X still marks the spot for punk rock band
The pioneering punk-rock-and-beyond band X has always been synonymous with Los Angeles, the city the group’s classic 1980 debut album is named after. But San Diego has also played a significant role in the history of X, which performs a series of 40th-anniversary shows at the Casbah Thursday through Sunday.
Before teaming up with former Doors keyboardist-turned-album-producer Ray Manzarek to record “Los Angeles,” X had already performed at an array of San Diego venues, starting in 1978.
On April 4, 1980, X played at the North Park Lion’s Club on a double-bill with The Blasters, who - not coincidentally - will also open for X here Friday at the Casbah. The next night, X played at downtown’s short-lived Skeleton Club.
It was the first time the members of X and The Blasters met. They became fast friends and went on to form The Knitters. The predominantly acoustic alt-country band teamed Blasters’ co-founder Dave Alvin with three of X’s four members - singer Exene Cervenka, singer-bassist John Doe and drummer D.J. Bonebrake.
More significant by far, though, was what happened immediately after X’s two April 1980 San Diego shows.
“John and I got married in Tijuana after that gig in San Diego and my sister was there,” recalled Cervanka, 60, whose real name is Christene Lee Cervenka.
“It was pretty impulsive. My sister was like: ‘You should get married!’ Everybody was there and we went across the border and got married. So that’s a pretty amazing memory of San Diego.”
Rowdy wedding party at La Ballena
Doe, who is 63 and whose real name is John Nommensen Duchac, filled in some of the details during a separate interview.
“It was not so spur-of-the-moment,” he recalled. “There were probably 15 or 20 people in our wedding party.”
Doe laughed when asked if an American couple getting married in Mexico has to do much advance paper work.
“No, you don’t,” he replied. “You just walk into the office and sign papers, and you’re married. I don’t recall who came up with the idea. But whichever of us did, it was a resounding: ‘Yes!’ We wanted to make some sort of commitment, because we both had the element of tradition in our DNA.”
What happened after their Tijuana wedding?
“I don’t want to ruin anything,” Doe said. “But we were already doing it before we got married - we didn’t wait!”
He grew more serious.
“We held our reception at a bar called La Ballena,” he recalled. “A couple of the people in our wedding party got thrown in jail, because they got too drunk and had switchblades that were too big. So we had to pool money to get them out of jail. We did go back to San Diego. And we stayed married for five or six years.”
X endured until 1996, albeit in altered form and with several extended hiatuses. A succession of musicians tried to fill the role the role of original guitarist Billy Zoom (real name: Tyson Kindell), who left the band in 1985, eight years after he became a born-again Christian. But X was unable to recapture its unique spark without Zoom, who is now 68 and recovered from the bladder cancer for which he was treated last year.
X 40th anniversary concerts
When: 9:15 p.m. Thursday, Friday (sold out), Saturday and Sunday
Where: The Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd., Middletown
Tickets: $35 per night; $99 per night for VIP XMAS Soundcheck Package; must be 21 or older to attend
The band’s four original members got back together in early 1998, shortly after the release of the two-CD compilation, “Beyond and Back: The X Anthology.” In the intervening years, they have achieved a position of greater prominence.
Fans who grew up with X’s thoughtful lyrics and high-octane fusion of punk, rockabilly, country and roots-rock regard the group as keepers of the flame - and proof punks can age, if not always gracefully, then with reasonable vigor and dignity.
In turn, younger listeners regard X as a still-vital link to an era when punk was new and had not yet been commodified by the music industry.
“They’re my favorite band and I’ve probably seen them perform more than any other band,” said Casbah honcho Tim Mays, who has produced about two-dozen X shows in San Diego since 1980. He’s also seen the band perform many times in other cities.
“I like the way Exene and John sing, the way Billy plays plays guitar, DJ’s solid drumming and his virtuosity playing marimba. They have great songs and aren’t strictly punk. They’re just a genius band and are also super-nice people. They’re the first band we’ve ever had play for four nights at the Casbah.”
Doe is similarly quick to sing the praises of Mays.
