Exene Cervenka of X on the Illustrated Word, Being a Luddite and Her Garage Sale

Like many significant bands, X never garnered commercial success commensurate with its influence. X's mixture of poetry, folk and punk resonated with Americana and rockabilly while not fitting snugly in any subgenre of music. In that way, X was alternative rock before that became an umbrella term for left-field music, and X is also one of the few bands to survive beyond that era.

X benefited from having two charismatic front-people, John Doe and Exene Cervenka, as well as a guitarist with real theatrical flair in Billy Zoom, and a drummer not short on his own powerful presence in D.J. Bonebrake. Cervenka and Doe famously met at a poetry workshop in Venice Beach. Prior to moving to California, Cervenka had spent her childhood and youth in both Chicago and Tallahassee and did her own drawings and writing for herself, never intending to publish the work. Still, she was cultivating a mixture of writing and visual art.

“You see someone like William Blake and you think, 'Oh, my God, that's amazing.,'” says Cervenka. “Frida Kahlo and a lot of other great artists also did that. The illustrated word is a great medium. It's good because it's multi-dimensional. Like having music to go with art — you know, if you're talented enough to try to do that or you like doing it enough.”

Even as her band became much more than an underground music phenomenon in Los Angeles, Cervenka continued to do writing and visual art, collaborating with the likes of Lydia Lunch and photographer Kenneth Jarecke. The latter work yielded the 1992 book Just Another War, a powerful document of the first Gulf War that includes Cervenka's writing in the form of illustrative text alongside Jarecke's photos. In X, Cervenka's lyrics worked well with those of Doe because of the playfulness, thoughtfulness and depth of feeling expressed in th stories.

“What else would I be doing?” comments Cervenka. “Talking about hot people or something? We were very literary. Kind of folky, and folk and punk music are very similar. Telling stories of disasters and political realities of life and social situations and poverty and all of that, country-and-Western style.”

Cervenka's refreshingly frank and honest storytelling, though, has become something she's not been as willing to share in recent years as the social climate has swung against her style of truth-telling.

“I used to have a writing column I did down here in California for about a year,” reveals Cervenka. “But I was way too politically incorrect for them, writing the facts of our society and government. I was writing short stories, basically. They just wanted me to dumb it down until I stopped for them. I write about that stuff all the time, but I keep it primarily to myself. I'm not on any websites, I don't go on Facebook or Twitter. I just turned sixty, and you have to be careful what you say. People are just so violent now about attacking you if you don't agree with everything about the way they think things should be. Societies are very interesting when victims become the victimizer. It never fails to amaze. People downtrodden, marginalized, persecuted — when that ends, they sometimes come back, and it's hard. It's a delicate balance, and societies are difficult at best.”

In 1996, Cervenka collaborated with a friend to make The Unabomber Manifesto (Selected Excerpts). She did a reading of portions of the infamous text, and the friend performed the music. The album ran in a limited edition of 200 CDs. Some people wondered if Cervenka approved of Ted Kaczynski's message, but she is decidedly against violence. Yet she found the idea of the Unabomber interesting.

“A lot of what he was saying was really insane, and a lot of what he had to say was really true," says Cervenka. "I'm a Luddite. I wish there wasn't technology at all, because Skynet [from The Terminator] is real, and it's going to be the death of humanity eventually, and I'm not a fan of that, especially. It was just the idea that someone was fighting against the robots. There's no winning that fight. I'm certainly not a violent person, and I don't think you should engage in violence unless your life is on the line and in self-defense. People just look at extremists and try to understand what they think and why they think it. There's a lot of people that are mixed up, and how could you not be [in the world as it is]? People once considered insane sometimes become mainstream when people become open-minded to figuring out what's going on.”

While X hasn't put out any new material in several years, and Cervenka doesn't really expect a new X album in the foreseeable future, she continues to have a career as a collage artist and as a university lecturer on music. But making all the art and traveling the country collecting artifacts of American culture left her bogged down with belongings, so one day, in 2014, she held a garage sale as part of a bigger event at a warehouse in California.

“I was moving, and I wanted to raise extra money to do that,” offers Cervenka. “But I also just wanted to get rid of some stuff because I had so much. I probably got more press on that than for any record I ever made. Typical. I raised some money for Girls Rock Camp and it made people happy. I came by one day and signed everything, but people had to put twenty dollars into a jar for Girls Rock Camp, unless they couldn't afford it. It was fun! X has been rewarded many times over for its longevity with fans. I've never had any problems with X fans. Everybody's always been really smart, nice and cool people. We feel lucky to have that.”

X performs on Friday, April 1, at Summit Music Hall, 303-487-0111, $27, $47 VIP balcony seating, all ages.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.