When it comes to the great Los Angeles bands, critical consensus tends to come back to the same trifecta: the Beach Boys, the Doors, and X. One of those, remarkably, is still around for the city to fete — and with its original lineup, no less.
The four members of X have taken to a mini-tour of civic institutions to mark the band’s 40th anniversary — including X day at Dodger Stadium, then a visit to City Hall Wednesday morning for a proclamation from the city council, and finally, a Q&A and rooftop concert at downtown’s Grammy Museum Friday night, inaugurating an exhibit with mementos from the X’s punk-era beginnings.
“It’s weird,” said John Doe, standing amid the handwritten lyrics, gig flyers, and instruments being held under glass at the museum, the day before the opening. “My stuff doesn’t qualify for being in a museum, but evidently, after 40 years, it does. It’s somewhat surreal. But I’m glad it’s here. I’m glad I saved the notebooks.” He looked toward the case that held some of his vintage clothes. “It’s a tribute to the fabric of nylon. Look what’s happened to the denim jacket,” he said, pointing out the wear and tear. “Not so the embarrassing nylon mesh shirt!” — still as intact and sheer as the late ’70s photo next to it.
On Friday night, the Recording Academy’s Scott Goldman led the conversation for a small audience in the museum’s Clive Davis Theater, which had latched onto one of the toughest-to-get tickets in the history of the building’s nighttime programs. The conversation, like the exhibit, focused on the group’s beginnings and first four albums.
Guitarist Billy Zoom remembered what drew him to punk, after he’d spent the ‘70s disdaining modern rock and drifting toward jazz and rockabilly: “I read a really negative review of the Ramones in ’76. I can’t remember which magazine… They said they were terrible; the songs were too short and too fast and too simple and too dumb — and it just sounded really cool.”
When Doe and Zoom met up as the result of an ad in the Recycler, “Billy said, ‘I don’t like jamming.’ And I said, ‘Good,’” Doe recalled. “Because as a bass player, jamming is probably the most freaking boring thing you could do… But then Billy was so reluctant to play leads, I thought, ‘Maybe we need to get a lead player.’ And Billy looked at me with a very stony stare and said, ‘No.’”
Then came drummer DJ Bonebrake, whose old kit is on display at the museum, complete with the highly unusual sight of a marching band snare drum. Said Zoom: “John called me and said, ‘Billy, there’s a guy here with a band, and he’s a drummer and he’s playing a parade drum for a snare.’ And I said, ‘Find out what he wants and tell him we got it.’”
The style quickly took shape. “I was trying to play rock,” said Zoom, “but I didn’t know rock music, so I was kind of playing what I knew, louder.”
“I bet Scotty Moore (Elvis Presley’s first guitarist) was doing the same thing,” added Doe.
The formula, such it was, had beat movement-inspired poetry set to the most frantic beats possible, with a lot of roots music and early rock influences disguised as something ear-shatteringly revolutionary. But those influences “were never at the forefront,” emphasized Doe. “We tried to acknowledge Bo Diddley in, say, ‘The Hungry Wolf,’ which was a little bit of a later song, but it wasn’t like we just played the Bo Diddley beat.”
“See, I was thinking of Gene Krupa,” said Bonebrake. “That’s where we have different influences.”
“I told you to think of Gene Krupa,” chimed in Zoom. “I always told you to think of Gene Krupa.” There was audience laughter, but Zoom was serious about wanting some credit. “I did!”
As always in the rare instances when the band is interviewed as a foursome, Zoom was the wild card, peppering the conversation with short, irreverent comments designed to take the pretension out of anything. (He remembers early conversations with Doe as being “bla bla bla music bla bla” and with Ray Manzarek as “bla bla produce bla bla.”)
