’70s Punk Legends Bask In Legacy
MADISON, Wis. — With 40-year-old soccer moms and bohemian punk-rock lifers moshing together at the front of the stage, Los Angeles punk legends X returned to Madison on Friday night for what might have produced a snide snicker in their late ’70s scene: a reunion tour.
While reunions are often perceived as just simply a journey through sentimentality or worse, an opportunity to bilk fans for a repackaged, grayer version of the original, none could be stranger — and few are as exhilarating — as X’s hour-plus set at the Barrymore Theatre.
There was the incongruous sight of a handful of gray hairs and baldies trying to crowd surf as they rubbed shoulders with the younger, more pierced fans hoping to catch a glimpse of what they missed the first time. Then, there was the idea that one of punk’s greatest combos is now an unashamed nostalgia act — they last recorded together in the early ’90s — and yet, they can still pull off a performance as ferociously exciting and dynamic as the old days. And lastly, there was X guitarist Billy Zoom, who would definitely be a finalist in VH1’s new reality-show competition, “Who’s Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Biggest Ham?”
Strange is certainly a description that the members of X are used to, especially considering how they seemed quite the odd duck when compared with their punk compatriots. While groups like the Germs or the Weirdos remained true to the Ramones’ musical template, X followed a different path. Just like how the Clash stood out from the English punk scene, X was the truly the best exemplar for the L.A. punks.
Both the Clash and X offered a broader, more musical and more complicated vision of punk rock’s charging attack. While the Clash were inveterate dabblers in stylistic genres and at least paid lip service to a political agenda in their music, X was firmly rooted in American roots music. And at the same time, the group’s brain trust — singer Exene Cervenka and bassist/vocalist John Doe — sought a more allegorical tact with their lyrics.
X’s current swing through the country — billed as a 31st anniversary tour — is another celebration of the band’s musical achievements, chiefly its twin landmark records 1980’s “Los Angeles” and 1981’s “Wild Gift.” Those records propelled the band to the forefront of the punk movement and for awhile, put them in the running as one of rock’s best bands. This is surely a legacy worth reliving.
But at the same time, this is only the latest in a string of reunion tours the band has mounted in recent years. And the idea that the concert posters promoting the show boast that this incarnation of X includes all original members is a grim reminder that those who once sought to toss out rock’s clichés are perilously close to embracing it.
Sniping aside, the group sought to transport the crowd back to those heady days in the late ’70s and played only the best of their greatest hits. Their Good Friday performance was equal parts frenetic exuberance, melodic dynamism and savage beauty. The most intense moments had the suburbanites slam dancing as if the babysitter at home was staying all night.
The crowd’s focus remained on the group’s co-leaders, Cerevenka and Doe. Once husband and wife as well as collaborators, they certainly still share an unusual musical chemistry (or have convincingly recreated it) that allowed them to develop their trademark close vocal harmonies. They sometimes sounded like country songbirds.
Other times, they just yelped in unison. Cerevenka, wearing a black doll dress that she borrowed from Wednesday from “The Addams Family,” appropriately howled out brutal cuts like “Johny Hit And Run Pauline” and “Los Angeles.” The Yin to her Yang, Doe, a sometime character actor and underrated solo artist, plucked out the basslines with a thoroughly broken-in axe and crooned Johnny Cash-style on “Sugarlight.”
With 30 years of practice under their belts, the band made their hits more powerful and so much more thrilling than their recorded versions. Obviously, some of the nuances were lost with the amps cranked loud, but no one in the packed theater cared.
What made this ’70s flashback truly surreal was Zoom’s onstage hamming. He relished every moment of adulation — a little too much so. While Doe, Cervenka and drummer D.J. Bonebrake had the exuberant energy and steely focus you’d expect of your veteran punks, Zoom seemed completely unflustered by playing any of these old licks.
Instead, he strolled the stage looking like a goofy-faced geezer dressed like a ’50s greaser. He mouthed words to audience members, chatted a little with a roadie while playing and generally made it clear he wasn’t challenged at all by playing the band’s back catalog. He was much more interested in showing off. At one point during a song, he nudged Doe away from his mic for no reason at all except that he wanted to showboat in front of the people on that side of the stage. Like a pet that looks like its owner, Zoom’s sparkly Gretsch guitar suited him perfectly.
To add to the bizarreness of the whole experience, at the end of each set (the band was called back for two encores), Zoom produced a small camera and took photos of select people in the audience. Was he taking shots of pretty punk fans to enjoy later on the bus? Was this an “act,” some kind of acted-out commentary on the how he was turning the tables on the crowd to snap shots of them? Who knows!
To be fair, Zoom remains one of rock’s most underappreciated axe men and his rockabilly-influenced shredding was expert economy of motion. When he stood still, he remained in the guitarist’s “power position,” as Jack Black instructed in “School Of Rock,” and in a few strokes from his picking hand produced a blur of frantic notes and melodic squiggles. While he played each classic barre chord like he could do it in his sleep, he showed his nuanced mastery of feedback as well as how bestial his old riffs were.
Perhaps the weirdest part of all this was how fantastic the band still sounded. As guitarist Zoom hammered out the classic metalloid riffs of “Nausea,” Cerevenka tilted her head back and hollered the lyrics about the mother of all hangovers with emphatic shouts. Bonebrake, meanwhile, bashed at the drums to mimic her pounding headache.
The two highlights of a night full of them were probably “The Unheard Music” and “White Girl,” which fully combined Zoom’s dexterity, Cervenka and Doe’s vocal charisma and Bonebrake’s solid kitwork.
On the former, Zoom made his guitar alternate between a menacing riff-fest, a funeral organ and the musical equivalent of an undulating Jim Morrison slithering on the stage. Zoom’s guitar antics were a counterpoint to how Cervenka and Doe sang in perfectly restrained tandem as if they were folk singers slumming in a punk group.
With “White Girl,” the band exquisitely reenacted how it once drew together its other influences and blended them into a new form of punk. The song had a cutthroat quality to satisfy the diehards, but the kind of structural sophistication to suggest that Cervenka and Doe listened to avant-garde bands like the Velvet Underground or Stooges as much as they loved Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins.
In one last strange twist, X’s performance did the exact opposite of what so many reunion shows are meant to accomplish. A reunion show’s goal is usually to praise a time, a place and a music that has slipped away. At their best, they’re meant to inspire fans to wish that they had been there the first time around.
On Friday, X didn’t do that. Those who walked out into the snow felt lucky to have seen them that day. They didn’t want to be anywhere but here and now.
X’s Remaining Tour Dates:
- March 31, Seattle
- April 9, San Diego
- April 10 and Friday, April 11, Los Angeles
- April 12, Las Vegas
- May 15, Detroit
- May 16, Cincinnati
- May 17, Cleveland
- May 18, Columbus, Ohio
- May 20, Boston
- May 24, New York City
- May 28, Asheville, N.C.
- May 31, New Orleans
- June 3, Houston
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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.