The big, sad news out of Camp X last week — the great Los Angeles punkabilly band X, that is —was that singer Exene Cervenka, 53, has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. But there was neither sign nor mention of infirmity at the quartet’s typically rocket-powered gig at the 9:30 club Friday night, and not a lot of other chithat besides. The seminal foursome played just as they always have, and as every punk band should: Like they’ve got someplace else to be, five minutes ago.
But where many of their imitators and acolytes are all abrasive crank, X’s velocity has never come at the expense of melody or form. They’re the Muhammad Ali of punk acts — strong, sure, but it’s their speed, grace, and quotability that makes them lethal and loveable. The explosive crunch of Billy Zoom’s surf guitar. The whipcrack precision of DJ Bonebreak’s drums. The hypnotic vocal interplay of singers Cervenka and John Doe, wherein he takes the high road and she takes the low — it all stirs into something as unique, fierce, funny, and hard to resist now as it must have been back when they dropped their note-perfect debut LP, Los Angeles.
Yeah, so there’s that. Though Cervenka and Doe both have solo careers, and X’s country-and-western alter ego The Knitters put a record out in 2005, the last year X released a set of new songs, Guns N’ Roses had an album out, too. No, not Chinese Democracy. It was 1993, savvy? The year of In Utero. The year of Enter the Wu Tang. The year of Exile in Guyville. A long time ago.
The hook for fans on this time was that they got to choose the setlist by voting for their favorite tunes on the band’s website. Thus the show was even more dominated by X’s unimpeachable first four albums circa 1980-3 than it’s been on their prior 21st century outings.
A problem? Not in the least. The dryness-in-face-of-bedlam sensibility of numbers like “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss” and “White Girl” has aged just fine. One omission though: Doe and Cervenka co-wrote a new song, “It Just Dawned on Me,” for the mostly-covers country album Doe released with Toronto’s The Sadies earlier this year. That one would have paired nicely with the Doe-Cervenka acoustic version of “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” that opened the second encore. Too bad they skipped it. Wasn’t even on the ballot.
Another thing: Zoom may be a smooth-faced, silver-maned Bill Clinton lookalike in his black motorcycle jacket, but he’s also a curious stage presence. His face betrays no concentration. He doesn’t stare at his shoes or his ax, like so many guitarists do. He gazes out at the crowd, beatific, throwing a wink when someone catches his eye.
But the timing of his facial expressions is a little off somehow. He doesn’t seem to blink often enough. The longer you look at him, the more he reminds you of the T-1000, the shape-shifting liquid metal villain played by Robert Patrick in the Greatest Film of All Time, James Cameron’s 1991’s apocalypse-contraception epic Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Zoom certainly didn’t look like he was sweating enough to make that guitar pick stick to his forehead for “Your Phone’s Off the Hook (But You’re Not).” Maybe he used pine tar. Hard to say.
One thing is certain: Though the members of X may now be touring for a living, they still play these songs for their lives.
Listen: Billy Zoom on Rolling Stone on The Ramones*
Listen: John Doe on how the band got its big “X” stage prop*
A shorter version of this review appears on Post Rock.
*Audio exceprts from W.T. Morgan’s fine documentary, X: The Unheard Music.
X at the 9:30 Club, Friday, June 5, 2009
01 In This House That I Call Home
02 We’re Desperate
03 Adult Books
04 Under the Big Black Sun
05 We’re Having Much More Fun
06 Sex and Dying in High Society
07 Year One
08 Burning House of Love
10 The Have-Nots
11 Los Angeles
12 True Love
13 I’m Coming Over
15 The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss
16 Beyond and Back
17 Riding with Mary
18 Johnny Hit and Run Pauline
20 Motel Room in My Bed
21 Devil Doll
22 Your Phone’s Off the Hook (But You’re Not)
23 Blue Spark
24 The New World
25 The Hungry Wolf
26 I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts (John and Exene only)
27 White Girl
28 Because I Do