X Marks Its Territory
John Doe shudders at the scenario. It's the first night on X's unofficial reunion tour, the seminal L.A. punk band's boldest attempt at a bona fide comeback in seven years. And somehow, Doe's asked to imagine, the anarchistic fans his band used to play for have been replaced by what looks like the front row at a Gallagher concert. Just beyond the mosh pit, where teens pogo wildly like extras in a Good Charlotte video, sit the blandly dressed fortysomethings with plastic raincoats and Hefty bags on their laps, shielding themselves from spitting slamdancers the way the cable comic's fans gear up for the Sledge-O-Matic treatment.
"Oh, God," laughs the guitarist and part-time character actor. "They would be run out on a rail if they did that. They would be mocked mercilessly."
For a band famous for buzz-sawing through suburban conformity a generation ago ("We'll crawl through your backyard and whack your yappin' dog," Doe and his songwriter partner -- and then-wife -- Exene Cervenka once threatened), playing to an audience of over-the-hill hipsters would surely be a nightmare.
"If you think about it," admits drummer D.J. Bonebrake, "at this point, we're really an oldies band. I mean, we've been at it for, like, 25 years now. If I compare it to when I was in high school back in the early '70s, that would be like me going to see Elvis."
Somehow, though, the punk audience never aged like fans of '50s rock or '70s disco or even '80s glam rock. The Saturday Night Fever set eventually shamed their Travolta suits, but the rebels who latched on to bands like X from the ferocious L.A. club scene of the late '70s to early '80s never completely abandoned their attachment.
Certainly, the fashions of the punk era haven't died. You still can spot shellacked Mohawks at Vans Skateparks in malls, ransom-note graphic design can be seen flashing through MTV, and body piercing has gone mainstream enough to become fodder for advertisers.
"I think that's still a statement," Doe says of the persistent punk dictum to spear shiny studs and earrings into unlikely body areas (a desire his own 10-, 12- and 14-year-olds have so far resisted). "Maybe not as original as it once was, but still a statement."
While the punk movement's refusal to grow up has been good for tee shirt designers and tattoo artists, its narrow boundaries and resistance to growth proved stagnating for pioneering bands like X.
"I highly doubt if X will ever go back into the studio to create a new album," Doe says in his typically frank manner. "And there are two good reasons for that. One, I don't really write punk rock songs anymore. Punk rock was of a time, and of an environment, and -- for us -- a product of Exene's and my relationship.
"And number two," he says, "I'm not really sure if people want new X music. And if they do, it would be on very specific terms. They'd want it to sound exactly like our first four albums."
Bonebrake agrees. "Some people get snotty about us even touring again," he says. "They say, I thought you were just gonna disappear, and you're still playing.' It's like we should just go away. No one wants to see punk rock musicians playing into their old age," he admits. "But what do they expect us to do?"
What an old punk does, prescribes John Doe, is follow his muse.
"You do things like what I'm doing with this acoustic album," he says, referring to his latest solo release, Dim Stars, Bright Sky, a quieter album which finds Doe in a totally acoustic setting with guest vocalists ranging from the Wallflowers' Jakob Dylan to Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's.
Bonebrake, too, has managed to break free by playing vibraphone with his own side projects -- the Bonebrake Syncopators, a "kind of '30s- to '50s-style jazz quartet" that holds down weekly gigs at a Sunset Strip cafe, and the larger Orchestral Superstring, a Latin jazz ensemble.
"It keeps it interesting," Bonebrake says of his side jobs. "You're kind of preparing yourself for the grave when you're playing jazz. It's the kind of music you can do as a lifelong endeavor, not a style you suddenly become too old for."
Doe, whose songs even with X always managed to infuse a little country and rockabilly into the bombast, has continued in the alt-country vein with bands like the Knitters and a series of solo albums. But perhaps Doe's most surprising side project has been his acting career, which, over the years, has actually eclipsed his notoriety as a musician. He played the dad to Jerry Lee Lewis' child bride in 1989's Great Balls of Fire, scored a supporting role in 1997's Boogie Nights and, for the past three years, appeared in a recurring role as the dad of a teenage girl in love with an alien on the WB's hit series Roswell. Meeting fans of the teen-favored TV series has kept Doe more in touch with today's young rock fans than he would have been if he'd stuck to just playing music.
"I'd meet all these 16- to 18-year-olds wearing Dead Kennedys tee shirts," he grumbles. "And I'd think, They don't have a clue who the Dead Kennedys were.' They like the design of the shirt, and they think it's rad to wear it. Two years before that, they were probably wearing Nine Inch Nails tee shirts."
Finding young rock fans who understand the punk ethic isn't easy today -- even at events like last summer's Inland Invasion in San Bernardino, which united old-school punks like X, the Damned and the Sex Pistols with such young turks as the Distillers, New Found Glory and Blink 182.
"That was just a big dumb rock show," sniffs Doe, who found New Found Glory "disappointing" and dismissed Blink as "not the strongest live band -- although they do write some catchy songs."
Bonebrake, too, was left largely unimpressed with the supposed punk summit meeting -- although he was happy all the young Offspring and Pennywise fans got to hear his old band do it right. "My niece, who's in high school, said a lot of her friends got to see us for the first time," he reports. "And they said they liked us."
Of course, being honored for your lifetime contributions doesn't exactly jell with the punk rock ethic, either. The quartet was honored recently with a slab on Hollywood's Rock Walk, and Doe was invited to speak at Seattle's Experience Music Project, where X was awarded a permanent place in the museum's Milestones Gallery (in the "Western Front" punk section). More important, Rhino has just reissued X's first three albums (the classic Los Angeles, Wild Gift, and Under the Big Black Sun) in expanded, remastered versions, with more to follow ("Nice Christmas money," Bonebrake allows).
It's a little surreal to be honored for making music once meant to go against the grain of everything popular, Doe and Bonebrake admit.
"In one way, you're really honored," says Bonebrake. "But you also don't want it to happen." Nevertheless, the members of X have learned to live with the respect.
"We used to piss on things like awards," says Doe. "However, as you get older, I think you're able to accept things graciously. You realize this respect is good, not fake or stupid. Now, to anyone who wants to honor X, I just say, Thank you very much. Glad you got something from what we did.'"
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