There have been a lot of bands called X, that's the simple truth. But if you know, you know: There's really only one X, and it's X from Los Angeles, California. X, the last American band.
In the right place (L.A.) at the right time (1977), bassist John Doe and guitarist Billy Zoom found each other through identically worded "Musicians Needed" want ads. Exene Cervenka, a brand-new Florida expat, was the right-place-at-the-right-time girl. Doe knew her from poetry night at Beyond Baroque. She wouldn't just let Doe sing her poems – why shouldn't she sing them instead? Together they saw the Eyes, former band of Go-Go Charlotte Caffey, and nabbed drummer DJ Bonebrake in the process – and there was X.
"We worked endlessly, endlessly hard on everything we did," says Cervenka in a phone interview from a health food store in Santa Monica. (Picking up La Croix – chosen beverage of punk heroes?) "John and I, we lived together, and the band was our life."
Even at the time, she says, she knew something special was happening in Los Angeles. The punk scene was for anyone who wanted to be there: "If you managed to find the Masque, come on in!" And it was powerful, she recalls: "I know there's this perception of punk as being angry, but I mean, all we did was laugh. ... We didn't care about corporate culture ... we weren't brainwashed. [That's the point of punk,] to think for yourself, be an individual."
Of all the bands in that scene, chronicled in Penelope Spheeris' required-viewing The Decline of Western Civilization, Part One (though Cervenka says of the film, "It's not accurate at all"), X pushed the limits of what punk could be most. More Bukowski than Dukowski, Cervenka and Doe wrote about a noir-ish L.A. defined by its desperate have-nots. They strayed from the three-four chord formula of their peers, maximizing the technical skills of Zoom, Doe and Bonebrake to create a distinctly American rock/pre-rock sound à la "'20s jazz, big band, rockabilly, Hank Williams."
By the mid-'80s, after four impeccable records, the feeling was palpable – X was the greatest American rock & roll band, on the brink of something huge. Critics loved them. Dick Clark loved them. But the radio didn't, even after they split from producer Ray Manzarek (yes, that Ray Manzarek) to build a more pop-friendly hard rock sound. "[After the early '70s,] there was never a place made for new music," says Cervenka. "We were little brats and we wanted to be on the radio, and they said, 'Screw you, you're not gonna be on the radio!'" Still, she supposes it worked out OK: "Yeah, we didn't get played on the radio, but look what we did instead. Look at how you're still talking about it."
Over their 40-year lifespan, X has achieved what can only be considered "legendary" status, the kind that's especially rare for a band that's stuck it out together for this long: seven studio albums, the documentary X: The Unheard Music, even a 1985 gig at Walt Disney World. ("We played wherever you could get paid to play back then ... the weirder the better. Why would you care – that's the biggest coup in the world, to go into the enemy camp!") All of the band's original members have their own projects, in- and outside the music world; and, yet, they keep coming back. I ask Cervenka why it's still worth it to her, and she laughs.
"I like these songs a lot," she says.