Q&A: Exene of X says punk is different when you’re 50
In Toronto this weekend for the NXNE festival is Exene Cervenka, the poetic, off-tune-harmony singer-songwriter of 70s-80s punk band X. In 1976, Exene Cervenka met John Doe, and they went on to create history as part of L.A.’s punk scene revolving around the club Masque, infusing punk with blues, country, rockabilly alongside more harsh punk bands like the Germs and The Circle Jerks.
Now 54, Exene lives on the fringe south of Los Angeles in a small town “lost in time”. Besides doing the odd gig with still-rockin X, she’s been creating collage art, doing spoken word, and she was up until 4a.m. last night in the studio recording her latest solo record to be released next Valentines Day, The Excitement of Maybe. It’s 13 love songs.
Here is our talk on the old punk days (”There were no antidepressants, but everyone was fucked up but didn’t have any way to express it.”); bad parenting; being diagnosed with MS; the extreme religious right, and the BP oil spill. Now she is more positive and spiritual, but she definitely has political views, leading us to wonder, do punks inevitably turn into hippies?
Will we ever see a new X album?
Exene: I want to, but the stars seem to be crossed there. It’s inexplicable. I want to, so I keep saying yes it will (happen).
But when you guys jam you are probably coming up with new stuff, no?
We don’t jam and never have. We play our songs, we work on our songs, then we go home. We hang out and talk and stuff, but no we don’t make it up as we go along. It usually involves me and John writing a song together, then bringing it to the rest of the band, then them adding their million dollars worth.
You once said you only write when you’re angry, is that still true?
That was a long time ago I’ll bet… You know, I don’t believe in that. I think I’ve transcended that … Those emotions are just really strong and flow out of you. And when you’re content, it’s almost like the universe is flowing into you and nothing’s coming out. But I think I’ve transcended that because I don’t like that reality.
So, do you still consider yourself punk, or do those ideals leave as you age?
Those ideals do absorb deeper into you as you get older. When you’re younger you can kind of live on those ideals, but when you get older it’s just not as practical, especially when you have kids and a career and friends … Someone pointed out to me the other day: The hippie generation is now reaching retirement age and they’re looking for things to do, and hopefully they’ll go back to serving the greater good. Because if it wasn’t for them – as much as the punks and the hippies were kind of antagonistic towards each other – we would be sunk, especially in America. So I believe in protest, I believe in activism and helping people… When we play live I do a Hazel Dickens song. She’s from West Virginia which is where we have our coal mining, so kind of like the Loretta Lynn story, but she’s older in her 80s, and she wrote a song called Will Jesus Wash the Blood Stains from Your Hands. It is the best song… “Will he forgive the killings and the wars you have planned, will Jesus wash the blood stains from your hands.” And in an age of extreme radicalism of the religious right, I think that’s a really good song to sing.
Are you religious?
I was raised a Catholic, so I have all that fun ritualistic pagan Catholicism stuck in my head, and I just love it, I think it’s bizarre, it’s cultish, it’s comforting to me because I grew up with it but I don’t believe it, you know? I do have spiritual beliefs but they’re mostly connected with science. The more that’s revealed about the universe, the more we realize how bizarre and cyclical everything is and how informed ancient people were and how rediculously smart and mathematical they were … This world is infused a lot with spiritual mystery. There’s many reasons for mythology, some of it is to control people.
How did you learn about these theories?
Well, I’m 54 years old and never went to college, so everything I’ve learned I’ve taught myself through books, documentaries, through other smarter people. I have an absolute quest for uncovering why we’re here. I’m fascinated by the paranormal and extra-terrestrial. It’s interesting and plausable – I don’t rule anything out.
So you’re not the same Exene as in 1977, a 15-year-old starting a punk band?
I couldn’t be two more different people. That was a very scared, very angry person – a very smart person I think, now looking back – but it’s hard to function when you’re paralyzed by all sorts of fears. I’d never lived in a big city before coming to L.A. and I met John (Doe) right away and he was pretty worldly, he was from Baltimore. He’d seen the Stones play, Janis Joplin play, his mom would let him go to these – he saw Jimi Hendrix play. I mean, I didn’t. I was too young. But those kind of experiences kind of kept me alive, because I was pretty reckless, wild, crazy kid.
