Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Punk rock band formed in Los Angeles in 1977 by John Doe (b John Duchac, 25 February 1954, Decatur IL) on bass and Billy Zoom on guitar (b 20 February 1940-something), who had simultaneously advertised in classifieds. Doe met Exene Cervenka at a poetry workshop (b Christine Cervenkova, February 2, 1956 in Chicago; she had grown up in Florida and relocated to Santa Monica in the mid-'70s). Drummer D. J. Bonebrake (b 8 December 1955, Burbank) was spotted in an L.A. club. The first single was 'Adult Books'/'We're Desperate' on a Dangerhouse label. They were spotted by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who produced their debut LP Los Angeles '80 on Slash. Doe and Cervenka married; their vocal duets and discordant harmonies were compared to Jefferson Airplane, though Cervenka was later more reminiscent of Siouxsie, like her becoming a more accomplished singer as time went by. Wild Gift was also produced by Manzarek, covering the Doors' 'Soul Kitchen' at a punk tempo.

Like most of the USA new wave, X were said to be chasing the tail of UK punk, but that was perhaps a Britcentric view. Maybe it is typical of California that Zoom's rockabilly influence (he claimed to have worked with Gene Vincent) and Doe's new wave affiliation could be combined to make fascinating if uneasy listening; furthermore, as Denise Sullivan at has pointed out, punks were supposed to hate hippies, but X's association with Manzarek did them no harm at all. In any case their live shows were fun; their humour and the quality of the lyrics by Doe and Cervenka were a good cut above UK punk's spitting contests. They were signed to Elektra for Under The Big Black Sun '82 and More Fun In The New World '83 (the latter had a rootsy side, and included a cover of Jerry Lee Lewis's 'Breathless'). X's songs were autobiographical, confronting the American dream (e.g. 'Riding With Mary' on Black Sun, an antidote to all those American car songs, about Exene's sister, who died in a car crash). Ain't Love Grand '85 was shot through with irony, songs dealing with the break-up of the Doe/ Cervenka personal relationship; yet it wasn't Doe but Zoom who left the band that year, replaced by the Blasters' Dave Alvin (b 11 November 1955, L.A.). Also in 1985, Alvin, Bonebrake, Cervenka, Doe and Jonny Ray Bartel on upright bass made an acoustic folk-rock album as the Knitters, Poor Little Critter On The Road, on Slash, later reissued on Rhino. Zoom played macaroni box on one track and Martin Lund also took part, on accordion, and the album paid tribute to Leadbelly, the Carter Family, and Merle Haggard, as well as including originals in the spirit.

X continued to mix demanding originals and idiosyncratic covers such as the Troggs' 'Wild Thing', Small Faces' 'All Or Nothing', etc; they also variously engaged in multimedia presentations and appeared in films. Doe was in Great Balls Of Fire and Roadside Prophets. The production of the X album Ain't Love Grand by heavy metal man Michael Wegener (Dokken, Accept) may have been seen as a sign of compromise by the punk police; the single 'Burning House Of Love' got radio play, but X went on their merry way. The semi-documentary film The Unheard Music '86 by writer/director W. T. Morgan was five years in the making, portraying the band in its L.A. context since the release of their first LP. They also appeared in Penelope Spheeris's punk documentary The Decline Of Western Civilization and in another film called Urgh! A Music War. The album See How We Are '87 saw them mellowing somewhat again, or was decidedly hard rock, depending on your point of view. Alvin returned to the Blasters on the death of his replacement, Hollywood Fats; then went solo; meanwhile X had added guitarist Tony Gilkyson (ex-Lone Justice, he is Eliza Gilkyson's brother, and also has a solo career.) Live At The Whiskey A Go-Go On The Fabulous Sunset Strip was a two-LP set '88; Hey Zeus was a Mercury CD.

In '82 Cervenka had published poetry with Lydia Lunch in Adulterers Anonymous. Cervenka and Doe made their own albums; her Twin Sisters '85 was a poetry LP with Wanda Coleman on one side, Cervenka on the other; his solo albums included Meet John Doe '90 and Kissingsohard '95. Cervenka's solo work also included Old Wives Tales and Running Scared on Rhino; there was a spoken-word recording Surface To Air Serpents as well as a reading of the Unabomber Manifesto using her birth name of Cerenkova. She also started short-lived bands, two of them called called Original Sinners and Auntie Christ.

In 2005 X released a CD and a DVD on Shout!Factory called X Live In Los Angeles (one song called 'Your Phone's Off The Hook, But You're Not'); while a Billy Zoom Rockabilly Band was to appear on stage in Bop Street, a tribute to Gene Vincent. And the Knitters decided that after 20 years perhaps they should do a follow-up album. In 1999 on Chicago's Bloodshot label there had been a tribute album called Poor Little Knitter On The Road with tracks by alt-country bands Whiskeytown, the Old 97's (with Doe) and Trailer Bride, as well as a previously unissued Knitters track, 'Why Don't We Try Anymore?' The Knitters played some gigs around that time, and finally got around to cutting The Modern Sound Of The Knitters in three days in Hollywood; the new album came out on Rounder, with the same lineup as the 1985 album, and included covers of Steppenwolf's 'Born To Be Wild' and the Stanley Brothers' 'Rank Stranger'; originals included 'The New Call Of The Wrecking Ball' (revisited from the Knitters' first album), and a studio recording of 'Skin Deep Town', previously only heard on X's Live At The Whiskey A Go-Go. Their name having been suggested by the Weavers in the first place, the Knitters' tongue-in-cheek profile on X's website had Exene 'Taking a long, thoughtful draw on her corncob pipe…' and claims that they were first recorded in 1927 by Ralph Peer (that first recording fell off the back of a Model A, or their career would have started much sooner). The unique Los Angeles sense of humor seemed to be intact.

Doe and X had not released a studio album for 20 years, but his energy had not flagged. In 2013 he appeared in two fiilms, with a bit part in a horror flick, Zombex, and a meatier role in Pleased To Meet Me, playing a stalled solo star who meets up with a new band. In early 2015 he had recently appeared in several concerts with Chris D. from The Flesh Eaters, and was touring to promote a compilation of his own The Best Of John Doe: Thus Far on Yep Roc, with new recordings of his own 'Take 52' and X's 'Poor Girl'. Doe and his X ex Exene were planning a Rails Express tour for the Spring with Robyn Hitchcock, but they had also been doing a Christmas tour which is becoming an annual event. Singer-Songwriter Joe Henry invited him to contribute to Divided And United--Songs Of The Civil War; Doe's assignment was 'Tenting On The Old Campground', which suited him: 'You came to realize how much this music meant to people...I saw a lot of pictures of people at campsites during the Civil War, sitting with instruments. And then they'd throw their mandolin in the back with the pots and pans.' And they were talking about a full-fledged X reunion album, where he and Cervenka would be free to write anything they want.