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The Prodigal Punk
30 years after X’s first records, Exene Cervenka, the Queen of L.A. Punk, is working as hard as ever and living a quiet life in Orange County. Did she change, or did the county?
A few minutes before midnight on a Thursday, Exene Cervenka is slicing through the sparse crowd to the stage at Costa Mesa’s Detroit Bar. Cervenka, a member of the legendary Los Angeles, punk band X, was supposed to begin her set at 11 p.m. or maybe it was 10-time can be fluid in rock ‘n roll. But the crowd doesn’t seem to mind. Another hour, another beer.
At first, no one recognizes the short woman in the calf-length black dress. But as the 54-year-old Cervenka nears the bright lights, a few in the audience begin to applaud, their support seeming to propel her up the step to the knee-high stage. She slips under the strap of an acoustic guitar, and turns and smiles out over the room. Her bright-red lipstick and red boots make Cervenka look, momentarily, like a dark candle burning at both ends. Somebody at the bar shouts, “We love you, Exene!” and a few fans clap and hoot in agreement.
There was a time, Cervenka believes, that if she had shown up with X at an Orange County club like this, the reception would have been very different. To paraphrase a movie title: There would have been blood. Orange County punks and Los Angeles punks were something like counterculture matter and antimatter, and the hard-core O.C. crews had no use for the roots/folk-influenced X.
“I really couldn’t come to Orange County because it was too violent down here,” Cervenka said a few days before the show. “The Orange County punks were the hard-core kids and they hated Hollywood and they hated the Hollywood bands. … It was not OK for me to be around those kids. They didn’t like me and they didn’t want me in their scene.”
It’s true, says longtime O.C. punk guitarist Rikk Agnew, who in those days was drifting among the Adolescents, Christian Death, and other hard-core bands. It was a personality clash fueled by the O.C. punkers’ sense that they were snubbed whenever they showed up at L.A. venues such as the Masque. “It was mainly artists, society rejects and misfits, and the artsy-type people scene in Hollywood,” says Agnew, who now plays with CD1334, an offshoot of Christian Death, and with The Furnace Punx. “The violence was chaotic, misdirected, and without control. ... It seemed normal to us.”
But that’s in the distant past. Like, a generation ago. In fact, it was 30 years ago this month that X’s first album, “Los Angeles,” helped propel the band from the L.A. underground into the national spotlight with a mix of punk attitude and roots rock. X wasn’t part of the fire-breathing, blood-drawing world of hard-core that was erupting around it. Like The Clash, X’s music has energy and lyrical integrity. Its songs have structure, and melodic hooks, but are rooted in folk traditions. Tattoos, yes. Spitting glass, no.
“There was a sort of drained-energy quality to her singing,” says. C.P. Smith, who wrote about some of those early X shows as a rock critic for The Orange County Register. “There was this emotional fatigue that came through that miraculously invested these songs with a lot of intensity.”
In a genre that gave release to a generation of energy, Cervenka served as a solitary anchor. No histrionics. No stage diving or leaning into the crowd with the microphone for a shout-along. “She wouldn’t move on stage very much,” Smith says. “She was somewhat slight, and very punked-out, looks-wise, with the makeup and the hair and a lot of eyeliner. … She was enigmatic, but a force of nature.”
Robert Hilburn, the longtime rock critic for the Los Angeles Times who watched the rise of X, says Cervenka “was at the heart of one of Los Angeles’ most inspiring music scenes” and who, like punk icon Patti Smith on the East Coast, “showed she could hold her own with the men. ... She brought both a fierce passion and poetic sensitivity to her songs and music that has stood as a model for decades. She’s not just one of the greatest female rockers, but one of the greatest musical figures, period.”
Things have changed from those raucous days. Punk has moved from rebellion to commodity. The originals are becoming nostalgia acts, the imitators are the scene-setters and, were it not for all the hair dye, this night’s crowd of 50-or-so fans would look like a battalion of Q-Tips. Mosh pit? Um, no.
Cervenka has changed, too. Age is rarely gentle, and in Cervenka’s case it has brought along multiple sclerosis, diagnosed nearly a year ago. She keeps on top of it with medication, and, so far, the mysterious degenerative disease hasn’t had much affect on her physically.
And she has settled, improbably, in Orange County after a four-year sojourn in rural Missouri where she pursued a whim to live “in a big stone house out in the middle of nowhere in the country with my husband, making music and art.” In fact, Cervenka’s band on The Detroit Bar stage looks like one from a Missouri country and western roadhouse, circa 1955. Cervenka is in her long black dress and the other guitar player, Frank Drennen, wears a black cowboy hat and black retro suit. Backup singer-and-percussionist Cindy Wasserman also wears a vintage dress. Acoustic bass guitar player David J. Carpenter is the only member who looks like he belongs to the current decade.
