The last American band: X made it in Los Angeles, but they flourished in the Heartland

Revisiting the punk band’s attempt to find the soul of the country, ahead of new reissues of their early discography.

The last American band: X made it in Los Angeles, but they flourished in the Heartland

Revisiting the punk band’s attempt to find the soul of the country, ahead of new reissues of their early discography.

I. Down on the farm

Exene Cervenka knew the fall was coming.

In The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris’s documentary of the Los Angeles punk scene in 1979 and 1980, Cervenka, the lead singer of the four-piece Los Angeles punk band X, was being interviewed in her West Hollywood apartment when she prophesied the day the band’s bohemian manifesto “We’re Desperate” would sound much different:

... I started thinking, there’s gonna come a point where we’re gonna keep performing this song and people are gonna be going, “Suuure they’re desperate. I just paid six dollars to see this band, y’know. They’re not desperate.”

Half a decade later, in the autumn of 1985, X had long since sold out in the minds of plenty among the “Hollywood 200,” as the band’s bassist John Doe called the pioneer punks who formed the late ‘70s scene around venues like the Masque, the Roxy, and Whisky a Go Go. But some of the band’s diehard fans were starting to get nervous, too. After years of touring and building their audience in the underground, now X were yukking it up with Dick Clark on American Bandstand and David Letterman on Late Night. Old-guard critics of the rock press adored them: Robert Christgau of The Village Voice would rank 1981’s Wild Gift the third-best album of the entire ‘80s. They appeared throughout Bret Easton Ellis’s generation-defining novel Less Than Zero, and scored lighter fare like Jim McBride’s remake of the classic Godard film Breathless; spots on the soundtracks of Miami Vice and Jonathan Demme’s comedy Something Wild were soon to come. Meanwhile, the bourgeois matrimony of Cervenka and John Doe recalled June Carter and Johnny Cash for the Blank Generation. Baby-faced drummer DJ Bonebrake (his real name) and Billy Zoom, who smiled devilishly as he stood spread-legged with his glittery Gretsch guitar, added to the band’s warped glamour.

Most remarkable of all, for a group so steeped in the nihilism of the L.A. punk ferment, X played the first Farm Aid benefit concert on September 22, 1985. Wet, blustery weather over Champaign, Illinois still drew a crowd of 80,000, “an unusual mix of families, middle-aged country fans and younger rock faithful,” according to The Chicago Tribune. This was a far cry from the sinister mosh pit, set to X’s “Nausea,” that opened The Decline of Western Civilization six years before. On stations beaming from the heartland into an estimated 24 million living rooms across America, X played among Johnny Cash, John Denver, Jon Bon Jovi, Loretta Lynn, and even famous hayseed Lou Reed.

Farm Aid foretold yet more ground to be conquered along X’s march from obscurity on the left end of the dial to commercial success on the right — a destination the band would never quite reach over the 10 years and six albums of their original run, from the dawn of punk in 1977 to its hangover years in the late 80s. Across their first four albums, which are scheduled for reissue this spring by Fat Possum Records, X matured from an L.A. band into an American band, the way Bruce Springsteen belonged not just to Freehold, New Jersey, but to every town across the country where times were tough. At least, that’s what they wanted to be.

Alongside groups like Lone Justice, The Beat Farmers, and Jason and the Scorchers, X spearheaded a re-encounter with older American music like country and folk and quotidian American themes like heartache and hardship. For a fascinating, fruitful moment, they helped bring punk into conversation with the “flyover states” and scramble the cultural geography of the 1980s. Billy Zoom’s Chuck Berry-inspired intros and vamping riffs made the sound of early rock and roll essential to X’s raucous attack from the beginning, while pulpy lyrics and Cervenka’s witchy, arty personal style signalled their inheritance from the Beats and seemed to summon the dark, occult Los Angeles of ‘60s. But as they strived to get a hit record, X delved deeper and deeper into what their revivalist contemporaries The Blasters celebrated as “American Music,” and they took it to places it had never been. The common denominator of taste among so many disparate tribes of misfits in L.A., American Music sounded like a counterintuitive direction forward for punk’s promise of an emancipatory youth culture that could extend beyond cliquish Hollywood.

A promo photo of the band.

A promo photo of the band.

A pivotal moment came in July 1978 during a show at Club 88 in West L.A., as Doe explained in his book Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk. Looking up from their instruments to find a crowd of “beautiful, sweaty, Mexican teenagers swimming in a sea of white suburban kids” gave X “a feeling that we could communicate to more than people we knew.” This was a different set than the debauched hipsters who shacked up at The Canterbury or the suburban burnouts to be commemorated by Orange County’s Adolescents as “Kids of the Black Hole.” These were teenagers “who answered the call to ‘new music’ from a culture steeped in the ‘50s, where our heroes came from. In our minds these people had a direct connection to Ritchie Valens…. It was wishful thinking then, but it gave us confidence that this music of ours, this punk rock, wasn’t just for one slice of the public; it could speak to everyone.” Looking forward meant looking backward.

It was in that wishful spirit that X struck out to become America’s punk band. They did their damndest to sell out by the time of Farm Aid — and that, above all else, was doing it the American way. The desperation would come later.

In 1982, President Reagan told a Kansas audience: “Here in the heartland of America lives the hope of the world.” So, too, did the unlikely hope of punk.

II. The last American band

X’s horizons began to broaden at least as far back as the closer of their third album, 1982’s Under the Big Black Sun. “The Have Nots” saw Doe and Cervenka leave the Sunset Strip to celebrate a string of quotidian, “blue collar” dives, the kind of places where it feels good to “have your own bottle of booze behind the bar” at the end of “another hard-earned day.” The couple might have been the only ones making their living from punk rock as they tipped back the corn at joints like “The Hi-Dee-Hi and The Hula Gal / The Bee-Hive Bar and The Zircon Lounge / G.G.’s Cozy Corner and The Gift of Love,” as they sang, but the dive bar was the spiritual headquarters of the milieu they were coming to identify with: not the punks, but an ailing, adrift white working class.

In 1980, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan had sapped the Democratic Party’s white working-class base en route to a resounding electoral victory. However much they were swayed by the race-baiting and commie-hating that characterized Reagan’s campaign, poorer Americans soon felt the strain of supply-side economics and union-busting. By 1982, the year of Black Sun, unemployment had reached its highest level since the 1930s and low-wage workers’ pay was plummeting. “Dawn comes soon enough for the working class,” Doe and Cervenka sang. “It keeps getting sooner or later.” With the vision of social welfare promulgated by the New Deal and the Great Society appearing further off than ever before, X’s barflies were trapped in a rigged system: “the game that moves as you play.”

“America needs to hear this album,” declared Parke Puterbaugh in his review for Rolling Stone. X were now more than just rollicking harbingers of the decline of western civilization; they had something to say.

X followed the have-nots further on 1983’s More Fun in the New World, whose tales of booze-soaked domestic woe (“Poor Girl,” “Drunk in My Past,” “Hot House,” “I See Red”) found the band in alignment with the turn in American short fiction toward “dirty realism,” a phrase coined that year by Granta editor Bill Buford to describe the home dramas of white, discontented, usually working-class protagonists by authors like Jayne Anne Phillips and Raymond Carver. As for the have nots’ political fortunes, well, “it was better before, before they voted for what’s-his-name,” they chanted on the album’s title track, with its hazy evocation of the Depression. This was supposed to be the new world, but with a geriatric in the White House, America was moving back in time.

The swirling, panoramic rendering of anxiety on More Fun’s “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” conjured an America growing old before its time, ossifying into a conformist, pre-60s version of itself where “the radio’s finally going to play new music / you know, the British invasion,” as Doe reported in a mock-broadcaster tone. “But what about The Minutemen / Flesh Eaters, DOA / Big Boys and the Black Flag?” they asked, summoning scenemates whose treks through the heartland charted networks of clubs, VFW Halls, and basements in places like Norman, Oklahoma and Oshkosh, Wisconsin — a vital geography of the underground invisible to most of the country. “Would the last American band to get played on the radio / please bring the flag?” they asked.

Channeling Woody Guthrie now, on top of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, X were equipped like no other group to introduce cynicism, dark humor, and ferocity to mainstream heartland rock, which pushed a brand of Americana in those years that sometimes rebutted Reaganism and sometimes corroborated the mythos it propagated. Without the camp of The Cramps or the menace of L.A.’s Gun Club, X seemed poised to meet America in the middle. “X, like the punk movement that spawned them, isn’t some pop-hating musical aberration,” Christopher Connelly wrote in his 1983 Rolling Stone review. “They’re a proud part of rock & roll, and More Fun in the New World can only enhance their growing reputation.”

