X Marks the Rock
In a bar somewhere on the West Coast, a presumptuous punk-rock fan approached a woman who looked familiar. "Hey, you look just like Exene Cervenka. What are you doing here?" The woman, taking pleasure in the opportunity to shut down this clueless tool, flatly said, "I am Exene. I just played an hour ago, you moron."
It's hard to assess the impact Exene has had on rock 'n' roll. One could go as far as to say "No Exene, no Madonna." And while that's arguably true, Exene herself is indifferent. "Lots of kids today feel like they should've grown up in the punk era," she says. "Kids say, 'Everybody at my school likes Madonna and Britney, but I don't; I'm a freak.'" As singer for the legendary Los Angeles band X, Exene became an icon. Her trademark siren's wail, full of desperate, feral intensity, firmly planted her in the company of powerhouse rock singers such as Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde. Collaborating with John Doe, Exene penned extraordinary lyrics, narrating escapist, hard-living tales from the underground, on which she and Doe harmonized sweetly. An Exene/Doe harmony is one of the most insinuating sounds in rock--it rattles your spine.
After a slew of successful records with X and the band's recording hiatus, Exene keeps busy with her artwork, poetry and music projects, which include the punk outfit Auntie Christ, X's country alter-ego the Knitters and the occasional X tour jaunt, along with her most recent band, the Original Sinners. The Original Sinners have a tight, X-esque rockabilly sound that, coupled with Exene's instantly recognizable voice and the Doe-like vocal help of guitarist Jason Edge, may as well be X. "Hollywood Signs," off the Sinners' just-released album Sev7en, comes on like an outtake from X's 1982 masterpiece Under the Big Black Sun. On the other hand, the Sinners do allow Exene room to experiment. The song "Sky Blue Pink" finds her in free-form, guiding her band through chancy, improvisational skies, and it works. The overall approach is ostensibly rockabilly but owned completely by Exene. "I like having different bands," she says. "Things can be more chaotic with X."
Of course, Exene knows being a member of X is an important role, and she's game for more. "John and I are working on some songs," she hints, "so the next thing could be an X project. We're just in the nascent stages--something more like Los Angeles. We're not trying to recreate the past but doing it under the knowledge of where we are today." That's great news for X fans, who show up in phalanxes for the band's reunion gigs. Exene pontificates on the success of recent punk-rock reunions: "Because there's no new music that's good. They'd rather go see the Dead Kennedys without Jello." It's a provocative statement from a woman who clearly has passion for what she does, is comfortable in her skin and probably in her prime. She imagines her musical longevity with Tom Joad-like sincerity: "As long as I'm around and there's 12-year-olds in the audience; as long as I can keep doing it. Buck Owens played till he died."
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