By Jim Schutze
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They packed into the House of Blues on Sunset Strip, that strip-mall museum with its overpriced booze and overfried food, and held their breath. They chanted ("X...X...X...X!") and waited, pushing toward the stage until the crowd became a crush. They wore their faded tour tees and talked about their favorite songs, waiting for the curtains to part and the present to give way to the past. And when it did, when the crowd's rumble gave way to the guitar's roar, they exhaled until their cheers became overwhelming, orgasmic. The night was April 21, 2000, but for a moment, it was a long ago, faraway yesterday--Los Angeles, 1980, punk rock, beautiful sleaze, John Doe, Exene Cervenka, D.J. Bonebrake, and Billy Zoom. X played for two hours, sprinting through its history, but the echoes linger. It was hard not to stand in that club, in that city, and not vibrate a little as Exene and John sang "Los Angeles." In Los Angeles. That's what they call being in the right place at the right time, even if you got there 20 years too late.
For years, the four of them tried to outrun their history, tried to reduce it to a speck in the rearview mirror. They tried going their separate ways, recording their solo projects, acting in George Strait movies, fixing guitars, and finding God. They said their farewells and moved forward, only to find yesterday staring them in the face whenever they turned around. In the end, history outran them: X was too much alive to bury in the history books. So there they were, for only the 10th (or so) time in recent years, sounding every bit as vibrant and viable as they did two decades ago; it was no nostalgia trip, no dance through the graveyard. They put aside their differences, shoved aside bittersweet memories, and played like they were still kids, still in love, and still desperate. And for those of us of a certain age, it was like seeing the Replacements or the Clash back together again, long after they said their final farewells and fuck-offs to each other and their audience.
But it was hard not to stand in the audience and wonder how it felt for Doe and Cervenka and Bonebrake and Zoom to share a stage with each other. It was hard not to wonder what they got from being together again, if only for this rare moment. Could they still get off on music they made 20 years ago, or can it only be a drag to rehash ancient memories for a paycheck?
"What do I get out of it?" the 44-year-old Doe says, speaking from a hotel room in Massachusetts, where he's currently shooting Above and Beyond (he has appeared in more than 40 films and TV shows, from Boogie Nightsto an episode of Veronica's Closet). The subject arises because just two days before this interview, he was back in Los Angeles playing with his other band, the Knitters, X's folk spin-off that recorded a single album in 1985. Though he's about to tour in support of his third and best full-length solo album, Freedom Is..., Doe has long since discovered he can no more escape his past than his own skin.
"I give back something to the audience, especially with X, and it's a lot of fun," he says. "The music holds up, and I get paid. It's all those things, in that order. I think if getting paid was the first thing, we'd try to do some sort of national reunion tour. We've done 10, 15 shows in the last couple of years with Billy Zoom. A lot of people kept asking what Billy Zoom was doing and all that shit. I would say, 'He's fixing amps in Orange County, finding himself.' We did that boxed set [1997's Beyond and Back: The X Anthology] and started having communication again, good offers came in, and we rehearsed a couple of times. After two or three hours, it sounded great. If it sounded terrible, I don't think anybody would have done it. Not to sound like an actor, but if you're not in the moment, you're fucking blowing it. You just gotta be there, so it's a thrill. There are a few times with X when the history sort of creeps into the back of your mind, and there's a sort of bittersweet feeling about that."
It's unfair to judge a musician by his past, to compare The New Stuff to The Old Shit, if only because no one wins when you start playing that game. If you hate the new albums, you find yourself running back to the old ones for a little reassurance; if you love the new ones, you still go back to the old ones, wanting to hear those songs that made you fall in love way back when. It's tempting to say the best song on Freedom Is...is "Ever After"--yeah, the one on which Cervenka sings, conjuring echoes of the days when the two singers-writers tangled their voices together. Someone who didn't come of age wearing out copies of Wild Giftand Los Angeles may beg to differ. But someone who didn't come of age listening to X probably ain't buying John Doe solo records. Their loss, on all counts.
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