“It’s very unusual for any club to last 27 years, the way the Casbah has,” Doe noted. “Tim deserves the key to city hall, but it would have to be a very dark key - a secret key!”
Etta James and Gene Vincent
What helped X band stand out early on, Cervenka believes, was its tenacity and how the diverse backgrounds of its members swiftly coalesced into a distinctive sound.
“Billy had played with Etta James and Gene Vincent,” she noted. “He was a serious musician. So was DJ - he knew classical and jazz and blues. And John had a huge musical background. Those three guys had the mechanics down. I was more like the other kids, someone who got on stage and wanted people to have a good time.
“That changed as I became more of a singer. I took voice lessons and it was really good I did. I’m 60 and have never had to cancel a show because of my voice.”
Doe, in turn, cites Cervenka as a mold-breaking iconoclast who has inspired several generations of fans with her singular views, poetry, music and thrift-store chic sense of style.
“It’s rewarding to see someone who is 20 looking at Exene now and thinking: ‘This is a female role model!’ Because she’s a great one, a really strong, independent center to the band.”
And how does Cervenka regard the early days of X and her prominence in a male-dominated punk scene?
“It was a great time,” said the singer and lyricist, who used to operate a colorful memorabilia shop in Los Angeles called You’ve Got Bad Taste. “It was anti-fashion. Girls wanted to be like me. And I said: ‘If you want to be like me, be yourself’.”
Casbah mainstay Mays agreed.
“ ‘Be yourself’ sums it up really well,” he said. “Exene was definitely anti-fashion, which was was the theme and style back then, and wore whatever she wanted. She could look glamorous, but didn’t always. She was outspoken and still is outspoken. I think she’s been a role model for a lot of people.”
What Cervenka has not been, apparently, is a roll model.
Prior to X’s North Park Lion’s Club gig in 1980, the band played at North Park’s nearby Abbey Road. It was not far from the Palisades Garden roller skating rink at the corner of University and Utah.
A former Union-Tribune music critic, now based in Seattle, maintains to this day that - prior to X taking the stage at Abbey Road - he saw Cervenka gracefully skating to and fro at Palisades Garden.
The X singer audibly sputtered when asked about this reported all roll, no rock, episode.
“That’s riduclous!” Cervenka said. “Of course I wasn’t roller skating. I skated once, in 4th grade, and I didn’t even have a pair of skates. I’d fall down. No, I was probably backstage, drinking with my frirnds.”
Doe, too, dismissed the “Exene skating in North Park” tale as an urban legend, albeit one he had never before heard.
“I don’t remember that, and that would be something I would have remembered,” he said. “Maybe she sneaked off and indulged her secret passion for skating! But I really, really doubt it. If we could go into a time machine now and find out if that happened, I’d bet against it.”
Hmm. Perhaps it was Doe who went skating in North Park on that fateful night?
“Yes,” he chortled, “in my Exene costume!”
Longevity a surprise
Doe, 63, chortled when asked if he ever anticipated X’s longevity and influence.
“Of course not!” he replied.
“But, secretly, I think everyone hopes you’ll have longevity or influence. There are some bands that have a lot of impact, and are very vital, because they have a sound specific to that time. And it gives you that feeling and it’s a wonderful moment. Then there are other bands that are not as easy to pin down.”
On Tuesday, Doe earned a Grammy nomination for the audio edition of his 2016 memoir, “Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk.” It features reminiscences by members of X, Henry Rollins, Mike Watt, Dave Alvin (who spent a spell as a member of X), San Diego’s Robert Lopez (a/k/a El Vez), the Go-Go’s and others.
“I don’t know if was fate or that we were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time,” Doe said. “There was a lot of creativity in the air and we took a lot of inspiration from everybody else who was there. That was kind of the impetus behind the book. And the context is more important than just an oral history ...
“Maybe we wished we had big, fat bank accounts. But then we probably wouldn’t be playing; we’d just be going shopping or something. So, no, I don’t have any regrets. And I think not having even one hit song has allowed us to have a little more legitimacy these days. Plus, we like to work. I think of us in the vein of bluegrass and country players. You just play, because that’s what you do.”
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