The scene, from Decline of Western Civilization Part 1, the first of a trilogy of documentaries by Penelope Spheeris, is made worse because I'm watching a shitty videotaped version. It's the version I watched repeatedly when I was a teenager. Before I had ever heard the music of X, this was my introduction to the band: watching bassist and backup singer John Doe etch a homemade tattoo onto the forearm of his friend, Top Jimmy, while drinking a forty.
According to her Web site, exenecervenka.com, X lead singer Exene Cervenka (Christine Cervenka) met Doe (John Duchac) in 1977 at a poetry workshop in Los Angeles. The pair, who would later marry and divorce, formed a band in Los Angeles' punk rock and hardcore scene, which included bands such as Black Flag, Circle Jerks and The Germs.
Almost immediately, X stood noticeably apart from its contemporaries by inviting the melodic elements of early rock, blues and country into its music. Instead of relying on minimalist aggression, X explored the nuance of melodies and rough chords atop careening harmonies. The result is a gorgeously rude, yet accessible sound. Together with the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop and the Stooges, X is one of the most important American rock bands that emerged in the late '60s and '70s; it embraced the punk zeitgeist, but managed to ground itself outside of mainstream and pop scenes.
X is currently on a seven-week US tour that celebrates the band's 31 years together (excepting a brief breakup in the late '80s). The band's original lineup-Cervenka on vocals, Doe on bass and vocals, Billy Zoom (Tyson Kindell) on guitar and DJ (Donald J) Bonebrake on drums-is older and wiser the than the resilient 20-somethings in Decline.
Doe has since released various solo recordings and had a successful career in film, including substantial roles in Roadside Prophets and Boogie Nights. Cervenka, who also is an accomplished author and visual artist, has several musical side projects, including The Knitters, a country-folk-rockabilly band ***image2***she formed with other members of X and roots-rockers Dave Alvin of the Blasters and Jonny Ray Bartel of the Red Devils.
X is the type of band that makes you question musical categories and what constitutes its boundaries. From its powerful 1980 debut Los Angeles to 1993's Hey Zeus, their last full-length studio album, the band vacillates between the gritty ferocity of early career tracks such as "Nausea" to radio-ready mid-'80s tunes such as "Burning House of Love." I ask Cervenka if she agrees with X's classification in the ambiguous field of punk rock.
"That's kind of a question for the musicians in the band. The background of the band is kind of roots-oriented. It's American music for the most part, everything from gospel to big band, R&B to punk rock; its all mixed up in there," Cervenka says.
And because late '70s and early '80s punk rock was such a fruitful era in music, the question automatically leads to innovation. Usually, amid the maelstrom of music scenes and trends, there are a select few musicians who exist and thrive beyond the hype.
"I think we are innovators on some kind of level because of the sounds that we brought together, like rockabilly and punk rock. I think that was kind of innovative, and the harmonies too," Cervenka continues.
And harmonies are what best identify X. It's pointless trying to describe what Cervenka and Doe sound like when they sing together. Technically, they lack pitch and tone. Spiritually, they pierce through you like heartache.
"You just kinda fool around until you get something that sounds about right. It's a feel thing as opposed to an intellectual thing," Cervenka says about singing with Doe for the first time and hearing the harmony they would sing for more than 30 years.
Two years after watching Decline, I moved to Los Angeles. The only good memory I have of that lost summer is watching X play with Fishbone and Primus in Universal City. When the band ripped into its song "Los Angeles," I remember thinking about that scratchy videotape and bands like X whose band members seemed hopelessly lost, living in squalor and tattooing themselves in the middle of the night. It wasn't an epiphany; it was only a realization that simple is always better, not unlike those tattoos or bar chords that never seem to fade.