X makes a poetic return to their Westside roots for the Marina del Rey Summer Concert Series

By Bliss Bowen

X on a Hollywood rooftoop in 1981, after the success of “Los Angeles” and circa “Wild Gift” | Photo by Michael Hyatt

“Beyond Baroque was great because it gave me everything, really. If it wasn’t for that, I would never have met John; if it wasn’t for that, there would be no X. If it wasn’t for that, my whole life would have been completely different. Who knows what would have happened? Would I have had a better life? Who knows, maybe. But it certainly has been a great life because of that.”

For X frontwoman Exene Cervenka, Venice’s Beyond Baroque — the nerve center of L.A.’s literary community, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — is a family affair. It’s where she met first husband and X bandmate John Doe; it’s a place she shared with her second (now ex-) husband, actor and writer Viggo Mortensen; it’s a familiar haven for their Venice-dwelling son Henry; and it’s where she discovered the value of the individual voice that would be unleashed with X in the vanguard of L.A.’s exploding punk scene. Grateful memories of formative experiences there tumble forth while discussing X, who’ll play a free concert at Burton Chace Park this Saturday.

Cervenka happened upon Beyond Baroque shortly after moving to L.A. from Florida in 1976 thanks to CERT, a government job-training program; she learned typesetting and worked in the bookshop downstairs while living upstairs. Baltimore native Doe, who had also just moved to L.A., sought out the Venice literary hub in search of connection with “like-minded misfits” and bohemians. The two met at a poetry workshop; they owned little more than their admiration for each other’s creativity. X formed the following year.

Cervenka commanded attention with her bold sense of self and vintage fashion. Surrounded in the Beyond Baroque community by poets such as Wanda Coleman (with whom she later recorded and toured), Kate Braverman, Bob Flanagan, Jack Grapes and Bill Mohr, Cervenka was like a sponge, soaking up inspiration and poetry at readings, consuming “tons of books” by the likes of Charles Bukowski and John Fante. What attracted her most was the presence of poetry as a live art.

“I liked the live performance, the excitement of these interesting, crazy people coming together to do fun things. And there was a lot of that,” she says. “It was very much a live performance space.”

Exploring the literary center’s extensive library of small-press chapbooks — “books that were living history” — also proved revelatory.

“It was before the internet, when people had to make their own poetry books,” she explains. “No one was going to publish those people. Publishing a book was a huge deal, just like making a record was a huge deal. To get a record out was almost impossible. So I had a lot of respect for everyone, and it was fun too. We were a little bit outsiders, because we were like the drunken wild kids that came up out of nowhere and showed up at Beyond Baroque one day. But we all got along great and — I would say the same for John — we had a lot of respect for everyone there.”

Upper: Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, John Doe and DJ Bonebrake at The Masque, 1977 | Photo by Frank Gargani
Lower: X performed at the Grammy Museum last year to celebrate 40 years of L.A. punk | Photos by Alison Buck / Grammy Museum

It’s been said that X evolved at the nexus of poetry and songwriting and punk, but it’s not like those elements were completely disparate. Doe, who ran a poetry series in Baltimore before moving to L.A., doesn’t “really see the difference” between poetry and songwriting, “except that poetry has a little less meter, sometimes, and can tackle more obscure kinds of things. …

“Pick a favorite artist, Guided By Voices or Joanna Newsom or even more traditional types: it’s all one thing. But, I would say that I knew I could make a living as a songwriter. Every poet knows that that’s just for self-expression and satisfaction.”

Like Cervenka, he also singles out Jim Caruso and Frances Dean Smith, a Santa Monica poet better known as FrancEyE (and as Bukowski’s partner), for praise.

“I loved her,” Cervenka enthuses. “I got upset one time and said, ‘Every time I read people just laugh at me, what am I doing wrong?’ She said, ‘Oh, no, no, they’re not laughing at you, they’re laughing with you, because they see themselves in what you’re doing. They love you.’ It was the first time somebody explained it to me; I didn’t know I was funny, I didn’t know if my poems rang true or struck a nerve. … She was a huge influence on me. When you’re older, like I am now, people say, ‘Oh, you’re a big influence on me,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, thanks, that’s really nice.’ But when you’re young you don’t really understand what it means. Those people were huge in a lot of people’s lives. … Very few places, very few times do I remember as clearly as I remember that.”

By the time she met Doe (“such a great songwriter”), whom she credits with teaching her discipline, he was already playing music with guitarist Billy Zoom, so Beyond Baroque and Venice’s surrounding countercultural community didn’t contribute much to the development of X’s sound, she says. But its nurturing freedom, where “anybody could do anything and anybody was welcome,” shaped her creatively, and the encouragement she received gave her the confidence to keep moving forward.

“What I think contributed to the sound of X was I learned to write at Beyond Baroque,” she says.

The Hollywood years that followed are the acknowledged stuff of legend. Word of fevered shows by the Bags, Black Flag, the Blasters, the Brat, the Flesh Eaters, the Germs, the Gun Club, the Minutemen, the Screamers, the Weirdos and other punk underground denizens burst up the stairs of Brendan Mullen’s Masque club in Hollywood; and the combination of Cervenka and Doe’s edgy vocal chemistry, the band’s forceful musicality, and the poetic quality of their songs sealed X’s status as one of the most vital bands in the history of L.A. rock.

In 2016 Doe and co-curator/editor Tom DeSavia compiled a book about that consequential era, “Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk,” featuring chapters by Doe, Cervenka, and peers such as Dave Alvin, Charlotte Caffey, Divine Horsemen/Flesh Eaters frontman (and poet) Chris D., and Mike Watt. Veteran music journalist Chris Morris contributed “You Better Shut Up and Listen,” composed with typically brash elegance and wit.

