TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to take a look back at the LA punk scene with three people who helped define it - John Doe and Exene Cervenka, co-founders of the band X and Dave Alvin, who co-founded the Blasters with his brother Phil. After leaving the Blasters in 1985, Dave joined X for a few years as their lead guitarist, replacing Billy Zoom. John Doe has a new book called "Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History Of LA "Punk." It collects his personal essays along with essays by Dave and Exene, Henry Rollins, who fronted Black Flag, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's, Kristine McKenna, who wrote about the punk scene for the LA Times, Robert Lopez, aka El Vez, who played guitar with the Zeros and Tom Desavia, a music publisher and former journalist and A&R man who produced the X anthology "Beyond And Back" and edited the new book with John.
John Doe, Exene Cervenka and Dave Alvin are going to perform a couple of X songs for us. X still tours together, and next year marks the band's 40th anniversary. That's a long time. But when you listen back to their records, you still feel the energy and excitement. Let's listen to the title track of X's debut album "Los Angeles" released in 1980. As the description says, in Rolling Stone's list of the hundred best albums of the '80s, no album has succeeded better as a snapshot of a city and its punk subculture.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOS ANGELES")
JOHN DOE: (Singing) She had to leave...
EXENE CERVENKA: (Singing) Los Angeles.
DOE: (Singing) All her toys go around in black and her boys have, too. She started to hate every [expletive] and Jew, every Mexican that gave her a lot of [expletive].
CERVENKA: (Singing) Every homosexual and the idle rich.
DOE: (Singing) Idle rich. She had to get out.
CERVENKA: (Singing) Get out.
DOE: (Singing) Get out.
CERVENKA: (Singing) Get out.
DOE: (Singing) Get out.
CERVENKA: (Singing) Get out.
DOE: (Singing) She gets confused flying over the dateline.
GROSS: John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Dave Alvin, welcome all of you to FRESH AIR. So I want to ask you all what you thought was like new about punk and what drew on the past in punk. But first, John, I thought I'd ask you to read a poem about punk that you have in "The Big Black Sun."
DOE: Yes. I didn't really write this as a poem, but it kind of looks like one of those list poems. (Reading) Punk rock songs are not all screaming and yelling, three chords. Most Ramones songs are not two-minutes long, stupid lyrics with no leads, fast, loud and atonal. Punk rock songs are provocative, immediate, quick-driven, the title usually repeated many times, specific, fast, slow and in between.
GROSS: I like that. So what do you think was, like, new about punk and what do you think drew on from the past?
DOE: Just the attitude was new, freedom. And what it drew from the past was the danger and a little bit scary and a door that you maybe shouldn't have opened.
GROSS: And you write, you know, that X's melodies were simple, but the chord changes were often one step off of what was expected. I think like the melody is often a little off, too, in that respect. Like, I'm thinking, for instance, of "Johnny Hit And Run Pauline." The notes just go to this weird - I don't know if it's like a minor place, but it's just - kind of becomes flat in unusual places.
DOE: I - yeah.
DOE: I don't know. You know, it's nothing that we planned. It's just the way it came out.
DOE: One of the things that was going on in music at the time is that everything was all brainy and white guys and just thinking. And it was so much intellectualization and so much - so many notes and so many long, you know, songs and all that kind of stuff. And that was all left side of the brain. And then the right side was punk rock and it's just saying screw all of this. I'm going to just do something and see what happens.
GROSS: So I'd like you each to describe something that you think was unique to punk and more specifically to LA punk. Exene?
CERVENKA: Well, it was youth-based to some extent. Although, it was a free-for-all for outcasts. Anybody could belong to punk that wanted to be there, didn't matter how old you were or what you were like, persuasions, so it was similar in that way. I think the thing that probably set it apart was it had an eye more to the future than the immediate present, even though we were so present-based. Like everything was happening now.
We also wanted to save the world, to some extent, from what we saw coming - especially what I saw coming - which was the corporate takeover of culture and things like that. We wanted things to be, you know, real. And we thought that this music was going to prevent that from happening 'cause people would realize, oh, wow, this is what real music sounds like. We don't need corporate music, and we don't need corporate culture.
GROSS: Oh, mission accomplished. No more corporate music.
CERVENKA: Yeah, right?
CERVENKA: Hey, you know what...
