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X is going to shoot a video in 15 minutes. Bassist-singer John Doe is rummaging through his assortment of faded Western shirts in the back of the wardrobe trailer. "Why, there's a woman's clothes here mixed in with mine!" he muses dramatically. His singing partner and ex-wife, Exene Cervenka, is sitting in the front of the trailer, having her makeup done. "Exene, who's your body double for this?" yells Doe from the back. "Michelle Pfeiffer?" Cervenka rolls her eyes. In her beat-to-hell combat boots and granny dress, she looks about as much like Catwoman as the scruffy Doe resembles Batman.
The video is for the song "Country at War," the first single off the band's first album in five years, Hey Zeus. The album marks the reunion of this influential Los Angeles band, which--before splitting in 1988--shot West Coast punk-rock through the ceiling created by New York's Ramones and England's Sex Pistols. X was tougher than anything Malcolm McLaren could create, and just as pissed off as the bands that rose from New York's CBGB. Cervenka looks out of place among the tanned and trendy video crew. At 36, her blunt-cut hair is comfortably messy and, even though she now lives near the beach, her skin is a lovely shade of pale. This former tattered kewpie doll of L.A.'s discordant underground is now a clean and sober mother. Without the dangling cigarette or obligatory beer in hand, she no longer looks terminally bored. Instead, the boredom has given way to shyness.
"We didn't actually break up," she says quietly, never quite catching my gaze. "We just did different things and got away from each other for a while. The time we took off from X was really good. We played other kinds of music, toured with other people and wrote. I concentrated more on my writing [books], songwriting and my musicship," she says, verbally stumbling. "Musiciansh . . . fuck it, my guitar playing," she says, laughing. "I probably wouldn't have done that if X hadn't stopped and taken a break." "We always felt like we were gonna work together after branching out," Doe says. "It's great to work with people that you understand and where no one's really the boss."
Although neither Cervenka nor Doe actually say it, the major reason this oft-revered band has reformed is money. A year or so ago, Doe and Cervenka say, promoters from around the country began calling and offering the group good money for reunion shows. Rounded out by original drummer D.J. Bonebrake and post-Billy Zoom guitarist Tony Gilkyson, the band was happy to oblige. What surprised X about these gigs was the audience. It was dominated by people in their late teens and early 20s, not the older fans the band had expected. Larger and larger venues began to sell out, and it was at that point, Doe says without a trace of irony, "that we realized X was still relevant."
It's not that the band considered itself obsolete when it split in 1988. Three of the four members had been together for ten years. They were going broke. They needed a change.
"You start a band, and that's your only creative outlet and way to support yourself," says Doe. "Then someone comes along and says, 'Would you like to do a solo record?' or 'Would you like to score a movie or be in a play?' or whatever the hell--write a book. Other creative avenues began to present themselves, and at the time we thought, 'Okay, let's go see.'" Doe's raggedy cowboy hat and cut-off jeans belie the fact that he's still a California boho who thrives in greasy diners and pool halls. But Doe has also grown up. At 38, he has three kids and a house 70 miles outside of Los Angeles near the Grapevine, a mountain pass between L.A. and Bakersfield frequented by trucks speeding downhill.
Of the four band members, Doe was the busiest and most successful while the group was apart. In 1990, he recorded his first solo album, Meet John Doe, for Geffen Records. Blessed with a rugged-individualist profile and swagger, Doe also has a budding acting career on his hands. So far he's been cast as a sleazy bartender, a drummer and an extranormal, down-home guy in films like Salvador, Roadhouse, Slamdance, Great Balls of Fire, Without You I'm Nothing and his most recent, the inane Roadside Prophets.
"I began acting in 1982," he begins. "People who knew me from X asked me to play parts. I studied at some theatres, so I wouldn't make a complete fool of myself--well, that's debatable.
"As far as being comfortable in front of the camera, no, I'm not. But there are moments within a scene that you feel you are the character."
Doe was also the voice behind the crooning, jukebox version of "I Will Always Love You" that served as the soundtrack for the climactic Kevin Costner-Whitney Houston love scene in The Bodyguard. Doe admits he's to blame for inspiring Houston to record her own cutesy, soulless version of the tune. The most bizarre thing about Doe's flirtation with film is that this former punk snarler is star-struck. When he talks about acting, Doe peppers his sentences with Hollywoodisms.