by Nikki Kreuzer
Four decades ago, Los Angeles, like many other cities in the United States, was going through an identity crisis. The late 1970s was a time when the decaying bones of a once sparkling golden era was turning into a question mark. It was a time when major industry began leaving America for cheaper locations, unemployment was high, gas lines were long, and the world it was a-changin’. The punk fever had hit New York and London’s gray economies, sweeping up disenfranchised youth with a purpose hotter than a pepper spout. And in 1977, the band X emerged from Hollywood’s then gritty streets, out of a small music scene and into the national spotlight. It was the perfect combustion ground for a band of its kind, a collection of poetic youths carrying loud instruments, searching for meaning in a world rusting around them. “There were problems in this country at that point that were on their way to being fixed,” X’s singer Exene Cervenka, eloquently reminisces, “But rather than fix the bad things, we got rid of many of the good things… Seeing the Midwest turn into a rust belt was sad; we toured this whole time. In L.A., when we first got here, they weren’t yet tearing things down; Schwab’s Drugstore was still here. The Hollywood Sign was falling down, but there was so much more that was still here. Now it’s going, going, going, going… You have to fight to save everything.” The band X, however, have persevered and made a successful career from the exhaust fumes of a city that had once seen better days.
Now 40 years later, the Grammy Museum has decided to document and celebrate these lost children made good, by creating an exhibit, “X: 40 Years of Punk in Los Angeles.” It’s the pinnacle of several recent highlights for the band, including a proclamation by the Los Angeles city council declaring October 11th “X Day” as well as an honor bestowed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in which the band threw out the first pitch and sang the national anthem at a home game this last summer. In a time of a distorted America, with Trump’s hatred dominating the media and more uncertainties then there are answers, band member John Doe admits to the obvious contradiction of performing a song celebrating the nation, “Singing the National Anthem at that point was…controversial. America is built on a lot of weird events. I was singing out for the people who couldn’t be there.”
On a recent sunlit afternoon, I made my way to the Grammy Museum, to check out this new exhibit. I passed through a “new” downtown L.A. loaded with optimistic promise (aka money), rife with gentrification and full of sparkling construction equipment, building ever up. It is a Los Angeles of a parallel universe and in direct contrast to that in which X played its first few notes.
Bassist John Doe and singer Exene Cervenka, who both share writing and vocalist duties in the band, greeted me and a group of about 15 other journalists, a day in advance of a Grammy Museum-moderated Q&A and live performance opening the new exhibit to the public. They led us through, answering questions, explaining the significance of objects on display, including original band flyers, clothing items worn by the band onstage, scrap books, instruments, and a wall of black and white photos documenting the band’s early history. They were friendly and full of good humor, telling tales of the formation of the band and pleased with the Grammy Museum’s recognition, as video monitors loudly echoed with some of X’s most well known songs. “As you can imagine, it’s somewhat surreal,” John stated, pensively amused, while gazing upon items he contributed.