Of the first time he experienced X live, Morris writes: “It was love at first sight, really. Their songs immediately bowled me over: their hurtling, imagistic lyrics betrayed John Doe and Exene’s roots in poetry and fused influences like William S. Burroughs and Raymond Chandler in a grimy homebrew. Their performance was like a kinetic sculpture, as John bounded around the stage and Exene thrashed in its center as if the mic stand was the only thing holding her to the Earth.”

Singer Cindy Wasserman didn’t discover X until years later, but when she did, she says, “It kind of changed everything for me. The harmonies were so different from anything I’d ever heard, and the songwriting just spoke to my gut.”

X was a dominant influence for Dead Rock West, the acclaimed band Wasserman co-founded with Frank Lee Drennen in 1999. A mutual admiration society resulted: Wasserman has also sung harmony on solo tours behind Cervenka as well as Doe, who generally performs a handful of X songs, and both Cervenka and Doe have contributed to Dead Rock West recordings.

“I have had the pleasure of singing Exene’s part,” Wasserman says, “and whenever I’ve sung with either John or Exene, the audience blows my mind because it will be teenagers and people in their sixties — everyone totally in the moment, getting it, like it’s current.”

Cervenka and Doe have remained friends since their 1985 divorce. But 40 years after meeting in Venice, things have inevitably changed. Cervenka lives in Orange; Doe relocated to Austin, Texas, about a year and a half ago; and innocent California dreams of affordable beachside living faded away with the ’70s.

“Life was manageable, and people could coexist pretty well,” Cervenka observes. “That poetry scene merged with the punk scene immediately, and the main reason was Harvey Kubernik, because he was the poet guy who would set up studio time [in Hollywood] and get all these punk rockers to come down there, like the Minutemen and the Blasters and people who normally wouldn’t, and say, ‘Read a poem.’” She recounts a hilarious episode when Blasters drummer Bill Bateman was goaded into reading a store receipt out loud.

Poetry, like any art, needs to be alive if it’s to have enduring worth or meaning. Otherwise, it falls prey to being packaged and commoditized — precisely the thing punk emerged to protest.

“It should be alive,” Cervenka agrees. “Most art is not alive anymore because you don’t even have to leave your house to become an overnight successful artist.”

X songs like “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” and “The World’s a Mess, It’s In My Kiss,” birthed in Cervenka and Doe’s cramped Hollywood apartment, have endured; they feel relevant to younger listeners who’ve never known a world without cellphones and Wi-Fi

Doe says what punk represented in 1978 not only holds true in 2018 — “freedom and a do-it-yourself attitude” — it has also expanded.

“Now people can use the word ‘punk’ or punk rock as a kind of qualifier or shorthand for all those other things that people used to say was bohemian or rebel,” he notes. “But they all kind of mean the same thing.”

X’s original members — Doe, Exene, Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake — have been on the road with those songs this summer, promoting Fat Possum’s forthcoming remastered reissues of the band’s first four albums and opening some dates for the Psychedelic Furs. Asked if he ever feels like he’s caught in an ’80s timewarp, Doe says no.

“There’s always something different, and I don’t think I’m trying to protect myself from feeling [nostalgic] because there’s young people at the show, and they’re looking at Exene as a role model,” he says. “When I see that, I feel like we’ve succeeded. …

“There’s also an element of authenticity, which has become a buzzword lately. There’s so many things that are virtual and digital and not born through blood, sweat and tears and fire and sliding off the road at two in the morning. … I think young people want to see that and they want to feel that. The Psychedelic Furs are real as shit. They play good stuff. … I do think there’s a desire — and I see it in a lot of young bands that we’ve played with and hung around — they’re also looking backward to a time when things were more analog.”

Doe recently wrote a song with Venice local Micah Nelson (aka Particle Kid), and on Black Friday Record Store Day a song X wrote and recorded with Garbage’s Shirley Manson and Duke Erikson will be released. Come fall, Doe, who has released 10 critically acclaimed solo albums, will be touring with his trio (bassist Dave Carpenter and drummer Stuart Johnson). Until then, he’s working on another book, “More Fun in the New World,” that he expects will be published in June 2019.

“It’s about the era from ’82 to ’87, and everyone getting either disillusioned or somewhat famous and trying to negotiate and navigate the major label experience and drugs and destruction and the loss of community,” he explains. “One of Tom DeSavia’s and my partners, Krissy Teegerstrom, had a great idea to make it broader [than ‘Under the Big Black Sun’]: to include the legacy of what that era begat.” So in addition to a conversation between Doe and Henry Rollins and pieces by returnees Charlotte Caffey, Pleasant Gehman and Jane Wiedlin, there will also be chapters by artists “inspired by music of that period,” including Allison Anders, Shepard Fairey, Tim Robbins and Tony Hawk.

Community like that commemorated in the book remains important, essential even. But the geographical hubs that once made artists and musicians cohere, to some extent compelling them to hold each other accountable for the substance of their work, are no longer as prevalent. Maybe that’s why Doe makes a rueful wisecrack about wishing people would pay a little more attention “to thinking and being.” (“And world peace,” he adds with a chuckle.)

“There are so many people doing so many forms of art and music … there is no underground anymore. If there was no internet, you would have more stuff spring up, but I look at all the things that people are doing, and maybe you don’t need a scene anymore,” Cervenka muses. “Maybe there don’t need to be scenes — just cool people working together and hanging out together and making up cool stuff.”

X performs a free outdoor concert from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 18) at Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. Call (424) 526-7900 or visit beaches.lacounty.gov/concerts.