Exene got more into the literary leanings that set the group apart. “There was a similarity to what John liked to write about and what I liked to write about,” she said. “He liked maybe to write more about the wider picture, in ‘Los Angeles,’ ‘We’re Desperate,’ ‘Sex and Dying in High Society’ – a lot of those songs were about the culture. It was short story writing, it was Nathanael West, it was Raymond Chandler, it was John Fante, it was the dark side of life, it was 1930s Los Angeles, and that kind of stuff. And I wrote initially more about emotional feeling — relationships, weird, love-hate, kind of crazy stuff.”
“Because you’re a girl,” said Zoom.
“Because I’m a girl — that’s right, Billy,” she said. The audience tittered, but Exene was being serious, whether or not Zoom was: “He’s right, he’s absolutely right.”
Exene talked about her conversion experience: “I was 12 when I heard the Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’ on the radio and it changed my life… My mom knew I liked that song so she turned it up.” But it was the first time she’d heard the radio play the expansive LP version. “You’re a little kid and it goes into that long version and you’re in the back seat of a car in Illinois with your parents, and suddenly your life changes at that moment. You become aware. Literally my consciousness changed, and I became a different person.”
As fate would have it, the man playing that organ solo became X’s producer and enabler. Said Doe: “Ray Manzarek had read an article [Variety contributor] Chris Morris had written in the L.A. Reader [in 1979] called ‘Sounds Like Murder,’ and [Morris] had put up a number of lyrics from the Alley Cats and the Plugz and us, and Ray read the lyrics to ‘Johnny Hit and Run Paulene’ and thought, ‘This reminds me of Jim Morrison, just the simplicity and the telling of a dark story.’ He came to see us and we were already playing [a cover of the Doors’] ‘Soul Kitchen.’ Dorothy, his wife, said, ‘Hey, Ray, they’re playing your song.’ He said, ‘What?’ Our version, if you’re Ray Manzarek, is somewhat unrecognizable.”
Their first two Slash albums, “Los Angeles” and “Wild Gift,” pretty much had Manzarek just faithfully capturing their thrilling live show, but a move to Elektra with “Under the Big Black Sun” allowed for both a bigger recording budget and more nuance. Their final album with Manzarek, “More Fun in the New World,” is almost equally revered — except to Zoom, who drew laughs when he dismissed it: “The fourth album, I don’t know what happened, it wasn’t very good.” After the chuckling died down, he clarified himself. “The songs were good, the album just wasn’t great.”
A shift away from pure punk was inevitable, partly because of their own wandering musical interests, and partly because of what the scene had descended into.
“At a certain point,” said Zoom, “suddenly the kids in the suburbs became aware of it and started coming in and doing what they expected punk-rock to be, causing trouble and disrupting shows.”
“At the time it was heartbreaking and confusing,” added Doe. “At this point, you realize that it’s evolution. We started something, and the band the Middle Class or Black Flag or Minutemen would say, ‘Okay, you did this, so I m going to stand on your shoulders and do that, and it’s going to be faster.’ And then, as Billy said, you attract a bigger audience… Just by numbers, if there are 1500 people, there will be three psychopaths. And was the guy that had the X shaved into his head in [Penelope Spheeris’ documentary] ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ was one. ‘The Decline,’ even though it didn’t represent the earliest scene in L.A., actually represented the scene in LA in 1979-80 really well, because it was on the cusp of hardcore becoming much more popular, and the violence, and a bunch of 18-year-old surfer dudes who had a bunch of testosterone and wanted to run around and think they could do backflips and not hurt themselves. So it became something else, and then the music was secondary — kind of a soundtrack.”
In the rooftop concert X played following Friday’s Q&A, “Come Back to Me” made its appearance, complete with Bonebrake on vibes and Zoom on sax. Most of the rest of the hour-long set from rock’s most reliably thrilling live band was down with the vintage notion of fast and loud. But during “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” there was something suspiciously like… jamming. And during “The Hungry Wolf,” Bonebrake got a drum break, preceded by Doe shouting: “Are you ready for some Gene Krupa?” Any further dispute over the credit for the influence could wait.