Music

Photograph by Tony Smith, August 11. 2023

Punk Pioneer Exene Cervenka: Her Life in Music and Words

 

At age 67, singer, songwriter, and poet Exene Cervenka is back on the road this year performing with X, the pioneering punk rock band she cofounded with vocalist/bassist/songwriter John Doe, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Billy Zoom, and drummer DJ Bonebrake in 1976. Decades-long creative partnerships are rare in rock music, yet in 2020 forty years after Los Angeles, their acclaimed 1980 debut album, the group released Alphabetland, a powerful album of new songs featuring all four original members, now in their sixties and seventies. Ken Tucker, music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, wrote, “X, the greatest Los Angeles band to emerge from punk rock, is back… The new material doesn’t have a trace of nostalgia or a slackening of intensity.” And there’s more on the way. Cervenka and the band are planning to record new music later this year and tour again in 2024.

 


X 1979
Left to right: Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, John Doe, DJ Bonebrake. 
Photo by Frank Gargani 

X 2020
Left to right: DJ Bonebrake, Billy Zoom, John Doe, Exene Cervenka.
Photo by Gary Leonard

 

 

Throughout her career, Cervenka’s strong artistic drive has drawn her to a wide range of creative projects. Adulterers Anonymous, the first of four books of poetry written with singer/poet Lydia Lunch, was published in 1982. That same year, she formed the country/rockabilly/folk group the Knitters, with Doe, Bonebrake, and guitarist Dave Alvin. Their debut album, Poor Little Knitter on the Road, was released in 1985 and featured traditional folk, country, and blues tunes, along with acoustic versions of a few X songs. Her art has been shown in the Santa Monica Museum of Art, DCKT Contemporary in New York, and in galleries throughout Los Angeles and elsewhere. In 1989, Cervenka recorded Old Wives’ Tales, the first of six solo albums she would put out by 2011. 

 

Promotional film for Old Wives’ Tales, featuring the song “He’s Got a She”
 

 

Sharon Hannon: Were you very artistic and creative when you were growing up? 
 
Exene Cervenka: Yes I was, mostly due to the influence of my older sister, Mirielle. We lived in rural Illinois in a very small town, but we got very creative because growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s listening to AM radio was enough to blow your mind every day. When Laura Nyro and those kinds of records started coming out, it got really interesting. For a young kid like me, the Doors and all that stuff really stimulated my mind. But even then there were out-of-the-way little country stores that still had old stuff in them, so we would ride our bikes and find cool things. We educated ourselves on the past and the art. 
 
I moved to Florida when I was 14, and my sister gave me a journal to write in, an old ledger book … that I still have. So when I was 13, 14, 15, I was writing and drawing a lot, like kids do. I think I did my first spoken word, or what we then called “poetry,” at Eckerd College (in St. Petersburg) in 1970. I did a poetry reading, like performance art, with my sister. I ended up going to Santa Monica in ’76 but I’d already been [writing poetry] and had been around other creative people.
 
SH: When you lived above the bookstore with the poetry workshop in Santa Monica, were there any specific poets, writers, or songwriters that influenced you?
 
EC: No, I did not have that. Early on, I liked Patti Smith a lot. For one thing, she was the only person doing what people like me were doing — a social misfit, not the typical pinup-girl thing, who was doing this great writing with this really cool cast of characters playing music behind her. But I wasn’t influenced by her. I didn’t want to be a writer because Patti Smith is a writer. I like people for who they are, what they do. The more original, the better. The more quirky and brilliant, the better. But I don’t absorb their personalities or their art into me.
 
SH: Were you influenced by anyone stylistically?
 
EC: No, I’d kill myself if I thought like that. But here’s the other thing. I mean, how could you be influenced when the radio had people like Ray Charles, the Supremes, Johnny Cash, and Ray Price all together within 15 minutes in a time that was supposed to be so full of racial hatred and segregation? It was … but not on the radio sometimes, at least by the ‘60s. Then you could go home and listen to Janis Joplin and the Doors. You had the beatniks and hippies and soul music and R&B and all that great country music all converging. So to single one thing out and say ‘I want to be like that’ just didn’t make sense to me. I was exploring every single thing I saw and heard in life that would expand my mind or bring me some understanding of life, which is what art is. 
 
I think your English teacher, your art teacher, your mom’s sister, or your older brother becomes your influence. Those people that are close to you and are singular in your life, that really do impact you as a person, as a whole being, not just someone to emulate, but someone that can help you boost your self-confidence and give you direction. Those people are influences in people’s lives, not people on the radio. 
 
SH: So where do you draw inspiration? 
 
