By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
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Nobody ever said that punk rock and subtlety made good bedfellows, and Exene Cervenkova, the erstwhile singer of Los Angeles' legendary X, doesn't mince her words. She finds that poetic license and subtlety are often lost on those with deficient attention spans. With her new band, Auntie Christ--in which she sings and plays guitar--she often trades her wonderful wordplay for blunt aphorism.
For almost 20 years, she and ex-husband John Doe (the two met in 1977, were married for X's formative years, and divorced in 1985) fronted X, delivering some of the most incisive songs about the city of lost angels through their duets. The music of X was frighteningly beautiful: frightening in its depiction of a city--and a society--in rapid decline, beautiful because it captured the fall in such poetic splendor.
One of the things that made X unique was Cervenka, as she was known then. With ratty hair, thrift-store dresses, men's shoes, and 1920s make-up, she was not exactly the type of female singer popular in bands then. Over the phone from Los Angeles, she talks about her influence on the punk rock scene and the slew of female bands of today without a hint of nostalgia: "When I started in L.A., it was Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt, and the Motels. Then it was Patti Smith, Siouxsie in England, Blondie, and the woman in Talking Heads. Until then women were being sexy, coy, or vampy. They were playing roles. I was wearing my own clothes. I didn't define a punk look, I created my own look."
But X wasn't meant to last. In fact, it went through the motions for almost 10 years, hanging on to the great songs of the past, until its two founders decided that the urgency was gone and it was time to quit. The inevitable left Cervenkova and ex-X drummer D.J. Bonebrake with a burning desire to say all those things X had left unsaid. Cervenkova recalls the X split as a natural progression of a band that had lost its intensity over the years, like a marriage that wasn't happening anymore.
"We were thinking about breaking up in '86, I believe, when [guitarist] Billy [Zoom] quit. John [Doe] wanted to keep it going because we had all these great songs and a viable band. [Ex-Blasters guitarist] Dave Alvin played with us for a while. Then we found Tony [Gilkyson, previously guitarist for Lone Justice], and things went downhill from then on. I guess the point of being X went away and we didn't notice. I wasn't happy artistically," Cervenkova says. "Last summer, I went to John and said, 'Let's do X the right way. Tony doesn't wanna play punk style, so let's get a new guitar player and write songs the way we used to.' He was not interested, so I said, 'I'm getting another band together.'"
Finding a bass player wasn't hard at all, given the legacy of her previous band. Rancid's Matt Freeman was a big X fan and offered to play with Auntie Christ in between his commitments with his full-time band. The christening of the band is courtesy of Lydia Lunch, who had dubbed Cervenkova "Auntie Christ" during a spoken-word tour the two did together. Freeman, Bonebrake, and Cervenkova went into the studio in February and recorded Life Could Be A Dream for Lookout Records, the label that brought you Green Day and Operation Ivy, among others.
The album is not just another by-numbers punk rock artifact exhumed to satisfy current demand. The lyrics are intelligent, poignant, and direct; Cervenkova calls it a punk rock album with 10-chord songs. Regardless of chords, the 10 songs in Life Could Be A Dream are full of caustic poetry, righteous anger, political manifestoes, and burning riffs. Not so very different from early X albums, but at the same time more brooding, more desperate--as if time is running out. It alternates between social topics ("The Virus," "With A Bullet") and almost confessional personal situations ("Look Out Below," "Rat In The Tunnel Of Love").
The opener, "Bad Trip," is a condemnation of Reagan-era politics and its aftermath. A great song both lyrically and musically, "Bad Trip" nevertheless drew a lot of criticism and left Cervenkova infuriated: "I got a lot of bad reviews about it, like 'Poor Exene, she's stuck in the Eighties. She thinks Reagan is still the president.' How fucking stupid can you be? Here you have someone writing a song using a piece of history, and they say that I'm a pathetic junkie stuck in the past, living my 1980 glory days."
She continues. "What they forget is that the Reagan administration was a milestone in the loss of the country, completely, the worst thing that happened in this country this century. Some people at the top benefited from that through stocks and bonds and land acquisition. They de-regulated the savings and loans and gave all that money away to their people and no one had to pay it back. Since it was all insured, the taxpayers had to pay for it. They diluted the entire economy of the United States. A lot of people figured that the trickle-down economy will take care of things. What they didn't figure, though, is that once the trickle-down stops, the taxes will go up and everything will go to hell."