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Los Angeles!: Fronted by Exene Cervenka and John Doe, X remain the quintessential L.A. punk band.

Wild Gift

X's 'Unheard Music' DVD makes a present of the past

By Gabe Meline

Ours was a relationship fueled by late nights, cold gin, wild dreams, desperate sex and constant rock and roll. We were 19 and in love.

We used to try and chronicle our feelings for each other, she with her short stories and me with my songs, but we both gave up when we discovered the L.A. band X, who suddenly became our favorite band. After hearing songs like "When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch" and "The World's a Mess, It's in My Kiss," why bother trying to capture two hearts crashing together in the urban blight? It had already been said, and far better than we could ever have said it, by Exene and John Doe.

One night, with extra money to burn, we spontaneously ducked into a tattoo parlor, handed over a photocopy of X's logo, and walked out with matching tattoos on our hips. To this day, it is the only matching tattoo I've ever gotten with anybody. Our attachment to X was simply that deep, as no other band conveyed the ups and downs of our relationship with such precision as X did (not even my own band, whose routine comparisons to X were flattering but, let's face it, gravely off the mark).

We had heard that the band made a film, but finding a copy of The Unheard Music was ridiculously impossible, until a friend who had bought the last VHS copy from a video store closeout loaned it to us. It was just what our lives needed. We lived in an attic, it was hotter than hell, the neighbors fought and we watched The Unheard Music over and over.

An aura is conveyed in The Unheard Music that the listener can't get from X's records. There's an important confluence of art, lifestyle and era in the film, and it was clearly just as responsible for creating X's music as were the band themselves. This was crucial context for us in the attic, and we studied it down to its finest details.

The members of X, of course, are endlessly fascinating. Drummer DJ Bonebrake, for example, showcases an impossibly zany polyrhythmic drum pattern he picked up by listening to the coffee percolator; later, he compares Lionel Hampton to Captain Beefheart and bemoans the lack of bassoons in rock and roll. And that's just in the first few minutes.

Exene Cervenka, who consistently looks like someone is hitting her over the head with a lantern or something, recites a poem that she wrote for Percy Mayfield and acts in a silent-movie-style ghost vignette about marriage. Backstage at the Whiskey a Go Go, she reads graffiti and dedicates a pile of broken glass to her deceased sister.

Billy Zoom, a quiet peroxide-blonde pretty boy, fixes motorcycles and plays a mean swing clarinet. He comes off as reserved in every way except in his guitar playing, and we never forgave him for leaving the band shortly after The Unheard Music was completed.

But it was John Doe--the man who put the band together and who taught Exene to sing by practicing Hank Williams songs, who steals metal signs and lets cigarettes fall out of his mouth, the one who every guy wants to be and who every girl wants to do--he's the one we were drawn to the most.

We drove to Los Angeles to see X, and we had dreams of meeting John Doe. We just wanted to talk to him, and maybe gain some insight into the vast world of mystery conjured by The Unheard Music. Our big plans were put on hold, however, when we promptly got thrown out of the show.

Sitting on a curb in a parking lot after getting thrown out of a show is one of the most dejected feelings in the world. We were ready to pack it in and drive back to Santa Rosa, our dreams deflated, when who do you suppose should see us, talk to us for an hour and get us back into the show?

It was our man, John Doe, the baddest cat that ever walked the earth.

"That movie was made over five years--they would get some money, buy film, rent the equipment and shoot some stuff," he told us. "And during that time a lot of shit happened: we had put out Wild Gift, we went from Slash to Elektra, so our lives, and what happened to the band, developed the movie."

Indeed, there are some insightful industry moments in the film. In a hilarious interview, an executive for MCA explains why he passed on signing X and instead is focusing on promoting some dumb band called Point Blank. The smug fashion in which he defends his bottom line summarizes everything that was and still is wrong with the music industry.

One unlikely star of the film is a haunting montage of an enormous house cut in half and gingerly towed through the empty streets of Los Angeles in the middle of the night as the strains of the title song play. The structure is in many ways like X, almost too big for L.A., as it barely scrapes by the traffic signals and burnt-out neon signs of San Fernando Boulevard.

Amazingly, Doe had no prior knowledge the house would be moved. "The guy who filmed that had his 16 mm camera in the trunk of his car," he said. "We were just driving around and there's this house being moved, and we thought, 'This is great!'" They started shooting on the spot.

"I haven't seen that movie in forever," Doe admitted, adding that though he owns a copy of it, "it'd be really weird if you just sat around and watched your own movie."

I haven't seen it in forever, either, but I'm thrilled to announce that it's just been rereleased on DVD (Image; $19.99). No bonus features, no commentary tracks, no extra footage--just the original, perfect, 84-minute movie, a slice of life from one of the greatest American bands ever, scraping their way into history the only way they knew how.

It still reminds me of other things, like the long, hot summer 10 years ago and the girl who has my matching tattoo--or, I should say, used to have my matching tattoo.

She got hers covered up in the wreckage of things, shortly after our love passed out on the couch.

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From the February 16-22, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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