X - Biography
In the first half of the 1980s, X all at once seemed to be the best punk band in Los Angeles, the poetic heirs of the Doors’ legacy, the American rock band that most convincingly incorporated folk, blues, country and soul into its music, a consistently amazing live band, and a band of outlaws that sang for the American working class. While X depicted the sorrow and squalor of LA poverty, the band also made it seem like a boundless field of fun and romance. As Henry Rollins has said, “One of the greatest sounds on earth is the sound of John and Exene singing together.” Songwriters and vocalists, John Doe and Exene Cervenka, perfected a distinctive style of harmony, while guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake were among the most musically gifted and versatile instrumentalists in LA punk.
In the summer of 1976, Exene Cervenka caught a ride with a friend from Tallahassee, Florida to Los Angeles. On Halloween of that year, John Doe (born John Duchac) left Baltimore. “I knew I wanted to do something in music and I didn’t want to go to New York,” Doe told the Baltimore City Paper in 1985, “so I went to LA.” Cervenka and Doe met in 1977 at the Venice Poetry Workshop at Beyond Baroque (a literary center founded in 1968 that continues to be a focus of new poetic activity in Los Angeles). Cervenka was Beyond Baroque’s first librarian.
Guitarist Billy Zoom (born Ty Kindell), the son of a jazz musician, had been playing in bands since the early 1960s. In 1966, he left Savanna, Illinois to join a touring R&B band, and by the early ‘70s he had landed in LA. “I played around Watts with groups like the Brothers Love and backed up everybody from Etta James to Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, while doing whatever session work I could find,” Zoom says in We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk (Three Rivers Press 2001). After seeing the Ramones in 1977, Zoom placed an ad in LA’s free classified paper, the Recycler, looking for a bass player and a drummer. Doe answered the ad and began rehearsing with Zoom and soon, he brought Cervenka into the band as another singer. There seems to have been friction, at least initially, between Cervenka and Zoom: “I admit it,” Zoom says in We Got The Neutron Bomb, “I was originally horrified that John was bringing his girlfriend into the band.”
X still lacked a regular drummer when the band played its first show in the house on Van Ness where Zoom, Doe and Cervenka lived--the Screamers’ KK Barrett may have played drums for this show. By the time X recorded the single, “Adult Books,” they had nabbed drummer D.J. Bonebrake from LA punks the Eyes. Donald James Bonebrake grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and like Zoom, had been as immersed in jazz and classical music as rock. X made its name playing live in the LA punk scene in 1978 and 1979, particularly at underground Hollywood club The Masque.
Exene and John Doe married on April 6, 1980 in Tijuana, Mexico. The next week, on April 12, Exene’s sister, Mirielle, was killed in a car accident en route to an X show at the Whisky A Go-Go. Exene received the news before the band was supposed to play, but decided to continue with the show. Exene would later allude to the accident on the X song, “Riding with Mary.”
Ray Manzarek (ex-Doors keyboardist) came to see X after reading an article about the band in the LA Reader that reprinted the lyrics to the song “Johny Hit & Run Paulene.” He became an X fan which initiated an important association with the band. X created their best work in collaboration with Manzarek, who produced the band’s first four albums. X also shared a number of reference points with the Doors: Venice, poetry, the Whisky A Go-Go, Elektra Records, and of course, Manzarek himself. On the first side of X’s debut, Los Angeles (1980 Slash), the band covered “Soul Kitchen,” from the first side of the Doors’ debut. X fans do not always agree about Manzarek’s organ playing on Los Angeles; some love it and some—generally punk purists who abhor the sound of chops—hate it. In any case, Manzarek’s keys are not audible on any of his future collaborations with the band.
Greil Marcus’ August 1980 review of Los Angeles in New West set the album in Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles: “the songs,” Marcus wrote, “are written and sung not from Marlowe’s point of view but from the point of view of the losers and misfits he inevitably discovers at the fringes of big-money murders—or whose bodies he turns up.”
Wild Gift (1981 Slash) may be the most concise and thrilling document of X’s poetic and musical vision. X’s first single, “Adult Books,” recorded more clearly and with a different chord change in the bridge, is transformed from arresting punk toilet grafitti into a heartbreaking ballad worthy of Roy Orbison. The LA punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) depicts X on and off the stage, prison-style tattoos and all, alongside contemporaries Black Flag, Circle Jerks, the Germs, Fear, Alice Bag Band, and Catholic Discipline.