GROSS: Well, done guys. Yeah.
CERVENKA: Hey, you know what?
CERVENKA: We were the ones trying to stop all that, and no one listened to us. So it's not our fault that people are where they are at now.
GROSS: Dave, anything you want to add to that?
DAVE ALVIN: Well, I was attracted to the LA thing because of the sense of community. And, you know - and inside of that community was, you know, various factions and clicks and this that and the other. But with the Blasters, we kind of floated around the clicks. But even inside even - with the cliques and sometimes the warring factions, everybody looked out for each other, you know. Everyone lended a helping hand. X helped the Blasters. The Blasters helped Los Lobos. You know, the Germs helped X. You can go down the list.
And what always amazed me was the huge variety of sounds that came out of the LA scene where certain scenes were maybe more limited in how they approached the music. In LA in that period of time, you did have everything from X to the Dickies, to the Screamers. There wasn't any rules really, you know?
GROSS: So I would like you to all play a song, like an X song for us and see how it sounds now acoustically (laughter) in the studios of NPR West.
DOE: Well, we - we can do that. And Dave and Exene and I after being asked to do a number of benefits and having other band members that will remain nameless not wanting to be, you know, benefiting El Salvador and that war - Dave and Exene and I thought let's just do a three-piece and we'll just do some fun stuff. So we made The Knitters, which was part of the, you know, early Americana thing. So this is kind of Knitter version of an X song, which is called "In This House That I Call Home." And let's try to stay on time and see if it happens.
ALVIN: Punk rock baby, punk rock.
DOE: Yes, that's right. One, two, three, four...
(PLAYING "IN THIS HOUSE THAT I CALL HOME")
X: (Singing) A hundred lines are shoved inside. Guests arrive to dump their mess. Obedient host and a visiting wife. Come out of the bedroom straightening clothes in this house that I call home, in this house that I call home. Beautiful walls are closing in. Looking at you, you're having a nightmare. Stumble over tombstone shoes. I reach to surround you but it's too soon. In this house that I call home, in this house that I call home nobody knows the party rules, got to get in but there's no room in this house that I call home, in this house that I call home.
GROSS: Thank you. That was John Doe, Exene Cervenka and Dave Alvin performing the X song "In This House That I Call Home." And a there's a new collection of personal essays about the LA punk scene. That's called "Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History Of La Punk." And John, Exene and Dave all wrote essays for that. John edited the book. So since we just heard your great harmonies, John and Exene, can you talk about how you came to the unique sound that you have together?
CERVENKA: Well, John is a really great singer and I'm not (laughter).
DOE: (Laughter) That's not true.
CERVENKA: And so when I was, you know, 20, I never sang. And he liked one of my songs and wanted to sing it with Billy. And I said if I have anything of value on this planet, it's just one song. No, you can't have it. I'm singing it, so I kind of got in there.
Anything went in the punk days, so it was just a good time to experiment and try to come up with whatever we wanted to do. And that's what we came up with, and it was not studied or learned. It was just kind of a crazy combination of things.
GROSS: And you'd never sung before?
GROSS: So kind of the - like, the DIY aesthetic of punk gave you permission to sing even though you didn't think of yourself as a singer?
CERVENKA: Yeah. Well, I don't know if that aesthetic had been established yet. I think we kind of all started that ourselves. So it wasn't like oh, everyone's doing this. I can do it, too. It's just kind of like - I don't know, it was just in the air.
ALVIN: In those days in the '70s, in the larger pop culture, everything was being planned, you know? And it was the beginning of nothing you would hear hadn't been approved by a committee, you know? And that went from advertising all the way down to popular music. It seemed that the sort of thing that made me turn up the radio when I was, you know, 8 years old - you know, the car radio with my mom driving - that thing had disappeared from music.
And so when I heard, for example, X, the first time I saw them live and heard the harmonies, yeah, I heard all sorts of things going on that - you know, I heard Richard and Mimi Farina happening, whether they knew it or not. You know, I heard the unique kind of folk Appalachian blend. I heard all these things going on that, you know, you just - you didn't hear on "The Love Boat," you know? And in those days, things like "The Love Boat" - kids today don't realize, you know, just how oppressive pop culture had become.
