Sunday, November 4, 2012
After Dallas show, is X still the greatest American rock’n’roll band?
X’s sweaty, messy, swearing early-days catalog is rife with songs about the decay that lies just beneath each shiny surface.
Hours later, the ears still ring and the heart still races; the grin, too, has yet to fade, and it might never. Is it possible that even now, X remains The Greatest American Rock and Roll Band? Even though the Los Angeles band, whose brand of “punk” encompassed Tin Pan Alley and Jerry Lee Lewis and The Doors, has yet to cut a new record since 1993? Even though its set list is comprised entirely of songs written, recorded and released between 1978 and 1983? Yes, absolutely, without question.
The evidence was on display Saturday night at the Granada Theater, the case-closed made by musicians in their 50s (and, in the case of ageless guitarist Billy Zoom, their early 60s!) who simply believe, as poet-turned-songwriter-turned-singer Exene Cervenka told the audience, that their songs were “30 years early.” Now, then, is decidedly their moment — at the tail end of a yearlong 35th-anniversary tour that sounds like Day One of the future.
I’ve seen X half a dozen times, once in a club on the Sunset Strip, where the song “Los Angeles” should be blaring from speakers planted at every intersection till the day that city slides into the ocean. And I, like most of the audience of 700 or so at the Granada, knew what to expect: loud, faithful renditions of songs from the first four records, the only ones to which Cervenka, bassist-singer John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer D.J. Bonebrake lay claim these days. But Saturday night’s show was a little more feisty and fiery than those of recent vintage — louder (if such a thing is possible), faster (all those classics in under 80 minutes), funnier. Thirty-five years later the band, tighter than an aging punk’s pair of tattered jeans, can still botch an intro; all John Doe could do was apologize with a grinning, “You practice and you practice …” But he need not apologize: There are bound to be slipped gears when every song hits the pavement at 100 miles per hour.
X’s sweaty, messy, swearing early-days catalog is rife with songs about the decay that lies just beneath each shiny surface, about the nauseating crash that accompanies every high, about the anger and anguish that accompanies almost every “I do” — timeless stuff, in other words. And though Doe talks about the band’s sense of its own history, and Cervenka says X has become a “legacy band,” theirs isn’t a set performed beneath glass and encased in amber. “We’re Desperate,” its melody shorn a few notes and its pace quickened a few beats, sounds more desperate than it ever did; “The Hungry Wolf” had its war-drum mid-section expanded to allow Bonebrake what passes for a drum solo; and “Devil Doll” is now a show-closing wall of sound collapsed by feedback and fury into crowd-burying rubble.
And what makes it all so utterly endearing is the fact that the band has never seemed to enjoy itself more. Doe, the last man in America who can pull off the bolo tie, still bounces around the stage like his twentysomething self; so too Cervenka, who can still reach those notes left on the highest shelf. And decades after their marriage ended, the two still sound like one voice — Johnny and June howling at the Hollywood sign beneath a sky filled with lightning.
And then there’s Billy Zoom, the one-man show at stage right. A one-time Gene Vincent sideman, Zoom’s among rock’s most unheralded guitar heroes, perhaps because he makes every rich and complex riff looks so effortless. He’ll just stand there, in bowling shirt and Dad jeans, zoned out, expressionless behind ageless skin. And then he’ll raise his eyebrows and lick his grinning lips and flirt with the front-stage girls — a rockabilly robot fashioned by Walt Disney in 1963 that still works today. Like a man shouted halfway through the set, “Thirty-five more years!” X can make it, so long as they keep Zoom oiled and operational.
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