Despite the freezing cold and New Year’s Eve hangovers, a huge crowd came out on January 1st, 2011. With practiced patience, they made their way through the predictably excruciating security check line to get into the Roseland Theater in Portland, Oregon, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of X’s first album, Los Angeles (1980). This night was the last of a nine-show West Coast tour. The festivities kicked off with an X history lesson, a viewing of the documentary, X: The Unheard Music (1986). Recorded from 1980-1985, the film documents the first three albums by X, Los Angeles (1980), Wild Gift (1981) and Under the Big Black Sun (1982). Los Angeles and Wild Gift are rated in Rolling Stone‘s ‘Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time’. Under the Big Black Sun was the bands first major label debut (Elektra), highly influenced by the untimely death of singer Exene Cervenka’s older sister, Mirielle, in an automobile accident. Ray Manzarek from The Doors produced all three of these albums. Manzarek took notice of the bands unique talent and raw style in the late ‘70s when Los Angeles was in need of a new musical voice, putting X at the forefront of the first wave of American punk.
As the audience stood watching this inside look at their punk idols, they cheered with the appearance, on screen, of each band member and danced and applauded songs by the projected ghost of X’s past. Los Angeles transplants were in attendance, as was evident by the cheers and hollers at historical Los Angeles punk sites, clubs and a radio station that played the punk that had made its way to the people from coast-to-coast. As the documentary neared its end, there was a tangible energy building in the crowd, sheer excitement and anticipation. The crowd was at the ready; the tension of the long wait was acting like a pressure cooker with steam escaping in the form of stomps, screams and claps. The picture show ended with a roar.
And we were rewarded. In honor of the anniversary of Los Angeles, the band played the album in its entirety, followed by a whole, second set. They kicked off the show with track one, “The Phone’s Off The Hook, But You’re Not” and punks, young and old, pushed their way front and center creating the mosh pit. The vibe was a jovial one. Unfortunately, Cervenka’s mic was turned down for the first couple of songs, but by track three, “Soul Kitchen”, they had her mic turned back up and just in time for the hard driving performance of “Nausea”. Cervenka’s breathy howl filled the air. Following singer/bassist John Doe’s singing of the first lyrics of “Los Angeles”, “She had to leave,” the crowd punched the air, accenting each of the repeating guitar notes. Cervenka’s drawling howl, as if she is exhaling, “Los Angeles”, was what everyone was waiting for. And it was glorious.
Cervenka was center stage, flanked by guitarist Billy Zoom on the left and John Doe on the right with DJ Bonebrake manning the drums in the back. Zoom holding his head up high (a confident gentlemen), his name boldly printed on his guitar strap, sent smiles, winks and focused stares out into the crowd. Playful, he was spotted sticking his tongue out at someone in the audience. Zoom is so cool and calm in his demeanor that he appears to be just hanging around with nothing to do, all the while his fingers effortlessly shred punk, rock and rockabilly riffs as if the songs were programmed directly into his hands. Doe’s contrasting bass playing style is more of a flailing, hair flapping endeavor.
A highlight from the Los Angeles set was most definitely “The Unheard Music”. The off kilter harmonies between Cervenka and Doe are highlighted in this song, a tone that is central to X’s sound. Their voices soar in this psychedelic, Doors-like track.
The audience ate up Los Angeles. X moved on to the second set with “Hungry Wolf” from Under the Big Black Sun and the crowd exploded. With the first rumble from Bonebrake on his kit, the first crowd surfing lady was up on hands, heading for the stage and the mosh pit was tearing it up. From “In This House That I Call Home” with its rockabilly themes, through hard and fast punk riffs on “We’re Desperate”, “It’s Who You Know” and “I’m Coming Over”; Zoom maintained his cool exterior, while Doe was drenched in sweat. Cervenka swayed as if absorbing the crowds energy and Bonebrake beamed from the behind his drums. The crowd and the band exchanged that energy as if in conversation and understanding was mirrored in “Blue Spark”.
They ended the set strong with two from More Fun In the New World (1983), “The New World” and “True Love”, followed by an amazing performance of Wild Gift‘s “Because I Do” and also the finale from More Fun In the New World, “Devil Doll”.
To an amped-up crowd, Cervenka and Doe reclaimed the stage and started their five-song encore set with an acoustic version of “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts”. Nearly 30 years later the lyrics are as relevant now as they were when they were written. The switch to acoustic was a natural choice and was no less effective than its original. It still stands as a ‘North American’ punk rock anthem, a rebel song.
Through “Beyond and Back”, the classic “White Girl”, a joyride through “Motel Room In My Bed” to their last song of the night, “The Once Over Twice”, X seemed to gain power as they played. No matter how they play it, X exudes a genuine, raw and uncompromising attitude, punk rock sensibilities woven into their core. They are passionate about what they create and they are outlaws.