Punk rock lives on with fest openers X
by Ryan McDonald
It wouldn’t be a punk rock show if a few street urchins didn’t sneak in. By that measure and others, Thursday night’s BeachLife kickoff party featuring L.A. legends X was indeed punk rock.
X, who along with Black Flag were one of six bands to appear in the influential first installment of “The Decline of Western Civilization” documentary trilogy, played a wide-ranging set that showcased the rockabilly influences and poetic sensibilities that helped the group stand out in the rapidly evolving Southern California punk scene of the late ‘70s. Just as diverse as the music was the crowd inside the ballroom at Redondo Beach’s Crowne Plaza, which ranged from those old enough to have been of age for X’s first shows in 1977, to the ticket-less 20-somethings, who found a side entrance and heard the story of punk unfold on stage.
Lead singer Exene Cervenka didn’t say much in between songs. But as guitarist Billy Zoom affixed a saxophone to a mic stand and the band began a run of slower songs from its third album “Under the Big Black Sun,” she took a moment to recall that the group faced a bit of a backlash when it brought out what she described as “jazz influences.”
“A lot of people at the time said that wasn’t for a punk rock band. But we didn’t think so,” Cervenka said.
X has long had a knack for confounding those who would pigeonhole them; just watch them flummox an underprepared David Letterman in between songs during a 1983 appearance on his late night TV show. Thursday’s crowd got it. The nascent mosh pit that had formed to the energy of “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” and “Some Other Time” gave way to something approaching slow dancing as the band slinked and crooned its way through “Come Back to Me.”
Even the mellower songs, however, had a surprising energy, and the whole set list seemed to be played at a faster tempo than found on its albums. Combined with an assertively blasting volume, it was proof that despite time and health scares — Cervenka announced she has multiple sclerosis in 2009, and Zoom underwent treatment for bladder cancer in 2015 — X had not slowed down. As has always been the case for the band, the rhythm section provided much of the drive. Bassist John Doe hopped with a teenager’s urgency and zest, while drummer DJ Bonebrake moved around the stage to contribute percussion of all kinds, including a xylophone.
Southern California has long had to endure sneering slights about its cultural seriousness, most of them coming from people living in New York City. (Truman Capote: “It’s redundant to die in Los Angeles.”) The punk rock of the region is no exception, and X has occasionally been the act that music critics use to defend it against charges of vapidness; Robert Christgau, the “dean of American rock critics” and another New Yorker — albeit one who gave “Wild Gift,” X’s second album, a rare A+ rating — once wrote that X made “a smart argument for a desperately stupid scene.” Beyond a lack of subtlety to be expected of invective launched from 3,000 miles away, these critiques share the premise that X exists despite, not because of, its Southern California roots, which gets things exactly backward. X has always stood for what is vibrant and authentic about the area, even if it might not be what East Coasters like.
As the set drew to a close, they offered their high-energy cover of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen,” and “Nausea,” their ode to the hangover, which sounded liberated without Ray Manzarek’s keyboards lording over it. (Manzarek, of the Doors, produced the band’s first four albums.) There was some grumbling in the crowd that the band had completed its encore without playing “Los Angeles,” its paean to a city people love to hate. But it seemed oddly fitting as a kickoff to BeachLife, which positioned itself as a music festival for the South Bay, rather than generic Southern California. Indeed, the Crowne Plaza itself is hallowed ground for the region’s music history. Decades earlier the land was home to the Fleetwood, a notorious venue that hosted some of the most famous shows from the first generation of Southern California punk.
“I couldn’t be happier that X is on the bill, and I pushed really hard on that,” Pennywise frontman, and BeachLife Creative Director Jim Lindberg said. “I’ve often said that only two good things have come out of L.A.: Mexican food, and X.”