A subdivision of ACIDEMIC

Thursday, January 28, 2010

X: See How They War

X stood onstage somewhere between a ferocious L.A. punk combo and a Sam Shepherd play. Bassist/vocalist John Doe was the wayward cowboy, poet/singer Exene Cervenka his boozy, brilliant, trailer-park dwelling ex-wife, spewing at each other oaths of love and hate, harmonizing like wounded cats over topics like class discrimination, alcoholism, jealousy, lust, and lousy presidents. Pompadour-sporting guitarist Billy Zoom stood off to the side, legs firmly planted in a wide stance as if waiting for a horse to land under him any minute, ripping out rockabilly solos with coiled fury at odds with his serene, bemused smile. DJ Bonebrake's drums setting the pace like the ghost of an abusive stepfather, driving everyone's emotions forward towards the cliff. They were edgy and in the moment, yet plugged in deep to the roots of Los Angeles. For them it was still unsettled desert country and the lonesome folk music of that bygone era was audible beneath their sonic din. This link, and their steady gigs around the Sunset Strip won them the attention of former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek who produced and played on their first four albums.


Unfortunately their major label, Elektra, expected bigger sales, and when their fifth release AIN'T LOVE GRAND didn't break through, Billy Zoom finally moved out. They replaced him with first former Blasters-member Dave Alvin, then Tony Glykson. When their next album, slick as a button, SEE HOW WE ARE still didn't sell, the band began to dissolve, doing other projects, such as the alt-folksy formation The Knitters, the lure of movies and solo projects. They still get back together, and in 2004 even re-formed with Zoom for a tour captured on DVD and CD: LIVE IN LOS ANGELES.

I saw them live only once, when they played at City Gardens in Trenton in 1985. I was 18. As often happened at that great club, I got trapped against the front of the stage as the whole club erupted into a mosh pit (we called it "slam dancing" in them days) I was about to get creamed by this out of control kid in a mohawk flailing his fists and lining me up out of the corner of his eye for a take-down, when a giant skinhead yanked me to the side with one gigantic iron hand and smashing the mohawk kid right in the nose with the other, spattering me in a spray of blood. When I looked back up on the stage, I saw Exene smiling down at me like I'd just learned to walk, she'd seen the whole thing - perhaps even conjured it, then she turned over to Jon Doe, both still singing and playing, beaming with pride at each other and the whole chaotic scene. Highlight of my life.

It was an all-ages show, but for the encore they passed out a bunch of cold beers to us, urging us to pass them around and get ready for some country Knitters songs. Jon and Exene were divorced by that point, but I saw the love still in their eyes when he playfully duked her chin. In that moment we were all one big happy blood-and-sweat-soaked dysfunctional family; twenty years later and I still miss them.

we'll skip their first album Los Angeles - but you shouldn't - it's the definitive X - it's just that my initial review of it (part of a Neighborhoodies/Amp Camp music canon critic freelance gig) of which all these capsules are part of (now the whole project seems to have been scrapped, and the paid shit, so I'm taking them back) is MIA - I guess it was on a separate spreadsheet. One day... one day I'll find it - and it wouldn't be prudent at this juncture to make a new one.

Wild Gift (1981)
The second album from punk rock darlings X is actually a mix of tracks recorded from around the time of the first album, 1980's "Los Angeles," with some new material which shows the band already progressing at a fascinating pace. Produced by Ray Manzarek (the Doors), this album finds the band realizing they have an almost mature and poetically distinct style that separates them from their early 1980's punk peers, then trying to upset the apple cart and either make it or break it loose with Doe and Cervenka's searing anthems of romantic disillusionment, "White Girl," "When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch," and "Adult Books," all career highlights. Billy Zoom's hopped up surf-abilly guitar gets its chance to rock out on the rip-roaring "We're Desperate," probably the album's most definitively "punk" tune, followed by the choogling rage-a-thon, "In this House that I call Home." The 2001 re-mastered version features several worthwhile demos and B-sides including the amazing demo of "Blue Spark," a track heard on the their following album, the definitive "Under the Big Black Sun."   

Under the Big Black Sun (1982)
Considered by many to be the band's artistic peak, this is a dark, feverish, disillusioned piece of acidic beauty, with deeply personal lyrics including such topics as the death of co-vocalist Exene Cervenka's sister Mary in a hit and run auto accident ("Riding with Mary"). You can practically smell the grief, the drug-laced sweat of dank hotel rooms, the mountains of cigarettes in ashtrays, the day-old sex, the simmering emotions, and the blood drying on the bathroom floor.  Cervenka and her lover/songwriting partner/co-vocalist John Doe generously share every excruciatingly personal detail of their disintegrating romantic life on the punk rock tour road to hell, kicking ass every mile of the way. Guitarist Billy Zoom, a rockabilly powerhouse who cut his teeth playing with country legend Gene Vincent, brings some salve and salt to the wounds with some of the most furious playing of this career. "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes" is a cover that offers a welcome respite from the angry gloom, while songs like "Real Child of Hell" and the slowly simmering "Blue Spark" show how to mix rooted musical maturity and unhinged ferocity for maximum yield.

More Fun in the New World (1983, Elektra)
After almost killing themselves with a string of critically acclaimed but poorly selling albums, the X family decided they needed to break out of their furious punk rock rut (after Under the Big Black Sun there was probably nowhere else to go but back from the edge of the cliff, or over, Thelma and Louise-style) and achieve the breakthrough AOR radio-play success that was the measure of one's artistic cred back in Reagan-era Hollywood. Checking a significant chunk of their punk rock fury at the recording studio door, X went and developed a whooping good time call-and-response style song cycle about political apathy and their own music industry frustrations, presaging west coast rap in the process, as in the litany of metonyms shouted out in "True Love" Parts one and Two. My own personal favorite is "Drunk in My Past" which seems to prefigure the post-punk introspection of emo by twenty years. There's also a great cover of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Breathless" with Exene Cervenka on vocals so rough and sexy you may feel like you're violating some law just by listening. The 2001 re-master includes several worthwhile demo tracks.

