Music News

X's Exene Cervenka Refuses to Get Cynical

Nineteen-eighty was a strange time for music. First-wave punk was finished; disco was on its way out, and practically every pop song on the air was sporting synthesizers. Despite the fact that its uncompromising rockabilly-meets-punk sound was never particularly in vogue, Los Angeles band X held the gaze of the burgeoning "alternative nation" for a few minutes in the early '80s. The band didn't sing about the City of Angels in the same tone as its contemporaries, instead telling tales of the city's dark side, with back-alley riffs, roots panache, and punk attitude.

Thirty-one years later, the original lineup of X (vocalist Exene Cervenka, singer/bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer DJ Bonebrake) is still togther. It hasn't been entirely smooth sailing: Doe and Cervenka divorced in '85, Zoom left in '86, only to be replaced by Dave Alvin and Tony Gilkyson (Alvin's tenure in the band last only one year). Zoom returned in '98, but Cervenka's announcement in 2009 that she had been struggling with multiple sclerosis for years, and financial battles with the record labels made sure that the reunion gigs weren't without complications.

"Fifteen years ago, I got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, can you believe that?" Cervenka says, fresh off a stint in South America with Pearl Jam. "And then another doctor said, 'No, you don't [have it].' So, I went with the doctor who said [she didn't have M.S.] About six years went by, and . . . I went to this doctor who said, 'You definitely have it and you're going on this medication.'

"I had to start giving myself shots everyday for a while, and then I ran out of money and had no insurance. [The] shots are really expensive: $7,000 for three months. So I just said, 'Well, I may have it, I may not,' but I can't take the medicine anymore because I cannot afford it."

Remarkably, Cervenka isn't down about much. "I'm not cynical. I'm very honest, very upbeat, [and] very excited about the time I'm living in," says Cervenka.

"You just keep going because that's what makes you happy. That's what you live for. All that other stuff, you just have to laugh it off," says Cervenka, still riding the euphoric high of the South America shows.

"[The audiences] are so over the top that they sing along with the guitar solos . . . You can't even hear yourself think, they're screaming so loud," Cervenka says, describing a sea of 70,000 fans in Mexico City holding up lighters and cell phones. "It was this spontaneous explosion of love energy flowing toward you. I've never felt anything like it, and I'll never forget it." 

The band continues to attract plenty of old-schoolers but also manages to draw younger fans. "Thank you to the Internet for making it possible for bands like us to still exist," says Cervenka. She doesn't worry much about fans getting X's music through less-than-legal means:

"Steal it all. I make my monthly bills; I don't care," she says. "I don't need more than what I need. I'm not looking to be a millionaire.

"[Fans] can do anything they want with my stuff. If they want to listen to my music or look at my art or download a poster or a book, I say, 'Go for it.' I'm not going to get paid, anyway. Do you think Warner Brothers is ever going to pay me a penny for any records I ever made?"

Cervenka recently attended Occupy Los Angeles and found the contrast with the band's experiences in South America staggering. "What someone explained to me is in that world [South America], people have no rights, but they have total freedom. Here, we have rights, but we don't have any freedom," she says.

But for a band that's been singing like the end of civilization is nigh, it's all pretty standard. Cervenka is hopeful, even upbeat about the state of things. "It's all happening and I want people to feel good, even though we're in a bad spot about our chances of fixing some stuff."

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Melissa Fossum
Contact: Melissa Fossum