among all of us,“ says Cervenka. ”All of the good stuff is there, and none of the bad stuff is there. It’s the best possible situation for that band to exist again.
“Bands serve a real useful purpose besides their music. They‘re like tattoos.” Cervenka herself got some skin etchings a couple of decades ago, when it was still taboo. “There are memories involved with things. Sometimes people come up to you and say, ’You know what? I met my husband at an X show, and we‘re still married, and it’s our anniversary.‘”
Moving around, on tour or otherwise, is a stimulant for excitement and change that’s become a permanent component of Cervenka‘s blood. First taste: Her parents’ sun-seeking move to Florida hit her when she was 14, at the same time as puberty and poetry. And that was the end of going to church seven days a week.
“It was a completely different world — all hippies and illiterate people, and Southern people boozing it up, and drugs and the Allman Brothers and Janis Joplin. That was fun.”
Her mid-‘70s relocation to L.A. was a logical extension. She says that some people come here to embrace the glitter, some just for the irony of it; it’s not hard to guess which camp she belonged to. And as a poet, she was following a literary tradition.
“Day of the Locust is one of my favorite stories; I‘ve read that book so many times. John Fante and Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski, all those people who wrote about Los Angeles — all that stuff is still true.
”I like real life. I don’t think L.A.‘s very real. I like Los Angeles in some ways, but in some ways I really want to move away and go to a small town somewhere. I do it periodically. Last time, I lived in Missouri for a while, for the whole summer, and I lived in Idaho for three years. Idyllic small towns. You return to where you grew up, maybe.“
Doesn’t she ever get bored in the boondocks? ”Not with those flea markets they‘ve got.“
Nevertheless, the woman whose most famous song begins ”She had to leave Los Angeles“ remains right here. Checking out absurdist art at Track 16 in Santa Monica. Going to a big May Day demonstration at the surreal Bradbury Building, down by Grand Central Market: ”Communist workers marching, and megaphones, and all these police lined up in riot gear.“ Sounds like a flashback to about 1979, when the LAPD was trying to stamp out punk rock. Some would say the cops failed.
Well, time for Exene to go prepare a meal for the family. ”What do I like to cook? Stuff that I shouldn’t be eating, probably — pork chops, regular old American food, Mexican food. I don‘t know how I learned. Everything I know, I’ve learned from trial and error, going out there by myself and saying: What happens if I do this . . .? Ow!“