Three days after they play the Voodoo Experience, the members of X are going on a South American tour ... opening for Pearl Jam. If there's any incongruity between Seattle's most commercially successful grunge band hitting the road with L.A.'s most critically acclaimed punk band, lead singer Exene Cervenka doesn't see it. "We're not close personal friends. We're huggin' buddies," she explains. "It's their 20th anniversary, and they're celebrating with people they like. I'm very grateful."
It's hard to believe X itself is celebrating its 34th year. "I'll tell you something, mister," Cervenka says. "Haven't we had a string."
X emerged from the fertile Los Angeles punk scene in the late 1970s at a time when anything went, musically speaking; the band was likely to share a stage with Dwight Yoakam, Los Lobos, the Go-Go's, Henry Rollins or the self-proclaimed "all-American Jewish lesbian folksinger" Phranc. Cervenka and her then-husband, John Doe, met at a poetry workshop in Venice, Calif., while guitarist Billy Zoom came from the rockabilly scene. Their first album, Los Angeles, recorded for $10,000, topped critics' best lists for 1980, and the next year's followup, Wild Gift, was named Record of the Year by Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and the Village Voice. Commensurate commercial success didn't follow, but the band's members — Cervenka, Doe, Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake — continued to record as X, as well as in various combinations with other collaborators. Exene was in the bands The Original Sinners and Auntie Christ, and both she and Doe have recorded well-regarded solo albums. Still, X hasn't recorded an album of original material since 1993's Hey Zeus! — though, Cervenka says, that may change in the new year.
"When we get home, Billy and I are going to work on some new songs," Cervenka says. "I have all these lyrics and I'll just give 'em to Billy; I think we'll have a little bit of down time."
In 2009, Cervenka revealed she had multiple sclerosis. Asked how she's dealing with the disease, she sighs. "For 16 years I've been diagnosed and undiagnosed with MS, way before I made my announcement," she says. "I just couldn't refuse to deal with it any more. But the doctors tell me different things. I'm on my seventh doctor, who says, 'No, you do not [have the disease].' They have been testing me for all kinds of crap, but everybody I know has something ... fibromyalgia, lupus. There's some sort of autoimmune thing going on with women," she says, sighing. "But this is depressing! Look, I'm feeling OK today. I love touring. I love playing X shows."
X came of age during the economic malaise of the last years of the Carter presidency and the subsequent rise of Reaganomics, making the band's more political albums (Los Angeles, More Fun in the New World) sound more timely than ever in our Patriot Act, TSA-screened, Occupy Wall Street landscape of 2011. In "The New World," Cervenka's chorus quotes a homeless man: "It was better before/Before we voted for whatsisname/This was supposed to be the new world."
"I wrote that because a homeless person wouldn't even know who was president, and wouldn't care," Cervenka says. "How wonderful to be that free."
"Oh, my God!" Cervenka interrupts herself. "You've got to hear what I was reading in this morning's paper. The Obama administration is making it illegal for medical marijuana patients to own a gun. And this wasn't something I read on the Internet. It was in f—ing USA Today." (Sure enough, that afternoon I pick up a copy of "America's Newspaper," and there it is, in a memo from the associate director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: "Any person who uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether his or her state has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes, is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance, and is prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms or ammunition." In the weeks since the interview, I haven't heard anyone else — on the Right or Left — bring up the fact that the U.S. government seems to have suspended the Second Amendment for people with medical marijuana licenses.)
"I don't care what you think about gun laws," she says. "If guns are outlawed in this country, we're f—ed." What does she think of the Tea Party? "Really and truly, they are completely brainwashed," she says. "Why do you want to pay more taxes than the wealthy people? Why do you think you shouldn't have a pension? Why should you vote against your own self-interest? Why are you listening to popular culture? I swear, if all the power on Earth went out for just two days, like The Day the Earth Stood Still — the original, not the remake — if people could live through it, they'd be better off. Video games and television are evil, horrible, damaging subliminal things.
"Get rid of that motherf—ing TV and those motherf—ing video games, right now," she adds. "Talk to your friends right now. Put that in the paper. Tell me you'll put that in the paper."
What about the Internet? Cervenka keeps a website where she blogs and sells her artwork and music. "The Internet is, like all technology, not our friend," she says. "But we have to use it. What you do with that is spread the information: People need to start writing letters again. Making stuff. Telling each other things privately.
"During repression and fascism is when you get really great art," she says. "But I do have a lot of hope for the future."
In the short term, she's looking forward to returning to New Orleans; X was the last band to play the Shim Sham Club on Toulouse Street right before the venue closed, and the house was packed.
"New Orleans is one of the few cities where people can take care of themselves," Cervenka says. "I trust the people there and I have friends there." — Kevin Allman