In August 1987, The New York Times’ Jon Pareles wrote that the “back-to-basics Americana” of heartland rock had fully come to define American rock-and-roll in the mid ‘80s:

The music is basic — three chords and a back beat. The tone is earnest, plain-spoken, just folks. The verses are short stories, terse sketches of characters trying to get by. And the choruses, ready-made for sing-alongs, are about “hard times.”

The funny thing about heartland rock, Pareles noted, is that it came from everywhere: the heartland described by Mellencamp, Springsteen, Steve Earle, Tom Petty, and others hardly corresponded to a discrete geography. The heartland was set in time as much as place: the gleaming past, when the factory was open, and the dim present of the 1980s, when times were tough. It was a heartland of the mind, really, a set of associations and set pieces fashioned from both lived and imagined experience. How many different blue-collar jobs did Bruce Springsteen hold on record between 1980 and 1987, from blacktop roller to state trooper?

“I’ve never done any hard labor,” Springsteen admitted in his recent hit Broadway show. “I’ve never worked 9 to 5. I’ve never worked five days a week until right now.”

Small wonder that Jason & the Scorchers, X’s “cowpunk” contemporaries from L.A., felt snubbed after Farm Aid bookers rejected them in 1985 for having sold too few records to merit the airtime. “I grew up on a farm in Illinois, my father is a farmer, my uncles are farmers, we’ve been farmers for six generations,” lead singer Jason Ringenberg told a reporter. (They played at the next year’s event.)

“Where early rock-and-roll responded to rising affluence, heartland rock reflects the shock of lowered expectations,” Pareles wrote. The songs were “more like case histories, or journalism, than protest songs,” just as the political goals of Farm Aid, formed in the image of Live Aid, remained largely implicit, incoherent, and contradictory. Heartland rock gave America nothing close to Red Wedge, for example, the movement organized the same year as Farm Aid by Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, and a coalition of musicians and activists to galvanize young Britons against Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party. Commercial imperatives made what began as a bitter, haunting account of a Vietnam vet called “Born in the USA” into a song that Reagan himself, like many of his fellow Americans, mistook for a patriotic anthem.

The most visceral confrontations with Reaganism in popular music occurred in hip-hop and hardcore, the music of two youth constituencies closer to the baton-end of the conservatives’ agenda than heartland rockers. The sound of heartland rock was most often the sound of white men in their mid-30s wondering what had gone so wrong in a country that had felt so right in some yeoman past, remembering the good times to put their growing obsolescence in the rearview mirror; chewing the cud of deindustrialization and globalization and Vietnam. With that backdrop, the imaginary “little ditty ‘bout Jack and Diane / two American kids growing up in the heartland” meant a lot more than just a little.

In the figure of Exene Cervenka, curious listeners across the country were confronted by a very different kind of narrator than the toned, clean-living likes of Mellencamp, Springsteen, and other masculine chroniclers of the heartland.

With studied fluency in the sound of early rock and roll, X’s encroachment on the mainstream was recasting the rapidly-graying genre into what it had been originally: the most subversive cultural current of that same prelapsarian America pined for by the Reaganites. To Reagan’s campaign slogan of 1980, “Let’s Make America Great Again,” X replied that America had always been a headache, as their ancestor William S. Burroughs put it in his “Thanksgiving Prayer” of 1986. While Reagan trumpeted the arrival of “morning again in America” as his campaign slogan in 1984, X played under a black sun, the setting sun of California, as the Doomsday Clock ticked closer to midnight and the high noon of annihilation than it had in over three decades (or would again until the Trump era).

And in the figure of Exene Cervenka, curious listeners across the country were confronted by a very different kind of narrator than the toned, clean-living likes of Mellencamp, Springsteen, and other masculine chroniclers of the heartland. “The world’s a mess / it’s in my kiss,” she had cried in a song of the same name. In the rawness of her voice and in the utter lack of shame with which she fashioned her anger and fear and yearning into X’s lyrics, no matter their chaos or order, she contained the storm of American life.

III. The evil streets

The heartland also contained an undeniable, if often unspoken, racial geography. Long before Doe and Cervenka’s overtures toward the heartland began in earnest, X surveyed the dynamics of American race and place with indelible language. “Los Angeles,” the band’s calling card from their first album, is Cervenka’s portrait of a girlfriend who “had to leave” the city after developing a kind of white supremacist neurosis.

“She started to hate every n----- and Jew,” the song goes, “every Mexican who gave her a lot of shit/every homosexual and the idle rich.” Like voices in her head, Doe and Cervenka’s chorus moans for her to “get out, get out” of the urban horrorshow, though to where the band hadn’t yet figured.

