As a founding member of Los Angeles' punk rock idols X, Exene Cervenka has the questionable honor of having started "it" all, which she is poised to bring in her latest musical incarnation, the Original Sinners, to Boise's Neurolux on November 4.
If the punk rock historians and rock journalists are to be believed, and Debbie Harry was the queen of the New York scene, Chrissie Hynde was the above-ground royalty of London and Siouxsie Sioux ruled the underground, Cervenka had the West Coast all wrapped up. Over the course of time, it has only been Cervenka who has stayed true to her roots. She has never become a pop star or seen her songs climb the charts, and she has always stayed true to the ideals of creativity over commercialism. She is a poet, a painter, an artist and a scribe. She has published several books (including the brilliantly titled A Beer on Every Page), Xeroxed countless poems, recorded numerous spoken-word albums, performed for tons of benefits, and had her art shown in galleries and museums. Through everything, Cervenka has always been stubbornly, resolutely one thing: herself.
The history of X mimics the history of early punk rock: artistic, musical and literary misfits encounter each other, coalesce, and make great music while kicking against the walls of established society. X was exceptional and rose to the ranks of the worshipped to become an institution. Idealized everyman John Doe harmonized with the slightly askew, slightly off-key Cervenka to create a unique sound that has not been messed with since. DJ Bonebrake had the chops and the stoic, grinning Billy Zoom played rock and roll guitar in its purest form.
The stories are legendary. There is the show played by the band after learning of the death of Cervenka's sister, Mirielle, in a car accident on the way to the concert. There is the punk rock love story of Doe and Cervenka, in love and then married and then growing apart and finding others. It was all there: As lyricists, Doe and Cervenka wore their hearts on their records, and their listeners shared in their lives. They were placed on a pedestal by the well-placed: Robert Hillburn of the LA Times couldn't stop raving about them, and Ray Manzarek of The Doors loved them so much that he produced their seminal album, Los Angeles (and insisted on playing keyboards on it, much to the distress of many).
Exene was an underground fashion icon, mainly because she had her own look and did it herself. (Yes, Virginia, there used to be punk rockers before beauticians knew it was a style and Hot Topic existed. It might even interest some of you to learn that punk rockers used to hate the mall.) Girls throughout the country strove to look like Cervenka, and not only because they dreamed of catching the eye of her ex. Her art, in the form of lettering, graced the album sleeves not only of her own band, but of other such notable (if neglected) bands as the Brat. She helped to create a total aesthetic for her time. Pieces of it were robbed--it's well known that Madonna stole the early punk girl look of layered, torn clothes and fishnets, complemented by religious symbols used aghast, and moved it to the mainstream--but the fierce individuality has persevered. After the well exposed break-up with Doe, her next husband was none other than Viggo Mortensen, back when he was only a poet and artist and hadn't been plastered across the big screen by Peter Jackson as Aragorn, the hunk of hobbit-land in the Lord of the Rings movies.
She still plays with X, who are starting to garner honors from the establishment such as being inducted into Guitar Center's Rock Walk (right next to the Ramones) in Hollywood and receiving an Official Certificate of Recognition from the City of Los Angeles to mark their "important contributions to Los Angeles music and culture." Even Billy Zoom has returned to their fold, after a decades-long self-imposed exile. Exene also plays with the Knitters, who were one of the first bands to take punk rockers outside of their confines and play good-old, down-home country back with their first release, Poor Little Critter on the Road, in 1985. And she has always played music with her own bands, including Auntie Christ in the '90s and now with the Original Sinners. She has consistently surrounded herself with younger musicians, and their enthusiasm and vigor really make the music go bang.
The Original Sinners' self-titled debut album came out in 2002 and provided a much-needed blast for fans of Exene. They sounded like X, without trying to sound like X. It worked. Cervenka's barely controlled wail lifted her observations of love and loss and life from the road over tight, rambling guitars. The band allowed Cervenka to do exactly what she's good at, and she didn't have to harmonize with the honeyed voice of Doe to bring her messages home.
On the latest Original Sinners recording, SEV7EN, Cervenka has a new backing band. New hubby Jason Edge is still around from the original Original Sinners, providing backing vocals and guitar work. He and Cervenka have been joined by the trio known as the 7 Shot Screamers from St. Louis, Missouri. They are bassist Chris Powers, guitarist Dan Sabella and drummer Kevin O'Conner.
A quick glance at the Nitro Records biography of Cervenka shows that she has a sense of herself that has the same cutting, dry, referential humor that has defined her work. "I'm kind of in my Chuck Berry phase," she says, "in that I could pick up four musicians anywhere to back me up, but there's nothing like having a real band." She goes on to describe her lyrics, "I'll always write sad love songs because those are the songs that move me the most, but my life is really great right now so I don't feel like writing them at the moment. But there's plenty of bad stuff in my past I can draw on if I ever need to come up with one of those songs."
The new material should translate to a rockin' good time at the Neurolux. There's even a cover of a Gun Club song, "Ghost on the Highway," that sounds as if Jeffrey Lee Pierce wrote it just so Cervenka could sing it.
It has been said that Cervenka is a woman who never forgets her roots, friends or influences. We should pay her the same respect; goodness knows, she's earned it.