Exene Cervenka is punk rock. She doesn’t care about perception, she didn’t have any idols and she no longer believes that anything is shocking. While she faced a health scare nearly a decade ago, Cervenka, 59, is fine now — and she’s back on the road with John Doe as X, the seminal punk rock band responsible for Los Angeles the record and, at least partially, the sound of 1980s Los Angeles.
“Sometimes you get sick and no one around you can figure out what’s wrong with you,” said Cervenka of her own health. “And that’s what happened to me. I got so sick of people saying, ‘You’ve got this’ or ‘You’ve got that.’ The truth is that I don’t have anything identifiable and I’m in really good shape. I’m more concerned about Billy [Zoom, guitarist] at this point, you know?”
Zoom stepped away from the band earlier this year to battle a bladder cancer diagnosis; his last show, for now, was played in July. Tens of thousands of dollars have been raised for his medical expenses via GoFundMe, and while everyone is optimistic he’ll be able to return to the road, he’s also, at 67, the oldest member of the band.
Jesse Dayton has stepped in to save the fall tour, a Beaumont, Texas-based guitarist who has backed many of Doe’s solo projects. Dayton has also backed Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and he’s worked with Rob Zombie. He’s at the crossroads of everything the Cervenka and Doe’s music became; a duo that not only joined forces for X, but also for its folkier cousin, The Knitters.
“Punk rock is the same as folk music,” Cervenka said. “You can tell stories. It’s music for the people. We always just thought the two were the same. A lot of bluegrass is super fast – faster than punk rock.”
It’s a trend that’s been prominent recently: Chuck Ragan of Hot Water Music went the way of “Americana,” and so did Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional with Twin Forks. Jamie Barrier was the forefather of “punk goes bluegrass” in Alabama, starting a career with the Wednesdays, working his way through the Quadrajets and now serving as the frontman of Pine Hill Haints. But maybe that concept began with X.
“It didn’t become anything and it didn’t evolve,” she said. “Punk was punk and other music came later. And that music isn’t punk music. I didn’t evolve. I’m still me. I’m the same person.
“Those were bands that chose a style of music they liked and they built on it. If they consider themselves punk, that’s their thing and it’s fine with me. But, no, I don’t think Green Day evolved out of the Alley Cats. I think there were a bunch of bands in the ‘70s and ‘80s that were really unique and it was a great thing for a moment and some people are influenced by that, I suppose. Some people are influenced by The Clash. But that doesn’t mean The Clash evolved into other bands.”
Los Angeles, the band’s seminal 1980 debut album, set a new standard for Los Angeles punk rock, whether anything evolved from it or not.
“There were a lot of amazing bands,” said Cervenka of the Los Angeles ‘70s. “The Weirdos, the Screamers, the Alley Cats, the Plugs, the Zeros…all those bands – tons of music, and no two sounded alike. It wasn’t like the hardcore scene at all. There were some hardcore bands, but that was a different scene. And there wasn’t MTV or radio or videos or CDs or Internet, so people just created something and brought it out to show other people.”
Los Angeles and their 1981 follow-up Wild Gift were ranked by Rolling Stone among the Top 500 Albums of All Time; it’s a good thing they created and shared.
She’s not convinced we’ll be shocked again, looking at the recent MTV Video Music Awards as an example of the industry’s desensitization. “It’s a media-fueled race to the bottom, and they’re getting there pretty quick and they’re dragging everyone with them,” said Cervenka. “At this point, there’s no such thing as the ability to shock anyone. People are probably pretty bored. How shocking can people get? Will people be having sex with animals at the VMAs at some point? I’m not interested in corporate celebrities and their antics. It doesn’t interest me and I don’t think it interests most people.
“I picked up a USA Today and they had a big article about Kanye West and how he alters his voice to fit certain situations. Half a page. A whole page on Caitlyn Jenner and her style choices – how much her purse cost, what kind of clothes she wears, how you can get the same look she has. And I don’t think anyone in America voted to have that [expletive] given to them. Six corporations control 90 percent of the media and they have an agenda. The other story is about how everybody is gender-fluid and LGBT-happy and incorporating same-sex stuff in their music and how that’s progressive – that’s old news to me. When I was 17, I was going to gay bars in Tampa. A million years ago. It’s just like, why? Why is everyone supposed to be interested in that? But pretty soon, they’re going to run out of things to flash in front of people’s eyes to keep them hypnotized.”
Cervenka is a punk rock icon among a group of women that include Patti Smith and Joan Jett; Kim Gordon and Courtney Love. But no one set the bar for her. She didn’t have heroes. And when she arrived, they broke the mold.
“Nobody,” she says when asked who she looked up to. “There wasn’t anybody. I didn’t want to be anybody else, that’s for sure. I looked up to my sister a lot, but no one else, really. I didn’t want to be in a band because I thought, ‘I want to be Grace Slick.’ I don’t even get that mentality. I just wanted to be a better version of who I already was.”
X performs at Saturn on Saturday. Doors open at 8 p.m., while the show begins at 9 p.m. Dead Rock West opens. Tickets are $30 in advance and $35 at the door. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.