EC: That’s a universal, endless question. Does it come from God? Does it come from somewhere deep inside of us? Does it come from our genetic memory? Does it come from our DNA? Does it come from the outside world? Does it come from the people around us? Is it a cathartic bolt of lightning where you go to a museum, see a painting, wander out into the street because you’re so blown away and become a painter? I don’t know where inspiration comes from, but I do know it exists and I know it when I have it. You can just be walking down the street and you see two people sitting in a window of a café and you think, oh, I’m going to write a poem about them. You have to be on the lookout for it. It’s almost like a sense. I never think of fear as an emotion, I think of it as a sixth or seventh sense, and I would put inspiration in there as an intuitive sense. I think people have it and just don’t know what it is sometimes. 
 
SH: Have your sources of inspiration changed since you were a young adult?
 
EC: I notice when it’s gone. I notice when I haven’t been inspired by anything in a long time. In most people, I would call that depression, because if you’re not inspired, you’re not alive. You’re not looking at the world like a child. You’re just going along. It is very easy to fall into that.
 
The thing about inspiration is you have to have a strong mind, a strong body, a strong spirit. All of your being has to be healthy to pick up on it; otherwise you’re in a physically, mentally, or spiritually depressed state and will never be inspired or happy. So I strive more to lay those foundations because then the impulse to make something isn’t lost. I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older, it’s harder. When you’re young, you can literally run around finding things to be inspired by and document them, show them to everybody, have fun with them, start a band around a cool name that you dreamed up one night. As you get older, those energies wear out. But there are many, many ways to keep those energies alive and perhaps make them even stronger. That’s the challenge for inspiration. I don’t think it’s something you take for granted. I think it’s precious.  

 


Photograph by Tony Smith, August 11, 2023

 
 

SH: Do you listen to the same type of music you used to listen to?
 
EC: Yes, I don’t listen to new music very much. There are a few bands that I like, and now I realize they’ve been around a while. It’s funny how that is, right? But I do like the older music better. This is a good time in music because there are so many bands and artists that are faithful to playing music that correctly emulates and adds to the history of American music, like what the Blasters and Los Lobos do and did. I started doing music with John in 1976. So at that point, Bob Dylan’s first record was 15 years old. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix had just died five years earlier. Before that there was Big Joe Turner, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the early rockabilly stuff, and Charlie Feathers. If you think about the beginning of rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll, it was 20 years old at the most when punk started. Now it’s 70 years old. So there are 70 years of music that young people have to find to listen to, be inspired by, and not duplicate what’s already been done. I don’t know how people today can isolate themselves enough to hear who they really are and what they come up with as their own original sound without being incredibly overinfluenced by everything that’s come before. I look for new music that sounds like it came out of nowhere, and that’s hard to find. On the other hand, I love music from the 1930s that’s being played by people now. There’s a difference in intent.
 
SH: When you were interviewed for the Women of Rock Oral History Project a couple of years ago, you called Sister Rosetta Tharpe the greatest rock ’n’ roll guitarist. She hasn’t been very well known, but I’ve noticed that millions of people have seen her old film clips on YouTube in recent years.
 
EC: In my opinion, she was one of the originators of rock ’n’ roll guitar playing and she never gets mentioned. People talk about Chuck Berry, but he came so much later than some of the other people. In the history of American music, so many contributions by many people simultaneously overlapped. But she doesn’t get the recognition, so I like to bring her up because she’s such a great singer. I love her as a spiritual religious leader, as well, and a figure that bridges gospel, blues, and rock ’n’ roll. I mean, that was the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll right there.  
 
There is very little about social media that is a positive, [but one positive is] when you find a video and the entire video is just a needle going down on an old 78 and playing. In its lifetime, maybe 4,000 people heard that record; now it has 85,000 views. These people have been dead a long time, and it’s almost like they’ve been resurrected into eternal life by people who found their records and shared them. 
 
SH: When Alphabetland came out, it sounded like you picked up right where you left off in the ‘80s. When you started working on it, did you all get together and work on the new songs in the year leading up to it or did you write bits and pieces over time?
 
EC: John lives in Austin, so I would write words and sometimes sing the melody and send it to him. Then he would put a bass line around it and maybe tidy it up a little. That’s the way we’ve always worked. Then we brought it into rehearsal and, as usual, it’s what Billy and DJ play that makes it a song. It is a group effort. But that record was put together really quickly. The next one’s going to be a lot more rehearsed, thought out, and perfected. I don’t mean that in a bad way. This process is going to be a little bit tighter. I think I wrote a lot of the words on this new one because I’m a more prolific writer, and this is my only outlet for writing right now. I’m not doing any spoken word or solo work.

