X: Irving Plaza 30 September 2011

X is back on tour – this time performing their 1980 debut album Los Angeles and showing the 1986 documentary The Unheard Music – but most importantly touring with a healthy Exene, who announced back in June that she does not have MS.

I got there a little after 7pm and the doorman told me that the movie started at 8pm and the band would go on at 9:40pm. The show was sold out (I think the night before at Maxwell’s and the next night at Irving Plaza were also sold out – and by the way, how happy am I that they’re back to calling the venue Irving Plaza instead of trying to stick Fillmore onto the name) but the room was pretty empty when I got upstairs. I sat on the floor against the wall and listened to the music and watched the videos. One had nothing to do with the other – there were light shows or people running around and the music alternated between The Ramones and rockabilly/Chuck Berry.

The room had filled up a bit when The Unheard Music began – enough so that I had to keep moving my head to see past the tall people. It’s a straight narrative about the early years of X told with roundabout-who-knows-where-they’re-going visuals and reminisces of the band members and people associated with the band. While the movie was playing a group came in and I realized right in front was Exene, who was so close to me that I could have just leaned over and kissed her. And I’m sorry I didn’t.

Drummer D.J. Bonebrake describes starting to drum by imitating the coffeepot percolating – three beats with his foot on the floor. Then he added four beats at a time with his left hand on his thigh. And he completed it with five beats at a time on the stovetop. And telling us he makes up for the lack of bassoons in the band by the way he bangs on the hi-hat and cymbals. My mouth fell open as he played the three different rhythms and when the band was live on stage I listened for it. And there it was – that unmistakable drum sound that lets you know you’re listening to X and sounding exactly the same 25 years later. Sometimes it seems as if he’s doing drum rolls with one hand.

Guitarist Billy Zoom style, dress, guitars are still rockabilly and there he was on film or live on stage standing still while delivering his perfect solos on his beautiful Gretsch. When you listen to them live it’s amazing to realize that there is only one guitar up on stage.

Lead singer/bassist John Doe explained that he had been in bands and knew how to sing and come up with harmonies. Exene didn’t and has to work to find them and that’s what makes their sound unique. There were some wonderful scenes watching John and Exene work out the harmonies on a song. Doe had a big metal X and explained that they were tearing down the Ex-Lax building in Brooklyn and he asked for the X and he did a funny imitation of two Brooklyn construction guys getting him the X and wondering what the hell he wanted to do with it.

Lead singer Exene Cervenka gave a small tour of The Whiskey A Go Go. Later when she was in her apartment all you could think was how much it looked like her – the Day of the Dead art, the original artwork, the robe on the wall, all the little Xs around the apartment. One of the amazing things in watching the 25-year-old film and then seeing the band on stage is that they pretty much look the same. Sure there’s a bit of age but not as much as you’d expect. John and Exene still move like crazy all over the stage.

There was a funny moment in the film when the MCA executive said why he wouldn’t sign X and how all their resources were going towards the next up-and-coming band – Point Blank. Unfortunately the director ruined it by inserting an Edsel commercial. We got it and didn’t need that reference. For me it was fun watching the recording process and the old tape machines and 2” reel-to-reels and watching vinyl records being pressed. For “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” there were then-current scenes of what was going on in El Salvador.

By the time the band came on the room was full. The ages ranged from early twenties to early sixties. The band started with “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, but You’re Not” and it was clear this was not a night of LA punk, this was a night of rock and roll. X will be touring with Pearl Jam in Central and South America next month and I can’t think of a better lineup and wonder why we won’t get the chance to see the bands together. They also performed The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen.” “The New World” was dedicated to the Wall Street protesters. During a break (not sure what was happening on stage – if someone was tuning or what) Exene decided to lead us all on a songwriting sing-a-long. She started singing about beer in heaven and asked us to contribute the next line. No one did but who’s brave enough to write with one of the best songwriters we have?

For the encore the first song was an acoustic “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” with just John and Exene. Then the band came out and played “True Love,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Breathless,” and “The Hungry Wolf.”

Thirty years from now I still expect to be listening to this album and this band.

By Carene Lydia Lopez