X have never won a Grammy award. And they’ve never been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, either. The band's singer/songwriter Exene Cervenka, in the green room at the Grammy Museum, mentions these two facts, then adds casually, “It doesn’t matter. The institutions that give out awards are for commercial achievements — I appreciate that — but that’s not what we focus on. Both have treated us well, and it’s really cool to have our stuff somewhere where people can come from all over the country and the world and go, ‘Who is this band I’ve never heard of?’ and discover our music.”
She's talking about the new exhibit, “X: 40 Years of Punk in Los Angeles,” which opened last Friday and will be on display through March 2018. Of course if you’re an L.A. music lover you know who X are. They are our city’s pride and joy, provocative and prolific punk pioneers who are not only an iconic band of the past, but one of the best bands still doing it in the present. They prove it every time they get on stage, which — lucky for us here in their hometown — is still pretty often. They proved it again on the rooftop of the Grammy Museum Friday with an intimate live show marking the exhibit's opening. They may not have a Grammy, but they'll have a prominent chunk of the Grammys' historical home base at L.A. Live, right alongside memorabilia and artifacts from music world's most significant (and yes, commercially successful) artists of all time.
After four decades of concerts and recorded music, the band were definitely deserving of a definitive look back that celebrates their music and their significance as leaders of the L.A. underground. The Grammy Museum had originally planned something smaller in scope this past summer, but postponed and expanded the exhibit, which now takes up the entirety of its second floor. With display cases for each member (co-singer and songwriter John Doe, Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake), the exhibit features clothing, writings, instruments and other artifacts, including Cervenka's signature vintage dresses and punk buttons, Doe’s old notebooks, Zoom's leather jacket and one of Bonebrake's full drum kits.
It's an immersive look at the arty aesthetic that set the band apart from everyone else, even their shrieky punk-rock counterparts back in the day, and it’s a testament to their timeless cool and longevity.
“We didn’t have one hit song or a stupid haircut,” says John Doe, sitting alongside his longtime bandmate and ex-wife Cervenka in the green room during a press preview on Thursday. “We have the street cred because we have survived, we never went for gimmicks, we made music that stood up to the same standards of music we liked, whether it was Tammy Wynette or James Brown or Eddie Cochran or Wanda Jackson. They just made good music and we try to do that, too. And Ray Manzarek helped us do that. “
The Doors keyboardist produced their explosive 1980 debut and three follow-ups, and it put them on the music map in a big way. But before that, it was in the dingy punk clubs of Hollywood and downtown L.A. where the group first made an impact. Their unique harmonies and melodic yet aggressive songs conveyed the disenfranchised mindset and debauchery of the times. The exhibit offers an enlightening glimpse of those days with archival video footage, including a walk through seminal punk club the Masque where they first played, and a wall map mural marking that music hub and other now-gone punk clubs such Cathay de Grande, Madame Wong's and Stardust Ballroom.
With posters plastered everywhere and lyrics displayed graffiti-style all around the exhibit walls, it feels less like a museum display and more like an art gallery show. Which makes sense — X’s appeal was always artful and multimedia-driven, as much about poeticism and style as riffs and choruses. The exhibit captures the breadth of their artistry and output well, exploring both the musical and visual elements that made the band special, and providing context for their caustic yet catchy songcraft.
Though the exhibit is a retrospective marking four decades, X don't appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Both Doe and Cervenka say they're more invigorated than ever on stage. They promise plenty more live shows, both as an acoustic two-piece and with the full band, delivering sets they've embellished and evolved over the years.
“We're playing songs that we never played live before,” says Doe. “So now we do 'I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,' 'Dancing With Tears in My Eyes,' 'Come Back to Me' … there's a little more depth and improvisation. It’s a more fully realized show right now. You get all different sides of X.”
Following a Q&A in the museum's theater, X decamped to the rooftop with a fifth member, drummer/guitarist Craig Peckham, whose presence allowed Bonebrake to play vibraphone. The band sounded as potent as ever on the classics like “Los Angeles,” “Hungry Wolf” and “White Girl,” and showed off their more subtle live elements with a tight yet wild set. In addition to Bonebrake's beauteous work on the vibes, Zoom played some killer sax parts.
“It’s been a long stretch of time,” Cervenka says of the band’s career, which even she seemed sort of in awe of, especially as she perused the exhibit during the preview. “We didn't think our 40th anniversary would be this much of a deal. It keep just keeps getting bigger and bigger. It's nice. A lot of our longevity was luck, but we also worked really hard. We always have and we still do.”
For more on “X: 40 Years of Punk in Los Angeles,” visit www.grammymuseum.org.