GROSS: My guests are John Doe and Exene Cervenka, co-founders of the band X, and Dave Alvin of The Blasters, who was also X's guitarist for a couple of years. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are John Doe and Exene Cervenka, co-founders of the band X, and Dave Alvin of The Blasters, who was also X's guitarist for a couple of years. John has a new book called "Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History Of LA Punk." Exene and Dave contributed essays to the book.
So can you go around the table and each share a story from the late '70s and '80s from the punk rock scene in LA that kind of typifies to you what the atmosphere was like that was so kind of exciting and/or dangerous, something that wouldn't have happened at any other time or in any other place?
DOE: Oh God, no pressure.
DOE: In '79, we became friends with this band called The Brat. And they were from East LA. We had them play with us a couple times. And Teresa, who also contributed to the book, invited us to a party in a backyard where they were going to play. And Exene and I went there, and we were really excited because this gave us - having all these young Latino kids coming in was like this is for real. It's not just a bunch of white runaways that like our music.
So we went there and it was great. And The Brat were playing, and they had a kind of pop sound. But they were a little more strange, and it was great. And then some guy pulls out a .45 and just starts banging off rounds like up in the air...
DOE: ...45 pistol and just shooting off rounds, and everyone just, like, scatters a little bit and goes oh, damn it. You know, uncle Tito is - like, gone off again. And he gets hustled out, and someone gives him a good talking to. And Exene and I thought wow, this is cool. This is punk rock. And, you know, it didn't actually seem that dangerous to me. That's the weird thing.
GROSS: Dave, you got one?
ALVIN: There was a club called The Starwood that I loved. And The Starwood was like - it had a dance club and had a live music club. It had a balcony - big balcony that if you had played the club, you could get into the club and hang out on the balcony. And every musician in town, no matter who was playing, was in the balcony trying to get drunk, trying to do this, that or the other.
And to me, a lot of the LA scene took place in that balcony of The Starwood. But then to get into The Starwood, especially with the rise of hard-core punk, you had to walk a gauntlet because there was a special entrance for musicians and this, that and the other. But to get into that thing, there was a gauntlet of skinhead kids that you had to pass through. And it was - every night was like this initiation rite where, you know - where, like, they do in New Guinea where there's guys in a line and they're hitting you with sticks, you know...
ALVIN: ...Just to get in. You know, and you just want to go to the club and have a beer, right? But I loved that club, and I loved the - sort of like in Kansas City back in the '30s with Pendergast and the corruption - created the great music scene of - you know, that gave us Count Basie and Lester Young and Charlie Parker. The Starwood was owned by a guy named Eddie Nash, who was this gangster - gangster drug dealer, murderer. And I'd have to go settle up with him sometimes. You know, we'd play - The Blasters would play. And then - in those days, I was the sort of the manager, gig guy. And so I would go at the end of the night and sit at Eddie Nash's table in his little office and pick up the money from this gangster. And so it was no different than Louis Armstrong playing for Al Capone or these kind of stories.
But The Starwood to me was Ground Zero of LA. It was all ages. Kids could get in. They could drive from Pomona or Pacoima. They could see X. They could see Fear. They could see The Germs. They could see The Blasters. They could see The Go-Go's. They could walk the gauntlet. They could get in fights. They could dance. They could fly through the air. And so that wonderful little bit of art and corruption meeting, you know? And to me, that's my memory. That's my - you know, that was my focal point of that scene.
CERVENKA: You know, I think for me, one of the greatest things was I lived down the street from The Starwood with John. We lived right there. We could walk there, you know? But the Whiskey a Go Go, of course, to me - just talking about clubs and scenes - I thought about that as being Johnny Rivers and The Doors. And I just thought of it as - you know, it's a mythical place. And the thing about going to the Whiskey for me that was great was if we were allowed in and we hadn't been, like, kicked out or whatever was walking down Sunset Boulevard to get to the Whiskey and having to walk a gauntlet again of Hells Angels. They'd have their motorcycles parked in the street, and then they'd be leaning up against the wall. So you'd have to walk between to them and their bikes.