Which is fitting, because on this night, Cervenka bridges the past and the present. The audience is mostly longtime fans—few seem younger than 30. And Cervenka, who once feared walking into clubs like this, takes the stage not to sing songs for which she is best known, but songs closer to Hank Williams. Cervenka and the band open with “Somewhere Gone,” the title track of her most recent album, with its softly driving and enigmatic lyrics about a woman “swimming in the wind” and “somewhere gone … on that Memphis train.” She moves on to “Turning With the World,” then “Someday or Sunday.” The audience offers warm applause and shouted praise—not the hurled bottles and epithets that once marked punk shows.
It’s clear that Exene Cervenka feels at home.
A few days earlier, she had climbed into an elevated booth in Orange’s Filling Station, a spot she picked for our meeting because it’s near her house and because she likes the vibe of a diner in an old gas station with a patio where the pumps once stood. Inside, the décor is not quite retro, not quite modern. Not that different, when you think of it, from X’s music, or the stamp that Cervenka has put on her folk music.
She landed in Orange because “it feels like a small town. I like the architecture—it hasn’t been torn down.” She has longtime friends here, fellow admirers of art deco and art nouveau from a time when, she believes, pop style was more artful. Once she decided to quit Missouri, she stayed a few days with a friend in Orange and then found her own place. It’s the perfect spot for her—a small city with its own charm, and just a freeway drive from the musicians and recording studios of L.A.
In a sense, this is her second move west. Cervenka was born in rural Illinois, moved to Florida with her family when she was 14, then fled to Los Angeles in 1976 at age 20—just as punk was taking off. She fell in with a bunch of musicians in Venice—John Doe, whom she later married, Billy Zoom, and D.J. Bonebrake. As X, the band quickly became one of the linchpins of the L.A. scene, paying more attention to song structure than the testosterone-fueled bands Middle Class, Adolescents, and TSOL (True Sounds of Liberty) that cropped up in Orange County.
Cervenka and Doe eventually broke up, and she later married actor Viggo Mortensen, with whom she has a son, Henry. But that marriage dissolved, too. While Henry was growing up, she lived in Pacific Palisades where she cut back on her music to take a job as a teaching assistant at Henry’s school. “You don’t work as much on art when you’re a mom.”
After Henry graduated and went off to Columbia University in New York—he’s studying archeology and is in a band—Cervenka moved to a rural area outside Jefferson City, Mo. By then she was married to her third husband, fellow musician Jason Edge, and looking to live apart from the world for a while, free to write songs and poems without distraction. She found the house on the Internet “like you find everything else. … That’s how you find your dreams apparently these days.” But neither the marriage nor Missouri lasted.
“I had exhausted what Missouri was,” she says, adding that the isolation that drew her there eventually wore her down. Travel was a hassle. And she began missing collaborations with her wide network of musician friends in Southern California. “I didn’t want to be there anymore, and I didn’t want to be married anymore. So I came back. And I’m very happy that I did.”
It’s tempting to look at Cervenka and the rest of that early wave of punk as museum pieces. Her tattoos have faded and she’s thickened around the middle. As if having MS weren’t enough, mortality asserted itself last year with the suicide of musician Amy Farris, a close friend whose violin is featured on the “Somewhere Gone” album, including a haunting presence on “Willow Tree,” with it’s unintentionally predictive lyric, “Bury me beneath the willow, under the weeping willow tree.” A couple of weeks after Farris’ death, Brendan Mullen, owner of the old Masque punk club where X often performed, died of a stroke at age 60.
“I have a hard time talking about [Farris’ death],” Cervenka says. “She was a great friend, a great musician, a great singer, and we miss her a lot. … Then Brendan died on his birthday. You know, I just want to work harder. You get closer to your other friends and you pick up the pieces and go on.”
Death is different, too, when you and your friends are passing the half-century mark. It comes as less of a surprise. “First you lose people to drugs and accidents, then there’s a long period where everybody seems to be OK, and then the illnesses start and the Hepatitis C [from drug use], and the AIDS, and the alcoholism, and just old age,” Cervenka says. “Yeah, 60 years old, you can die of a stroke.”
Cervenka sees this as an impetus to create: “I like putting to rest the rumor that as you get older all your best work is behind you. I think Bob Dylan has proved that that’s not true.”
She still tours with X, and also has played with the roots-rock group The Knitters, the punk outfit Auntie Christ, and, most recently, The Original Sinners. She still writes music. “I thrill myself to death every time I write a song. It’s the best feeling in the world.” And she writes poetry. She hopes to publish it soon, but “everything keeps becoming a song.” A visual artist, her collages of discarded objects have been exhibited in several art shows, including one last year at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles.
“I’m probably working harder than ever right now, which I love,” she says. “Why would I want to slow down? I’m having the time of my life. … I just want to keep going as hard as I can.”
Missouri may have been a detour, a transition from motherhood back into life fully engaged as an artist. But the road back has brought her to Orange County, a place she once feared to tread. Which may mean, in the end, that the changes are as much about us as about Cervenka.
By Scott Martelle
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.