Exene speaks: Wasn’t this supposed to be the new world?

USR coverExene CFor the second installment of an occasional series dedicated to rescuing my old articles from print oblivion, here’s my interview with punk poet Exene Cervenka (for those who don’t know who she is — in which case, why are you reading this — she was/is a key member of the legendary LA band X). It was the cover story of issue #66 of Boston Rock a/k/a U.S. Rock magazine — those were ambitious times — from July 1985. I was writing a lot for that mag in those days and even had a monthly column for about a year (wildly varying in quality), but this was a definite high point in my “career” with BR, even though, rereading it, it does go on a bit too long for my current taste and I consider my mid-’80s writing style to be, shall we say, a bit too obsessed with flash and gimmicks at points. But, old news.

To set the scene: In the summer of ’85, after four acclaimed but non-hit albums, X had hit an artistic plateau and was on the cusp of what their Wikipedia article refers to as their “commercial era” (1985-87), which ended up being, well, not all that commercial. They had just released their fifth album, Ain’t Love Grand!, leaving behind their longtime producer Ray Manzarek to dance with the German hard rock/metal producer Michael Wagener. Some eyebrows were raised. Exene had grown a bit suspicious of the media by this point and tended to be wary, even contemptuous, of music critics, frequently referring to them as “glorified gossip columnists,” even though X had generally received very positive press throughout their career (more on this topic in the piece itself).

I was a bit intimidated at the thought of speaking with Exene, who had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, but pushed through it, taking it as a personal challenge to break down her initial reserve and flinty attitude. In the end, I think we made a decent connection; I regarded our interview as a significant assignment for me at the time and still do. I certainly have great respect for Exene’s artistic integrity as well as her resolve to persevere with her career through myriad professional and personal difficulties (she suffers from multiple sclerosis, for one thing) up to the present late day. Like Billy Zoom said, “If you’re gonna spend your life beating your head against a wall, you should at least find a wall you like.”

From the vantage point of all these years later, I’m amused that both Exene and me already had the challenges of aging on our minds, well before either of us would hit 30. By the end of the interview, Exene struck me as the opposite of a self-important, egotistical artiste. She was able to hold things in perspective. “We’re old enough to realize that there’s more to life than being in a band,” she told me. “You get to a certain point and you realize you’ve done nothing with your life except made these records — big deal. There’s so much more you can contribute.”

And so, to the piece. Boy, do I not write like this now; boy, am I ever a different person today who would do something totally different with the subject. But I hope you find it a worthwhile read. (As for what Exene is doing these days, at least when she’s not reuniting with the other members of X, the less said the better; I’m afraid she went over the edge quite a while ago to become a paranoid conspiracy theorist nutcase par excellence, and no, I don’t believe she’s doing it as performance art.)

_____________________________________

X

by Wes Eichenwald

This is the fourth story and third cover story about X to appear in Boston Rock since 1981.

“I’m not surprised,” says Exene Cervenka.

First there was the article in BR #22 (October ’81), by Michael Hafitz, chronicling the already-fabled Exene, John Doe, Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake. To quote Hafitz: “Although not blessed with an eight-octave range, they sing with exceptional plaintive, romantic whine.”

Then came Gerard Cosloy’s cover story in BR #31 (August ’82), three years ago this month. Cosloy quoted photographer Phil ‘n’ Phlash horning in on the conversation to ask Exene, “How long have you had dreadlocks?” and getting the answer, “I don’t have dreadlocks. I just don’t comb my hair.”

In BR #44 (October ’83), Bruce D. Rhodewalt checked in with a funny account of how bad the interview went. Rhodewalt said theirs were “homemade vocal harmonies.”

To scoot over to the last issue of NY Rocker (spring ’84), we have writer Andy Schwartz quoting Doe quoting Zoom: “If you’re gonna spend your life beating your head against a wall, you should at least find a wall you like.”

Yeah.

Remember when you first heard X? How full you thought they were of…fresh air? How they mixed punk poetry (gimme that oldtime violence) with our incomparable all-American musical traditions? Remember when it was a big deal that John and Exene were married? Remember those names Exene Cervenka? And John Doe? Finally, how great you felt that such a band was on the planet?

Another X record is out. Another State of the Band Address is due. Ain’t Love Grand is X’s fifth album in five years, its third on Elektra, and the first whose producer is not Ray Manzarek. This time the band went with Michael Wagener, producer of an infamous single for them last year, a cover of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” that had people who cared screaming “Joan Jett!” and not in a complimentary way.

Referred to the band by a contact at Elektra, Wagener is a German previously known — gasp — for his work with heavy metal bands like Dokken and Accept. Yet Aint’ Love Grand is a long way from metal, or even “Wild Thing” — on Wagener’s insistence, according to Exene. So there.

“Everybody was so scared,” she mocks. ” ‘Oh no, oh no. They’re changing producers, oh no, oh no.’ They didn’t have any faith in us. You can only make so many albums that sound the same. The band was just sick of the way we sounded. We wanted to sound grander.”

Did Manzarek mind being, well, dumped? “I don’t talk to him anymore. I think he did. I’m not sure. I think everyone’s surprised it wasn’t sooner.” After all, Exene points out, look at how much Talking Heads, for example, plays (rock) musical chairs; and X didn’t want to bring in outside musicians, so…(more on snobbish purists later).

A year and a half elapsed between the fourth album, More Fun in the New World, and Ain’t Love Grand. This past spring, according to Exene, was “the first time off we’ve had in eight years”; she went to the library, and spent days in blissful boredom. Because of the slackened workload and lack of overlapping commitments, she says, Wagener was able to work closer with the band than was ever possible with Manzarek.