And as a 20, 21-year-old, you know, it was really exciting and scary. But Mario, who wasn't - who kind of ran the Whiskey - he'd always let us in. John would talk to him. He'd go all right, go ahead, and he wouldn't charge us. We'd see Siouxsie And The Banshees or Blondie and all these great bands and all the local bands. And one day they said that I had a tab. I had a tab, and I could just get anything I wanted. Anytime I wanted to go to the Whiskey, which was probably, like, four nights a week, I could go and hang out and I could just sign my name and get anything I wanted. And pretty soon it turned into this thing where I would be sitting in a corner booth drinking martinis with all these, like - the more, like - oh, down-and-out-type people and stuff just sitting there all eating cheeseburgers and having to sign for it every night. And everyone - I was just, like, buying everybody cheeseburgers, buying everybody cheeseburgers, drinking all these martinis.
And I felt like the queen of the world at the Whiskey in the same booths - you know, it could've been The Doors or Johnny Rivers. It was just so exciting. And I felt so grown up and so sophisticated. And then, of course, one day I got the word that there was no more tab for me.
GROSS: So let's talk about the mosh pits in LA punk. And I'm curious what it was like for you to be on stage looking down on the mosh pit and if any of you ever did the thing where you jump into the pit and people hopefully support you (laughter) after you jump down that...
CERVENKA: I'm definitely going to field this one.
CERVENKA: I'm definitely going to field this one.
CERVENKA: The first person I ever saw jump into the audience was me, OK?
GROSS: Oh no...
CERVENKA: And that happened at The Masque when there were, like, 14 people and the stage and was 4 inches tall. In other words, that started in the punk days of people comingling with each other. The band and the audience were one. We wanted to blur the lines. No one was a celebrity. I'm on stage; you're on stage. I'm in the audience; you're in the audience. We were interacting with each other physically - jumping up and down, grabbing each other, just being kids.
The mosh pit is the organized version of that that came much later in the hard-core scene where men run around in circles. And I think that describes both of those scenes kind of a little bit - the hard-core scene was different. So that was a much later creation. We didn't hurt each other or have an organized version of that. We weren't - we were just more, like, spontaneous than that. So no - when we first started seeing that, we were like what the heck?
GROSS: When you started seeing the more violent version of the mosh pit, is that what you mean?
CERVENKA: Well, when we started, like, Dave was talking about with the gauntlet, it's like whatever happened to just, you know, walking down the street and going into the club and having a good time? All of a sudden, it became very - in a weird way, it was kind of, like, almost like a political correctness thing. Like, you had to be...
CERVENKA: ...A certain way to be allowed to be a punk rocker. And then we were like - we didn't know where they were coming from with that. So...
ALVIN: Yeah, it became this thing of - in the early days, there kind of was no rules, right? And then - I won't say what year but it was early '80s - there became rules of this is punk rock, this isn't punk rock. And when you would walk the gauntlet or when you would play a gig, you know, and some 16-year-old kid decided that no, you weren't punk rock and you're going to get a beer thrown at you, that kind of thing, it - you know, it kind of soured me eventually on the scene because the violence got to a point where it seemed like there were guys that were - you know, they heard about this stuff called punk rock and you could go - you could bash into each other in front of the stage.
And then it became I'm going to go beat somebody's brains out tonight because that's what's cool. And that became kind of really weird.
GROSS: My guests are John and Doe and Exene Cervenka, co-founders of the band X, and Dave Alvin, who co-founded The Blasters with his brother Phil Alvin, was the and X's guitarist for a couple of years. John has a new book called "Under The Big Black Sun: The Personal History Of LA Punk." Exene and Dave contributed essays to the book. After we take a short break, they'll perform more songs. And John and Exene will tell the story of how they met. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with John Doe and Exene Cervenka, co-founders of the seminal LA punk band X and Dave Alvin, who co-founded the Blasters with his brother Phil and was X's guitarist for a couple of years. John Doe has a new book called "Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History Of LA Punk." It collects his personal essays along with essays by Exene, Dave and others who were part of that scene in the '70s and '80s. Well, Dave, you tell a story in "Under The Big Black Sun" about a bottle that was thrown at you. Would you tell that story?
ALVIN: Well, I had a few, you know. Everybody did in those days.
GROSS: Sorry to hear it, but go ahead. Yeah.
ALVIN: Yeah, no, there was one particular one. I had a '61 Fender Mustang - and I still have it - but that was the guitar that I played back then. And we were playing the Cuckoo's Nest opening for an Orange County hard-core band called the Crowd. You know, a lot of the people in the audience liked the Blasters. And it was OK and everything's cool, and everything's great. But then there's an element of the audience that hated the Blasters. You know, we were almost like their older brothers who liked rhythm and blues. You know, and they were going to show their displeasure. And yeah, one kid threw this beer bottle really well. And he threw it right at my head.