What were you scared of?
They were subconscious fears. Everyone comes into this world with a personality, and hopefully people nurture that personality, but sometimes people will go ‘No, that’s the wrong personality for you.’ Transgendered people get that all the time. And that’s the cause of a lot of our social ills – it’s bad parenting. I’m not saying my parents were bad but I was born in 1956 and raised in the 60’s there were a lot of different things back then. Teachers would hit you, I went to an all-Catholic school full of nuns. People drank in the car, there were no seatbelts, gas had lead in it.
There were no antidepressants, but everyone was fucked up but didn’t have any way to express it.
You couldn’t get a divorce, there was no birth control. To say there was a lot of racism was an understatement. When I lived in Florida at age 14, I was in this tiny town and everything was still in place for segregation. The two water coolers and separate entrances. They took down the signs but nobody changed their behavior. All the African American people went in the back entrance and drank from that water cooler and used that bathroom. It was just unbelievable.
Racism and fear of ‘the other’ still exists, though some people think politics can solve that.
As long as we’re divided on things like abortion, gay rights, racial issues, and drugs, they know they can get away with anything. The right and left will fight over those issues until they are exhausted, and they won’t tackle other issues until something like the oil spill. Now we have to tackle some major issues, and this is a big turning point for the United States. But what’s going to happen is all those people on a stick (in congress) who increase deregulation since Ronald Regan was president, all of them taking money from corporations – all that stuff’s going to come out now… those people will get voted out of office, and they probably won’t get better people, but there are going to be some casualties within the government. You know how we have Fox News down here, they’re getting all these politicians and ‘experts’ to say ‘the U.S. government and BP should be responsible for the clean-up, it’s the U.S. governments’ fault.’ It’s like, no no, that means you’re asking the U.S. tax payers for more money. People are picking up on that. We just did that! … Some of these corporations are biggerl than any country because they own the water, the oil, so they are more powerful than the U.S. government. That’s what people started saying in the 60s, and during the punk era. It was really the blossoming of the anti-corporate take on things.
Why don’t punks and hippies and the lot rise up?
They’re fractured along these divisive issues. Like ‘look, I can only tackle gay rights.’ There are so many people I know who are gay activists, and animal activists, and work in a soup kitchen, but a lot of people don’t have that kind of time. So some people will take in stray animals, only give money to animal rights groups and don’t eat meat, and that’s what they do, and that’s awesome but it’s a quieter version, it’s not a united anti-war, anti-racism thing.
Many old punks from the Toronto scene will say punk is dead and it will never be what it was again. What do you think?
They’re talking about the music… everyone repeats it instead of creating a newer version of it. It didn’t evolve like blues into rock n roll and rock into country… hip hop and reggae. But I think it’s important to keep up that kind of style, as well as others.
It’s hard to continue a scene that was inherently self destructive, more politics and partying than musical innovation.
Some died but (the Ramones) died not from their own hands. Jonny and Joey both died from illnesses and there was nothing they could do. Jonny was clean and sober and I guess Joey had been for some time… It was exaggerated to some extent…but I was right there up front waving the flag of self-destruction.
How is your health since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last year?
It’s going well. I have doctors and medicine and stuff, but I’ll tell you I have a very mild version or something. It’s a strange disease because a lot of really young people have it seriously bad, but all kinds of people have it in different amounts. It’s not like cancer which has a natural crazy progression, it’s kind of unpredictable, you don’t know when you’re going to get sick or if you are (at all). You know, I’m doing really well. I don’t think about it much.
Is there anything you would change about the course of your life?
I’m really happy with the way things turned out. .. Some of our records have sold millions of copies, we’re just the victims of “creative accounting.” That band X, I’ll tell ya, strange career. But the longevity, the fact that I’ll be able to go up there and play a show with those guys, and its going to be real fun – more than it even used to be now - I live for these moments.
- Marsha Casselman