By Lauren Wise
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"We paid attention to bringing rock 'n' roll back to rock 'n' roll, which is a three-minute song with not a bunch of extended guitar leads -- what punk rock was about -- and we tried to give our side of that and make our contribution."
John Doe, bassist and co-vocalist of the great, once-but-no-longer-late X, is reflecting rather understatedly upon his band's legacy. In these days of pop-machine industry overkill glitz, a little bit of humility goes a long way. But on the occasion of Rhino Records' expanded remasters of the first three X albums -- 1980's Los Angeles, 1981's Wild Gift and 1982's Under the Big Black Sun -- Doe would be well within his rights to slap on a huge sandwich board announcing the reissues and parade down his old prowling grounds of L.A.'s Sunset Strip.
X brought to the table an uncommon level of musicianship; songwriting that was steeped equally in Americana traditions and impressionistic-poetic firsthand narrative; and a decisive, charismatic group chemistry. In Kristine McKenna's liner notes for the Rhino discs the band is described as being "like Botticelli's Venus on the half shell . . . fully formed and perfect . . . gorgeous and glamorous. . . . Stage right was [guitarist] Billy Zoom. Blond, pale and so cool he was glacial. Center stage was Exene [Cervenka, vocalist] . . . narrow hips of a child, the full bosom of a femme fatale, the exaggerated makeup of a silent film star, and a fabulous fashion sense. Stage left was John Doe, tall and lean, jet-black hair, a sweet, open face and voluptuous mouth, equal parts Woody Guthrie and Elvis Presley. Bringing up the rear was drummer D.J. Bonebrake. It was if Billy, Exene and John were riding bolts of lightning pounded out by Zeus at the drum kit. . . . X was on fire from the very start. Punk bands of that era tended to be sloppy, but X was tight, and you never worried that one of them might take a wrong turn and derail the show."
Doe, acknowledging similar praise X garnered over the years, observes, "One thing that made writers want to write about us was that we had fairly intelligent lyrics. Writers like to write about that. If it wasn't for the press, X wouldn't have gotten nearly the attention that it did. And as far as what the band's strengths were, it was Exene's gift for crazy, or unique, harmony, the fact that there were two vocalists and not just one, and Billy Zoom bringing rock 'n' roll guitar à la Chuck Berry into punk rock. [He pauses, then laughs.] The songs were good, too!"
In January 1980, X entered the studio with Ray Manzarek to record its debut album. At that stage the two-year-old band was already on top of L.A.'s club heap and beginning to penetrate the national consciousness. Three albums would result from the fruitful Manzarek-X collaboration -- but why the former Doors keyboardist? Why not some safety-pinned, ripped-shirt contemporary?
Says Doe, "You know, when the Doors recorded, at least until the fourth album, they were capturing what they did live. On our albums, primarily the first two, we were doing what we sounded like live, and adding a few little extras, and making sure the vocals were in tune and had meaning. To Ray's credit, he didn't mess with it. He didn't try to fix it when it wasn't broken. Just turned it on and let it rip. He comes from a pretty serious blues background, which is 'capture the moment and make it real.' For us, when Ray Manzarek said he wanted to work with us, it was a huge affirmation. He was a real bona fide rock icon. He was saying, 'Your stuff is worthwhile.' And we were -- floored! It was a good marriage."
Indeed it was. Those three albums remain stone classics of napalm-and-velvet explosions.
Los Angeles has an edgy, almost apocalyptic tone, as befits many punk artifacts; the band's economy of motion, buzz saw or otherwise, was equally well-suited to the times. (Included, tellingly, was a Stooges-like treatment of the Doors' "Soul Kitchen.") Wild Gift is a more serene, self-assured document. By this stage, Cervenka and Doe had gotten married, and the album's tunes have a sensual churn, even on the more jackhammer moments, all underscored by poetic, noirish wordplay. Under the Big Black Sun marked a contractual shift from punk indie Slash to the Doors' old home, Elektra. It also signaled a shift toward increased production values and a greater musical variety -- as if, by noting that in '82 punk was all but dead (along with many of the band's closest associates), the band must pursue the zeitgeist wherever it might dart. Creepy cinematic blues, surf-garage, Tin Pan Alley flirtations, blue-collar folk-rock paeans -- it's a masterpiece statement that afforded the group significant artistic depth for future transition. (Doe indicates Rhino plans to similarly expand/remaster the next three X albums in April or May of 2002.)
