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Zooming in on X

X guitarist Billy Zoom's edgy roots still showing

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They're the poster children for LA punk, displayed alongside the Germs as epitomizing that scene. But punk wasn't the message that X bassist John Doe, singer Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake were trying to send when they were at the top of the West Coast punk scene in the late 70s. "In the very beginning," says Zoom by phone from his Orange County home, "bands like X and the Ramones were trying to bring back 60s pop. We wanted to put rock & roll back on the radio. It was kind of a roots movement with an edge." Zoom says they were all frustrated with what was on the radio -- and what wasn't.

There was nothing like X at the time. With the band's mix of rockabilly, country, metal and hard-edged rock & roll attitude, as well as lyrics that tackled controversial subjects like date rape ("Johnny Hit and Run Pauline"), X quickly became darlings of the LA scene.

But the scene soon began to turn on itself. "When the fans started their own bands, it turned into something else," says Zoom. "It was a very individualistic time," says X singer Exene Cervenka, from LA "It wasn't a mass-think, like everybody had the same exact idea of what they wanted to do. It wasn't like there was a certain rigid kind of uniform that everyone wore and a sound that everyone played."

Unlike most punk bands, X had a guitarist who could actually play and two vocalists, Doe and Cervenka, who could actually sing and harmonize. That level of professionalism ran off some fans. "After we started playing, the hard core scene kinda got real big, and then the hard core people would come to our shows," Cervenka says. "They thought we were supposed to be just like some other bands."

But by the time X got on record with Los Angeles in 1980, Zoom thought the band's best days were over. "Our heyday out here was '78-'79," he says. Asked if there's anything from X's records that he's proud of, Zoom answers with tongue firmly in cheek. "Oh yeah, here and there, there are a couple of things that I don't cringe about too much," he chuckles. Zoom left the band shortly after recording Ain't Love Grand in 1985.

He had a couple of replacements, Dave Alvin and Tony Gillykson, and the band rocked on and off throughout the next decade. Doe and Cervenka, once a couple, had split up, though they reunited musically to do the Knitters, releasing Poor Little Critter on the Road in '85, and the Modern Sounds of the Knitters in '05. DJ Bonebrake was on board as well for this country side of X. Cervenka admits to being a country fan since she first heard Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." When asked why she didn't do country in the first place, she says it was simply "because it wasn't what we wanted to do. We were young and we wanted to play punk rock."

The original X lineup started drifting back together in the '90s. "Rhino or Warner Bros or somebody was going to reissue some of our records," Cervenka remembers, "because of a greatest hits thing, and they asked us if we would do a signing. And we said yes, and there were like a thousand people there so we just went, 'oh my God!'"

When X embarked on a subsequent series of reunions, Zoom said he was back strictly for the money and to get his name back in front of the public for other projects he wanted to do. But he seems to have mellowed since then. "Maybe it would have been better to say I'm back doing it because its better than explaining to people that I stopped doing it because I couldn't make a decent living at it. When we got back together, there was enough money so that I could make a living at it, or at least make it worthwhile."

Since then, the band has regularly assembled for reunion tours, filming a DVD, X Live in Los Angeles (Shout! Factory), on their '04 tour. Cervenka says that although band members still have individual side projects, they'll play as X as long as people want them. "I'd like to put some new music together and do a EP with some new songs. Billy has a recording studio. I don't see why we can't just go over there and make a record any time we want." She's pleased to have the band back in its original form. "I think Billy's definitely one of the key things -- can't really have X without Billy."

Zoom, who initially had reservations about resurrecting something he thought had seen its best days long ago, is starting to come around. When told of Cervenka's wishes, he says he'd be amenable -- "under the right circumstances."

The band's DVD and companion CD draws heavily from the first four X albums, including classics like "Your Phone's Off the Hook, But You're Not," "Nausea," "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline" and "Los Angeles," all from their debut. Cervenka, who still lives in that titular city, has about as much use for it now as when the song came out 25 years ago. "It's a stupid town, worse than when I moved here," the singer says. "Everyone thinks they're gonna make it here -- all these people who have moved here to become strippers and porn stars and actresses and actors. It's just so crowded here -- like half of Mexico is here. On top of that, it's the most annoying city ever."

X hasn't lost their edge over the years -- their annoyance about LA and the world in general still comes across in their edgy, primal music. Asked if the DVD is an accurate portrayal of the band, Cervenka says she has a hard time being objective about watching herself. "If you read the press about us, we were geniuses, or we were the worst band ever. We just went forward on the strengths of our own convictions that this was what we were supposed to be doing."

Zoom's opinion of the release is more in the true maverick sprit of X. "I think we should be able to outdo that on this tour," he laughs. "Come on out and say hello."

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