And I raised - in one of - maybe the greatest moment of my life physically - I raised the guitar up to cover my face at exactly the time that it got to my face. But the guitar got in the way. And, yeah, there's about a 6-inch long, quarter-of-an-inch deep gash in the Mustang to this day from that beer bottle. And, you know, that kind of stuff happened. You know, I remember it was in the '90s - about in the mid-'90s when I started relaxing before I went onstage because I could go out and nobody's going to throw anything. I think those days are in the past for me, you know.
DOE: It was very important to keep your eyes open.
ALVIN: Yes, at all times.
DOE: Very important.
GROSS: Did you ever wonder, like, what is it about the music that is connecting with that kind of chaos and violence? I mean, you had, obviously, your own kind of energy and anarchy and defiance and anger, but it wasn't about beating people up. And it wasn't asking people to commit harmful acts against each other, and certainly not to throw bottles at you. So like...
CERVENKA: What happened was punk converged at the same time that Southern California suburbia was collapsing, and people were getting divorced and their kids were doing drugs in the morning before school 'cause it was on the coffee table and drinking. And there were all these homeless kids and all these lost kids that were getting into skateboarding and surfing and looking for a connection. And, you know, the gang thing was definitely starting up, and I think that it was just a misunderstanding with the media kind of portraying punk as violent through the Sex Pistols kind of stuff and the spitting because the spitting didn't start in LA until 1980. And it ruined everything we owned and never got it out of my clothes. And I think it was just this weird convergence of a timeline thing of what these poor kids were really - they were very angry. And I think they just misunderstood.
DOE: I agree with that. But I'd add that it's something that you can't really explain. It's like why do people want to have sex after listening to Elvis Presley?
ALVIN: Well, that's pretty obvious.
CERVENKA: I was going to say...
ALVIN: Well, like you can't have sex after listing to Lawrence Welk.
ALVIN: No, it's a feeling. It's what I mean.
CERVENKA: We're kidding you.
ALVIN: The music was fast and the music was like chaotic, and it was like (screaming). And so it's this primal scream, and people just go berzerk. It took me a while to realize that when the shoe got thrown onstage that probably the person who owned the shoe didn't throw it. It was probably his friend who ripped the shoe off of his friend and threw it onstage. It's like, there. Have fun getting home, dummy.
ALVIN: For all the discussion of the violence which was a part of that scene, I don't think that it was the same. And so, you know, we could tell stories for hours about weird things that happened. I once saw John literally smashing his hand to bits on the stage of the Starwood, you know, because this guy was making lewd gestures at Exene, and John's foot took care of the guy. You know, we all have stories - hours of stories like that.
DOE: Who me?
ALVIN: You, yeah. I was propped up in the balcony drinking a beer, trying to get a girl and saw you. Anyway - but the violence that was part of the scene wasn't a scene. It wasn't what got you up every morning 'cause in those days, there was a buzz in the air. And every night there was a different club with a great band playing, and the creativity was electric.
GROSS: Can I ask you to do another X song acoustically in our studio?
DOE: Sure. Should we try the "The World's A Mess, It's In My Kiss?"
GROSS: That's a great idea.
DOE: One, two, one, two, three, four.
CERVENKA: (Singing) No one is united and all things are untied. Perhaps we're boiling over inside. They've been telling lies. Who's been telling lies? There are no angels. There are devils in many ways. Take it like a man. The world's a mess, it's in my kiss. The world's a mess, it's in my kiss. The world's a mess, it's in my kiss. The world's a mess; it's in my kiss.
Can't take it back and pull it out of the fire. Pull it out in the bottom of the ninth. Pull it out in chords of red-disease. There's a drag in my system. There's a drag in my head and body. There's some facts here that refuse to escape. And I could say it stronger, but it's too much trouble. I was wandering down at bricks, hectic isn't it? Down we go, cradle and all. The world's a mess, it's in my kiss. The world's a mess, it's in my kiss. The world's a mess, it's in my kiss. The world's a mess, it's in my kiss.
GROSS: Thank you.
DOE: Stronger than dirt.
