The early days of the Los Angeles punk scene are hard to describe succinctly. At the time, punk was still a nebulous concept, as it had only been given a name a few years prior, when the rush of bands that formed and released records in 1977 captured the media’s attention. While punk was exploding in New York and London, the Los Angeles scene was already in its nascent stages, with the Screamers, the Weirdos and even an rudimentary incarnation of the Go-Go’s, all playing around town. As the years passed, and with a scene building around Brendan Mullen’s club The Masque, L.A. punk would become a playground for a world of bands that shared only slight sonic similarities, but found commonality in their uncompromising take on this new form of music.
In the middle of all that was X, a band that was founded when bassist and vocalist John Doe responded to an ad placed by Billy Zoom, a guitarist looking to start a band of his own. Before long, drummer D.J. Bonebrake would enter the fold, as well as vocalist Exene Cervenka. The fact that three of the band’s members were all Illinois transplants showed a subconscious like-mindedness, and their creative fusion would spawn distinct music. After a pair of singles, X released their debut full-length, the nine-song, 28-minute album known as Los Angeles. Produced by the Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek — and featuring a Doors cover, no less — Los Angeles turned punk’s straightforward rage into something more nuanced and literary.
While still steeped in the primal ferocity of their peers, Los Angeles resembled rock ’n’ roll’s early days in a way that few punks had yet dared. Zoom was a more gifted player than most guitarists in his orbit, and his nimble locks owed a debt to Chuck Berry instead of Johnny Ramone. Similarly, the fact Cervenka and Doe split vocal duties across the record gave added depth, as their complementary vocal ranges, and gritty stories about L.A.’s underbelly, gave the whole of Los Angeles the feeling of a classic film noir. Now, nearly 40 years later, Fat Possum is reissuing Los Angeles, along with three of X’s other early-’80s classics. And with that, it felt like a good time to talk to Cervenka about Los Angeles, how she wound up heading to California and what about that time made for such a fertile creative genesis.
VMP: So, before we get into the record itself, tell me a little bit about what drew you to the city of Los Angeles originally.
Exene Cervenka: I was living in Tallahassee, Florida; I was 20. I had a car, I had no job, I was living with a friend, and I had to get out of Tallahassee. It was a terrible place to be living in 1976. Someone called me on the phone and said they were going to San Francisco and said they needed someone to help pay for gas. I had one friend in Los Angeles, so I figured, “Here’s my chance to get out of Florida.” I called my friend in Santa Monica, in southern California, near Los Angeles, and asked if I could come out there. And she said, “yes.” So I got in the car with $180 and a suitcase, and if someone had said they were going to Chicago, I would have gone to Chicago, I didn’t really care. If I had a friend I could stay with, that was good enough to get started out. Back then, you could just do that. You could find a job, get an apartment, it was pretty easy back then.
What did you feel you were missing out on in Florida? What made you feel you needed to get out?
Everything. I grew up in rural Illinois, I was 20 years old, and I’d never lived in a big city like that. I had no idea there were even mountains in California. Everything was just completely, and insanely, amazing. There were good things about Florida, but in 1976, California was the best state to live in. It had the best education system, the best highways, all the old Hollywood was still there, and it just goes on and on. It was an incredibly cool and historical place. I was really into silent movies, and it was just a fantasy land for someone who loved the past like I did. And there was so much freedom then, too. There would be Hells Angels on the sidewalk in front of the Whiskey [a Go Go]. It was a really great period of people coming together.
The thing I liked about it the most was moving right away to Venice, California, and started working at Beyond Baroque, which is where I met John a few months later. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I wanted to write — I wanted to be a poet. I met John and he told me about the Masque, so within a few months of being there I was already hanging out with John and going to the Masque. Within a year, Billy, John, and I were all playing together. It moved pretty quick in those days. It was a really bad area where I lived, but now it’s the most expensive place to live.
When you got to Los Angeles, did it feel like you were able to find a community that felt like-minded pretty quickly?
No, no. Not at all. I’m not idealizing any of that; I’m a fact person. There were some wealthy people in Malibu and wherever else, but that didn’t really intersect with the Hollywood crowd or the East L.A. crowd. There were just a bunch of regular people in California. Back then, cities like Downey still had Aerospace and jobs, and the education system was first in the country. It was a nice place for all different levels of society, and most of the time, though not always, it intersected rather peacefully. A lot of people, in the early days, they thought we all had mansions and swimming pools, but we were lucky if we had a telephone and a car. But rent was $500 a month. All you needed was some kind of crappy job, then you’d go to see bands or play music at night.
Given that the L.A. scene wasn’t super codified, did it feel like X had more room to establish itself as the band you wanted it to be instead of having to fit in with any established sound?
It was completely, 100-percent open. There was no criteria, no censorship, no aspirations of, “If we do it this way, we’ll get signed to a record label.” No one cared in that scene. No one was focusing on it. The only thing the media cared about was New York and London, so we were just kids having a ball. It wasn’t until Ray [Manzarek] came along, but even then, the engineering back then was so terrible in L.A., we didn’t have great studios. We recorded with Geza X, or there was some engineer who worked at the record plant and would say, “Hey, there’s no one coming in tonight, why don’t you guys come in and record for four hours?” Bands would do that, or with Dangerhouse, but I like to think of it, as John always says this too, of creating in a vacuum. No one was criticizing us or praising us, or even caring, so we were free to be as independent and original as we wanted. That’s why the L.A. punk scene was that. You had the Plugz and the Bags, then you have X and the Weirdos, then you have Nervous Gender, and the Alley Cats, and the Zeroes, and the Blasters, and the Go-Go’s, all these completely different sounding bands — no two bands sounded alike back then, nor did they look alike. It was freedom — freedom, freedom, freedom.
