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.
"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.
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"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.
"Nobody wanted to work with a band like X in 1979," Cervenka says. "They weren't gonna make any money off it--plus, they didn't get it. "They also thought we were too violent. They were afraid if they let us in a studio, we'd tear it up," she says, smiling in disbelief. "Well, God, maybe just a little. Maybe just the bathroom, but not the control board. Sometimes you drop a cigarette. With any other band, it was like, 'Hey, don't worry. We'll take care of it.' But with us, it was like, 'Get out of here, fuckin' punk rockers. You owe us three hundred bucks.'"
But it's cash, not catastrophe, that occupies the band today. Although X emerged from the Eighties as one of the most influential punk-pop bands ever, its finances remain in shambles. Cervenka says she's still desperate, and Doe's serious coin comes from the film biz. The old punk-rock adage "success is for losers and parents" seems to have destined X for a lot of respect but no money.
"It used to be that if you made a living, people would throw things at you, because you were a traitor to the punk-rock cause. Now you have people like Henry Rollins, Eddy Vedder, and Nirvana making millions of dollars--and more power to them. See, it's okay now to make a living, but when we came up, there was a real stigma attached to success. It was selling out." As the words "selling out" come off her lips, the director of the video motions impatiently for Cervenka and Doe to take their places. Both laugh at the timing. As he's being shooed onto the set by an assistant, Doe adds a parting thought. "By our first album, we'd 'sold out' two or three times. We sold out when we signed to Slash and when we played some place other than the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. And if we played for more than $5, we were thought of as filthy rock stars."
"It's weird," Cervenka says. "We've never made a lot of money or anything. But I think if we're artists who can work at music and make a living, then I think that's a success story.