Photo Credit: Frank Gargani
“The place of x is the first motionless boundary of the thing that contains x.”
—Aristotle (Physics IV c. 4, 212a20–21)
X formed the year Elvis Presley died.
In 1977, rock and roll was barely 25 years old, and X was far from the first band whose identity was inextricably tied to its location. Nor was it the first band to be linked to Los Angeles, nor even, to exacerbate the point, the first punk band to be so joined. Black Flag had formed a year earlier; The Germs, the same year. Even so, out of the hundreds of Southern California bands that were formed in the 1970s, it remains X that, for fate or fault, still holds the key to the city.
Other musicians had previously called bullshit on California dreamin’, but X’s take was more poetic, more thoughtful. The L.A. that X inhabited was confusing and claustrophobic, anything but the self-defined land of zen and zinfandel. The city itself was in the midst of an an identity crisis, best evidenced by the open-ended sloganeering of the “L.A.’s the Place!” campaign, which kicked off in 1980—the same year X released its debut album, Los Angeles.
The record came out on Apr. 26, 1980. Eleven days earlier, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre—whose adage “Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you” fits nicely alongside any number of X compositions—had died. The day before, an anti-Iran novelty song, featuring the lyrics “Bomb Iran” and set to the tune of The Regents’ “Barbara-Ann,” hit the airwaves in Anchorage, AK to thunderous applause and thousands of request calls.
The same week, grocery store chain Giant Food issued a recall of its Sudsy dish detergent because it was producing too many suds. Eight months later, Darby Crash would be dead from suicide, John Lennon would be murdered, and Ronald Reagan would be elected President of the United States. There's no straight line here, but art isn't created in a vacuum, and this was the world from and into which X was born.
It's difficult to state definitively when the term “cow-punk” started being bandied about. But for all its faults, the rockabilly and Western styles that X incorporated (John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s dual male/female vocals, Billy Zoom's rumbling guitar, D.J. Bonebrake's bass-and-tom rhythms) found easy sanctuary in the term. The further the band got away from its debut, the more this sound was amplified, even as it occasionally dipped into tunes that were prima facie incongruous for those wanting to box them in (the doo-wop of “Come Back to Me,” the Flamenco-esque guitar in “Adult Books”).
By the time the group released Ain't Love Grand in 1985 See How We Are two years later, The Blasters’ Dave Alvin having replaced Zoom, nearly all traces of its original potent punk-’n’-poke mixture were gone. 1993’s Hey Zeus! remains utterly forgettable, devoid of even bad personality. X’s je ne sais quoi is best exhibited on its first four records: the aforementioned Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World. All four were produced by The Doors' Ray Manzarek.
Speaking of The Doors, any honest assessment of X’s music must absolutely contemplate the connection, via landscape, between the two groups. The best example is how the personification of the city in The Doors' “L.A. Woman”—a magnificent beauty desperate to be saved from loneliness—is answered unintentionally but fully by Los Angeles’ title track. Here, the city is a horror story full of reflexive racism and escape, filling its protagonist with only regret, not relief. But as terrifying as X’s storytelling can be—just listen to “Johnny Hit And Run Paulene”—the band is also savagely funny (“I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts”), brutally dark (“Sex and Dying in High Society”) and paranoid (“The Hungry Wolf”).
Ironically, though there's little joy (but plenty of enjoyment) to be found in X's music, the band's live shows are cathartic, enthusiastic occasions. After two hiatuses, the group has been on the road regularly since 2008. Yet the modern version of X (Zoom, who is battling cancer, is sadly absent from the group's current tour) doesn’t feel like a nostalgia act, because none of its music is out of date. It's endured decades of shifting popular tastes but never seems to age.
And everything the group ever wrote could have just as easily been informed by the tragedy, terror and banality of our current century—both in and, of course, way beyond the city limits of Los Angeles. Take these lyrics in “The World's a Mess; It's in My Kiss”: “No one is united/ All things are untied/ Perhaps we're boiling over inside/ They've been telling lies/ Who's been telling lies?… The world's a mess.”
WHO: X, Dead Rock West
WHERE: Georgia Theatre
WHEN: Tuesday, Sept. 8, 7:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $22