Music Matters: We're Desperate, It's Kiss or Kill

My time with you is winding down, Bitch readers. I will miss you! But I’ve still got a few posts in me.

I’ve written about a lot of the women (and men) who have, for lack of a better word, inspired me. Voices and images and guitar, bass, and drum licks that kept me going, made me work harder, blurred out the bad things and come along with me for the good.

I could write for a year and not do any of them the justice they deserve, and there are lots of them that won’t make it here—some I meant to cover and didn’t because things happened and drove me in other directions, and others I remembered just recently. There are thousands of stories in my life that are connected to music, and probably even more critical lenses with which to focus on a particular song, video, album, performer.

But I’ve got my last post planned for you already, and so that leaves me with the open space today. And really, only one option that I simply can’t miss.

(“We’re Desperate.” Lyrics here.)

That would be X, obviously, if you hadn’t guessed from the title. Or if you had the misfortune of being too young or in the wrong place or just not exposed to the wonder that is Exene, John, Billy, and D.J.

I grew up on the East Coast and I was too young myself for X anyway, but I stumbled onto them in the height of my punk rock/rockabilly phase. Surrounded by boys at every turn, I clung to the ladies I found: Siouxsie Sioux, Poison Ivy from the Cramps. And then Exene Cervenka. At about the same time as I bought my first X album—Los Angeles, obviously—I found a spoken-word CD of Exene and Lydia Lunch in a used record store and listened to it on a road trip, glorying in the spooky-political words, the way they slid from poetry to polemic and back again, playing with each other, threatening and toying with the audience.

In the band, Exene and John Doe, first married, then divorced and still bandmates some thirty years later, play off each other as well. In the early videos you can see the tension between them, the movie-star handsome guy with the dark pompadour and the tiny girl in thrift-store layers, snarling into a mic. She wasn’t pretty, wasn’t going to play sexy, but she was magnetic.

Like Patti Smith, Exene was a poet first before someone else convinced her to try music. But while Patti has always dominated her band, Exene fell into a perfect mix—her and John, singing together, each song a conversation, playing out their relationship’s ups and downs in public, over the pounding, throbbing yet oddly melodic rock churned out by two of punk’s best: Billy Zoom on guitar and D.J. Bonebrake on drums.

X was a band, not a collection of backup musicians for someone’s massive ego, and though I related to the tiny dark-haired woman with witchy makeup and bangs in her face, dancing jerkily like a manic doll and gloriously atonal, I loved all of them.

Years later, I spoke to John Doe for the music site I worked for, and I dared him to name an American band that was better than his. American music often seems to operate on a cult of the individual, while the great collectives and partnerships that come to mind are often British (or Canadian).

But there’s something magic in X, even now, as they still play together and actually appear to enjoy each other, after a divorce and several solo albums and even Billy Zoom’s departure (he was replaced for a time by Dave Alvin, who deserves his own recognition for his own amazing career and for writing one of my favorite X songs, “Fourth of July”) and eventual return. So many bands have gotten back together in recent years, churning out a tour or a mediocre record, giving each other dirty looks onstage and off while raking in the cash, that it’s a rare joy to see a band that I should’ve missed out on come back together regularly and play shows that still seem joyous.

I’m often the first one to insist that musicians don’t owe us anything—creating art in a society like ours that does very little to support it is at once a selfless and selfish act, and I’m grateful for anyone willing to take the plunge and make the effort. And I remain especially grateful to bands that carried me forward not just with great music, but with an all-too-rare honesty that never ages.

(“See How We Are,” which is not only a great song but a great video. Lyrics here.)

by Sarah Jaffe
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

I saw X (as The Knitters --

I saw X (as The Knitters -- Dave Alvin was with them) a few years ago and they were pretty amazing. One of my biggest concert-going regrets is not seeing X with The Replacements opening for them back in the mid-80s (but I was ten or eleven and still listening to Wham!). I always felt a little guilty preferring the songs in which John sings lead rather than Exene, but his voice is undeniably versatile, moving from rock to country seamlessly.

Yesssss so much love for X.

Yesssss so much love for X. Wild Gift is my favorite X album, solid the whole way through. And Exene is still kicking ass.

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