X moved from Slash Records, the record label associated with the LA punkzine Slash, to Elektra for the band’s third album, Under the Big Black Sun (1982). Doe and Cervenka’s performance of Al Dubin and Joe Burke’s “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes,” originally recorded by Ruth Etting in 1930, is another heartbreaker. Zoom plays saxophone and clarinet on a track or two. More Fun in the New World (1983 Elektra) is another excellent collection of original punk songs rooted in American blues, country and folk.
The documentary, X the Band: The Unheard Music (1985), directed by WT Morgan, captures and enlarges the band’s Angeleno myth. In one scene, John Doe sits in a black t-shirt, blue jeans and engineer boots with a can of beer and a cigarette, showing off the metal “X” he got off a construction worker taking down the Ex-Lax building. The film cuts to Cervenka and Doe’s living room, covered in an enviable collection of religious kitsch, where the two sit on the couch picking out Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man” from a songbook. In voiceover, Doe explains: “I’d been in bands, and I’d done cover songs, and learned traditional harmony. So I knew that. Exene had never been in other bands, so she didn’t have that traditional harmony in her head, you know. So she just sang along until something sounded right, and so we got a real different sound.”
In spite of its beautiful Paul Mavrides cover, Ain’t Love Grand! (1985 Elektra) was X’s first disappointing album. On X’s previous albums, Ray Manzarek had consistently captured X’s energy as a live band. Here, the fine batch of Cervenka/Doe songs (excepting the Small Faces’ “All or Nothing” and the Doe/Alvin song “Little Honey”) is marred by metal producer Michael Wagener’s arsenal of 1980's commercial production techniques, ruthlessly deployed. Layers of overdubs, digital effects and synthesizers obscure X’s immediacy, and the great Bonebrake plays as if shackled to a click track machine. Also issued in 1985 was the first release from X side-project, The Knitters (Cervenka, Doe, Bonebrake, Dave Alvin and Jonny Ray Bartel), the acoustic Poor Little Critter on the Road (Slash).
That year, following Ain’t Love Grand, Exene and John Doe divorced, and Billy Zoom left X. Dave Alvin, of the Blasters (and the Knitters), temporarily left his band to fill in for Zoom in 1986. See How We Are (1987 Elektra) introduces Tony Gilkyson as Zoom’s full-time replacement, though Alvin also plays guitar and bass on the album and contributes his song “4th of July,” a depiction of Independence Day in Los Angeles: “On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone / Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below.” X also revisits an old Doe song, the lovely “Cyrano de Berger’s Back,” best heard in the rehearsal version added to Rhino’s re-issue of Los Angeles.
X always has been, and continues to be, an astonishing live band. The double album X Live at the Whisky A Go-Go on the Fabulous Sunset Strip (1988 Elektra) shows off X’s power, brilliance and emotional depth in concert. Live, “Around My Heart” from Ain’t Love Grand proves to be among X’s best songs, and John Doe asks Nancy Reagan for a quarter on “The New World” before moving Woody Guthrie’s apocalypse ballad “So Long It’s Been Good To Know You” from the Dust Bowl to the City of Angels.
The next X record was hey Zeus! (1993 Big Life), a pun on the Spanish pronunciation of “Jesus.” For Unclogged (1995 Infidelity), X’s version of the “Unplugged” concept popularized by MTV at the time, Cervenka, Doe, Bonebrake and Gilkyson play acoustic versions of old X tunes in a San Francisco church.
Elektra issued the 2CD retrospective Beyond & Back: The X Anthology in 1997. X reunited with Billy Zoom for shows in San Francisco and Hollywood in February 1998. "I'm doing it for the money, and I'm doing it to get my name out there so I can do some of the other projects I want to do," Zoom told OC Weekly that year. X covered “The Crystal Ship,” the song following “Soul Kitchen” on The Doors (1967 Elektra), for The X-Files: The Album (1998 Elektra), the soundtrack to the first X-Files movie.
Since the reunion, X has continued to tour and perform songs from the band’s first five years. The reunited band has not produced a studio album, though the Knitters returned with The Modern Sounds of the Knitters (2005 Zoe). The most recent X release is the live DVD X Live in Los Angeles (2005 Shout Factory). LA Weekly presented X with a lifetime achievement award at its chaotic 2005 music awards ceremony, which concluded with a live performance of Los Angeles (with the mysterious exception of “Sex & Dying in High Society”).