If listeners aren’t meant to identify with the racist white girl of “Los Angeles,” they’re at least meant to recognize that like the white girl of X’s “White Girl” from Wild Gift, drug-numbed and prey to an “evil street,” she’s been degraded by the city. Her body rejects Los Angeles like a bad substance: “she gets confused going over the dateline” and “her hands turn red.” But is she poisoned or doing the poisoning?

The late cultural theorist and X fan José Esteban Muñoz wrote in Social Text that “Los Angeles” quite accurately depicts “the effect that the West Coast city had on its white denizens” and stands as “a fairly standard tale of white flight from the multiethnic metropolis.” (Muñoz is hardly the only X fan of color who has grappled with the lyrics of “Los Angeles” on paper; Camille A. Collins, who novelized her coming-of-age as a suburban “Afro-punk” in the The Exene Chronicleshas done the same.) The Los Angeles of “Los Angeles” could stand for any major city with a sizable group of young, white, bohemian transplants — Doe had moved there from Baltimore, Cervenka from Tallahassee — and yet X could sing “Los Angeles” in fraternity with the many Chicano musicians integral to city’s punk scene, a deep heritage that includes The Bags, Los Illegals, The Zeros, The Brat, and The Plugz, and that continues to scorch the garages and wood-panelled basements of East Los Angeles today. After all, it was X’s Chicano fans who inspired them to imagine their music as something beyond the narrow borders of punk.

When the idle rich wastoids of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero go to an X concert at The Roxy, Clay, the novel’s nonhero, registers the following exchange:

Rip comes up to me and the first thing he is says is, “There are too many fucking Mexicans here, dude.”
Spin snorts and says, “Let’s kill ‘em all.”
Trent must think this is a pretty good idea because he laughs and nods.

In the ‘80s, there would be little “getting out” of L.A. for the “fucking Mexicans” and others included in the cosmopolitan tableau of “Los Angeles” (though the “idle rich” would continue to be just fine). As Max Felker-Kantor tracks in his recent study Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD, the city X lived in was subject to an ever-expanding, steadily militarizing police department “organized around the aim of controlling the city’s black and brown populations.” The racist pedigree of L.A. policing went back decades: at his appointment to LAPD chief in 1950, William Parker committed himself to keeping Los Angeles “the white spot of the great cities of America today.” A version of that mentality remained alive and well three decades later.

In Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen’s oral history of L.A. punk, We Got the Neutron Bomb, the photographer Jenny Lens, who is Jewish, recounts a public run-in with Cervenka and the woman who inspired “Los Angeles,” Fay Heart. Unprovoked, Heart brought Lens to tears by “spouting all these anti-semitic remarks about how Hitler was right.” Others interviewees describe the commonplace sight of swastikas around the early L.A. scene (including a giant one hand-painted by Cervenka on her bedroom wall). An imagined, apolitical shock value may have attracted most punks who played with racist imagery in L.A., but surrounding their “appropriation” was the physical space of a city sharply demarcated and contested along racial lines. (Not to mention a swelling neo-Nazi paramilitary movement in the heartland.)

A 1981 photo of X.

A 1981 photo of X.

While heartland rock looked outside of the major cities, for Chicanos, African Americans, and queer people, especially, it wasn’t so neatly inclusive.

“There was a sense of geography that a bunch of artists and musicians shared,” Teresa Covarrubias of The Brat recalled in Under the Big Black Sun. “Instead of simply struggling to break into the established L.A. punk world, we banded together, creating our own universe, maybe not even realizing what we were doing at the time.”

Case in point: the versatile and imaginative American Music of Los Lobos, who were already well established in East L.A. before the arrival of punk. They could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Mellencamp on tracks like 1987’s Farm Aid-friendly single “One Time, One Night,” breathe life into the memory of Ritchie Valens for La Bamba, and then the next year turn to a very different heartland for La Pistola y El Corazon, a beautiful, defiant album of traditional son jarocho folk music sung entirely in Spanish. Theirs was a heartland without borders.

More recent years have seen Cervenka play to the grimier precincts of the paranoid-racist right as a dog whistle soloist, voicing grave suspicions about “globalists” and “the Democratically-controlled inner cities.” It’s probably less bizarre than it seems that in this line of thinking she should echo Donald Trump, who often invokes the heartland to exalt the virtues of its people and insist that “it’s not forgotten any more.” Los Lobos, meanwhile, worked against Trumpism last fall by mobilizing voters in New Mexico, bassist Louie Pérez told an interviewer in February. The title of Pérez’s new book, “Good Morning, Aztlán,” references the supposed cradle of Mexican civilization whose borders extend into the present-day United States — another nation that was and perhaps could be again, and whose native art forms would have to include rock and roll.

