X came rocketing out of the Los Angeles punk scene in 1978, a quartet with a fierce punk-meets-rockabilly attack and a scathing view of the political malaise gripping the country. The band featured two lead singers, John Doe, a Baltimore folkie who wanted to play traditional music turned up to 11, and Exene Cervenka, a poet who had never been in a band before. Their vocal interplay featured slightly dissonant harmonies and lyrics that looked unflinchingly at the dark underbelly of the American dream, in lines that remain timely even today.
In its prime, X was one of the most important bands in America. The group made its name by channeling the frustration its members shared with their audience into short, sharp blasts of grinding rock with a country-folk edge. Its songs' poetic lyrics had a mocking, subversive tone directed at the world they saw crumbling around them. The slightly dissonant harmonies Doe and Exene used were perfect for blistering screeds like "We're Desperate," "Johny Hit and Run Paulene," and "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts." Despite an international fan base and raves in the press, internal disputes eventually led to the group's collapse. But in 1998, the original foursome — Doe, Cervenka, drummer D.J. Bonebrake, and guitarist Billy Zoom — played what was to be a one-off reunion gig. It went so well that they've been playing sporadic tours ever since.
"It gives me an odd feeling of validation that our crazy view of the world has proved to be correct," Doe says. "Things have gone the way I wish they hadn't. The economic separation of people by class is even more obvious today and more deeply rooted in our politics."
"Things get stranger every day," Cervenka adds. She says she had no grand plans when she started writing songs, except telling the truth. "If you want to tell the truth and make things better, then that's what you do. As a band, we found out we'd all worked through all the problems we had personally, professionally, and with each other. We had so much fun the first time we did [a reunion show], it was like, 'Should we do this one more time? Hell yes!' We're better now than we've ever been and it's a fantastic thing."
Although the band members enjoy their time together as X, playing the songs just the way they've always played them, they're all busy with other projects. Doe has made 11 solo albums of semi-acoustic country-folk songs and acted in TV shows and films like Great Balls of Fire. Cervenka has published four books of poetry, made six solo records, and tours frequently. Bonebrake plays psychobilly punk in Devil's Brigade (with Rancid's Matt Freeman and Tim Armstrong) and jazz with the Bonebrake Syncopators. Zoom is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and stays busy as a sideman and guitar technician.
"We don't rehearse," Doe says. "We know all the songs backward and forward, but it's still a new experience every time we play and we give it everything we have. We weren't thinking of how the songs might sound [years later] when we wrote them. People who come to the shows want X to be X, which is daunting. So we don't ever think about adding a reggae beat, or slowing things down, or anything dumb like that."
"The audience keeps it fresh for me," Cervenka adds. "I'm one person looking out from the stage, but 800 people are looking at the four of us. When I know I'm sharing the same experience with 800 people, it's inspiring and energetic for me."
Before X, Cervenka had never thought about turning her poems into songs. The only performing experience she had was reading her poetry in bookstores. She'd never considered singing and had bad stage fright at first, but it didn't stop her from becoming a compelling performer. "Courage is being afraid and doing it anyway, and I'm not a coward. I just sang what I felt like singing. It was better than poetry readings, because I wasn't alone. In a band, you all have each other's back."
While X's annual reunion tours have always featured their back catalog, Doe said a few new tunes weren't out of the question. "There's a slim possibility we may be doing new music this time. I don't know about an album, or how relevant an LP is these days, but we have been talking about it. There are a few obstacles to get by, but we'll see. Billy says, 'Why do new songs when the old songs are so good?,' but people want to hear new stuff as well as the old songs that we have in the set."
Will X ever retire? Old blues players often said they'd play until they died on stage, a thought Cervenka finds amusing. "I'm sure the world's gonna die before I do," she says. "And that's not a fear, my friend. It's reality."