When it came to the writing of Los Angeles, you seemed to have a very unique approach to songwriting, especially lyrically. How did that writing style make its way into X?
That’s my writing style, and it was John’s writing style, too. It was just the way we saw the world. Some of the songs were written before he even met me. But “The World’s A Mess; It’s In My Kiss,” I wrote that mostly in Baltimore when I was there by myself in 1978 or something. That was still the John Waters’ Baltimore at that point, which was pretty inspiring. If you’ve never been to a city like that, being in Baltimore, it’s really inspiring you to write something — anything. I wrote a whole lot in just a few days, because it was just a brand new experience and I was seeing the world a different way.
I’ve been writing since I was 12, and I’m not an educated writer, though I’ve worked really hard to be a good writer, but you just look at things and try to express it. It’s that Eastern philosophy of, “Look at everything like it’s the first time you’ve ever seen it.” Even if it’s a spoon. Always have that new way of looking at life and that new way of writing about it. That’s what we were like then, and it became a huge part of how we write. At that point, I’d never read Charles Bukowski or James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler, I was just writing at that point. Those comparisons are OK, but who knows how relevant they are.
And in some of these songs, like “Los Angeles” and “Johnny Hit And Run Pauline,” you were showing a very direct account of the city’s underbelly. Was that in any way a response to punk’s more didactic, slogan-based lyrics of the time?
No, nobody was thinking like that then — that’s way over-intellectualized. There was nothing to react to then. When Los Angeles was being written, we weren’t going, “There’s a void in society with this kind of material being written.” Society was wide open at that point, you could do anything you wanted. You didn’t have to be reactionary. And there’s a lot of risk involved in just going forward on your own, and that’s why a lot of people want to check around and see what other people are doing and how it goes over. Or maybe it’s like, “Well, no one’s done that, I could be really original if I go from that angle.” But that wasn’t a problem then. When we started, rock ’n’ roll was maybe 30 years old then, or not even. It really started much earlier if you’re thinking about gospel, but this is comparing it to 75 years of rock ’n’ roll. You’re in a band now, you’ve got decades worth of stuff staring you in the face, and you’re supposed to be original and come up with something no one’s done? So it’s harder to do that now, I think.
Do you think that plays into why the album has endured? It wasn’t overthought, it hadn’t really been done, and it was all just a natural creative impulse expressing in 28 minutes?
I think it had good songs and people just like good songs. There’s a historical context, and a lot of people go, “Oh, a woman in a band,” but whatever. I think the songs are good. And the reason I know that is that we still play them live and I still love playing them, and people still love coming to hear them. People like good songs. You turn on the radio and can like a song without knowing who it is or when it was recorded, you just like it. There’s a lot of value in that.
Obviously, there were bands doing similar things at the time, but that early X material still sounds distinctly like X. Unlike a lot of punk bands, which kind of became templates, why do you think X has been able to feel so singular for so long?
It’s got the element of timelessness that you need. Take Billy [Zoom], one of the greatest guitar players of all time. He was playing seven instruments when he was five. He was a genius, but he was very odd. Very witty, and very smart, but very odd. But look at The Cramps, they’re much imitated, because things like psychobilly already existed and they made it their own. I love The Cramps, they’re one of my favorite bands of all time, but people can somewhat try to imitate them because they’re more based in something. But with us, it’s not that easy. We have some very talented musicians, so it appeals to that, and if you’re into the literary thing, it appeals to writers. But even if you don’t listen to the lyrics, and you don’t know what these songs are about, you could still enjoy listening to it. They’re deep and dark, but the music’s very fun and happy. I just know why I like music, and I think people like it for the same reasons.
X has been touring regularly since the late-’90s, but only recently has the original line-up gotten back into a studio to make new music. Why did it take so long for that to come together? Was the timing just not right? Did it not feel organic?
You never quest for it. Things happen when they happen. It just worked out that way. There was a lot of self-doubt in the band of, “People don’t want to hear new stuff,” or “What if it’s not as good?” A lot of insecurities. We were doing really well live, and people had other projects, so it was a little bit of laziness and a little bit of fear. When we did the Live In Latin America record, DJ [Bonebrake] and I had Rob Schnapf produced that record, and DJ and I were the ones who worked with him. And it turned out so great, and it was so positive, and people wanted something different from X. It kind of made everyone realize, “Well, if they want that, they may like this new stuff even better.” I don’t want to say what we did, because it’s not done yet and there are definitely new elements in there, but I think it is what you said. “Is the timing right? No, not yet.” Maybe it was just one of those things that once we figured out we would never record again, we did. When you’re younger, things just happen and you go with it, and we needed that to happen.
That seems to be very true to the initial spirit of the band. You said earlier that it wasn’t some overly intellectual thing, that it all just happened naturally. So it seems appropriate that’s how it would go this time around.
I guess so. I mean, we sure like making a living. It’s not like any of us have tons of money coming in or anything. I’m a renter. We’re not perfectly set for the rest of our lives. We’re going to work until we can’t work anymore, and we like it. If we hated it, we wouldn't do it. You can’t, at our age, fake doing this. We’re in a van, we’re not staying at super-fancy hotels, we’re driving all day, we’re playing for an hour-and-a-half, we’re old, and it’s hard.
It is work. The stage time is not the work part, but everything else is. I love it, I’m glad to do it, and I’ll be sad when it ends, but I can’t control the universe.
David Anthony is the former music editor of The A.V. Club and is a freelance writer who has been published in places such as NPR, Noisey, Bandcamp Daily, The Takeout, and more. Like most people, he hosts more podcasts than are truly necessary. Krill forever.