The rise of Auntie Christ

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."

It's rare to find a musician with such strong socio-political views who can back them with concrete, educated arguments. Cervenkova is less interested in flogging her new album and more apt to talk about the world she lives in; she's in music because she has things to say. Whenever she encounters ignorance, she feels she's in the wrong business, and she thinks that a lot of punk rock today is a fashion thing.

"When we started in LA, there weren't any mohawks or safety pins," Cervenkova says. "People who got drawn into punk were people who wouldn't fit in. Weird graphic designers in straight black pants when everybody was wearing bellbottoms, people with slicked-back hair who looked Fifties, people who looked Forties. Then we started throwing a few punk things here and there. It wasn't until the early Eighties when surfer kids with long hair started coming to the gigs and found out that punk was more violent than what they had. So they gave themselves mohawks and started coming to gigs wearing quilts and safety pins and spit at the bands. They were causing trouble, because they read in magazines that's what punks are supposed to do. Unfortunately, that's what survived: the fashion of it." (On "The Nothing Generation," she sings "One million needles piercing/their noses and lips/Stupid fucking kids, wake up/Stupid fucking sheep, you're asleep.")

Many people believe that the time is ripe for a new movement that will drag music out of the quagmire, the same way that punk rock exploded 20 years ago. Cervenkova hasn't seen it yet: "If there was a need, there would have been a movement already. I'd rather it wasn't punk that re-erupted, but something brand-new that kids came up with. People right now go for this whole beauty thing. You have beautiful, lush songs, beautiful women and men singing beautiful songs, beautiful MTV videos. A soothing fairy tale kinda thing. And that's what brought up punk in the first place. It was all Eagles and Fleetwood Mac."

Cervenkova believes that the big corporations have a stronghold on people's lives, and that's partly why most music has no bite. Whether it is Hanson or Marilyn Manson, the consumption patterns are exactly the same.

"It used to be that culture was created by people and filtered all the way up," she says. "Now everything is dictated from the highest corporate levels--corporate think tanks and Madison Avenue advertising. Then it descends on the public, and they're told what their culture is. And they don't seem to care or notice or to mind. To me, it's horrifying. People are like zombies. It's unbelievable--like science fiction. My whole theory is to tell people to turn against corporations and not let them into their house or love them."

And our government--supposedly looking out for us and watchdogging the corporations--is actually doing neither, she says. "The way government exists now is as upper-level management that manages the affairs of corporations and the way they interact with consumers," Cervenkova says. "So there is a big problem with government. And there are no countries anymore, there are economies; there are no citizens, there are consumers. Have you noticed how in the news they refer to a country as 'the world's fifth-largest economy,' or they talk about the 'consumer price index.' They talk about us as consumers!"

This consumerism and material co-dependence is probably the main reason there will likely never be another youth uprising like that of the Woodstock generation or the punk upheaval. "Everyone is hooked up to their computers. Everyone is plugged in. It's like a concentration camp with the doors being open, but no one wants to leave," she says. "I've been preaching against computers for 10 years now. Again, it's the corporate thing. I don't know if they do it on purpose, but they do it so they guide everything away from the soul and direct it to the ego. The ego is overfed, constantly bombarded, and the soul is totally neglected. You do it with Nike, with fashion shows, with sports, and you do it with bands: You identify with the number one most popular band. You do it with piercings, with tattoos, with everything. That's how people lost their souls," she says with a touch of sadness in her voice.

Then her tone changes completely: "But why should you care? Let them go!"
She goes on: "If you have your circle of friends, people who make music and films that you like, Herman Hesse books you can read, different people you agree with, then you say, 'I'm not crazy; I know what's going on.' Then you let everybody else go. Don't try to change them. I'm not gonna try to change the woman in the bikini, or the frat boy, or the Christian. Let 'em go! You're not gonna change their mind. The only thing I'm trying to do is pull people away from the herd."

With Life Could Be A Dream, Cervenkova does not try to convert new followers, nor does she preach to the converted. Rather, it is a soul-exposing album that comes from an inner need to express intense feelings. She recalls a recent musical experience she had when she saw Kristin Hersh in concert: "It was amazing how beautifully she sang and played, and how beautiful the words are. It was like classical music and poetry, and I was moved to tears. It was an incredibly moving experience. She is so talented. I aspire to create something so beautifully poetic. After the show, she talked to me and said that I was one of her influences. I like artists who are connected to their souls and have a complete pipeline from their souls to the audience. In music, I'm looking for people who are incredibly intelligent, totally poetic, and moving. I'm not a big fan of the ego."

Her plans for Auntie Christ are not set in stone. She wants it to be a creative vehicle rather than a traditional band. Matt Freeman is not going to be on the upcoming tour because of his work with Rancid, even though he may come back later and play guitar for the band. Cervenkova likes to keep the door revolving.

"I found this bass player I really like: Her name is Janis Tanaka, and she plays with Stone Fox, who is also opening for us in this tour," she says. "She plays differently and sings with me. I want her to stay full time. I don't wanna get stuck in a rut, though. If I wanna do music and spoken word one night, that's fine. I don't wanna be predictable. Next time you see me, I may not have D.J. or Janis. I don't want Auntie Christ to turn into product."

Auntie Christ performs August 19 at the Orbit Room

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Philip Chrissopoulos