GROSS: (Laughter) Ajax laundry detergent.
DOE: We've learned our lessons from The Doors.
GROSS: Yeah, well, you know, I realized this from The Doors, and Ray Manzarek produced, like, your first few albums and plays on some of your music, too. That would've been - that must've been like remarkable for you. You were big fans of the Doors. And then you ended up working with one of them.
DOE: Exene and I were big fans of The Doors. I wish that I remembered the night that we met. I know it was at the Whisky a Go Go, and I still miss Ray Manzarek. He was a mentor for sure, a bit of a father figure to both of us. And it was. It was a miracle, like this is a real rock star. The Doors were huge and somehow they kind of passed in punk rock because they were chaotic and dark, and they meant it. And it was real. And Ray did the first four records with us. It was terrific.
GROSS: And he does a real Ray Manzarek organ solo on the recording of "The World's A Mess, It's In My Kiss."
DOE: Yes. Yeah, he does.
GROSS: All right. This is a good time to take a break then we'll be right back and talk some more. My guests are John Doe and Exene Cervenka, the co-founders of the band X. Dave Alvin is with us as well. Dave became the lead guitarist from 1985 to '88, and is on their album "See How We Are." And they've all written essays for the new book "Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History Of LA "Punk" which was edited by John. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are musicians and songwriters John Doe, Exene Cervenka and Dave Alvin. John and Exene co-founded the seminal punk band X in 1978. Dave Alvin became the band's lead guitarist, replacing Billy Zoom, after Dave left the band The Blasters. John also has a new solo album called "The Westerner." John and Exene, I'd like you to tell the story of how you met because your meeting is actually a really important contribution to the history of punk and to American music.
CERVENKA: So I moved to Southern California, didn't really know where I was. I was in Venice. I got a - I don't know what you call it - the state was giving me free training to learn a skill. So I learned typeset and - typesetting and layout, which, you know, wouldn't know - these people - nowadays, wouldn't know what that is, but anyway, pretend like I'm on a computer.
OK, so then I'm in - I get a placement at this place called Beyond Baroque, which is a Venice poetry workshop, started in the '60s, really amazing place. And I'm working in the library in there. And I'm learning this skill. And I'm - I find out there are these poetry readings. I'm living upstairs in this little apartment. And I go one night because I'm a writer and I came to California with no career ideas at all - just wanted to get out of Florida. Get there, sit down, guy sits next to me and, you know, we met.
And so we met the - both the first night we went to this poetry workshop. And we ended up being part of that. And my son and his dad still are part of that. My son does things there all the time. So it's kind of cool that Beyond Baroque is still there. It's still, you know, a resource for people. It's an amazing place. So it was great that that's where we met rather than a bar - for once. For once, I met someone not in a bar.
GROSS: So John, do you want to add to that story?
DOE: Yeah, I sat down to - I sat down next to Exene because she was the coolest person in the room - the coolest, youngest, best looking person in the room. Little did I realize she was also the smartest and had the most soul and everything else. But they asked us to fill out a piece of paper with our ten favorite writers. And Exene - the first - one of the first things she did was cheat off my paper.
DOE: She had a few people. And she goes, I don't know poets, what the hell is this, you know? So she looks at my paper and says, oh, by the way, you wrote John Ashbery twice. And it's, like, I'm an idiot. So...
GROSS: So there's a big kind of romantic ideal of what it must be like to be lovers and in a band together. And John and Exene, you kind of lived through that. So I'm wondering, like, what's the reality like? (Laughter) Like, what are some of the best and worst parts of being lovers and also being in a band and being on stage every - you know, so many nights together?
CERVENKA: Well, I think it's a hard thing to do because you both want to be great, but you're in these weird situations, you know, where people are kind of like hitting on you or are trying to, like, get to meet you and it - so you have to be pretty solid. And we were pretty solid there, I think. I think the hardest part was sharing the hotel rooms with the roadies because we didn't have enough money to have our own. That was a little awkward night after night, especially when they brought people back, you know?
But, you know, I think we had a really sane life, actually. We lived in - for a while we lived on, like, the east side of - kind of LA and the Mount Washington area. And we had this little wooden house that friends referred to as the Haney Place (ph). And, you know, we had - we would have a cat. And we would, you know, get up in the morning and eat really nice breakfast and then do fun stuff - go to museums, and, you know, be healthy and, you know, eat Mexican food and hang out with our friends. And then at night, we'd just go wild.
