Clip: X rocks on
X rocks on
Sunday, January 9, 2005
The '80s: Who could forget? Synth-pop, glam metal, bad Neil Young albums, worse haircuts, Ronald Reagan twice, Hall & Oates forever. Because if you don't remember history you're doomed to repeat it, the successful comebacks of Duran Duran, Motley Crüe and George W. Bush suggest there's an awful lot of amnesia about.
Still, then as now, there were refuseniks, a thriving underground, much of it in California and New York. And though it hasn't had the fanfare or advertising budget of the Duran/Crüe tours, one of the most influential of the '80s underground bands -- X -- returns to headline Friday at Slim's and Saturday at the Great American Music Hall.
"We never really broke up," says John Doe, who founded the band in 1977 with wife Exene Cervenka (now his ex-wife and named Cervenkova), rockabilly guitar player Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake. "It would have been smart if we had, because then we could have done a few different farewell tours, like Cher or Kiss," he says, laughing.
"There was a hiatus from 1988 to '92 when Exene and my (second) wife had children, but we always kept in touch. And even though we all have our own (career) things going" -- Doe was in San Francisco on a solo tour when he spoke to The Chronicle in December -- "X kept going, just as it did when Billy left in the mid-'80s." Zoom rejoined the band in '94.
These days X restricts itself to playing 25 or so shows a year, featuring material from the band's first four albums. "The reason for that," Doe says, "is that those records" -- "Los Angeles," "Wild Gift," "Under the Big Black Sun" and "More Fun in the New World" -- "were the most original and had the most creative impact."
The other reason is that when Doe and company took a stab at writing new X songs, it didn't work.
"I sort of wish we could," he says. "I tried, but I don't really write punk-rock songs these days. Exene is a little bit closer to punk rock with her band the Original Sinners."
Cervenkova also writes and publishes poetry and performs at spoken-word events. Zoom owns and runs a recording studio in Orange County, specializing in punk and modern surf-rock bands, and also restores and repairs vintage amps. Bonebrake, a talented vibraphone player, has a jazz band, Orchestra Superstring, though his most recent San Francisco performance was behind the drum kit in Dave Alvin's band at the Fillmore.
Doe is a singer-songwriter, "but not in the sappy sense," he says. With a more blues-Americana sound, he signed with indie label Yep Roc and frequently does solo tours.
"But the way we're doing these X shows, with the old songs, is ideal, because this way there's no pressure," he says. "And the songs hold up. There are certain themes that are universal -- the love themes, the political themes, especially with what is going on in America right now -- because they don't really change. We try to breathe as much new life into them as we can."
If that's hard on a quartet whose combined age is about 200, it doesn't show. Doe in particular looks remarkably well-preserved. "Actually, I went to a friend's show, who will remain nameless, since I want to keep him as a friend, and it was like, 'Oh my God, who are all these f -- ing old people?' And of course they were people my age," he says. "X gets a younger crowd coming to the shows, so it's a real athletic exercise. I think that there are a lot of people from 16 to 25 out there who are seeking something -- something that's real, that's not virtual or a spin-off or a take on something. I like a lot of new music -- it's mostly what I listen to -- but there's a whole lot now that's very derivative, and there are young people who want to see a band that started something rather than somebody who's just reinterpreting it."
Conversation turns to how San Francisco these days appears to be populated almost entirely by young people, apart from those pushing trolleys. "Probably because they're the only ones making enough money to live there, which I find totally tragic," Doe says. "When X first started coming to San Francisco there was so much diversity, so many strange people."
He and his bandmates have a large soft spot for the city. Though they all still live in or around Los Angeles, they chose San Francisco to record their acclaimed mid-'90s live album, "Unclogged." When prodded to comment on the famed San Francisco-Los Angeles cultural rivalry, Doe shrugs.
"It was a healthy rivalry. And there was always far more cooperation than competition on the West Coast," he says. "Far more than there was anywhere else in the country. If a band from L.A. went to San Francisco and needed help or some equipment or something, they could always get it."
Before things start getting too nostalgic, Doe roundly declares that Los Angeles bands were "more entertaining" and "more enduring."
In the case of X, the band that as good as defined the West Coast punk scene, that's the truth.
Sylvie Simmons is a freelance writer.