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To be fair, it was mere hours after Exene Cervenka appeared at a benefit show in Idaho. And during the phone chat, it became clear she gets no kick out of looking back, even though her job is to perform a set list of songs she first started singing for live audiences three decades ago in X, the pioneering band that emerged from Los Angeles’ original punk scene.
This year marked the 30th anniversary of Los Angeles, X’s debut album that independent label Slash dropped in January 1980. And we’re a month away from the 25th anniversary year of W.T. Morgan’s excellent “rockumentary” X: The Unheard Music. To celebrate those milestones, “KROQ Presents X-Mas With X” rolls the movie inside the House of Blues this week, followed by a live performance of Los Angeles in the original order the songs appeared on vinyl and by the original X members.
Cervenka is thus forced by her inquisitor to do what she has no interest in doing: get nostalgic.
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“Well, let’s see . . . um . . . you know . . . I don’t remember anything about that,” Cervenka fumbles when asked for memories from the recording sessions for Los Angeles, which Los Angeles Times rock critic Robert Hilburn hailed as a masterpiece when it came out. “I remember singing. I remember the vocal booth. It was a special sense image, the time, the place, singing. I remember the budget: We didn’t have much money. We had to do it really fast.”
She thinks a little harder before concluding, “I guess the thing I most remember is Ray Manzarek.”
The Doors keyboardist—who discovered another LA-transplant poet-turned-rock singer, Jim Morrison—read X lyrics in an L.A. Reader review slamming the band, realized the verse nailed the times and immediately sought out a show in whichever La-La Land hole X were playing at the time.
Blown away by the haunting harmonies of Cervenka and her future ex-husband John Doe, as well as the musicianship of guitar god Billy Zoom and hot drummer D.J. Bonebrake, Manzarek made the proper introductions, went on to back X on keyboards live, and produced Los Angeles and three subsequent, critically acclaimed albums.
“Even though it was really serious, it was still really fun,” Cervenka says of the Los Angeles sessions. “We were kids, and we’d do a take, and I remember hearing Ray over the phone telling us, ‘Remember, this is forever,’ which is the worst thing you could say, and he knew that. But, guess what? We just stopped goofing off.”
She says Manzarek “did an amazingly great job,” although she now wishes the engineering on that record had been better.
“In New York and London, they had state-of-the-art studios for people like Brian Eno and Elvis Costello. Stuff was taken more seriously in those cities,” she recalls. “Here, our engineering, when you even got in good studios, those engineers used to work with the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, country rock, hair rock. They had their version of what a snare drum sounds like. Ray would have to communicate what he wanted to people who couldn’t speak the language we were speaking to get the best sounds.”
Manzarek, who is joining the band on keyboards for the first time in 30 years at the anniversary shows, deserves the credit as much as anyone for getting the essence of X on record, according to Cervenka. “It was very live, very much uncensored, pretty raw,” she says. “I think what that captured was more important than the tone or whether the drums could have sounded better.”
Given her disdain for nostalgia, it’s no surprise when she mentions she can’t remember the last time she saw X: The Unheard Music, which, like the band it chronicles, should be more revered. Local crowds will be blown away by how well it stands up as a film, an intimate look at a seminal band and an examination of Reagan-era America.
“I know I was fond of it,” Cervenka says. “Being as objective as I can be—it’s hard not to be subjective when it’s about me—it’s a very good documentary about a band, if I can be objective.”
The flick visualized a common X theme: that the band and others who emerged in Southern California during the first punk wave did not get the respect, airplay and record-company attention they deserved. This is played out to hilarious effect when an MCA executive who looks like he should be hawking blenders explains why he passed on X to pump a band he was convinced were the next Journey: Point Blank. No one is clamoring for a 30th-anniversary Point Blank tour.
You can imagine the “ick” look that must be on Cervenka’s face as she’s asked what she thinks of the young woman onscreen in X: The Unheard Music.