X, the punk band formed in 1977 by Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, John Doe, and D.J. Bonebrake, came along just in time for those of us coming of age in the mid-'70s who were discovering that the conventional path through life wasn't an option. In Los Angeles at that point in time our numbers proved to be legion, and we found each other at L.A.'s seminal punk petri dish, The Masque. We weren't stupid, but we were unemployable; we were lonely, but we insisted on being left alone; we were broke, but had better things to do than chase money. We had what's commonly referred to as a bad attitude; we were hungry to taste it all, and we were willing to pay the price -- be it our health, our sanity, and in some cases, our lives. X was the house band for L.A.'s punk party that ran from 1977 through 1981, and they showed us a brighter truth, a braver way to live, the sacred beauty of the breakdown.
"The audience at the Masque was just like us, and there was no division between the bands who played there and the people who went to see them," recalls bassist, vocalist, and writer John Doe. "Many bands were writing songs about people who were part of the scene, and in a way the music was tailor-made for the people who were listening to it."
The community that coalesced at the Masque had begun to splinter by 1981 when X's second album, Wild Gift, was released, and X was beginning to change too. Their debut album, Los Angeles, had been a critical smash, John and Exene had gotten married, and their musical palette was broadening. One crucial thing remained unchanged, however; the lifestyle, and the friends and relations that had always been central to their songs, continued to rage on in high gear.
"Most of the newer songs on Wild Gift were about the life Exene and I were living as husband and wife in a small house off of Santa Monica Boulevard in the heart of the gay cruising district," recalls John Doe. "It was a pretty raunchy neighborhood, and were still scraping to get by, but we were so in love that we didn't care. There was a connection between us that was undeniable, and the love between us increased our creativity."
Adds Exene: "A lot of the songs on Wild Gift are obviously about relationship issues John and I were dealing with, but I don't remember there being any tension about those kinds of things. We married when we were in our early twenties, so we were still really young, and of course we felt attracted to other people. So, some of the songs carried feelings both of us were having but wouldn't act on because we were married."
The opening track, "The Once Over Twice," features lyrics by Exene, whose defiantly unconventional style was one of the band's greatest strengths. "Those are my lyrics, and basically it's a song about men," she explains. "Men didn't like me very much -- they were scared of me, as you can imagine, because men don't like powerful women. They like submissive, quiet, stupid women."
Next up is "We're Desperate," an early tune written in 1977 that didn't make it onto X's first album. "I wanted it to have a tempo that combined the Ramones and Captain Beefheart," says D.J. Bonebrake of the song's herky-jerky rhythm, which neatly showcases how tight the band was. John says the songs is about "poverty, crummy apartments, and burning the landlord," and the lyrics evoke that beautifully: "a motorola kitchen/Naugahyde & a tie-dye T-shirt/last night everything broke."
"Adult Books" was one of the first songs John and Exene wrote together, and one of their earliest attempts to trade in the jack-hammer bar chords of punk for something more complex. The rhythm of this ballad for the singles scene is sort of a reggae cha-cha, and John sings it soft and sweet, like a sadder but wiser lounge singer.
"Universal Corner" is about longing and taking the bus," says John. "I had a car when I wrote that song, but I took the bus intentionally to write it, although the bus doesn't show up in the song. It's about being away from home."
"I'm Coming Over" is the first song Exene ever wrote. "It's about feeling lonely, unloved, and unwanted -- even though I wasn't," she recalls. You can see her beginning to grasp the fundamentals of songwriting in this simple song, which lacks a bridge and is basically a rudimentary verse and chorus repeated a few times.
"It's Who You Know" is also an early song from 1977, and it's about wanting to be somebody," John continues. "I came up with the lyrics, which include a line inspired by Ben E. King's 'Spanish Harlem.'" This song features one of John's all-time great vocals -- check out how he handles the last repetition of the chorus.
"In This House That I Call Home" could be described as the theme song for the house off of Santa Monica Boulevard that John and Exene lived in during the late '70s and early '80s. "A hundred lives shoved inside/friends arrive to dump their mess," says the song of this crowded house, where a friend was always crashing on the couch, somebody always had a hangover, and nobody had any money. "This is my favorite song on the album," says Exene. "It's brilliant in that it's a perfect marriage of humor and the hard-core reality of life in that house."
Of "Some Other Time," Exene says, "That song was a real breakthrough for me in terms of singing. I've always liked the way I sing -- despite the fact that people were always telling me my harmonies were flat -- but with that song I began to feel more control as a singer." Exene is rumored to have written "Some Other Time" for Phil Alvin, the lead singer of the L.A. band The Blasters.
John Doe is said to have written the next song, "White Girl," for Lorna Doom of the Germs. "That's a song about temptation," says John of "White Girl," which is one of the best-loved songs of the X canon.
So, you were open with each other about crushes? "We kinda were," says Exene. "Not really," counters John. "If I wrote a song like 'White Girl,' there was an unspoken pact that this may happen, but I love you more. I think for both of us our primary commitment was to the music. Sometimes we wrote songs that made it sound as if we were having affiars, but that didn't mean we were."
Next is "Beyond And Back," a howling ode to lovers' quarrels built on a basic rockabilly riff and sung by Exene. "No more orange night gowns," she moans, as if that were the final kiss-off. Check out D.J.'s steady, indomitable drum part on this one; he's laying down that same locomotive rhythm you find in the great railroad songs, "Train Kept A Rollin'" and "Mystery Train."
"'Back 2 The Base' was inspired by the Ramones," says John, "and the lyrics are entirely based on things I heard a guy on a bus screaming as he was cracking up. He was holding a picture of Stevie Wonder above his head, as if to show everyone else on the bus how wrong rock 'n' roll had become, and he was screaming, 'Gotta get me back to the base, Elvis sucked on doggy dicks." They stopped the bus because the guy wouldn't get off, and the last thing he said as he was being loaded into the police car was 'I'm the king of rock 'n' roll. If you don't like it, you can lump it." I didn't write the song until a few weeks later when I was riding the bus to work at the Beverly Wilshire and was having comparably murderous thoughts."
"When Our Love Passed Out On The Couch" is an early song that remains a favorite of Exene's. "I just love that idea of love passing out on the couch, which is a line I wrote," she says of the song, which has an inexplicable quality of danger and intrigue. "The next song, 'Year 1," is a song I wrote because I was frustrated. I wanted a revolution and really expected one to happen, then I realized time was passing and people were losing it. There wasn't gonna be the revolution I'd been dreaming of."
"For me, 'Year 1' is about dropping all preconceptions about what should or shouldn't be and starting over, and I think that's what punk rock was trying to do," John adds. "The most important thing about it was that it encouraged people to take their destiny into their own hands."
This wonderful record is a testament to the great things that can be achieved when people do that. The four members of X started absolutely from scratch. They had no money, no connections, no encouragement from anybody, and created something beautiful out of nothing, simply because they had to. This is the wild gift they made.
-- Kristine McKenna
Ladies and gentlemen, for your listening pleasure, X.
Wild Gift (Slash)