IV. In that other nation

Entering 1984 on the heels of More Fun, X were performing to crowds of thousands and television audiences of millions.

“We felt like we were just about to crack it,” Doe told the writer Kristine McKenna for Rhino’s reissue of the album in 2002.

But personal calamity, personnel failure, and the wages of hubris were beginning to coalesce. After More Fun failed Billy Zoom’s expectations for the charts and for his bank account, he swore to leave the band if their next album couldn’t deliver a high-dollar hit. Without him, the rest of X indulged what Doe called his and Cervenka’s “romance with country music” by recording the alt-country progenitor Poor Little Critter on the Road as The Knitters. A mostly acoustic set of rockabilly, country, and folk, Critter featured jaunty covers from the American songbook like Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” and Helen Carter’s “Poor Old Heartsick Me,” plus a brilliant rerecording of “The New World” half a decade too soon for MTV Unplugged. If the enterprise began on a lark (what name could sound less desperate than The Knitters?), the result of this bit of genre tourism sounded durable and promising.

For the next X album, with Zoom back in the fold, the band chose to abandon the warm, wholesome locomotion of The Knitters and steer clear of the heartland rock sound, too. Ditching their longtime producer-guru Ray Manzarek, the former Doors keyboardist, X travelled in the unlikely direction of the FM sound ascendant among a new generation of L.A. bands: hair metal. The resulting X album, Ain’t Love Grand, sounds like it was recorded in and for a strip club. Producer Michael Wagener, whose credits included Dokken and Stryper, “can’t make John and Exene (or even Billy) sound commercial enough to convert anyone,” wrote Robert Christgau. “On the first side he has trouble making them sound like anything at all.”

Watching X’s set at the second Farm Aid in 1986, you’d have no idea that they were reeling from the stillbirth of an expensive, meant-to-be-the-one album. Their guitarist had quit and Doe and Cervenka were divorced. They should have been really, finally, desperate — and they hadn’t even properly sold out. Tousled by the wind rolling off the Texan plains, X looked and sounded heroic.

“Selling out is when you get a bunch of money,” Billy Zoom told SPIN in November 1985, shortly before leaving the group. “If you didn’t get a bunch of money, you didn’t sell out.”

Cut finally to 1987, the ominous 10th year of X.

Doe and Cervenka are standing in a field of grain. Cervenka’s back is to the camera; yonder and out of focus stands Doe in a white cowboy hat, poised to rope a calf or draw a six-shooter at some pretender out of frame — though he gets along just fine with Cervenka’s new husband-to-be who’s also hanging out at the shoot, a minor actor named Viggo Mortensen. They’re taking the photo that will grace the cover of their last album before the end, to be called See How We Are.

The album’s title track is its greatest revelation, because it’s so long overdue: “See How We Are” is the ballad Doe and Cervenka seemed predestined to write. What begins as a sketch of a couple separated by prison, so unable to connect that they “both just sit there and stare” at visits, drifts to an expansive meditation on the “we” of the whole country, like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing Allen Ginsberg.

The invitation implied in the title of See How We Are did not lead to a string of hits, though its Dave Alvin-penned lead single “4th of July,” about a pair of lovers so consumed in their quarrel they forget about the holiday until they hear “Mexican kids out shooting fireworks below,” is the most radio-viable song the band ever recorded. Neither does See How We Are offer some grand artistic resolution of the dread and tedium of life in Reagan’s America. It’s album full of road-weariness, of country-weariness, like Cervenka’s rueful ode to touring in “Holiday Story”: “In the deep deep heart of Texas / with its big and lonely star,” she sings, “I’m in that other nation / and I’m travelling bar to bar.”

See How We Are invited listeners to a destination: that dreamy field where Doe and Cervenka arrived after a decade of journeys. X never got their big hit, but in their intrepidness and their longing to connect with the heartland they revealed more about the vicissitudes of life in the years of Pax Americana than they probably ever meant to. The field on the cover of See How We Are could have been anywhere in America. When I asked the photographer, Mike Russ, he couldn’t remember whether it was “an Indian reservation or Malibu.”

Andrew Holter is a writer based in Baltimore.