Although I adored seeing DJ Bonebrake’s drum kit and a quite iconic blue polka dot dress worn by Exene in well known photos, it was a few more obscure items that impressed me the most. John explained that a portable typewriter, hauled around with the band and used to write lyrics, was bought on Santa Monica Blvd, just west of Fairfax. But it was a small ink-smeared notebook, with edges tattered and frayed, that was my favorite item. A journal of poetry that John Doe used to write his words, its gridded pages handwritten in messy cursive scribe and open to a page with the first ruminations of the song, Los Angeles. The song’s initial lyrics later ironed out and changed: She was ready to leave this town, big as it was, she’d worn everybody out. Standing with John in front of the stained pages of the book, he elaborated on the tome’s quite lived-in, and thus romantic, Bukowski-esque condition, “There’s sweat and there’s beer and its bled through because its written in Sharpie…”
The exhibit, running through the Spring of 2018, with its extensive wall of band flyers, gives a unique glimpse into bookings and band line-ups at infamous ’70s punk clubs that now only exist in people’s memories: The Masque, The Starwood, Cathay de Grande and The Elk’s Lodge, together which hosted The Gears, The Plugz. The Screamers, The Dils and many others lost to history. Two of X’s 1979 band rehearsal receipts are tucked away without further explanation in drummer DJ Bonebrake’s display case. They are signed by Brendan Mullen, a key figure in L.A.’s early punk scene, and creator of the legendary club The Masque, which operated intermittently between 1977 to 1979. The club was ultimately shut down by Los Angeles fire marshals, accompanied by riots. The punk clubs were “too few and in between, and now they’re gone,” John remembers, “And that’s the beauty of a scene, it stays for a moment and then, ‘see ya later’… It was a gas. We were a bunch of kids and we didn’t give two shits about anything. We didn’t watch TV and we couldn’t care less. It was like, ‘fuck all you, we’re going to do what we feel like doing’. And we were a bohemian culture and we had enough people that we felt like, ‘well, if they don’t get it, at least we do’. It was very different than New York City, which was centered a little bit more on art galleries and was a little heavier. I think L.A. was a little bit more like, ‘I don’t give a shit, who says we can’t do this’?”
This all prepared me for the next night, Friday October 13th, which found me back at the Grammy Museum for the official opening reception, attended by about 125 first-come-first-serve ticket buyers. Friends told me that spots sold out online within 2-minutes of going on sale, a general testament to X’s respect and reverence in the City of Angels. This night, local fans and friends were present, including musical muses Pamela Des Barres, Linda Ramone, and Miss Mercy GTO.
We took our seats in the plush, vermillion velvet seats of the museum’s Clive Davis Theater for a panel-styled Q&A with all four original band members, Exene, John, DJ, and guitarist Billy Zoom. While sitting in a row on the brightly-lit stage, the band told lively, and often amusing, stories of their influences, how they all initially met, and how past moments converged to find them 40-years later being honored by this very museum. Billy Zoom, a rockabilly influenced guitarist, who in his early 20s played with Gene Vincent’s final band, remembered first hearing about punk rock music, “I read a really negative review in 1976… They said it was terrible and the songs were too short and too fast and too simple and too dumb, and it just sounded really cool.”
John and Exene met shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, during a poetry reading at Beyond Baroque, in Venice, still operating today. John, who had been influenced by his older brother’s Velvet Underground albums, involved poetess Exene in the band and placed a notice for a drummer and guitarist in L.A.’s want-ad paper of the day, The Recycler. They ultimately found DJ Bonebrake playing drums for another punk band, The Eyes, at the Masque. “We started out doing old songs- You Really Got a Hold on Me, Honey Don’t, Be Bop a Lula,” John remembers. Exene explained that the city of Los Angeles was a central character in the story, “It hadn’t happened here yet. It was just starting, so we could create it. I think that L.A. had the most fun scene, the most sense of humor, the youngest scene, the most irreverent scene, the craziest, wildest, most drunken, goofy… Everybody was just having fun and that’s where we were at too. You could just get in your car and go to a show. There was freedom here.”
After the 45-minute long Q&A session finished, that freedom was quite evident when all four band members played a 17-song set of some of their most popular material on the roof of the Grammy Museum. Selections included Nausea, Johnny Hit and Run Paulene, the Hungry Wolf and finally Soul Kitchen, a cover from another well-recognized Los Angeles band, The Doors. The instruments were amplified, a rare departure from the museum’s usual acoustic shows, which generally take place on the Clive Davis Q&A stage below. After watching dozens of important bands play at the Grammy Museum, I must admit that this was the most exciting and finest organized event I’ve attended here. Illuminated and set against the panorama of L.A.’s bright lights and growing skyscrapers, the choice of backdrop could not have been more fitting for showcasing X’s 40-year career. The stage and its elegant bar, though light years in time travel from the dirty, beer-soaked dives of the band’s youth, symbolized just how much both X and the surrounding city of Los Angeles have essentially grown up. Time may change all things, but it’s also been said that time is on our side.