And we'd rehearse and make - you know, make up all this stuff, all these songs. And it was - it was fantastic really. But, you know, like any relationship, you know, people do change. So - but I think we - we coped with that whole thing of being together all the time pretty well, you know, because it can be hard when you're in such a kind of a - I don't want to say it was a stressful lifestyle, but it was pretty action-packed and so a lot of things could happen.
DOE: Yeah, I would say the best part of it is that you know what each other is going through because you're with each other 24/7. But that's also the bad part because you're with each other all the time. In retrospect, I would've given Exene a lot more space.
DOE: I would've given myself a little more space.
DOE: And, you know, it was great, but I think that the difficulty comes in when you - I don't know, you don't like arguing in the same way (laughter). Exene wouldn't argue the way that I wanted her to argue (laughter).
GROSS: What do you mean?
DOE: I don't know. She just wouldn't - she wouldn't get into it. She would just say, I can't. And then she'd just stop. And it would drive me insane. But she was smart because I was probably too volatile to - to engage at that point.
CERVENKA: Do we have to pay you $200 for this?
DOE: We could split it.
GROSS: One of the problems I could see, if you're a couple, if the relationship ends, you know, if the marriage ends, what happens to the band? So when your marriage ended, were you able to play together effectively as a band?
CERVENKA: Well, here's the problem - the thing is that during the time when John and I were kind of splitting up, also Billy didn't want to play anymore. So, you know, there's a lot of changes going on. Luckily, we did have Dave and Tony Gilkyson. And we kept going for a while, but, you know, then we met people. We had kids. So, you know, it was just I think the life of the band kind of ended around the same time the life of the marriage kind of ended. So it was just time for change.
I mean, I met John when I was 20. We were together from the time I was 20, you know, so we were pretty young. And I think we just wanted to do different things. But we still obviously get along great. We still work work together all the time. So, you know, X is still playing. We should say X plays millions of shows, and we are probably happier with each other in - all the four of us than we ever have been. And I think we're a better band even then we used to be. So it all worked out really.
DOE: I would say that Exene and I met as friends, then we became romantically involved and then we ended as better friends. We just had to be adult. I felt like it was fate that we met. And I felt like, you know, Exene and I share something that - it's like a soul mate thing that a lot of people don't get a chance to, and I'm really grateful for that. X is actually about to celebrate our 40th anniversary. That's pretty frightening - 1977.
GROSS: I know that Billy Zoom has had cancer. And there was, you know, a campaign to raise money for him. How is his health? Is he able to perform? Does he have enough money...
CERVENKA: He's great.
GROSS: ...To take care of himself?
CERVENKA: Billy's great. And this is his second cancer so he says he doesn't worry about this one so much but the next one he's kind of concerned about. He's funny. He's got the best sense of humor of any one in the world. But actually, he's doing fantastic. And I think he really appreciates that he can still do it.
GROSS: I find it kind of upsetting that - that, you know, with all of the great music that X contributed, that he didn't have enough money to pay for his medical bills. And I know there's...
CERVENKA: Nobody does.
GROSS: And Exene, there was a period when you were having trouble with medical bills and there just seems to be something inherently unfair about that?
CERVENKA: Well, actually, I never had trouble paying my bills. I've never had a benefit. I was misdiagnosed with a really bad disease, and I had to wrestle with that. But the thing is that he - you know, people have insurance and they have Medicare. That doesn't pay your medical bills. Obamacare doesn't pay your medical bills. Nothing pays your medical bills unless you're on a total 100-percent assistance from the government or something, I suppose.
So The Knitters - that's why The Knitters started - to help people pay their bills. You know, you just take care of things. You know, just like any kind of civilized society, you take care of each other. You know, you can't depend on the government or insurance or anything. It's just out of control.
ALVIN: You know, it's one of the things about the LA scene of those days is we all live different lives now. You know, we all don't live at the Canterbury, and drink beer and hang out - wish we could.
But a couple years back, when my brother was very ill and we needed to raise money quickly, all I did was pick up the phone, got a hold of John and Exene and said, can you help Phil, my brother who was sick? Called Los Lobos, can you help Phil? Everybody came. It was like 1982 again. Everybody came because we were part of a tribe. And even though the tribe is scattered now, we still come together to help each other. And yeah, these days it seems to be all about health issues as opposed to other things.
