X, Dead Kennedys, the Avengers
MOCA at the Geffen
(Much) Better Than … hearing many of these same songs butchered on punk rock karaoke night at the local sports bar.
Of course there's something oddly oxymoronic about a museum inviting punk rock bands over to play (albeit safely outside on the patio). In the very early days of punk, X and the Avengers were blacklisted from most rock nightclubs, much less museums, and their fans were often beaten up by cops just for walking down the street. Not to mention that back then a lineup like this might've cost $3 at the Starwood, as opposed to the $50 and up ticket price tonight at MOCA.
By definition, punk was anti-nostalgic and wasn't meant to last long enough to be examined in a clinical setting, if only as a defiant and/or hopeless reaction to the literal and long-winded monopoly classic-rock groups like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac had (and still have) over the radio airwaves. There's a reason why X's first concert movie was called The Unheard Music, and why so many of their brilliant early L.A. peers (the Screamers, Black Randy & the Metro Squad, Rhino 39, Ella & the Blacks) were rarely or barely documented at all.
On the other hand, the connection between punk rock and the art world is long, with a lot of seminal shows happening in warehouses and galleries, and a significant number of musicians coming straight out of art school. Raymond Pettibon first gained notoriety drawing hilariously sacrilegious flyers for his brother Greg Ginn's band Black Flag before becoming a respectable artist whose work is shown in museums — including tonight at MOCA, as part of the related “Under the Big Black Sun” exhibition, named after X's third album.
Such questions of authenticity and identity — eternal themes in both art and punk rock — were enough to drive one crazy, but they were rendered moot within the first few explosive chords of the Avengers' set. Although founding members Penelope Houston and guitarist Greg Ingraham are primarily performing songs they wrote more than three decades ago, there is still a bracing immediacy and exhilarating defiance in the melodic yet spirited way Houston belts out anti-authoritarian anthems like “We Are the One” and the rabidly timeless “Teenage Rebel,” or declares, “It's the American in me that makes me watch the blood running out of the bullet hole in his head/It's the American in me that never wonders why Kennedy was murdered by the FBI!”
Prowling the outdoor stage in ripped tights and a Pink Section T-shirt, Houston looked every bit the charismatic, strikingly fearless punk icon who directly inspired a generation of riot grrls. The tragic true tale “Car Crash” (“a song about L.A.,” Houston told the crowd) lived up to its title as she wailed inconsolably while Ingraham smashed together a series of increasingly chaotic chords.
“Turn down the green lights. It's making Greg look old,” Houston cracked. Actually, the two veterans looked and sounded great and were in typically fiery form. The Avengers' version of “Paint It Black,” with Houston's yearning vocals soaring passionately above Ingraham's super-sinister addling of the riff, was simultaneously more aggressive and more eerily chilling than the Stones' original. By the end of their short but thrilling set, drummer Luis Illades had wrecked his kit — an old trick, sure, but one that felt kind of liberating on the doorstep of a museum.
The Avengers went on before fellow San Franciscans the Dead Kennedys, which was somewhat ironic since the Avengers were the bigger band in the old days, not to mention that this mutation of the Dead Kennedys carries on stubbornly without founding lead singer Jello Biafra. Seeing this version of the group feels almost like crossing a picket line. On the one hand, it's a real kick to hear original members East Bay Ray and bassist Klaus Fluoride and longtime drums powerhouse D.H. Peligro play ultra-snarky ditties like “Kill the Poor” with the verve and ferocity they require.
On the other hand, Biafra's wicked humor and contrarian, impish presence are inimitable and sorely missed. The band's latest fill-in, Ron Greer, is competent and tries to make cheeky in-between-song comments, but it's just not the same. With Jerry Brown back in office, Jello would have definitely updated the lyrics to the Governor Moonbeam-savaging opus “California Uber Alles” with some maliciously topical new verses, but Greer basically stuck to the old script. Perhaps not surprisingly, the nouveau Kennedys' best moments at MOCA were the passages that revealed the original members' instrumental dexterity, which was often impressive. Fluoride's ominous bass intro to “Holiday in Cambodia” segued into a spacey dub groove, with Peligro's snare rattle accents perfectly setting up East Bay Ray's flecks of trippy guitar.
By the time longtime Angeleno heroes X came onstage to the frantic strains of “Your Phone's Off the Hook But You're Not,” the barrier separating the slam dancers from the photographers' pit was dangerously close to buckling, with the songs' slam-bang tempo adding more fuel to the frenzy. Eventually, several bouncers had to climb down into the pit and push against the metal barrier as if they were holding back a dam about to burst.
X barreled through one song after another, mostly sticking to songs from their first four albums. And yet, given the current state of the economy, blue-collar broadsides like “The New World” and “The Have Nots” sounded just as relevant as ever. Lead singer Exene Cervenka didn't speak much to the crowd, but she was in fine voice and appeared to be in good spirits, despite dealing with multiple sclerosis for the past few years. She seemed energized by the outdoor environment, as she and co-singer John Doe yowled their bloody tales in the shadow of City Hall.
The Ramones-style pace of songs like “Sugarlight” and “The World's a Mess; It's in My Kiss” slowed briefly only for the intense hard-rock riffs of “Nausea,” which was perhaps even more convulsive because of its deliberate, jackknife rhythm. Guitarist Billy Zoom smiled broadly with his famous Cheshire cat grin, disguising the nimble play of his fingers on the fret board, where he rarely wasted a motion. Drummer D.J. Bonebrake remains the real backbone of X, as he made clear on the skittering intro to “Year 1” and the thunderous tom-tom solo in “Hungry Wolf.” Apart from a midset run through Jerry Lee Lewis' “Breathless,” Doe and Cervenka largely stuck to their original songs, but the last number of the night was one of the best, a rampaging gallop through the Doors' “Soul Kitchen” at a breakneck pace.
Personal bias: With so many poetic shards of noise still ringing in the head, it was hard to consider this a mere nostalgia trip.
The crowd: An unexpected and fairly diverse mix of art geeks, young punks and grizzled warriors of the pogo.
Random notebook dump: I did briefly ponder my mortality when it looked like the barrier to the photo pit might collapse.