What made them so sensational? For starters, there was a visual component. It's one of myriad cruelties of nature, but a rock 'n' roll band has to be thrilling to look at, and X was. Most bands are lucky to have one charismatic member, but X had four, and each of them brought something completely different to the mix.
Stage right was Billy Zoom. Blond, pale, and so cool he was almost glacial, Billy could make dramatic shifts in style or peel off a dazzling solo without batting an eye. He'd stand there boots rooted to the stage floor with a satisfied smile on his face, like a favored child showing off for doting relatives. If Billy was really enjoying himself, he might stick out his tongue, but that was pretty much the extent of his visual display onstage. And yet he was mesmerizing! Billy epitomized one of the crucial strengths of X, which was its spot-on musicianship; punk band of that era tended to be sloppy, but X was tight, and you never worried that one of them might take a wrong turn and derail the show. You knew you were putting yourself in the hands of total pros, that you could relax and take the ride.
Center stage was Exene. You've heard the phrase "I'm every woman?" Exene could say it and be telling the truth. Snaky-haired Medusa, Little Match Girl, baddest chick at school, homeless woman on the corner cursing to herself, vamp, wizened crone, wistful runaway -- Exene changed from one to the next in an instant. She had the narrow hips of a child, the full bosom of a femme fatale, and a fabulous fashion sense; scuffed up granny shoes, the exaggerated makeup of a silent film star, thrift store party dresses, bracelets, and tattoos -- she was a feast for the eye. Ultimately, though, Exene's beauty was rooted in her ability to be herself without a trace of apology or shame. Her wicked sense of humor, her need, her sorrow, her lust, her regret, her tenderness -- she got out there and flaunted it all, and that's what made her such a spectacular performer.
Stage left was John Doe. Everybody had a crush on John. Tall and lean, jet black hair, a sweet, open face and voluptuous mouth, he was classic dreamboat material. Equal parts Woody Guthrie and Elvis Presley, John was the glue who held the entire operation together.
Bringing up the rear was drummer D.J. Bonebrake. The audience couldn't really see D.J., but it was as if Billy, Exene, and John were riding bolts of lightning pounded out by Zeus at the drum kit. At the end of every show D.J. would come forward to take a bow, and it was always startling to see how young he was. He was a kid! Everybody in the band was young then, but D.J. seemed really young, and he had a boyish innocence that was at odds with the ferocious power of his playing.
They were gorgeous and glamorous, and this is how they came together.
Exene was born in 1956 into a working class Catholic family. She dropped out of high school and lost her mother to cancer when she was still a teenager. Exene's greatly loved older sister, the late Mirielle Cervenka, left home early, leaving Exene with the job of raising two younger siblings. "My sister was a writer, and one day she gave me an old ledger," Exene recalls. "I opened it up and said, 'Hey, there's nothing in this,' and she said, 'I know -- you're supposed to write in it.' And so I started writing."
In August of 1976 Exene moved to Los Angeles, because she knew she had to get out of Florida. She arrived in town with $80 in a paper bag and wound up living with five people in a one-room apartment in Ocean Park. A short time later she began working in Venice in the library at the literary arts center Beyond Baroque, where she was allowed to live upstairs.
John Doe arrived from Baltimore two months later, in October of 1976. John's parents were liberal minded librarians, and John came to L.A. when he was 23 to be a songwriter. "I was in cover bands in Baltimore, but when I discovered Patti Smith's first record I realized something big was going on. I could've moved to New York but the East Coast felt stagnant to me, so I came to L.A., where I didn't know anybody. I landed in Venice, which was crap then, and I met Exene a month after I got here. I was way into poetry then, so I started going to Beyond Baroque, and Exene worked there."
"It wasn't love at first sight," Exene remebers of their meeting. "I was sitting down in a class, and John sat next to me, because he and I were obviously kind of similar. We were asked to make a list of our ten favorite poets, and I thought, shit, because I didn't know what to write. I sat there staring, then I looked at John's list, and the only name I recognized was John Lennon."
"Then Exene pointed out to me that I'd written the same name twice," adds John, who had to court Exene for a few months before she began to respond to him. John was working at Brentano's bookstore in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel then, and in February of 1977 he ran an ad in a local paper that caught Billy Zoom's eye.
"John and I both ran ads the same week, and they were worded about the same; looking to play music that isn't bullshit, Billy recalls.
"I couldn't believe I'd met a musician who'd played with Gene Vincent and knew how to fix cars. He was so cool!" recalls John of Billy, whose father was a motorcycle-riding jazz musician who'd played with Django Reinhardt.
John stumbled across D.J. Bonebrake in January of 1978 at L.A.'s seminal punk cabaret, The Masque, where D.J. was playing a gig with The Eyes while very drunk. "I called Billy and said, 'There's a guy down here playing a huge snare drum, and he hits it really hard!" John recalls. "Billy said, 'Promise him anything, and we'll worry about it later."
So the four of them found each other and started playing.
"We were all learning so much from each other at the beginning," says John. "There was a great sense of discovery and change, and we were all rejecting the past, because we knew that's what we had to do."