 

Alphabetland” (official video)
 

 
 

SH: How did the spoken word piece “All the Time in the World” come about?
 
EC: It was right when the pandemic was starting. I’d been researching [Covid] since it started in China before it even got here, so I was pretty sure it was going to be very bad. I had written some of [the poem] before that time. Anyway, there was a minute in the studio when there wasn’t anything going on, so I said, “Hey, since we have the mike up, do you want to do some poetry?” And Rob Schnapf [the producer] said, “Yes, we want to record some poetry. Get out there.” So that was one of the things I read. When I came in the next day, Billy, who’s a great pianist, was playing piano and Rob recorded it and then threw it on over the poem. Then Robbie Krieger (the Doors) came in and played guitar on the record and it was great. That’s the way it should be. “I’ve got this poem. Let’s record it. So-and-so is playing piano. Let’s just record that.” And then just throw it together. 

 

“All the Time in the World”
 

 
 

 

SH: X has toured regularly in recent years. What is it like to work with people you’ve known so long and know so well?
 
CE: We had a break in the late ’80s/early ’90s, but we’ve been touring consistently since ’95. We did a tour with Pearl Jam for a month in South America, Mexico, Central America, and Europe, and we’ve opened for a whole lot of other bands, which is something that we always wanted to do, but no one would ever let us open for them. But the band is constantly changing. It’s changed since the first time we played a living room gig, which was our first gig in an old house in front of 25 drunk punk rockers. It changes every show; it is not linear at all. 
 
We’re very lucky because we can tour with two vans for the rest of our lives. We don’t have to worry about buses or planes or sleeping on people’s floors. We are self-propelling, self-sufficient, highly organized, and have great people working with us. It’s a very small crew, but amazing people. And we do really well when we work really hard. We don’t travel in luxury; if you like Holiday Inn Express, you’d love touring with us. Long, long drives sitting in the van and getting to the club and sitting in the dressing room for six hours before playing and not leaving until after the show. You get there at 3:00, you leave at 11:00. I’ll tell you, for people our age it is not easy. There are times when you really don’t like it, and then you get through those times. But I think we all love it, and it is a pretty good living. I’m not going to say it’s a great living, but it’s a good enough one. 
 
One way it has changed is you appreciate it more the longer you do it, which you would think would be the opposite. Also, I think knowing that we probably won’t be doing it that much longer makes you appreciate every show even more. You look around and go, how is it possible we’re still alive and doing this? It’s kind of mind-blowing, really. 

 

“Water & Wine” (official video)
 

 
 

SH: What’s on the horizon for X?
 
EC: When we get back from this tour, we’re going to go in the studio. We’ve been working on new songs and playing some of them live to work them out before we record them. We’re going to start rehearsing in a couple of days for that and then go out on the road, come back, rehearse more and then record 10 or 11 new songs, depending on how it goes. We have to record the record this year, then we plan to release it next year and coordinate a lot of touring around it, festivals, opening or headlining shows.
 
SH: I looked at a number of your setlists. With so much material, how do you decide which songs to play?
 
EC: John does the setlists. He always has and always will. He’s really good at it. There are songs that are interchangeable, “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, but You’re Not” and “Beyond and Back” are kind of similar. One night you do one, one you do the other. “Blue Spark” and “Adult Books” are kind of similar. There are certain songs you’re always going to want to do. We don’t do “We’re Desperate” every night; we might do “Sugarlight” instead. You want some songs that John sings, some that I sing, some that we sing together. Slow songs, fast songs, jazzy songs with sax and vibes. So you go through your categories and make sure that you have everything represented. If you play a place two nights, the people that want to come both nights will hear some different songs each night.
 
SH: Do you have a personal or emotional connection that makes you want a song in the set every night, like “Come Back to Me,” for example?
 
EC: That one isn’t as emotional to me. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. It depends on the time and the place. For me, the most emotional ones are the ones I always want to play, the ones that I think have the most spirit in them like “Your Phone’s Off the Hook” or “Sugarlight.” The harder, faster ones can be the most emotional ones, but some of the slower ones, too. I love “Adult Books.” That’s a really strong emotional song for me, and I love singing that. There are very few songs I don’t want to play, and I think that goes for everybody in the band. I mean, we have a lot to pick from, especially now with all these new ones. 

 

“Come Back to Me”
 

 
 
 
“Adult Books”
 
   
 

 

SH: Going back to the early days of L.A. punk, in the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization X seemed so different from the rest of the bands — the harmonies, musicianship — it was hard to believe you came out of the same punk scene.
 
