X: Sex and Dying in High Society

Veteran singer Exene Cervenka considers three decades with the punk band X

Fixated with fire and brimstone, exile and redemption, Exene Cervenka's songs are on par with any of Flannery O'Connor's best fiction. "I grew up Catholic," says the X vocalist, an avid collector of icons, tract books, and kitschy religious ephemera. "I just think icons are interesting. For some people, icons are actors or movie figures or athletes—and my icons are religious. There's a lot of power and a lot of beauty and a lot of history in it. I mean, [religion] is one of the most powerful things on the planet, from goddess figurines to the Catholic church down the street. That's pretty powerful stuff."

As leaders of the first-wave Los Angeles punk scene that coalesced around the legendary club the Masque, X was, curiously, once classified by many as a hardcore band—"hardcore" being used as the adjectival prefix for punk, the punkest punk. But the members of X never intended to be just another punk band. Their debut album, Los Angeles, is still one of the bleakest and scariest albums ever made, ranking up there on the terror scale with the music of Suicide, The Doors, Throbbing Gristle, or anything issued from the spleen of Lydia Lunch. Musically, X was (and is) an amalgam of Ramones power chords, rockabilly, blues, and country, oftentimes performed at death-defying speeds. Accompanied on vocals and bass by creative partner John Doe, Cervenka's bestial wail works in counterpoint to the band's crash and burn, approximating what the gospel music of eternal damnation might sound like at an altar call for hell.

"I feel [about Los Angeles] the same way I felt about it every step of the way," Cervenka says resolutely. "I'm proud of it and I love playing it."

The band has mellowed in its artistic progression. With each subsequent album, the prescription of chainsaw guitars and homicidal lyrics ebbed in favor of a roots-music sound and lyrics that, while still on the dark side, are somewhat more empathetic and user-friendly. In other words, the band's work has evolved from suicide anthems and exhortations of spiritual sadomasochism to kinder, gentler heartland murder ballads.

After a hiatus of a decade or so, X reemerged in 2000 and has toured consistently since. As a reunited entity, the band has yet to record any new material.

"We're kind of slow," Cervenka says. The band will likely record before the year's close for an Internet-only release. "X doesn't need a record label," Cervenka adds.

While each member of the band plays an integral and essential role, Doe and Cervenka are its focal points. Married in the 1970s, the duo continued their collaboration after a divorce in the mid-'80s.

"We're soulmates, John and me," Cervenka says. "It was pretty difficult, pretty painful. We should have taken a break. That's a regret that I have in life—and I don't have a lot of regrets. I wish we hadn't have made Ain't Love Grand"—the band's much-maligned 1985 release. "I wish we had just taken a break for about two or three years, sorted out our lives, and then figured out whether to work together or not—we would've, eventually, gotten back together to work. But we just couldn't interrupt our process because we'd been working together since we'd met. And it was really difficult for us to let go of each other at all, you know?"

Interestingly, Cervenka recently left Los Angeles, just like the protagonist in the title track of X's debut, and settled in rural Missouri. Although she's reluctant to elaborate on her move, the relocation seems to have yielded good effects for the singer. She looks great and has been delivering her best performances in years.

"Los Angeles is a very crowded city—a very big and sprawling place that I lived in for 30 years," she says. "That was plenty of time to devote to that kind of lifestyle. Now I've moved somewhere small and interesting and it's a different way. I'll probably move on again. But for right now that's where I am."

Does this mean that the post-millennial Exene Cervenka has somehow found her own sense of redemption? Not exactly.

"I'm very spiritual, yeah," she says. "What I mean by that is that my life has a spiritual basis to it. Do I go to the Catholic Church? No. I believe in the power of religion, but I also believe that the downside of it is really bad, too."

As an icon in her own right, Cervenka feels a debt of gratitude to her followers. "I think that when you become an artist or a singer or anything like that, people are going to look up to you or have their own vision of who you are. When those people come up to you and tell you that you changed their lives, that better be taken very seriously. I take all that stuff extremely serious—and I'm very grateful for every person that has anything to say about what I've done. I'm extremely grateful to be of service to people and to make a difference in their lives, hopefully for the good, you know? I think it's the most important part of what I do."