Exene initially felt reluctant to sing, but John encouraged her. "She had poems that were obviously songs, plus she was cut from classic lead singer cloth. She was such a bad ass! I pretended to be, but Exene was the real thing. She had the ax to grind, the sadness of her mother's death, and the unusual wiring that made it possible for her to throw a drink in somebody's face and still be right. She totally delivered as a lead singer.
"I'd been in bands and done cover songs, so I'd learned how to do traditional harmony, but Exene had never been in bands and didn't have that traditional harmony in her head. So she just sang along until something sounded right, and we came up with a different sound," says John of the slightly discordant harmonies sung against the beat that's one of the signatures of their sound.
Throughout his childhood D.J. Bonebrake played in symphony orchestras, and he was headed for a career in classical music before punk intervened. An accomplished marimba player, he wasn't interested in the repertoire, however, and in 1974 he began gravitating toward simpler music. "I could apply most of what I'd learned playing with orchestras to X's music," he recalls. "The main thing I had to work on was learning to play less."
As the music was finding its voice, John and Exene were hammering out an approach to lyric writing that came to be the blood and guts of X's music. Usually structured around a narrative line, their songs were impressionistic patches of things they saw or heard in buses or bars, firsthand experience, memories, lamentations. Steeped in American roots music, John and Exene had an unerring eye for the telling detail and a gift for communicating complex stories in fractured glimpses. Stark and to the point, their songs cut to the chase the minute they began.
After two years of gigging and a single (Adult Books b/w We're Desperate) released by Dangerhouse Records in 1978, X went into the studio to record their debut album, Los Angeles, which was produced by Ray Manzarek. "The main thing we wanted to do with the first album was capture a live feel, because we knew we were a powerful live band," John recalls.
The opening track, "Your Phone's Off The Hook, But You're Not," is a good example of how John and Exene took their poetry where they found it. An abstracted postcard chronicling their first visit to Manhattan as a performing band in November of 1978, the song finds them hanging out an upstairs window at one point as they watch their van being towed away. "It doesn't say anything about that being a tow-away zone!" Exene hollered down to the tow truck driver, who hollered back, "All of New York is a tow-away zone!" The line wound up in the song, which John says was loosely inspired by Eddie Cochran.
John describes track two, "Johnny Hit And Run Pauline," as "an anti-rape song that has a completely different grounding beacause of the classic Chuck Berry riff Billy added to the opening."
"That's probbably one of our best songs," says Billy. "We don't have many songs with actual guitar solos in them, and that doesn't bother me -- overplaying is the downfall of most guitarists, and I have no problem restraining myself. Still, the songs with guitar solos do tend to be my favorites."
Next up is X's version of The Doors' "Soul Kitchen," which is the only cover song on the album. "The only way we could figure to make it our own was to play it really fast, so that's what we did," says John. Notice the way Exene yelps the third line of the first verse, "I wouldn't want to stay here all night." It's so cool the way she does that!
"Nausea" was vaguely inspired by a punk crash pad that came to be known as the Plunger Pit, which was located behind an adult book store on Santa Monica Boulevard. For a spell the house drink was gin and strawberry soda, an unholy concoction that caused earth-shattering hangovers, one of which Exene sings about here.
"Sugarlight" is a nihilistic rave-up that finds the band roaring along at full throttle. The song sounds like it's about drugs, but John says it's about the gay cruising scene, and his vocals on this one are absolutely incendiary.
On the title track, "Los Angeles," which was written in 1979, John says, "Not many people notice this, but the opening riff has the same note progression you hear on bell chimes. My favorite part of the song is the line, 'The days change at night/change in an instant,' because I've always been fascinated by the way things can turn from positive to negative in a split second."
"'Sex And Dying In High Society' was an early song, written in 1977, during a period when the Modern Lovers' first album never left my turntable," John continues. "The song was conceptually influenced by Lou Reed, musically influenced by The Ramones, and had to do with the fact that I was working a bookstore at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel where I was surrounded by rich people."
The title of the next track, "The Unheard Music," was taken from a poem by T.S. Eliot, and the lyrics are mostly John's. "Around the time we wrote that song, I was into this compilation of dissonant punk called No New York, and the song has a trace of that style. The line in the song 'a thousand kids bury their parents' refers to Exene and D.J., who lost both of his parents when he was 15. D.J. plays tom-toms on this song, and it gives it a tribal quality that I really like.
"'The World's A Mess; It's In My Kiss' are Exene's lyrics, and I wrote the music," John continues. "I remember rehearsing 'The World's A Mess' at The Masque in a rehearsal room we shared with The Go-Go's, and the first time we played it, I said to myself, This is a hit song. You don't have many of those moments, because most songs develop over a period of time, but occasionally you know the minute you write a song that it's good, and that was one of them."
You can, indeed, hear X taking off into the stratosphere on "The World's A Mess; It's In My Kiss," and like all of their songs, it sounds best at full volume. Don't forget to play this music loud.
-- Kristine McKenna
Ladies and gentlemen, for your listening pleasure, X.
Los Angeles (Slash)