“Legendary” is a word that is thrown around a lot these days, especially by lazy music writers. This singer is a folk legend, and that guitar player is a rock legend. (And we’ve not even counting John Legend.)
However, the worst offender, by far, is the wording “punk-rock legend.” It seems like anyone who has ever shredded a T-shirt and worn safety pins as an accessory is automatically considered a “punk-rock legend,” whether or not he or she even played music, much less punk rock.
But as overused and undervalued as this term is, there is no more succinct phrase to describe Exene Cervenka. Because if anyone is a punk-rock legend, it is Cervenka, one of the founding members of X—the band that more than any other defined the Los Angeles punk and post-punk scene of the 1970s and ’80s.
Cervenka moved to L.A. in 1976 to escape Florida, she says, with vague plans to be a writer and an artist. Within weeks, she met and began dating John Doe, who was playing music with guitarist Billy Zoom. Shortly thereafter, Cervenka was added to the lineup, followed by drummer D.J. Bonebrake.
“I was an anti-singer, because back then, punk rock didn’t mean anything violent or stupid,” Cervenka says on the phone while hanging out in Austin, Texas, in between her scheduled shows at the SXSW music festival. “It was about love and intelligence and free thinking and fighting the corporation and that kind of stuff. It was about anti-stardom, anti-rock-star shit, so we had two singers, and I was the anti-singer. That was my style. Because I was 20.
“Frankly that was all I could do,” she adds. “I hadn’t learned how to sing.”
But in the past 35 years, Cervenka has learned to sing. Her new album, The Excitement of Maybe (Bloodshot Records), is a collection of love songs, and Cervenka sounds much more like a country-western chanteuse—think Neko Case—than the punk diva she still is. (There was a always a twang underlying much of X’s best work, so Cervenka’s vocal evolution does make sense.)
The album covers the ups and downs of a love affair. “Look in my eyes, I hope you can see/I’ve fallen for you/Have you fallen for me?” she sings in “Falling.” On the next song, “I Wish It Would Stop Raining,” she says, “My heart’s been broke a lot of times, but this time I broke my soul.”
“Love songs are really super-important,” Cervenka says. “I think my next record will definitely be broader in scope, but I didn’t want to mix [it] up. Sometimes I like to integrate the political and the romantic, but sometimes you just want to send one pure thing out.”
Many of the songs are bittersweet—sad songs that sound happy, wry songs that make you listen twice. “It’s late, it always is/Girl groups and drugs/It’s only Tuesday night, but I’m already in love,” Cervenka sings on “Already in Love,” a song about falling in love too quickly, despite one’s best intentions.
The Excitement of Maybe sounds like a break-up album to this reporter’s experienced ears. But, perhaps long sick of publicized relationships after her divorces from Doe in 1985 and actor Viggo Mortensen in 1997, Cervenka declines comment.
“I wrote those songs for my own reasons, at my own time, and they’re now not mine anymore, they’re [for] whoever hears them,” she says. “So whoever they’re about, it’s about you, and who you’re in love with or who broke your heart or whatever. It’s not about me.”
Yet as a solo album, the songs are indeed about Cervenka—her voice, her guitar, her driving herself across the country on tour.
“It’s more freedom and more responsibility,” Cervenka says about touring solo and not with a band. “And then when you get on stage, you’ve got no one but you. And that, that’s huge. It’s a good thing to do, though. It makes you a much better artist.”
Cervenka says she also thrives on the intimacy that comes from playing small clubs and doing brief, free performances at record stores.
“You’re not reaching huge audiences, you don’t have all that—luxury tour buses and nice hotels,” she says. “But you do get so much back from it that it kind of feeds you when people come to the show. That’s what sustains you. You know, people don’t talk about this much, but at the level where I operate, I depend on people to keep me going. I don’t work for a corporation, I don’t have job security, I don’t have insurance, I don’t have any of that. All I have is the people that come to my shows and listen to my music and appreciate what I do. I depend on those people—and I’m super-grateful to them, because it’s the best life I could have ever had.”