Between two identical, blistering sets at the Trocadero, fortysomething X frontman John Doe stepped away from a party in the band's dressing room. Several minutes later he returned to find a single bouncer watching the door.
"Excuse me," the bouncer said. "You need a pass to go in there."
It took a couple of seconds for the demand to register with Doe. He put his head down, stuffed a beer bottle under his arm, and fished a red laminated pass from his back pocket. The bouncer let him pass.
I couldn't believe it. John Doe carded at his own dressing room. Didn't the bouncer know one of the great American rock stars of the last two decades? Didn't he know the Los Angeles bass player who wrote the words to "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene" or the vocal melody to "Poor Girl"? Or more pressingly, didn't he know the man who sweated out an hour-and-a-half's worth of songs from the first four X records, and still had enough energy to do it all over again?
"Do you like X?" I asked the bouncer.
"They're OK," he said. "I don't turn the radio off if they come on."
The bouncer was lying. They don't play X on the radio, and they never did. That pissed off X back in the early 1980s, when they were making those four brilliant records. It also made their fans love them even more. Back then X were fighting against something: an evil president; a stupid media that trivialized punk and wouldn't play Black Flag on the radio. The fans could identify both injustices; just being able to do so made them feel like part of the solution.
At the Trocadero, Billy Zoom stood with his legs spread wide, peeling rockabilly riffs off the fretboard of his guitar. Exene Cervenka (now Cervenkova) grabbed fistfuls of her dress in one hand, the mike with her other. D.J. Bonebreak hit the snare like a pro. John Doe bounced, shooting glances at Zoom and Cervenkova, his ex-wife. The energy was so kinetic, the set so inspired. For once, the San Francisco audience was not laconic, bored, or otherwise too-cool. They danced, sang along, and cheered whenever Zoom let one of his trash riffs rip, when Cervenkova sighed, "Breathless!," when Doe hit that weird harmony on "We're Desperate."
Why was it so good? Why wasn't the X reunion -- nearly 15 years since the band made a vital record -- stupid or vapid or transparent like the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac or the Sex Pistols? The reason had a lot to do with that bouncer. X wanted success and we wanted it for them. They were an American band we could be proud of. X had the smarts, the story. They took their work seriously; they were students of American music. They acted political in a political time. They tried to create their own moral universe in a fucked-up world and were willing to show all of us just how hard it could be. They wanted to be big.
And that never happened. The Eagles, Mac, and the Pistols lived out their careers: They did everything they were supposed to do. Not so with X. Twenty years on, we got a slammin' two-disc anthology, and we got two reunion shows in S.F., a couple in L.A., and maybe a few more -- that's it. The guy working the door still doesn't know who they are. And the shows told us what we were pretty sure we already knew: that we were listening to something important all along.
-- Jeff Stark
Hamza El Din
Escalay (The Water Wheel):
Oud Music From Nubia
Born in the region of Nubia that is now part of the Sudan -- and now a resident of San Leandro -- oud player Hamza El Din released Escalay (The Water Wheel) as part of the Nonesuch label's Explorer Series in 1971. The first song on the record -- rereleased on CD this year -- depicts a day in the life of a young boy who minds oxen hitched to a giant wheel that draws irrigation water from the Upper Nile (in the area since inundated by the erection of the Aswan Dam). The song begins with a dusky passage of free meter, showcasing the woody timbre of the oud, a mellow-voiced instrument with six sets of double strings -- the ancient Arabic ancestor of the guitar. Illustrating the gathering momentum of the wheel and its gears, El Din establishes a skittering rhythm and a melody alternately intoned by oud or voice. The melodies come and go with microtones and scales common in Muslim countries but not in Western 12-tone music. The modal theme of the wheel keeps re-establishing the trancelike effect of the composition.
There's much to pay attention to in the title track and in the second, "I Remember," written by Egyptian Mohammed Abdul Wabab for electric guitars but performed here by El Din on oud. This piece uses multiple melodies, again in the Arabic scales found throughout Northern Africa, and multiple meters, which El Din alternates between the upper and lower registers of his instrument. His inventive decoration and elaboration of line is evocative of Baroque music, while his technique of hanging back from the beat with his vocals is suggestive of jazz, but it's so catchy that you want to sing along.
The title of the third, final, and shortest track, "Song With Tar," refers to El Din's switch from oud to the tar, a large tambourinelike instrument common to Nubians. Its tricky rhythms, created by his striking different parts of the tar, accompany this song in his ancient language, which the liner notes tell us is about an object of affection who is compared to a tropical bird.
The oud is not a native Nubian instrument -- El Din learned how to play it as a young man studying engineering in Cairo. But the story on Escalay, and especially the melodies that he uses to capture that story, is uniquely drawn from El Din's regional experience. In effect, his own experience becomes the listener's: On Escalay El Din encourages us to become familiar with the unfamiliar.
-- Jeff Kaliss