Songwriter Interviews

Exene Cervenka of X

by Greg Prato

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X in Los Angeles, 1981
During the early '80s, commercial rock radio and MTV chose to embrace new wave over punk rock. Which was a shame, as quite a few US punk classics were offered up during this time - by the likes of Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, the Meat Puppets, and definitely X. And the reason why the word "definitely" is added concerning the last band - X issued a string of classic releases during this era.

Comprised of singers Exene Cervenka and John Doe (who also doubled on bass), guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake, from 1980-1983 X outdid themselves with each release: Los Angeles (1980), Wild Gift (1981), Under the Big Black Sun (1982) and More Fun in the New World (1983). All were produced by Ray Manzarek, who signed on after seeing the band perform at the Whisky A Go Go - his old stomping ground with The Doors.

Thanks to the Copyright Act of 1976, which allows artists to claim the copyrights they signed away after 35 years, X now owns the rights to these albums, which have all been remastered and reissued on Fat Possum Records. Cervenka spoke with Songfacts about those albums, shared the stories behind various X classics, and gave her definition of "real punk."
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did the latest reissues come about? Was it because the band got the rights back to the albums?

Exene Cervenka: Oh, absolutely it's because of that. In case people don't know it, artists signed contracts in the '70s - like we had to - that gave away the rights of the recordings in perpetuity to whomever. A while back the rules changed and they put a 35-year limit on it. The Music Modernization Act that recently signed into law helps recording artists who wrote songs before 1972 actually receive royalties and makes it easier for all artists to get their streaming royalties.

Those two things have changed people's lives immeasurably. Especially for older people who put out records in the '70s and haven't made any money, you get your records back. Look it up. I couldn't believe it, but it's true - we got our first four records back. And Fat Possum turned out to be the best home for them. They're incredible. We're happy with that, as you can imagine.

Songfacts: Looking back at those albums today, what are your thoughts?

Exene: We all had problems with them, but we all loved them at some point - recording, sound-wise, or whatever. [Producer] Ray Manzarek was a very important part of that. Those records have never been out of print, so that really is an accomplishment.

We had some press where it said, "Why would people put these records out again?" This is not new, kids - this has been around forever. You just don't know what's going to happen when you make a record. You don't know if people are ever going to hear it, if it will last forever, you just don't know. I don't really have a lot of emotional attachment to things - it's just the way it worked out.

Songfacts: Which X song from back in the early '80s do you think is the most relevant from a lyrical perspective today?

Exene: "The New World." But they all are, because they're personal. Anyone can relate to those songs.

Songfacts: I was also thinking possibly "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline," because of the #MeToo movement.

Exene: That's not what it's about, but I guess that does relate to everything nowadays. It's a fantasy - like a film noir fantasy - about a guy who could take a drug and can have sex every hour, and he's a bad guy, it turns out. That was long before Viagra. A lot of our songs came true much later in life, and they were just written as fantasy.

Songfacts: By and large, how did the songwriting work in X? Because I know you and John are listed as the songwriters.

Exene: We take all the blame. John and I... it's all our fault!

I wrote a lot of lyrics, he wrote a lot of music, we wrote lyrics together, he wrote lyrics by himself. Billy did all of those incredible intros and DJ came up with the rhythms. "Hungry Wolf" is DJ. But now that we've written some more songs and we've worked on some of the old ones, we're all doing the songwriting together. We've waited a long time to get to that point, and here we are. So, we're doing that now.

Exene lived in Los Angeles for about 30 years, with lots of stops along the way. Born in Mokena, Illinois, in 1956, she moved with her family to St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1969. In 1972, on her 16th birthday, she dropped out of high school and took a series of odd jobs, including one as a telemarketer selling cemetery plots. A few years later, she moved to LA, where she met John Doe and formed X. John and Exene got married in 1980 but divorced in 1985 as the band splintered off into solo projects. In 1987, Exene married an actor named Viggo Mortensen, with whom she had a son named Henry. Her first solo album of music (she did a spoken-word album in 1985) was released in 1989. Cervenka and Mortensen divorced in 1998.

X never broke up, but Billy Zoom left in 1986, replaced for a short time by Dave Alvin, who delivered their 1987 classic "4th of July." Zoom returned in 1998 for what seemed like a last hurrah, but the four original members are still together, still touring, and as Exene explains, still working on new music.
Songfacts: Are there plans for a new X studio album?

Exene: We recorded some old songs we thought were good that were never on albums and never recorded properly. We also did a remake of a song that is completely different from how it used to sound, and a new song.

John and I have been working on new songs. We're going to work on the road, and hopefully, we'll play some of the ones we recorded live. When we're playing with the Violent Femmes for two weeks, we probably won't because we have a shorter set time. But when we headline and we have a longer set, we will probably put in things that people haven't heard.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind "The Hungry Wolf"?

Exene: There is a really famous lithograph, and it just shows a wolf on a hill. It's from the turn of the century... not the most recent one. He's looking down, and there is this little idyllic cabin house, and there's smoke coming out of the fireplace - it's a winter night. He's just looking at this house.

I think John was probably just lying in bed one morning and woke up going, "Hungry wolf... I am the hungry wolf," because that's how songs get written. Inspiration can come from anywhere at any moment.

