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In a notorious boys' club, Exene Cervenka is one of punk's greatest matriarchs — and one of the genre's most enduring. As a member of the LA band X (yep, just plain X), she helped set the standard for punk in the late '70s. With one-time husband John Doe sharing singing and songwriting duties, Cervenka's whip-smart songwriting and biting vocals helped the punk act reel off an almost unprecedented four straight classic albums.
Since the golden days of X, which has never really stopped touring in various incarnations, Cervenka has released six solo albums, and two with a band called The Original Sinners. She has also, with help from fellow punk-poet friends like Henry Rollins, published several books of poetry. Most recently, her penchant for elaborate hand-made collages (some of which can be glimpsed in the documentary “X: The Unheard Music”) has landed her several showings in galleries in New York and California.
About four years ago, Cervenka left LA to live in rural Missouri. In late 2009, soon after she revealed she'd been diagnosed with MS, Cervenka returned to LA and released her latest album, “Somewhere Gone,” composed and recorded while still in the Missouri wilderness.
Thematically, “Somewhere Gone” sounds uncannily like classic X material. Cervenka's lyrical preoccupation with social and spiritual isolation comes across as potent as it did when she was in her mid-20s, with numbers like “Surface of the Sun” or the title track showcasing her plea for some torturous-sounding human contact, usually taking place over an unstable, post-apocalyptic backdrop. When asked recently if the desolate Missouri landscape influenced this latest rendition of existential yearning, she clarifies, “It's an internal emotional world. It has nothing to do with place or time or people, it has to do with loneliness or beauty or how you interpret anything you see.”
Although the members of X (with the help of The Blasters' Dave Alvin) reincarnated as the country group The Knitters in the early 1980s, “Somewhere Gone” offers Cervenka's first solo foray into the realm of country-folk. She explains how the radio programming from her childhood included acts like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Bob Dylan. These were the influences that never left her, and a passion she shared with John Doe upon meeting him. Too, to sum up her true motivations behind making a stripped-down, mostly-acoustic album like her latest, she says, “I really just wanted to make a record where you could understand the words.”
The inevitable truth is that Cervenka's generation of punk forefathers (and mothers) is fading, and uncomfortable reminders of mortality are starting to emerge. When asked how it feels to perform X's original material, a feat some performers might find cumbersome after 30-plus years, Cervenka says, “It doesn't really feel odd or weird, it's just what I do. And it's kind of like practicing medicine or being a teacher, you know, every year you've got the same lesson plans. That's what you're teaching those kids, and you'd better be enthusiastic about it every time you teach it.”
As her gleeful dancing demonstrated on a recent tour, Cervenka maintains the joie de vivre of someone who truly loves what they do, whether or not its expression is, in fact, a joyous one. She says of X — and surely, of performing, in general — “I know I've only got a few years left at the most. When I get a chance to sing those songs, I count every time I get to sing those songs as a blessing because it's going end, and it's going end soon, and I want to do it as long as I possibly can.”
Exene Cervenka joins the Dexter Romweber Duo and Brother Andy & His Big Damn Mouth at White Water Tavern this Saturday, February 6. Show starts at 9:30 p.m., $10 cover.