Q&A: Exene Cervenka of X
"There were a couple of little arguments in the audience last night that we had to break up," Cervenka recently said via telephone from an Arizona hotel.
"You don't expect that. You don't know how it's going to turn out. But there was this little argument between these two women up front. I went over and talked to them and they worked it out. What do you expect from a show? You don't know. That was something that stood out for me from that show. There was a conflict; I had to help resolve it. They had to resolve it and they did. Then the show went on. They didn't get kicked out and everything was fine."
X is on its annual run of holiday shows billed "Xmas Rock 'n' Roll Revival," in which the original four X band members are joined by gospel duo Sean Wheeler and Zander Schloss, and rock 'n' roll rebels The Black Tibetans. The jaunt wraps up in San Francisco on New Year's Eve.
The year 2011 marks the 31st anniversary of X's debut album, "Los Angeles." However, the year is of double importance to the band -- which includes vocalist Cervenka, vocalist/bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake -- because X also is feting the 26th birthday of the rockumentary "X: The Unheard Music." In the fall, the band screened the film in its entirety before it hit the stage, and then played, track by track, the "Los Angeles" album.
Cervenka spoke to SoundSpike about the celebration revolving around "Los Angeles," X's tour with Pearl Jam, and her well-documented off and on diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
SoundSpike: How did your tour go with Pearl Jam in South America?
Exene Cervenka: I think that after touring with Pearl Jam in South America for 11 shows in three-and-a-half weeks, I think we're a better band. I think X is a great band, I say that collectively. I think DJ, John and Billy are fantastic. I know it's a great band. Here's the thing: The energy level down there is so tremendous and people are so supportive en masse of anything individual that you're gonna do. It's not like they all want to mosh together, or they all want to look alike or this is the big new band, "Let's go see the big new band." They didn't know who we were and they responded to us really great. They just loved music. When an audience is like that, you'll put on the best show of your life. What you can expect from us is a pretty good show. But the rest is up the audience.
This year, you're celebrating the 31st anniversary of "Los Angeles." Why did you celebrate 31, instead of, say, 30 years?
Well, we did that too. At the age of 52, I celebrate everything, honey. I celebrate my birthday from the day before to the whole month. My birthday is on Feb. 1. Someone told me once, "If you're born on the first, you get to celebrate the whole month." I celebrate everything. All my friends, everything. All the kids, everything. That's the way we should live. That's the answer I guess.
Does being ill kind of bring about that philosophy?
Here's the thing: About 15 years ago I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I didn't really want to accept that. I went to another doctor and he gave me a diagnosis that I didn't have it. This went on for about 12 years. Back and forth. Because I get weird symptoms and they can't quite figure out what they are. Finally, I got diagnosed in Missouri and I just accepted it. Went on medication, then I ran out of insurance and I couldn't afford the medication. So I just stopped taking it. Found a new doctor, he said, "Yes, you have it" and then said, "No you don't." It just goes on like this with these illnesses. Anyway, I'm with a new doctor now. He's, like, really an amazing doctor and he's seeing me for free. He says you got something going on, but it's not that. The short answer/long answer, I've had mystery ailments for a long time that seem neurological. Once I came out and said this I had this MS thing, I had so many people I didn't know come to me and so many marvelous ways. I met so many people with MS. [I talked] to them and spent time with them and got to know them a little. I met a lot of women who have a mystery illness like me, where they can't get diagnosed. It's MS, no it's not MS. It's this. It's not that. Oh it's this. It's not that. Oh it's fibromyalgia. No it's not that. No it's MS. I'm finding there's a whole bunch of women younger than me that are having some sort of weird neurological thing. I think it's something new that they're not able to diagnose. Possibly an environmentally caused issue. It's really sad. We don't have health insurance. If I had health insurance, I could give you a real easy answer to that question. I could just say, "Yeah, I've got it" or "No, I don't." "Yeah I'm all right. I'm on meds." But I can't answer it that way. It's a mystery I have to solve on my own with my friends and a doctor who won't charge me and maybe I'll have an answer for you.
It sounds like a frustrating battle.
You can't get frustrated because if you get frustrated then that's exactly what you're supposed to be doing to make you ineffectual. It's like fear, hate, anger, all those negative emotions, all those desperate feelings, all that down side of life, the powers that be want us to feel that way. So I purposely don't. They feed on fear. What am I going to do? I don't have insurance? I'm going to die? What's going to happen to me? It's like, then have a God damn benefit. Call up your friends and have a bake sale. I don't know. You're probably right. You're going to die because it costs $150,000 to go to the fucking doctor. But we have to fight back in a positive way.
There are a lot of people who would just feel defeated.
