Dream On, White Girl
As punk rock began its path of destruction westward from its English birthplace, it arguably gravitated to three poles, each with its attendant aesthetics and hangups. First, of course, was London, with its up-yours-Thatcher sneer and obsession with simmering class warfare. No need to state (but we will anyway) that the Sex Pistols were responsible for bringing that to the international stage. The initial New York sound was the glue-happy grunge of the Ramones, drawing more on garage rock and greaser doo-wop than the violent staccato of pogo dance violence. Finally, there was L.A. Where the Pistols started the thread of examining the pretty but vacant, L.A. punks grabbed the end and ran with it. More distinguishable by lyrics than necessarily by sonics, they railed against the superficiality, the lazy nihilism, and the transience of their (often adopted) hometown.
Among the front runners of this group was X, the brainchild of the similarly anonymous bassist/main songwriter John Doe and frontwoman/firebrand Exene Cervenka. England had a few powerful women on the scene, such as Polly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. In New York, with the exception of Patti Smith, they were pretty much invisible. But on the left coast, Cervenka had attitude to spare. In her trademark baby-doll dresses and big, bright red hair, she owned the naughty-nice vibe in a way the riot grrls of the 1990s could only hope to emulate.
More than just a cute face with a loud voice, though, Cervenka possessed a prowess with words that transcended three-minute rock songs. Her lyrical contributions approached poetry, featuring stream-of-consciousness scenes of sun-bleached skid row. For example, see "We're Desperate": "We're desperate/Get used to it/It's kiss or kill/Coca-Cola and a Motorola/Kitchen Naugahyde and a tie-dye T-shirt/Last night everything broke." Cementing her reputation was X's appearance in The Decline of Western Civilization, a documentary by Penelope Spheeris that charted the L.A. punk scene of 1979 and 1980.
Still, as much as Cervenka is identified with L.A., she was bred closer to our hometown than we Miami readers might think. Although born in Chicago, she spent most of her teenage years, from ages fourteen to twenty, in St. Petersburg. After that was a short stint in Tallahassee. In fact her choice of L.A. over New York wasn't owed to any qualitative deliberation.
"As you can imagine, in 1976 Tallahassee was a pretty rough place for a punk rocker," Cervenka says, "so I had to leave. Some of my friends in St. Pete were going to New York, and some were going to California. At the time, I was having a problem with my sister's husband, and they lived in New York, so I picked L.A. I didn't really know anything about it."
Regardless of those formative years in Florida, the ensuing years in California perhaps wiped out any sentimental attachment to the Sunshine State. "To me it's just another place," she says. "There's nothing good or bad about it on a personal level. Florida's cool."
Maybe it's because Cervenka's tenure in L.A. lasted way beyond the first of many hiatuses for X. And even though her work chastises the city's focus on surface over substance, it seems to have provided fertile ground for her creative output. There she engaged in ongoing poetic and spoken-word collaborations, most notably with friend Lydia Lunch. Cervenka's first solo album, Old Wives' Tales, appeared in 1989, and Running Sacred quickly followed in 1990.
Her career has seen a dizzying array of band projects first the regrouping of X and then side projects like Auntie Christ, the Knitters, and the Original Sinners. She has also published three books, including Just Another War, a collection of Gulf War photos for which she provided commentary. A retrospective of her visual works was shown in 2005 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and then later in New York. But despite all of this success, as in one of X's songs, Cervenka finally had to leave Los Angeles for rural Missouri, of all places. "When it's time to get out of L.A., it's already past the time to get out of L.A.," she explains. "I was just waiting for my son to graduate. So now my husband and my son and I all have a nice big farm to make art and music in."
The move is surprising, considering the length of time the City of Angels served Cervenka's purposes. "Old L.A. is different from new L.A.," she says. "It's really crowded. It's really soft and proud and annoying. New Hollywood is all these Lindsay Lohan-wannabe-type people."
But weren't Hollywood and its machinations an integral part of her poetic landscape?
"Sure, but I'm not twenty and I'm not interested anymore," Cervenka counters. "Yeah, with X we were writing about rock stars and limousines. Everything we hated was right there for us to write about. That's what you need as a young artist. But you can't write the same thing over and over, and that's what was happening in L.A. What was I going to do, write that first album [X's Los Angeles, 1980] again?" Not that the move to Missouri has constituted putting herself out to a figurative pasture. With the exception of Auntie Christ, Cervenka continually resuscitates her various side projects to fit her purpose.
This Saturday's performance at Churchill's is part of a tour for the Original Sinners, supporting the group's second album, Se7en. The Knitters rambled through roots rock and proto-country sounds; the Sinners continue along this path, but with a harder, more straight-up punk edge. The choice of touring or recording with one or the other is basically serendipitous for Cervenka, who ends projects based on intuition.
"It's hard to talk about art," she says. "It should exist in and of itself. It really shouldn't have to be explained. People will figure it out when they come to our show."
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