I want to be John Doe. As a drummer, I’d like to have the skills of D.J. Bonebrake, the classically trained percussionist of legendary California punk act X, but it’s vocalist/bassist Doe that has the most swagger and charm. He plucks away at his bass maniacally on stage; he’s smooth on the mic and he’s aged pretty well. A poet who continues to write and record to this day (his latest solo effort, A Year in the Wilderness, was released last year), he also owns a shirt that reads, simply, "John Fuckin’ Doe."
The band behind classic albums like Los Angeles and Wild Gift is currently on its "13 X 31" tour, honoring the group’s 31st anniversary. A May 22 performance at the TLA with fellow punk/rockabilly enthusiasts The Detroit Cobras confirmed that this odd-numbered celebration wasn’t unjustified — 21 years after its formation, X is still a top live act.
The Detroit Cobras were a perfect complement to X, and the crowd certainly agreed. While there wasn’t too much dancing in the TLA — minus a smattering of enthusiastically ungainly adults — there was plenty of hooting and hollering after every Cobras song. Frontwoman Rachel Nagy’s voice is a good selling point — soulful but ever-so-slightly cracked. The band’s sunny, boozy 50-minute cover set included fine cuts from the rock canon, something the slightly older crowd appreciated.
It’s cool to see the punk lifers in X. Frontwoman Exene Cervenka still rocks a black granny dress. Like Doe, she’s still artistically active, with a slew of art collages ranging from postcard collections to a NYC gallery show, running through July 18, entitled "Sleep in Spite of Thunder." Billy Zoom looks almost exactly as he did in ‘ 77 — lightly older, of course, but he’s still got the slicked-back blonde coif, the leather jacket and the wolfish grin. As for Bonebrake … he’s bald now, but he dominates the kit fiercely and pounds cans of Guinness awfully well.
An incredibly full rendition of "Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not," the first song off X’s debut, marked the beginning of the band’s set, which ended up leaning toward the group’s first two efforts, though a few mid-period tunes like "The New World," "Devil Doll" and "We’re Having Much More Fun" from worked their way in. Tunes like "Adult Books," "We’re Desperate" and "The Hungry Wolf" sound superior live. It was the Los Angeles material, though, that got the biggest response — the band pretty much played that album in its entirety.
X often posed for photos while performing. Doe engaged the crowd in conversations about voting, drinking and urban decay. Bonebrake, when he could get away from his kit, was quick with handshakes. Zoom made it a point to have every woman in the room touch his guitar. The instrument’s phallic nature has never been so clear, nor so traumatizing, to me. After playing for an hour, X returned for two encores, busting out a few more favorites before bowing out. Doe and Cervenka trimmed down vocal parts here and there to save energy, but that didn’t bother the crowd.
It’s funny — in 1983, X released "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts," a song about being the last active punk act in the U.S. The Ramones and The Clash disbanded long ago; even X’s ’80s hardcore peers have burned out. But in 2008, X is still touring, enticing crowds to "bring the flag."