One more thing, we also had a group of friends that were very tight as family, and we called ourselves "The Wolves," so that all came about at that same time and it became this whole mental, cultural, overarching thing for a minute.

Songfacts: "Riding With Mary"?

Exene: John wrote that one about my sister when she died - it was 39 years ago last Friday. I think it's more a song about protection... it's about a lot of things. It's about life.

Songfacts: "Motel Room In My Bed"?

Exene: It was about being on the road and sharing a room with a roadie or two every night in some shitty motel room somewhere. And never having a room to yourself. And bickering over that. No privacy.

Songfacts: "The New World"?

Exene: I wrote that one a long time ago. Bars used to close on election days [The bars weren't open this morning, they must have been voting for a new president or something. Do you have a quarter?]

To the older homeless person, he doesn't know who is president, and they just look the same. I thought that was great, because they do all just look the same. If you don't pay attention, what's the difference? There is no difference. I think that's why that song has remained timeless.

Now, homelessness is a ridiculous epidemic. We're just getting into the epidemic of homelessness and what it's going to be in a couple of years. So, that song is very prescient.

Exene has long been outspoken about the ways governments manipulate their people and commandeer the culture. She has been warning about climate change for quite some time. Back in 1990, she said: "In a few generations people will realize that because of what was done to the Earth their lifespan is going to be very, very short." (Rage! magazine)
Songfacts: "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts"?

Exene: That is a mish-mash of the personal and the political. I did a lot of volunteer work for El Salvador back when they were cut off from the world because of their government. They didn't have any medical stuff - they didn't have aspirin. It was illegal to even help them, but it was something I felt strongly about, so I put that in there.

But it's also about how at that time, there were all these great bands like the Big Boys. All these bands in all these cities were amazing in America, but all you could hear on the radio was like, Depeche Mode and all those bands. So, that's why I said, "The last American bands to get played on the radio please bring the flag." Because it was really unfair that even KROQ wasn't playing LA bands - except for Rodney Bingenheimer, of course. You couldn't get on the radio. So, that was a comment on that.

And all these horrible things were happening, but let's stay positive. Well, let's not think positive.

"Oh, but it's all horrible."

"I know, but let's not think bad thoughts."

"I know, but this is horrible, that's horrible." It's that kind of inner dialogue you get when you want to change the world. But if you let it get to you too much, then it affects you on every level.

Songfacts: "Los Angeles"?

Exene: That's real film noir there. John wrote the words on that one, and that is a pretty definitive song about racism, hatred, and all that kind of stuff. But in the punk days, it was a little different. It's hard to describe how people would think then, but people who were well-read had more literary minds and they could understand that kind of narrative. It's just a story about someone who couldn't handle the big city anymore. Very The Day of the Locust [a 1939 novel by Nathanael West]. Just too much.

It's true - a lot of people can't handle the city. Any city. But it's a fantasy kind of thing based on some real people and some who are fictional. I think of our songs as short stories. When we first started playing, I think one of the reasons Ray liked us was because each one of our songs is like a little short story about a time and place, about people.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Exene: Definitely Roger Miller. I like The Doors a lot. A lot of my favorite artists are not songwriters, they're performers. Percy Mayfield is a great songwriter. I loved the Plugz, who were one of my favorite bands in the punk scene, especially in retrospect, now. What a great songwriter Tito [Larriva] was.

I listen to a lot of country music, and I listen to a lot of old music. Jimmy Webb is a great songwriter. Laura Nyro is a great songwriter.

Songfacts: What are your thoughts on modern-day punk bands?

Exene: What are my thoughts on modern-day beatniks? What are my thoughts on modern-day hippies? What about Civil War re-enactors? This is not 1975. I think there are a lot of great bands, and I think there are a lot of bands that really understood what punk was and have kept that mentality. The main thing of punk was to be original and to be fearless. To do it because that is who you really are - not because you want to sound like someone else.

The band I have the most respect for is Rancid, because even though they're not super-modern - like from yesterday - they did it for the right reasons. And they have their own sound - it's an amalgamation of different sounds. There's no one else quite like them, and they have a great work ethic and great respect for what came before them. I love that about those guys. And they're a good band.

But past that, a lot of it is pretty redundant. A lot of it is imitation of imitation of imitation. But on the other side, they're kids. It's like saying all music is imitation. Yeah, it is, but there's nothing wrong with it to start with, so why not just play it, and why not have another generation play it just like the way it was started. Just keep it going, keep it rolling. I'm thinking more in terms of hardcore bands when I say that.

As far as when you think of the LA scene, the New York scene, and Austin, Texas, or wherever, what you had was every band was completely different then and unique: men, women, gay, straight, black, white, Hispanic, whatever they were. When a bunch of people got together to play music, it could be any kind of grouping of people coming up with the most original thing in a vacuum. That, to me, is real punk.

April 23, 2019
For more X, visit xtheband.com.

More interviews:

John Doe
Dave Alvin with the "4th Of July" story
Jello Biafra
John Lydon
Vicki Peterson of the Bangles
Glen Matlock
Curt Kirkwood

photos: Michael Hyatt (1), GaryLeonard (2)

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