You might as well check yourself into a FEMA camp at that point, man. What's going to happen, if you allow them to defeat you because that's what it is, it's people pressing on you: "No you can't have insurance, I'm going to tax you on this. I'm going to tax you on that. You can't get married." All these things are being denied to us. You can't protest. You have to go to the free speech zone. You can't even get a letter from your congressman back anymore. That's what they want. They're doing it on purpose. The thing to do is walk through the field with a basket on your arm picking daisies and pretend that's where you are. You just gotta get through it. The only real way to get through it is for everyone to share that sentiment. Then it becomes a happy, joyous revolution, rather than a miserable life. Music is a great force, whether it's X or anybody. When you see it bring people together in a way where they're exchanging energy with each other and expressing this kind of joy, this is a great spectacle. I can't believe this diamond vision, and all these dancers. This is fantastic. I'm being lulled into a new level of brain washing. But the thing is -- when you feel that energy from people you see them expressing -- that it gives me hope. Whether they're coalescing around Pearl Jam, or they're coalescing around a cause, they have the energy. They have the connection with each other, they're sharing already. All they have to do is focus energy on their own survival. Young people. They'll be all right.
Back to "Los Angeles"; what do you think now when you look back on the making/writing of that album?
I have mixed emotions about it, about my whole life. I mean, everybody does. Again, you cannot look back. You cannot say, "Oh man, that was so stupid. What an idiot. I can't do that." You just look at it and say, "Wow, that was a lesson." "Wow, I've come a long way." Because if you don't, you're going to fail. But I think "Los Angeles" is a really interesting album because when punk started in the early days, there was a lot of rejection of corporate culture, but also culture in general. When Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died quite suddenly -- mysteriously in my book -- at young ages, I was around and I was young, I was about 12, 13, 14, I remember it vividly. It really impacted me. There was also the time when FM was being taken over by the people who played that music. Classic rock was born at that moment, in my opinion. We're not letting go of this. We're going to play this music forever. We'll play Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. We're going to play it and play it and play it. We're never going to let go. At that point, it became more popular, people got more entrenched and more powerful. In '79 or '80, when that punk scene was happening, they were like, "No, you can't come in here. This is our world." That's what I think it was. When Ray Manzarek produced us, what were we doing, we were selling out to punk to some people's minds, even knowing him. Then also crossing over into that other world. But that's not why we did it, because if we had waited we never would have done it. Because it was like, well he played on the record, that changed our history forever. He wasn't a "punk rock," he was a "hippie." We wouldn't have done it if we were trying to play a game. That would have been stupid. What happened was a pretty good marriage, I think. I'm happy he's on that record. I love that he's on that record.
That must have been amazing.
It is. For our first record to do that, that was kind of odd. We should have put out our first record, just us, our songs, and said, "Here we are." Instead, we put an 8-minute fucking keyboard solo by Ray Manzarek on it.
To what do you attribute your staying power?
Staying alive. We stayed alive longest. We're the ones with the staying power. It makes me very, very sad. The thing is it's the luck of the draw. We'd all love to see the Ramones play tomorrow night. Unfortunately, we can't. Or Joe Strummer. Or all the people that were great. We miss them all very much. Our longevity is in tune with that. "We're going to see X, this is the original punk band." There are people who have been seeing us for 30 years. There are a lot of elements in why people want to see us or support us.
Have you thought about writing new material?
Yeah, we have thought about it. We've thought about it for 10 years. It's something that we talk about. For some reason, the timing isn't right or the universe doesn't like us right now or something. It just never seems to materialize. So, but I talked to them about it in South America. I talked to Billy and John both about writing songs. They both were really excited about doing it. We all have some motivators, and I hate it sometimes because when you say you're going to write new songs, who's going to motivate that to happen? Everybody's got lives and other things. Sometimes it's hard to get together. That's crazy. It's so easy to do, too. I'll have to trick John into coming over. I'll tell him it's a party or something. Then he'll get there, there will just be a desk with paper and pens on it. I'll say, "Sit down and write a song with me."
28 - Bakersfield, CA - Buck Owens' Crystal Palace
29 - Sacramento, CA - Harlow's Night Club
30, 31 - San Francisco, CA - Slim's
20 - Manchester, England - Manchester Evening News Arena (with Pearl Jam)
26 - Amsterdam, The Netherlands - Ziggo Dome (with Pearl Jam)
4 - Berlin, Germany - O2 World (with Pearl Jam)
7 - Stockholm Sweden - Ericsson Globe (with Pearl Jam)
9 - Oslo, Norway - Oslo Spektrum Arena ANS (with Pearl Jam)
10 - Frederiksberg, Denmark - Forum Copenhagen (with Pearl Jam)