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"There was a bit of nepotism involved in me getting to sing that song for the film. See, Kevin Costner's a friend of mine, and so is the director," he explains.
The other half of X's romantic and musical core spent her time away from the band involved in less-glitzy pursuits. In 1988, Cervenka left Los Angeles and moved to Idaho. Finding that commuting was impossible, she returned to the West Coast two years later. She began concentrating on spoken-word performances and poetry readings (coincidentally, she first met Doe at Beyond Baroque, a poetry center in Venice Beach). She's written several books, most of which are hand-stapled collections of poetry and short stories that she sells for $5 at her readings. Her latest, Just Another War, was published by Henry Rollins' publishing company, 2-13 Publishing. It is a collection of photographs of the Gulf War, augmented with Cervenka's impressions.
During the band's hiatus, Cervenka also released two unsuccessful albums on Rhino Records, Old Wives Tales in 1990 and Running Scared in 1991. Both albums confirmed that her songwriting abilities aren't in the same league as those of her ex-husband. Both albums went largely unnoticed outside L.A., while Doe's received good to mixed reviews across the nation.
"I thought some of the comments and criticisms were pretty unfair," recalls Doe. "It was then that I decided to stop reading reviews. I remember reading one in particular that said something like, 'God, this album is great, and Doe is a genius. I'm so thrilled I don't have to listen to Exene anymore. Boy, did she suck.' "The new record wouldn't have been so diverse if Exene hadn't found herself as far as writing music is concerned," Doe says.
Picking up on Doe's protective urges, Cervenka cuts to the question most frequently asked of the band. "People always ask, 'Was it hard for you and John to work together again?' I'm sure, in our psychology, there's a few things repressed. But mostly we try really hard to overcome what can be overcome. Some things can't be. But it's a good, creative partnership, and there's no reason for us not to be doing it."
X released its debut album, Los Angeles, in 1980. The album was a collection of rockabilly riffs mixed with raw, chaotic blasts of ricochet rhythms, caffeinated beats and bent vocal harmonies. Doe and Cervenka's lopsided vocals bounced off each other while guitarist Billy Zoom, the rock star of this anti-rock-star band, played searing, Chuck Berry-style riffs at top speed over Bonebrake's relentless beats. Ensuing albums--Wild Gift (1981), Under the Big Black Sun (1982) and More Fun in the New World (1983), all produced by former Doors organist Ray Manzarek--continued on the same path, until the disappointing, mediocre Ain't Love Grand. Zoom left shortly after that. He was initially replaced by Dave Alvin, who then made way for former Lone Justice guitarist Tony Gilkyson. Whether it was the loss of Zoom's vitality, Manzarek's production skills or just a simple lack of motivation, X seemed to have lost a certain charge and energy by its sixth album, See How We Are.
That album, which featured working-class lyrics and laid-back tunes, proved too tame for longtime fans and too weird and unpolished for the Bruce Springsteen crowd. Doe admits that on some level at that time, the band was aiming for more mainstream acceptance.
"With See How We Are, we knew that we were trying to fit in someplace. We were trying to think of production ideas that might allow the radio to play it. There were deejays who wanted to play X, but they felt like they couldn't, because it was a punk-rock band. So we were kind of lost."
Times have changed. Soundgarden's feedback and bum notes now share the airwaves with Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll." Today, even classic rockers know Nirvana.
"While we were writing and recording Hey Zeus," says Doe, "Jane's Addiction had already sold a lot of records and were getting some airplay. Nirvana had also done that. So we realized that once we put this record out, it was going to have someplace to go. That's a totally different experience for us. This time we weren't thinking, 'How is this gonna fit in with all the straight bullshit on the radio?' We were thinking, 'We can just sort of be ourselves and be as left field as we want.' And we'll have some partners out there," he says, smiling, "partners in crime." Hey Zeus, X's latest album, is honest and mature, yet not boring. Laden with hypnotic ballads, the album retains the band's trademark country-punk twang, but adds a suspiciously heavy bottom end that screams "grunge." Lyrically, social unrest and injustice dominate the proceedings. There's even a touch of gritty humor. The tune "Arms for Hostages" turns out to be a tender love song. Two years in the making, Hey Zeus is the band's first album on a non-American label. X began its recording career on Slash before moving to Elektra for Under the Big Black Sun. The new disc is on the small, British label Big Life Records, whose roster includes ambient house ravers the Orb and trendy popsters Soup Dragons. The Orb fuses techno-dance music with Eno-esque ambiance, while the Soup Dragons pin Rolling Stones-style guitars next to cheesy dance tunes. Cervenka says she likes the way bands today know and actively experiment with diverse influences. Because both Doe and Zoom had extensive record collections--everything from the country rushes of George Jones to the raw psychedelia of Jefferson Airplane--X became one of the few punk bands to know, let alone to mix and match, different kinds of music. "I remember the Germs did a cover of Chuck Berry's 'Round and Round,' which D.J. actually played drums on," recalls Cervenka, "and we told them we thought it was great to use a Chuck Berry song. They just looked at us and said, 'Who's Chuck Berry? That's a David Bowie song.' They'd only heard it on a Bowie record."
Besides ignorance of musical roots, most early punk bands were also in the dark about recording technology. Many used mom and dad's garage as the studio for their first records. A lot of early stuff by Dangerhouse (a homemade L.A. label that featured recordings by Fear, X and the Germs) was recorded in bathrooms. Other hand-pressed 45s were often no more than messes of crackly beats. Part of the problem came from punk music's reputation for destruction.