X talks 40 years of love, loss, punk and being 'just a little too weird'

“Someone was asking me, ‘What advice do you have for women just starting out and playing music and in a band?’ And I blurted out, ‘Don’t get married!’”

It’s an unexpected and amusing remark from Exene Cervenka, who rose to alt-rock fame in X, arguably the most important band of the Los Angeles punk scene and one of the greatest punk acts of all time. Cervenka formed X with John Doe, to whom she was married for five years, and the group just surprise-released Alphabetland, their first album with their original lineup (Doe, Cervenka, Billy Zoom, and DJ Bonebrake) since 1985.

The band decided to bump up the record’s release date up from August due to the coronavirus crisis, figuring their fans could use some upbeat music right now. And they do indeed sound as visceral and relevant as they did on their debut album, Los Angeles — which, coincidentally, came out exactly 40 years ago, on April 26, 1980. As Doe sits beside Cervenka for Yahoo Entertainment’s career-spanning interview, he can’t help but chuckle.

“Not to indict our marriage or anything, because this is 40 years later,” Cervenka continues. “Being married in a band is good and bad. When you’re a woman in a band … I think sometimes women will be more passive and deferential. … So I think for women, if you’re really serious about being in a band, you really want to have a career, and you’re writing songs and playing music and an instrument, focus on your career, because you’re only going to be able to do that for a short period of time. It’s hard for women to feel like they’re not being selfish by putting their careers ahead of everything else, but if you want to do music and you want to be a writer, you’ve got to go full-on towards it.”

Doe and Cervenka, however, had a more egalitarian partnership than Cervenka’s statement implies — and that is one of the reasons why X thrived during even the toughest of times, like the hit-and-run death of Cervenka’s older sister, which punk journalist Pleasant Gehman described as “one of the most painful moments I’ve witnessed ever, let alone in the realm of rock ’n’ roll,” just one week after Doe and Cervenka’s wedding. And it’s one of the reasons why X stayed together even after the couple’s romantic partnership ended in the mid-’80s.

The two “kindred spirits” met in the late ’70s at Beyond Baroque, a famous Venice Beach literary arts center, and Cervenka says, “John and I worked well together because we were both writers. We were both writing the songs; we were both singing the songs. It wasn’t me up front and then everybody telling me what to wear. Or it wasn’t him writing the songs and telling me how to sing. We had an equal thing.”

“Yeah. What she said,” Doe laughs. “It was a longer process than us meeting and becoming a couple. I had to prove myself.” So, how did Doe do that? “I think I proved myself by treating Exene as an equal — and that was one of the main pillars of punk rock, is that performers and audience and men and women and gay and straight were equals. The only judgment was toward the ‘straight people’ or people that didn’t get it. So you could judge them, but you didn’t judge each other.”

“Yes, the L.A. hardcore scene was male and white and violent and scary,” said Cervenka, addressing certain stereotypes about the city, “but our scene was not violent. It was not sexist. It was not racist. It was none of those. And in fact, I didn’t know until many years later if people were gay or straight. It just wasn’t an issue. We didn’t have that identity politics thing yet. Feminism, all that stuff, it wasn’t part of it. It was just people, and it was so neat; I wish it would be like that now, because now everybody’s at war with each other. And back then there was no reason to be.”

Joining forces with rockabilly-trained guitarist Zoom and drummer Bonebrake, Doe and Cervenka tapped into what Cervenka calls their “literary connection with the city: Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Raymond Chandler, the Doors.” The Doors’ Ray Manzarek produced X’s first four albums, starting with the 1980 classic Los Angeles, which Rolling Stone later ranked at No. 24 on its list of 100 Best Albums of the ’80s and at No. 286 among the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The title track generated controversy, but it still got played on influential L.A. radio station KROQ and eventually made the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s list 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.

“When I wrote the line ‘She has started to hate every n***** and Jew,’ I wrote that to hold a mirror up to people. Everyone’s looking in that mirror still,” Doe says of the track’s most inflammatory lyric. “But it was made to be controversial. It was made to create a dialogue, to say, ‘Well, what do you think of that?’ Same thing with ‘Johnny Hit and Run Paulene.’ It was controversial. It’s a song about rape, but I’m not in favor of it, clearly! My partner is in the band. It’s shock value. Andy Warhol and John Waters and that era of filmmaker, it was the same thing: shock value. It’s like, ‘Oh, they’re wearing a swastika. Do they like Nazis?’ No, it’s to get your attention and say, ‘Hey, folks, why don’t you take a look at this, because it’s still around.’

Despite the controversy, X continued to garner critical attention. (Doe laughingly reveals that L.A. City Hall even considered having “Los Angeles” be its telephone-line hold music, until one councilman realized that it “would not be appropriate.”) However, the band’s bond was tested when, just one week after Doe and Cervenka got married in an impromptu Tijuana ceremony and two weeks before Los Angeles was released, tragedy struck on April 12, 1980. Cervenka’s older sister, Mirielle, was killed by a drunk driver on the way to see X play with Manzarek at the Whisky a Go Go — a night that was supposed to be the “highest, biggest, greatest moment of our lives.” Doe was informed of the accident just 15 minutes before X were set to play, and he had to break the news to his new bride. The band decided not to cancel their show, and played on in Mirielle’s honor.

Sitting with Cervenka now, watching her retell the horrific “legendary story,” Doe is emotional all these years later — reaching for Cervenka’s hand, fighting back tears, and admitting that he still gets “choked up” about it.

