Saturday, May 21, 2011

How Exene Cervenka Saved My Life

Last weekend, my inamorato and I sat down to watch the 1986 documentary X: The Unheard Music which I hadn't seen in well over twenty years. Back when I was a deeply alienated teenager, I saw it many, many times.

It was the weirdest thing. Aside from how much I love the band X, it was just like stepping into a time machine to the eighties. Let me just say right up front that few things are weirder and more off-putting to me than 80s nostalgia. It must have been how lots of people viewed the 70s nostalgia of the 90s, i.e. just baffling. The 80s were kind of the worst in a way, not miles away from living in these United States under Bush II. I think most people have forgotten or never knew.

It was the time of Iran-Contra, the first implementation of trickle-down economics, ketchup is a vegetable (when feeding children and the poor - so often the same thing) and the country, as whole seemed and felt culturally dead. In other words, a fine breeding ground for punk.

Exene Cervenka moved from Florida to Los Angeles in 1976 and formed X with John Doe (her soon to be husband whom she had met at a poetry workshop), Billy Zoom and D.J Bonebreak a year later. Their first four albums are all just great, all produced by Ray Manzarek from The Doors, and I had them all and played them again and again. My favorite has always been Under A Big Black Sun, their third.

Back in high school, I didn't have anywhere near the kind of money most of my classmates did. I mean, I couldn't compete with the mean little capitalist drones who sat in bio class with me, so eventually, and relievedly, I stopped trying. I wore clothes from thrift stores and yard sales (and there was some great stuff back then, believe me), my Mom's old clothes from up in the attic and my Dad's narrow lapeled suit jackets from the late 50s. I mostly stopped listening to Madonna and Duran Duran and began listening to stuff like X and The Cramps and The Replacements. Those first few REM albums and The B-52s and The Cure and The Velvet Underground and the (early) Clash records. And I began picking through my Mom's large and varied collection of LPs, stocked with folk and country and various oddities of all sorts.

Exene is a poet and a rock star and an artist right down to her bones and I worshipped her. I used to make all kinds of collages, and watching The Unheard Music, I wonder if I first started gluing stiff to paper because I saw her doing so in the film. Maybe. You can see at right a page from a more than 20 year old notebook. I don't remember where I found that picture of Exene. From Interview Magazine maybe? Way back in the early 90s she collaborated on a book called Just Another War about the first Gulf War. Henry Rollins published it on his press and I saw her on her book tour in '92. I was so thrilled to see her.

In some ways I feel she is the last of the true believers. She still writes and sings and wears thrift store clothes. She has a son in his early 20s who she had with ex-husband Viggo Mortensen (the amount of street cred he garnered when I found out he had been married to Exene for ten years is pretty much incalculable) . I just read she's been diagnosed with MS, which is just heartbreaking, and is likely why I haven't hear much from her recently.

I realize I've been writing a lot about people who have a very particular LA folk aesthetic. If I was to classify it, I would say it's a mix of old time Hollywood, punk rock, Mexican Folk Art and The Great American West. X's aesthetic falls somewhere in this too. I can't remember off hand if they are name checked in Weetzie Bat, but I think they might be. I'm a New York girl through and through, but there's something about the myth of California that's always appealed to me. When I was growing up in suburban NY, it saved me to know there were other places out there even if they were fictional: Narnia, Middle Earth, Old Hollywood, whatever. It was mysterious and glamorous and unattainable.

So, yeah, I don't know. I don't know if Exene Cervenka actually saved my life. But sometimes it sure as hell felt like it.

Photo: Jim Jocoy, We're Desperate

1 comment:

Kooosh said...

Nice little blog on your X recollections. I stumbled upon this looking up pictures of Exene. :D