Today’s Guest: Exene Cervenka, singer, X, co-author, Adulterers Anonymous
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was originally published in the St. Petersburg Times [now the Tampa Bay Times] on December 2, 1983. I pulled it from my archives to match with my May 13, 2016, Mr. Media video interview with her former husband and still X collaborator, John Doe. — Bob Andelman)
Music was not something Exene Cervenka, lead singer of the punk rock band X, had much to do with while she lived in St. Petersburg.
“I started writing when I lived in Florida. I had moved there, and I was alone, didn’t have any friends,” she said in a recent telephone interview. Exene came here in 1969 as a teen-ager and went to Mirror Lake Adult School. “It wasn’t until ’76 or ’77 when new music started happening that I was aware of music as a way of life. Patti Smith had just come out, and I started being able to do stuff.”
AS SHE RECALLS the middle of the last decade there wasn’t a live music scene in this area, just clubs filled with disco records.
“That’s all there was when I lived in St. Pete. It was really amazing. You’d go down to the Wedgwood and dance at the gay club. It was okay, because I was young, and it was something to do.”
X is a critically acclaimed survivor of the ’70s punk music implosion. The band has a sound that is mainstream for today’s tastes, but X has had difficulty overcoming punk’s early public relations problems.
EXENE CERVENKA excerpt: “I started writing when I lived in Florida. I had moved there, and I was alone, didn’t have any friends. Patti Smith had just come out, and I started being able to do stuff.”
“The media made so much fun of it and made it look so stupid that nowadays even, if I walk into a restaurant or onto a bus, the kids make fun of me, and they spit. We played a show the other night in New Jersey – people were spitting on us. I couldn’t believe it,” Exene says.
Some young people seem to think such behavior is expected of them when it comes to punk. These are the same young people who don’t read Rolling Stone, which says X is the best new rock band of any genre in years.
IT TAKES a long time for new music forms to get around in a country as large as the United States, and Exene is tolerant of the praise and abuse she, husband John Doe, Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake endure while crisscrossing the nation.
“Elvis Costello is still punk to me because of his attitude,” says Exene. “He never does anything less than exactly what he wants to do, doesn’t bow to any pressure of airplay or record companies. He’s irreverent, creative, rebellious and he’s real, real good. That was what punk was when it started.”
When X was starting out in 1978, punk meant bands like the Go-Go’s and Motels, she explains – top 40 outfits by 1983 standards. X hasn’t made the same commercial leap, despite four highly acclaimed albums.
Responsibility for the initial national attention X drew five years ago must rest with Ray Manzarek, former keyboard player for another Los Angeles-based band, the Doors. Manzarek saw X perform at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in L.A. and made an appointment to meet the group shortly after.
Exene remembered the band’s concern that this “relic” from the past wanted to produce their wave of the future. The group wondered, “What if we meet this guy, and he’s done too much acid, and all he can talk about is his past?” she said.
“He’s just a regular guy – been a lot of places, seen a lot of things,” Exene reports. Manzarek, who has produced everything from the debut Los Angeles album to the latest More Fun in the New World is “real fun to be around, and he’s got a real good insight into the music business; doesn’t take it seriously. He’s a wonderful guy.”
When X switched from the independent Slash record label to Elektra last year, punk purists raised a small stink about the possibility that the band was “selling out.” Mentor Manzarek soothed over the period with his own experience.
“RAY TOLD US that people are still waiting for the Doors to sell out,” Exene says with a laugh.
EXENE CERVENKA podcast excerpt: “When I lived in St. Pete, you’d go down to the Wedgwood and dance at the gay club. It was okay, because I was young, and it was something to do.”
Besides sharing the writing chores for most of X’s songs with John Doe.Exene is the co-author (with Lydia Lunch) of a book, Adulterers Anonymous.
It isn’t always easy or much fun being Exene. “What would make me happy?” Exene asked. “Nothing,” she answered herself. “If I were happy, then I’d probably be bored. I wouldn’t want to be that happy.” Exene is a well-spoken woman filled with insight, humor (“you have to be kind of subtle about that”) and graciousness. The latter she attributes to her pre-St. Petersburg upbringing in the Midwest “at a real small Catholic school – you couldn’t go wrong there.”
It turns out there are at least two things that make Exene Cervenka happy. Being the subject of a local-girlmakes-good profile is one. “When I was living there I was kind of wishing this would happen.”
And: “The hour we’re on stage in each town is always exciting; I like it when we play;” she says. “I’d refer to us as rock ‘n’ roll the way God and Chuck Berry intended it,”