Mirielle Cervenka in 1979. (Photo courtesy of Exene Cervenka; photographer unknown)
Mirielle Cervenka in 1979. (Photo courtesy of Exene Cervenka; photographer unknown)

“At that moment you say, ‘You know what? F*** death and f*** all this. We’re going to play. This is what we are. This is what we do. This is our community,’” Cervenka explains. “What we should have done, is someone should have gone downstairs and said, ‘We have some really bad news. We will be unable to perform tonight. We just found out that Exene’s sister Mirielle was killed in an accident.’ Instead, I grabbed a bottle of whiskey and said, ‘I’m playing my show,’ which of course I got about halfway through before blacking out.”

X addressed the tragedy on their third album (and first major-label release), Under the Big Black Sun, which came out in 1982. “The songs about my sister dying didn’t come out until Under the Big Black Sun because I didn’t really want them to,” Cervenka explains. “I had written a bunch of stuff, but it was John that turned them into songs, because I was just writing to write through my grief and I didn’t really want to sing about it. I didn’t want to write about it. I didn’t want anyone to know how I felt. I was very shut down. So he put those songs together; I did not. I was somewhat reluctant in my heart to have those songs be made, especially ‘Come Back to Me.’”

Cervenka now says that Under the Big Black Sun is her favorite X album, although at the time she “didn’t like it. I didn’t like doing those songs and I didn’t really want to do them, and it was hard because … I’m going back to that night and then talk about this stuff again.” But the album continued the group’s exploration of roots music — which tapped into Zoom’s background as a player for the likes of Gene Vincent, Etta James, and Big Joe Turner, and had begun with their more upbeat sophomore album, Wild Gift. And Cervenka appreciated this. “We wrote these horrible, wrenching things, and then Billy and John and DJ would play this incredible music around them. That was part of the strength … and in a lot of ways it’s not because of those songs, it’s because I think musically and lyrically and just so much about it is such an accomplishment. It’s more dimensional. There’s a lot of layers in that record.”

The band’s musical growth beyond straight punk rock continued on their next album for Elektra Records, More Fun in the New World, which took inspiration from Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, Ben E. King, Nick Lowe, and José Feliciano. But despite X’s move to the majors, sold-out hometown shows at large venues like the Greek Theatre, and even unlikely appearances on Late Night With David Letterman and American Bandstand, they still couldn’t break through to the mainstream. This led to their ditching Manzarek for German metal producer Michael Wagener, whose résumé included work for Dokken, Ozzy Osbourne, Extreme, and Accept. Around this same time, Doe and Cervenka were splitting up. No one was happy with the resulting fifth album — which Doe describes as “very manicured and sliced and diced and demoed” — 1985’s Ain’t Love Grand!

“Let’s say someone asked me, ‘Hey Exene, can you give advice to young women just starting out in a band?’ And I would say, ‘OK, if you’re going to go ahead and get married anyway —despite my previous advice — don’t get divorced and make a record about it!’” Cervenka quips. “It was probably a stupid idea [to make Ain’t Love Grand!]. We probably should have not made a record that year.”

Ain’t Love Grand! was a very strange and somewhat regrettable change for us, because the songs are very personal. Some of them are about Exene and I breaking up, and it was a really difficult time, because we were not as connected as we are now or had been in the past,” Doe says. “The production, because it’s so layered and there’s so many instruments and there’s doubles and triples and quadruples of everything, it keeps the listener at a distance to some very personal songs.”

Although Ain’t Love Grand! was a mild commercial success on the strength of its hard-charging rock single “Burning House of Love,” Cervenka says, “We just feel we betrayed ourselves, our fans — and got betrayed at the same time.” The album’s troubled making eventually led to Zoom’s departure. “He was not happy at that time anyway. He was just tired of being in the band. He’s older than us, in a way. He came from a different world and couldn’t understand why we weren’t doing better,” says Cervenka. Doe adds: “Our output from 1980 to ’85 was pretty furious, and by the time Ain’t Love Grand! happened, Billy had said to himself, ‘You know what? If this doesn’t take off, I’m outta here, because I don’t like the pace of it.’ And we were stunned and hurt, but thought, ‘Well, you can do whatever you want at any point. Cool. We’ll reassess and go from there.’”

X soldiered on for 1987’s See How We Are (first with Dave Alvin of the Blasters — who contributed the perennial favorite “4th of July” — and later with Tony Gilkyson stepping in for Zoom), which was a major influence on singer-songwriter Elliott Smith; 1993’s Hey Zeus! and the 1995 live acoustic record Unclogged followed. Zoom returned to the fold in 1998, and continues to play with the band after taking a break in 2015 to undergo treatment for bladder cancer. And now, as X are proud of what they achieved, and proud to represent Los Angeles punk, which sometimes doesn’t get the critical respect afforded the concurrent British or New York punk scenes. (Doe’s anthology Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, the audiobook of which received a Grammy nomination for Best Spoken Word Album last year, and a sequel, More Fun in the New World, have helped changed that perception.) And today, the bond between the four original band members — including Doe and Cervenka, more than three decades after their romantic split — is stronger than ever, as is X’s legacy.

“We know exactly who we are; we know exactly what we’ve done and why we did it,” Cervenka asserts. “We know what all the mistakes were, we know what we did that was good or bad, and I think we’re just glad to all be alive and being playing music together. … I can’t believe we survived all that and that we’re still together. It’s surreal. It’s a very surreal feeling to get this award from the city of Los Angeles and the Grammy Museum. And I think, in some ways, we’re more popular now than we’ve ever been.”

As for why X were never as commercially successful as some of their ’80s punk and new wave peers, Doe shrugs, “Maybe we were just a little too weird. Maybe our lyrics were a little too weird. And I’m proud, at this point, of that identity. And I’m proud of the fact that even now, even though we’re getting a certificate from the city or we’re at the Grammy Museum, we’re still a little too weird. We’re still not quite ready for prime time. And you know what? That’s beautiful.”

X display at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. (Photo: AP)
X display at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. (Photo: AP)

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:

Follow Lyndsey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, Spotify.