For angry young females seeking truth and identity through the smoggy haze of late ‘70s Los Angeles, Exene Cervenka was something to behold. I think I first saw her onstage with X at the Whiskey A Go-Go, but as it is for most aging punk rock party people, memory is as spotty as the beer- and DNA-splattered clothes we woke up in.
Up until that point, my rock idols had been mostly men. There was Janis, but much of the molten lifeforce that erupted from her diaphragm was extinguished by her sheer brokenness. I had yet to appreciate Patti Smith, leaning more toward the butch rock of Chrissy Hynde or Joan Jett, but Cervenka — starkly feminine and fragile as she sometimes appeared — was untouchable.
Goddess of the L.A. scene, in her vintage dresses with Bakelite bracelets rattling like maracas and her fuck-off, disheveled hair framing that anemic, silent film-star face — the drama of her visage alone commanded respect.
Cervenka’s singing style, both passionate and verging on exasperation, was the antithesis of what was becoming commercially successful at the time. Where upbeat, flirty cheerleader vocals à la the Go Go’s or the Waitresses were striking a chord with the side pony tail types, the shrieky boredom of Cervenka’s tone literally gave voice to the detachment we messier folk seemed sort of unified around. And then there were her harmonies with lover and songwriting partner John Doe — so wrong and so right all at the same time.
When X released its second album, Wild Gift, in 1981, the praise was deafening. Named record of the year by Rolling Stone magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Village Voice, it put L.A. punk rock on the map and the band on the radar of every major label looking for the next thing. But, as is often the case when a band finally signs, it signaled the end of an era, both for the band and the scene. That’s not to say X didn’t continue to make great records, just that everything has a shelf life and a maturation process. True to their roots in American music, members of X went on to pioneer alt-country by forming the Knitters. Doe and Cervenka eventually split up (she later married and divorced actor Viggo Mortensen), formed various solo projects and followed other pursuits. X still tours from time to time.
Unlike many of her contemporaries and fortunately for her fans, Cervenka is an artist. As such, she is compelled to create, continually evolving her oeuvre — whether it’s visual, literary or musical.
Currently touring U.S. record stores, Cervenka will perform at Buffalo Records, laden with songs from her new record, Somewhere Gone, books of her art and the autographed vintage aprons she collects, wears and shares as a statement of liberation. I had the pleasure of speaking with her from the road recently.
VCReporter: When you met John Doe at a Beyond Baroque poetry workshop, I imagine fronting a band wasn’t top of mind.
Exene Cervenka: It was not. It was the farthest thing from my mind. I was familiar with the history of music, somewhat, and I had a Patti Smith record and a Ramones record, but it was 1976 and I moved there to escape Florida because I had a friend there. That’s the only reason I moved to California. I was a writer and went to this poetry workshop that was amazing. It was John’s first night and my first night — same night.
Yeah, afraid so.
VCR: Did you resist the idea?
I didn’t really understand what being in a band meant, and I had written a song called “I’m Coming Over,” the words and the melody. And then John said he would put music to it and I said it already has music, and he said it has a melody but it doesn’t have music, and I would say the melody is the music, and we would just argue about things like that all the time. He wanted to do it in X, which wasn’t named X yet, it was he and Billy [Zoom] and a drummer, whoever it was at the time. I just told him that I thought if he wanted my words and music that I would be the one singing it, not him, because why would I give him my songs? I would just start my own band.
VCR: Did performing feel natural?
No, of course not. How could it be?
VCR: Were you reading poetry at the time?
That’s the scariest art of all. Poetry is like telling your secrets and hoping to get applause — it’s a crazy thing to do.
VCR: The early days of punk rock in L.A. were artistically rich. There was so much originality and self expression. Is there any kind of cultural movement today that compares?