EC: First of all, that movie only had a couple of bands and was not at all representative of that scene. A lot of people—like the Plugz, which was one of the greatest bands—weren’t in it. Their album Better Luck was probably the best punk record as far as production and overall brilliance. So you didn’t get an overall picture of the musicality of that scene, you got the sensationalist aspect of it.
 
Secondly, anything you wanted to do that was original and creative and inventive and musical and crazy and wild and unpredictable was punk. The Blasters, the Go-Gos, X, and the Germs were all punk bands. We never thought of ourselves as different. A lot of the bands were younger than us and exciting but they didn’t have the musical ability that Billy or John or DJ had. So there was that difference between those bands and us. But when you got the Bags or X onstage and we were playing and everyone was going crazy, then we were in the same scene and we were the same people. But fundamentally, the conception of those bands is different.
 
[The film] is very representative of the filmmaker’s vision. It isn’t a big picture of the whole scene and is very limited in its scope, but it did a lot of good. It preserved the scene; it made it historical. People are still watching it so it introduces a lot of people to that time. It’s an important film, a groundbreaking film, but it does in some ways misrepresent, at least, my band.  

 

“Beyond and Back” live, 1980
 
 

 
 

SH: When you think back to what you’ve seen written about early L.A. punk, do you feel it’s representative of that period?
 
EC: We had great writers back then. We had Richard Meltzer, Kristine McKenna, Chris Morris, Robert Hilburn from the L.A. Times, Claude Bessy (a/k/a Kickboy Face) at Slash magazine. They were really knowledgeable about music, understood what was going on, and wrote about it beautifully. They were artists in their own right. Part of the entertainment of that scene was the people that wrote about it. There were a lot of people doing fanzines out of their living rooms. They were really important. Without those people writing about it, we wouldn’t have known about it. It was completely word of mouth. San Francisco, L.A, New York, Austin all had to have that word of mouth or they would never have existed. College radio, of course, was huge for us.
 
SH: Sometimes a local record store would play things in the store like the first Clash album that wasn’t released here for three years.
 
EC: Those guys and women were visionaries because they had to buy something and put it in their store and hope someone would find it. There’s an investment when you’re putting on shows or you have a record store. You had to believe in it. There were so many great record stores, Bomp Records was one and, of course, Rhino.

 


Exene Cervenka, Photo by Maggie St. Thomas

 
 

SH: Are there any particular writers you like to read these days?
 
EC: I just finished reading a book called Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, who’s won a Nobel Prize. It was my favorite book I’ve read recently. My favorite poet is probably Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet [1889-1966]. I also just finished reading Dave Alvin’s book, New Highway, which is amazing. It is very entertaining, and it’s nice to see the song lyrics. I’ve heard all of the songs, but you really appreciate him as a writer when you read the lyrics. I think he’s one of the greatest artists in American music history. I just started reading They Call Me Carpenter by Upton Sinclair. 
 
SH: Besides playing music, writing, and art, what do you do for fun?
 
EC: I love going places with my friends. It’s California so you can go on hikes and other things outdoors. I have great neighbors and friends. My son’s about an hour from me, so that’s great. For fun, I have a room in back of my house that’s an art studio that has been waiting for me for months and years to actually get out there. It’s coming together now. I like having a functioning art studio. Like I was saying about inspiration and physical, spiritual, and mental energy … you have to be in really good health, especially as you get older, to have the ability to create and be inspired and actually carry out whatever it is you’re inspired to do. To do that you have to have the energy of a young person. You have to eat healthy and do healthy things and keep your body strong and keep going, because otherwise you’re just never going to do anything again. It’s just too hard physically, especially writing, which is so hard.
 
“Life is a marathon, not a sprint” is such a cliché. But the thing is that life is long, if you’re lucky, and you don’t want it to tail off into the gutter. You want it to keep going well, right? That’s what we all want. Nobody wants to be sick and tired and mentally challenged toward the end of their life. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do about that, but you can fight it the best you can. I think it’s important to stay vital. 

 

 

   
Available from Amazon, Bookshop.org, and directly from UNO Press.

Bio

Sharon M. Hannon is a freelance writer and researcher whose clients have included the Library of Congress, the Public Broadcasting System, and private foundations. She has written articles and websites about influential musicians and a range of historical topics including World War II, spies and secret agents, and women explorers. She is the author of Punks: A Guide to an American Subculture and Women Explorers.

2 Comments

  1. Love Exene and her writing! Amazing inspiration. Sweet and powerful. I loved reading about her thoughts and views.

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