DOE: If we wanted security, we would've chosen another job. So it's all right. It's OK. You know, in that way, we're still on the fringe, and that's a good place to be.
GROSS: My guests are John Doe and Exene Cervenka, co-founders of the band X. And Dave Alvin of the Blasters, who was also X's guitarist for a couple of years. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are John Doe and Exene Cervenka, co-founders of the band, X and Dave Alvin of the Blasters, who was also X's guitarist for a couple of years. John has a new book called "Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History Of LA Punk." Exene and Dave contributed essays to the book.
John, you have - of everybody's albums here, you've got the most recent one. It's called "The Westerner." One of the songs on it is a song that Exene wrote. It's a great song called "Alone in Arizona." And I thought it would be, like, really great if you could sing the song together. Since you've each recorded it separately - Exene, you recorded it on your 2011 album. John, you recorded it on your new album. You don't perform it with each other on your albums, so could I bring you together to perform it together now?
CERVENKA: Sure. Also, on my version, Dave played on it - on my album, so it's kind of interesting.
GROSS: Oh, so it brings you all together. Beautiful.
CERVENKA: We're all here.
DOE: Oh, I'd like to say that this was - I dedicated my record to an old friend of ours that passed away, Michael Blake. I think about him every time I play or sing this song.
CERVENKA: (Singing) My heart is blue, losing you. My soul is still losing you. The road is rough, I'm losing you.
DOE: (Singing) Losing you.
CERVENKA: (Singing) The sun beats down, losing you. My heart's in California. I'm alone in Arizona. My heart's in California. I'm alone in Arizona. Found her where it shouldn't be, I'm losing you.
DOE: (Singing) Losing you.
CERVENKA: (Singing) Cactus run away from me. I'm losing you. The shades I've drawn, losing you. My eyes are closed. I'm losing you. My heart's in California. I'm alone in Arizona. My heart's in California. I'm alone in Arizona. My heart's in California. I'm alone in Arizona. My heart's in California. I'm alone in Arizona.
GROSS: That was John Doe, Exene Cervenka and Dave Alvin performing Exene's song "Alone In Arizona," which Exene recorded on her most recent album and John Doe recorded on his new album. That new album is called "The Westerner." It's a beautiful song. John, you said you always think of your friend Michael Blake when you sing it. Tell us something about him and his connection to this song.
DOE: Well, Michael Blake is a close friend of ours - passed away last year. He wrote "Dances With Wolves" and a number of other books. That's what he's best known for. He was also just a wild, free spirit. We got to be friends in the early '80s, and he and Exene were very, very close. I'm not sure that that's necessarily about him, but I think of it as about him.
GROSS: Exene, is it about him?
GROSS: OK. That clears that up.
CERVENKA: No, it's not - but it definitely is now. I mean, it wasn't written about him, but yeah, he lived in Arizona. And before he died, I spent a lot of time going out there to be with him and help him out a little bit and John did, too, so now it is.
GROSS: I'm so grateful to the three of you for your music and for doing our show today. Thank you so much, and all best to the three of you.
CERVENKA: Thank you so much.
ALVIN: You got it.
DOE: You're welcome, thanks.
GROSS: John Doe has a new book called "Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History Of LA Punk" that includes essays by Exene Cervenka and Dave Alvin as well as others who were part of that scene. John Doe also has a new album called "The Westerner." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...
(SOUNDBITE OF 2016 WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS' DINNER)
LARRY WILMORE: Welcome to Negro night here at Washington - or as Fox News will report, two thugs disrupt elegant dinner in D.C.
GROSS: That's Larry Wilmore doing stand-up at President Obama's final White House Correspondents' Dinner Saturday night. Tomorrow, I'll talk with him about his performance and its very controversial ending. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a track from John Doe's new album, "The Westerner."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNLIGHT")
DOE: (Singing) Dirty little arms, dirty little hands, shoelaces untied, zipper broken, warm-blooded horse, red-hard kid. He trusted her. His dad never did. Like summer fall, his mom checked out. His uncle Bill was always hanging around, but all he ever wanted was a little patch of sun. All he ever wanted was a little patch of sunlight, sunlight.
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