During 1984 and early ’85, Exene was also busy writing poetry with Henry Rollins and Wanda Coleman (resulting in a book with the former and a spoken-word LP with the latter), and joining Doe, the Blasters’ Dave Alvin and others on a down-home country album by the Knitters (Poor Little Critter on the Road, on Slash), which she terms “a take-off on itself,” comparing it to Woody Guthrie affecting a hillbilly accent while broadcasting his radio show from…Los Angeles (X loves America, too. Their land is your land).

“John was in the mood to write songs and I wasn’t, so it worked out pretty well as always,” says Exene of Ain’t Love Grand. As a result, More Fun‘s political tinge has been replaced by a bias toward stately, Doe-penned love ballads with startlingly lush (to borrow a phrase) homemade vocal harmonies (“Around My Heart,” “I’ll Stand Up For You”). If that’s not for everyone, Exene did contribute several traditional X jamkickers (“Supercharged,” “Love Shack,” “What’s Wrong With Me”).

X always wrote ballads, Exene points out — “Blue Spark,” “White Girl” — “but no one would ever play it, because people wouldn’t get past the production. That’s so stupid.”

As for politics belonging in rock songs: “”Billy would say no, John would say yes, D.J. would say maybe. I would say yes, definitely. More Fun was very political; our concerns were more selfish this time. We were concerned with ourselves and our relationships with each other. We’ve all been going through some interesting things.”

The album’s release has helped return the band to an even keel, says Exene, along with kick-starting the familiar touring cycle (10 and a half weeks this summer and fall).

For a band supposed to be on a leading edge of rock ‘n’ roll — with fans to match — to hear Exene tell it, X is hexed with an awful lot of retrogressive fans and critics, whose unwitting intent is to imprison the band in its own history. But nyaah nyaahs Exene, “We’re not paying any attention to it.” The band has a love/hate relationship with critics; many have placed them on a pedestal, holding them to impossibly high expectations related to memories of a past either outdated or romanticized. Exene is wont to dismiss such creatures as “glorified gossip columnists,” adding, “They’re all adult males! They’re not kids! What do they know?”

However, she is about to have her sweet revenge: she reveals having written a song, for the Knitters, about critics. Does it have a title? “Probably ‘Talking Critic Blues,’ I would guess. Talking about the critics and complaining.”

Have the L.A. writers been freaking out over the new record? “Oh, God, yeah, They’re trying to find reasons. There aren’t any reasons, you just make records!” (If someone could only convince those adult males, eh?)

The original quartet has been together almost nine years now. Is Ms. Cervenka proud of this? “Yup.”

Exene’s roots are not Californian but Midwestern, specifically the south Chicago suburb of Mokena, Illinois. She  moved with her family to Florida at age 15, and didn’t hit L.A. until 1976, hooking up with John Doe and her destiny a mere couple of months later. Exene named the band. “I just found ‘X’ in my mind,” she recalls.

Exene recalls with delight the accumulated false gossip about the group. “All those rumors about heroin addiction; ‘John and I have just broken up, we’re getting a divorce’ — people just make up all these terrible things about you. I’ve been ‘pregnant’ about five times” (including once with Darby Crash’s baby, just after Crash died).

Exene never cared for hardcore too much: “In L.A. it was really violent, I don’t care what anybody says.” Back in 1982 — when the L.A. hardcore world equated X with Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen — Exene did venture out to a few shows. “Every time I’d go, some girl with heavy black eye makeup would come up to me and go, ‘I hate you, Exene, I hate you!'” Eventually, Exene began to get annoyed at this.

The singer appreciates a 50/50 blend of domesticity and rock ‘n’ roll world. “People who aren’t into the rock lifestyle (at all) are real boring,” she says. On the other hand — and, as is seemingly inevitable this summer, talk turns to the Live Aid concert — when she was watching Zeppelin, “Robert Plant looked like he had vodka injections in his face or something. I don’t want that. I want to be healthy.”

“(Live Aid) reminded me of mythology,” she continues. “Where all the gods are on Mount Olympus, and one day they say ‘Let’s go down and help all the humans!’ And they go down, and it’s like, ‘Look at us, we’re so famous and so wonderful!’ and then they say ‘Bye!’ It was really funny…although it was for a good cause, I suppose.”

Exene was amused at a letter to a Los Angeles newspaper castigating X for not playing at that concert. “As if anybody would conceive of the idea that we would be invited! We’re not gods! You had to be a god to be invited to that one…although Rod Stewart wasn’t there.”

When a band goes on for almost a decade — or a job or marriage, for that matter — one of three things ensues:

1)  Desperation sets in

2)  Sameness tends to stultify

3)  Every year it gets better!

X and desperation have had a special relationship, but Exene places choice (1) way in the band’s past: “In the beginning you’re really desperate, but you’re having fun so it doesn’t matter.”

The answer, of course, is (4): a little of each, all of the above. X is growing older, and for the first time, Exene is ready to admit it, have it over with, and get on with things.

“You’re so used to people accusing you, you defend yourself. But you do change,” she says. “We’re old enough to realize that there’s more to life than being in a band. You get to a certain point and you realize you’ve done nothing with your life except made these records — big deal. There’s so much more you can contribute.”

“I have no idea of the future,” Exene adds, but allows as there probably will be at least a sixth X album, and another Knitters LP. As for the current tour, they look forward to playing the Orpheum in October — “or is there another place in Boston now?” she asks. “We’d pick the Boston area over the New York area if we were given a choice; we’ve played New York so much.” (And not to get anyone’s hopes up, but she did mention the band wants to hit all the area college towns…)

X are still not huge commercial successes, and probably won’t be this year. So what? Their albums sell between 100,000 and 150,000 copies apiece. It pays the rent. It keeps them going. “We don’t feel like failures,” says Exene, who shouldn’t. “It goes by so fast we don’t really have time to think about it too much.”

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