No. What’s interesting to me is the hippies, beatniks and punks were all in a really compressed amount of time — 20 years. And since then, 30 years passed and there’s been nothing that compares to any of those movements artistically or politically. I think the Save the Earth movement is probably going to get a lot stronger worldwide. Activists in general, I think, are going to be the next cultural movement, social movement. But whatever music goes with that, it could be anything. It’s not like it’s going to spawn its own musical form. It’s already a folk thing, and it’s already a punk rock thing. It crosses all the spectrums. Everything is kind of all over the place and everything borrows from the past. There’s 60 years of rock ’n’ roll to borrow from.
VCR: Your aesthetic has always been a sort of pastiche of old and new. What is it about bygone eras that attracts you?
That’s a good perception, and I think a lot of intelligent people are. The arts and crafts movement, the impressionist movement, the turn of the century, the ‘20s, ‘30, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s were all amazing times aesthetically. Fashion was amazing, people were creative. It was a freer time for sure. I like to live in that mindset, that period. I don’t like the ‘90s and the [2000s] and the way the world looks now. I don’t like the fact that nature’s going away, the small towns are disappearing and everything looks the same everywhere in the country. I like the idea of a small town that’s not homogenous and that’s regional still; which is a reason I still love traveling so much because when I can find that, it makes me so happy. It’s like I’m in another time. I’ve never been comfortable in the present, and I started when I was, like, 12 — wearing vintage clothes in the ‘60s. My sister and I used to go and get overalls at thrift stores, in the Midwest. I grew up in rural Illinois, and we would ride our bikes to thrift stores and get Western belts and overalls from the ‘30s and ‘40s for, like, 50 cents, and we would wear that stuff, and people just hated us.
VCR: Do you have anything left from those days?
I have very little of my childhood or those years, but I do have some things, mostly pictures or things I bought at thrift stores, rather than clothes, because I wore my clothes to pieces. We would have 1920s beaded dresses, and the next morning you’d pick it up and it would just be in shreds. It’d be like, “Oh, well, I got one night out of it.”
(Laughs.) It was like a dress that would be thirteen thousand dollars now, but it was from the dump, literally.
VCR: You seem to have never compromised your authenticity as an artist. How do you maintain your artistic integrity?
It’s impossible to maintain that 100 percent. Because you’re working with people, so you are going to compromise. I might go along with what the band wants, or I might go along with what the record company wants, or what a friend thinks I should do in a song, or another musician, because I think it’s the best idea. But I have people who work with me and for me who help me do all that, and I can concentrate more on being an artist that way. Those compromises can also get out of hand sometimes.
VCR: If it becomes a sellout.
Yeah, because people say, “If you don’t do this, you can’t have that,” and then you say, “OK.” And then they say, “Now if you can’t have this, you don’t get that.” And then you go, “Well, now I’m really fucked, so OK . . ..” But that happens only rarely in a career like mine; it happened one or two times and it will never happen again.
VCR: It’s been more than 25 years since you recorded “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss.” Is the world still a mess?
My world is not. The world is. That’s what the song’s about.
VCR: Do you feel hopeful?
No. I don’t feel hopeful. I lived long enough to see a lot of events in the world, and a lot of things come and go, but I do see a steady decline in the earth itself as far as sustainability. The economic situation is worse than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I think people feel betrayed and terribly scared. I don’t see an end to that anytime soon.
We’re going to reach a tipping point soon with the planet, as far as irreversible damage. I don’t think we’re there yet, and that’s the only reason I’m slightly hopeful. We live in the United States where they keep us in this news bubble of what’s important, but if you go to a Mexican news station, or the BBC, or Canada, or wherever you travel, they focus on completely different things, like the Green Party making a bid for parliament. So it’s changing, maybe for the better, and I also think there’s an amazing generation or two, or three, coming up right now that are an enlightened group. A lot of really good cultural and political things are going to come out of these people.
VCR: So the apathy has run its course?
I don’t think there can be apathy when you’re 12 years old right now, and you see what the world is like. Apathy was for my generation or the generation after me. Now it’s like a desperate kind of last ditch thing.
Exene Cervenka (with Heather Rae opening), Thursday, April 22, 6 p.m. at Buffalo Records, 92 S. Laurel St., Ventura, 648-3345.