X is simply too good to turn into a traveling punk museum
By Brett Milano
The band X did its first reunion tour in 1998, which means that the original lineup — John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake — has now been reunited nearly twice as long as it was originally together. On Tuesday for a full house at the Sinclair in Cambridge, MA, everybody looked older (except Doe, who’s forgotten to age) but sounded vintage: The sound you heard was the same glorious noise you heard at the Channel in 1982, or the Sunset Strip if you were there.
So far so good. But there’s one elephant in the room when it comes to X: New material, or the lack of it. In 16 years back together they haven’t come up with a single new song; the only fresh material they’ve put out is two punked-up Christmas songs on a seasonal single. For a band that used to be deservedly renowned for its songwriting, that’s rather bizarre. Especially since they’re only drawing from about half the X catalogue: The last two studio albums, with Tony Gilkyson replacing Zoom on guitar, are off limits and the original lineup’s last album Ain’t Love Grand never gets touched either (so don’t bother yelling for its hit single “Burning House of Love”). The setlists are entirely down to the first four albums — sometimes played in their entirety, sometimes shuffled together as they were Tuesday — which means there’s only about 40 possible songs, none of them less than three decades old.
No denying that it’s timeless, stellar material: As songwriters, Doe and Cervenka may have been inspired by things that no longer exist — their marriage, the Venice Beach punk fraternity, Ronald Reagan — but the statements were universal, whether they were writing an anthem (who can’t relate to “We’re Desperate”?) surveying the territory (the class inequality described in “New World” is still with us), or dissecting relationships (“White Girl” is one of the prettiest infidelity songs there is).Those and a couple dozen more were played on Tuesday, none the worse for time: Zoom’s trademark onstage grin looks more like a grimace now, but he still tore out fluid, furious solos. Bonebrake and Doe remain a monster rhythm section; more notable since Doe seldom plays bass in his solo bands. And the interlocking of his and Cervenka’s voices was, as always, rough but absolutely right.
Some wondered if Cervenka’s controversial political stance might turn up during the show: She‘s posted a series of Youtube videos that evince an extreme brand of libertarianism (for one thing, she believes the Boston Marathon bombing was faked). Early in the show Doe made a joke about performing near Harvard, which Cervenka countered with “I could say more, but the Department of Homeland Security might come after me.” The band immediately slammed into the next song, and that was the end of stage patter for the night.
Still, the chemistry in this band is stronger than the personal changes of the members, which makes the oldies format all the more frustrating. Doe’s pointed out in a few interviews that X is one of the few peak-era punk bands that you can still see with an intact lineup. And it’s true that for every Mission of Burma and Bob Mould who’s scored with new material, there’s a Pixies or Gang of Four who’s flopped with it. But that’s a chance that every living, creating band needs to take, and X is simply too good to turn into a traveling punk museum.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.