Los Angeles’ Wild Gift

Forty years on, the band X finally gets credit for its punky place in history

Exene Cervenka and Billy Zoom of X performing at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles last October on the legendary band’s 40th anniversary tour.
Exene Cervenka and Billy Zoom of X performing at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles last October on the legendary band’s 40th anniversary tour.

Like its New York counterpart, the Velvet Underground, whose props as a fundamental rock and roll influence came only after years in oblivion, Los Angeles’s X has often seemed overlooked — sometimes appreciated but rarely beloved beyond its core market of L.A. punk fans.

The band’s impassioned mashup of punk, rockabilly, country and folk made a multigenerational impression both on its Los Angeles brethren (Mary’s Danish, Geraldine Fibbers, Best Coast) and on the big national stage. Everyone from Green Day to Wilco to U2 (“Desire” could be straight from the X songbook) owes a debt.

X spent much of 2017 celebrating its 40th anniversary. It’s a nice round number, a milestone, certainly good for business. It’s also a victory lap that’s well deserved, a loud reminder of the band’s fairly substantial impact on rock music.

“Beyond and Back: The X Anthology” (1997)
“Beyond and Back: The X Anthology” (1997)

The original quartet — John Doe, Exene Cervenka, DJ Bonebrake and Billy Zoom — reached their creative endpoint more than three decades ago, but the music they left in their wake, particularly the frantic cannon blast of imagery and ideas from their first four albums (“Los Angeles,” “Wild Gift,” “Under the Big Black Sun,” “More Fun in the New World”) remain essential documents of Los Angeles cultural anthropology. They’re among just a few select L.A. groups (The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, Love, N.W.A.) whose music was a perfect reflection of time and place. Songs like “We’re Desperate,” “The World’s a Mess, It’s In My Kiss,” “Under the Big Black Sun” and “Los Angeles” eerily reflect the political and personal temperature of the town.

X has spent the past year reasserting itself, jabbing audiences with a catalog that still lives and still matters. Even after four decades, the music still goes bang, the onstage dynamic undiminished by time: Doe’s buttery croon, tag-teamed with the harmonic cacophony of Cervenka’s vocals and drummer Bonebrake’s precision hammering. Yet, as always, it’s Zoom, 69, now bestooled with a Gretsch cradled in his lap, who emits the greatest force, both musically and visually. Even seated, Zoom is the coolest cat in the room — the shit-eating grin, the flirty eyes, the rockabilly riffs on speed.

While X has toured sporadically during the 20 years since Zoom returned to the band in 1998 (after a 13-year sabbatical), this time around it felt more like a last call. Music aficionados noticed, paying their respects, showering the band with the recognition it craved but rarely got in its prime. Part of it may be the specter of good old-fashioned mortality: Zoom’s battle with bladder cancer kept him off the road for a good chunk of 2015 and on chemo for 18 months thereafter. Our heroes are starting to die off. Better to hand out the gold watches while everyone is still above ground.

Still, the hometown reaction to X’s anniversary waltz has been contextually disconcerting, if not downright bizarre. I mean, would you hand this band the keys to the city? Have the suits in City Hall actually listened to “Los Angeles?” It’s not the most welcoming soundtrack for Visitor’s Bureau promo videos. Nonetheless, the city proclaimed “X Day” in October. The band (wearing Dodgers jerseys!) threw out the first pitch before a Dodgers game in August and Doe sang the National Anthem. The Grammy Museum honored the band with its own exhibit. It’s all happening. Finally.

This sort of confetti-dropping is usually reserved for platinum-plated rock stars, the ones who make us feel good. X was never about feeling good. X was about danger, alienation, messy romance. They were poet-journalists documenting an invisible underworld.

L.A.’s punk scene was X’s incubator, one they quickly outgrew but never completely abandoned. In this scene, they stood out: They were a few years older. Their music was darker, deeper, more cerebral than that of their peers. X was legitimately great. The band thought so, too, and angled for the masses while still carousing with the underground. After all, what band doesn’t want to be heard?

But it was the ’80s, when selling out really meant something. Credibility was mother’s milk, and signs of compromise could be career suicide. X tried to walk that fine line.

Yet, whenever they sidled over to The Man, they tilted sideways — as if they were recording at gunpoint — particularly given the pedigree of their early work. There was the Doobie Brothers-esque stoner-rock riff that opens 1983’s “True Love Pt. 2;” the horrific metal sludge cover of 1984’s “Wild Thing.”

But X’s real reckoning was 1985’s “Ain’t Love Grand.” By this point, it seemed the band was willing to trade some critical equity for something a little more sustainable, openly trolling for hit-record success. But “Ain’t Love Grand” stands out in X’s oeuvre like a bad haircut in a high school yearbook photo. Its failure drove Zoom from the band in search of a better way to make a living.

Their zeitgeist had sailed. Now, like most 40-year-old bands, X makes its living as expert nostalgists, giving the people what they want by sticking with the key tracks from the early days. The shows are an exuberant but slightly arthritic mosh down bad-memory lane, when life was bleak and crazy and hopeless. The alienation and fury that fueled X’s rise now feels celebratory. Just check out the skanking septuagenarians in the crowd — they pound on each other with smiles instead of scowls. Seeing X on stage is an affirmation of an entire community/subculture, a nod of acknowledgement to all those who lived through it.


X’s L.A. Punk-Era Compadres

The Plugz: Featured prominently in “Repo Man,” the Tito Larriva-led outfit tilted toward punk noir — dark, rich, complex — but their shambolic take on “La Bamba” proved their punk bona fides.

The Blasters: Guitarist Dave Alvin’s vivid-yet-plain-spoken storytelling, brought to glorious life by the otherworldly vocals of brother Phil, was a hip-swiveling hootenanny.

Los Lobos: Originally an East L.A. mariachi band, the Wolves have survived for four mind-bending decades with an elastic aesthetic that includes traditional Mexican folk, blues, industrial and psychedelic freakout.

Erik Himmelsbach-Weinstein is the senior director of video for features and sports at the Los Angeles Times.
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