Ain't Love Grand? (1985)
When their previous album, More Fun In the New World, didn't cross them over to the mainstream as they hoped, punk rock icons X took another step closer to traditional rock respectability with this album. Ray Manzarek, the former Doors member who produced the band's first four records was replaced, and in came the 1980's studio gloss.

Okay, stop for a second, you neo punk rocker reading this: Before you turn away with the words "sell out" on your lips, remember that in 1985 (long before the advent of CDs) being on a major label involved serious pressure from the suits and unless you sold at least a zillion albums you were losing money, something your White Stripes never had to worry about. Understand this, and forgive X their high gloss trespasses, because the album is worth it. This was my first X album, which I bought in 1985 when it came out due to pressure from my punk rock high school buddy. It took me a few listens to get into it but then when I did my whole life started to change. In comparison with its predecessors it spits its venom in fewer places but with better aim, and there's a great lovesick sense of nicotine-stained compassion floating through, even during their angry litany of towns they don't like playing in ("Well downtown NYC, people there F--k with me / Downtown Paris, France / they never give us half a chance" -- "What's Wrong with Me.")  What was wrong nobody still knows, but X was proving they were capable of crafting accessible but hard edged songs of loss, failure, acceptance and hope better than anyone else. When in "Watch the Sun Go Down," Exene sings "I Wish I'd never grown up / So I could cry myself to sleep," she sounds both genuinely grown-up and genuinely wishing she could cry, but she can't do either all the way and you can't get much more genuinely human in a pre-alternative alternative rock record than that, gloss be damned. There's also a glimpse of the X to come with the ex-Blaster Dave Alvin producing the track "Little Honey" (he would later replace Zoom --briefly). There's also some great demos and B-sides including the only released as a single "Wild Thing (Long Version)" and a great demo of John Doe solo, playing bass and singing the Replacements song "I Will Dare."

See How We Are (1987)
First generation punk rock icons X recorded SEE HOW WE ARE during a period of personal and professional disappointment: Their guitarist Billy Zoom left the band, discouraged by their inability to break out of the punk rock ghetto. Their harder edges had been burned off in an effort to court AOR repsectability and the marriage of lead singers and songwriters John Doe and Exene Cervenka was over. Getting played on mainstream radio had became something of a white whale for the band, but somewhere among all the changes and compromises something amazing happened; the rural Americana country rock sounds they had been dabbling in all along began to fill the empty spaces. Soon they were bringing their maturity, edge and rawness into the heartland symbolized on MTV by the white t-shirt of John Cougar Mellencamp --alternative-Americana was being born. Fans were baffled, but no one could deny they were onto something, despite the studio gloss. The title track is a standout and became something of an anthem in their subsequent years and the straight-up confessional oomph of "I'm Lost" let's you know right out of the gate this band is looking for direction even as they find it. There are also some great rockers, like "Fourth of July" and powerful near-ballads like "When it Rains."  Replacing the departed Zoom were two guitarists Dave Alvin (The Blasters) and Tony Gilkyson each bringing a distinctly "other" country vibe. The 2002 re-mastered CD includes several bonus tracks. 

Live at the Whiskey A-Go-Go (1988)
This double live album captures X at around the period of their final Elektra release SEE HOW WE ARE, and is an excellent swan song for that period of their career. Tony Gilkyson is on guitar, substituting pretty adequately for the absence of the legendary Billy Zoom, but though the punk classics of the earlier part of the decade are all there ("Blue Spark," "Los Angeles," and "This House that I Call Home"), it's clear the band is headed in a more twangy-folksy direction as they turn down the heat on the rockabilly boil for a spell late in the evening to perform some acoustic songs in their alternate incarnation, the Knitters, sich as:  "Skin Deep Town" and "Call of the Wreckin' Ball."  All in all this is a fine place to start for casual listeners, especially if they are wondering what all the fuss is about, or coming to band via the roundabout route of John Doe's solo work or the Knitters albums. There's also some great audience interaction between the songs, capturing Exene and John's rare ability to make an entire audience feel like they're cherished guests at a drunken, dysfunctional family gathering. (originally published Ampcamp 2000)


X - Hey Zeus (1993)
The band had seemingly called it quits but four years later released this album on an independent label. Tony Gilkyson is still on guitar still instead of Billy Zoom… and still in the more mature direction of Ain't Love Grand and See How We Are. This shows the band having more or less accepted their destiny as a cult band, adored by those who heard them but destined to be "Unheard Music" for the rest of the world. Stand-out songs are "Big Blue House" and "Baby You Lied." Meanwhile the politics of the album's release year are fleshed out in the angry "Arms for Hostages."

X- Live in Los Angeles
 Punk never dies and the beloved band X is back from the beyond replete with original guitarist Billy Zoom in this stand-out live album. They rip through all their classic songs with a fervor that defies the decades that have passed since they last surfed punk rock's first wave. Most all the songs come from their first four albums, and they blaze by with the same stunning fury of the originals. Far more than just a tribute album, it's great to hear these great artists re-interpret their material with a fresh energy that comes from knowing these songs have lasted through the years to become a key bedrock of the punk canon. Tracks like "The Phone's off the Hook," "Because I Do," and "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline" blaze with a brow-furrowing intensity. The return of Zoom to the fold is obviously galvanizing, and fans of the band should be in heaven. For newcomers, this is a great introduction.

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