Pairing the X back catalogue with Rhino was, for Doe, "a natural. Rhino offered us an opportunity to have our records in stores. They haven't been, which pissed me off. So we just jumped at it! 'You're gonna put out each individual CD? Excellent!' There had been that crappy two-for-one CD on Slash with the first two albums, so that alone is worth it. 'We're gonna be able to put in bonus tracks? Even better! And we're gonna be able to put in a 10-page booklet and Rhino has excellent distribution and is the king of the fucking hill where it comes to reissuing and compilations?'"
Doe himself took charge of organizing the archival end of things, consulting old photos and gig flyers, Mrs. Doe Sr.'s collection of clippings about her son's band, even bits of memorabilia sent in by X fans in response to ads that Rhino posted. (An ardent collector from Detroit was rewarded for his efforts by having one of his live X tapes tapped for a bonus track.)
"I had to keep reminding myself as I was playing X's secretary and trying to remember which engineer did, for example, the 'Adult Books' [bonus track] demo, that this was a good thing. [emits mock groan] 'You wanted to do this, John!' But it was worth it, all the headaches, the pondering, who did what, how do we credit this, going over liner notes, looking at hundreds of photographs, seeing all your friends that are dead now. Thanks, too, to the photographers who were there, they kept pretty good records -- Frank Gargani, Gary Leonard, Michael Hyatt [see sidebar], they were all very much documentarians."
Bonus track-wise there wasn't an overwhelming amount of material to choose from. Los Angeles and Under the Big Black Suneach feature five additional cuts, while Wild Gift adds seven tracks; roughly half the bonus material saw previous release on the '97 anthology Beyond and Back. Some 1977 rehearsals and rough mixes, '82 concert recordings and a handful of unreleased studio tracks were ultimately selected by Doe "to balance the fast with the slow, and what seemed interesting. [When the albums were originally made] whatever got recorded got put on the record. We had two-and-a-half to three weeks and $10,000 to do Los Angeles, and we picked nine songs and said, 'That's all we have time for.' We weren't making any money, Ray wasn't making any money, we just put it into the studio time. We didn't have to demo anything -- it was for Slash Records, for crying out loud!"
Billy Zoom left X after 1985's Ain't Love Grand, a disappointing, overly commercial album that Doe, who intends to remix the entire album prior to its reissue next year, concedes "was too slick-sounding, too much like a metal record." The band soldiered on with different guitarists, going into hibernation at various stages while members pursued solo careers and outside projects, most notably the country-acoustic X-alumni combo The Knitters. But lately the original lineup has been spotted playing reunion gigs in California to celebrate the reissues. (Doe: "We have a great time, the music doesn't sound dated -- I mean, not dated like, um, Haircut 100! And the audience is there, crazy dying to see it, and we make some money. We get together periodically anyway; we're not gonna be writing any more X songs and there's not going to be a new X record. But it's all good -- no downside to it.") Coincidentally, earlier this year Spin magazine and VH1 mounted joint "25th Anniversary of Punk" specials that included flattering commentary on X. Does this mean that X and its punk peers won the war, or is it just a case of silver anniversary nostalgia?
"I think you could make a case for either one," muses Doe. "I would like to think that it's because it was one of those times when people took matters into their own hands, promoted shows within a small community because everyone contributed, and then record companies sprang up because there was a need to put out these records. People did think they could make a little money on it, on this 'art.' All that stuff. It was the first time in awhile that rock music had gone independent, with more than just one small band. And nobody that I knew wanted to fail. We just wanted to change the industry. And did, to a small extent."