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Seminal punk rock band X returns to Philadelphia

A little over 34 years ago, the Los Angeles-based punk rock band X introduced themselves to music fans around the world with their debut album, “Los Angeles.” Immediately the album was hailed as a classic in the genre by numerous critics who recognized that the members of X were not simply angry, angst-ridden punks; they were intelligent, savvy musicians.

Billy Zoom, Exene Cervenka, D.J. Bonebrake, and John Doe of X on a rooftop in Los Angeles in 1981.
photo by Frank Gargani

It's no surprise that “Los Angeles” remains a landmark album to this day. What is a bit surprising is the fact that 37 years after launching their career from the Hollywood punk scene, the original members of the group – vocalist Exene Cervenka, vocalist/bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer D.J. Bonebrake – remain an active touring band. They play an all-ages show at Philadelphia's Trocadero Theatre on Thursday, August 28. Not in the Face opens the 8 p.m. show. Tickets are $22 and are available through the Trocadero Theatre website.

The band seemed destined to burn out like the flame-engulfed X that adorns the cover of “Los Angeles.” John Doe (born John Nommensen Duchac) dated, and then married Exene Cervenka (born Christene Lee Cervenka). The marriage lasted from 1980 to 1985 before they divorced. All four band members have had a variety of interests and careers outside of X, both musical and non-musical. Doe is an actor with dozens of small and big screen credits. Cervenka is a poet and visual artist. Billy Zoom (born Tyson Kindell) has worked with dozens of major recording artists, including Gene Vincent, The Blasters, Etta James, and Big Joe Turner. D.J. Bonebrake plays with at least five other bands, including the Rancid side-project Devil's Brigade, and two jazz groups: the Bonebrake Syncopaters, who play classical jazz, and the Afro-Cuban and Latin-inspired Orchestra Superstring.

As a result of being either busy, distracted, or both, X hasn't recorded an album of new material since 1993's “Hey Zeus!”

Yet despite a lack of hits, radio airplay, or new material, the band's fan base has grown over the years, as new generations have discovered X’s music, and others have been drawn to the mystique of the early L.A. punk scene.

In a recent telephone interview, D.J. Bonebrake (that’s not a punk moniker – he was born Donald James Bonebrake), recalled what it was like to be a young musician starting out in Los Angeles in the late ’70s.

“For me it was exciting because I was just coming into the Hollywood area, the Hollywood scene,” he said. “I was raised in the San Fernando Valley, which is a suburb. Musically it's an interesting place, but it's kind of insulated. The punk scene was just beginning, and I was young – maybe 20-years-old – so it was exciting to be there with all the action that was going on in Hollywood.”

As time has passed, the perceived excitement of that era has taken on an almost mythic quality, but Bonebrake says that the day-to-day reality of that time was much more mundane.

“I think we were hoping it would be exciting,” he says. “I always relate it to when I was younger and we used to go cruising on Van Nuys Boulevard. You would hope that it would be really exciting – that you would meet some girls and it would be a great night. But it was always a disappointment. So it was kind of like that. We were hoping it was going to be really good. In some ways it was exciting, but in other ways it was really boring.”

At the time it was happening, the Los Angeles punk rock scene garnered little notice from the music business establishment.

“By the end of 1977 the Sex Pistols had broken up, and as far as the media was concerned, punk rock was over,” Bonebrake says. “That was the end of it. All of the bands that were happening in Hollywood at the time were overlooked. It was an isolated scene. No one knew about it. People didn't know about it in New York, and they didn't know about it in England. The music industry in L.A. totally ignored it.”

That included club owners, who were reluctant to book any original bands, let alone punk rock outfits. Occasionally, some adventurous club owners would give original bands a shot. The Whiskey a Go-Go would sometimes book punk shows on Sunday nights, Bonebrake recalled. More often than not, however, punk bands would have to rent a warehouse or find some suitable performance space, and then self-promote their own future shows there. The do-it-yourself credo gave rise to the underground scene.

Bonebrake has a theory for why the era has taken on almost legendary proportions.

“I think the idea of what was happening in the L.A. punk scene at the time has become more mythical because it wasn't documented very well,” Bonebrake says. “Anything that's vague seems better in retrospect. And there was a lot of music recorded at the time that no one ever heard. Bands would record little four-track singles that were never played on the radio. It took a generation or two for people to discover a lot of that music.”

Bonebrake was a veteran of several Los Angeles-based punk bands (including the Eyes, which also featured Charlotte Caffey, who would later become a member of the Go-Go's) before joining X in 1978. He says he immediately knew there was something special about the songs that Doe and Cervenka were writing for the band.

“When I started playing in X, I realized that the people in the band had an idea of rock history, and they were not just writing one type of song,” Bonebrake says. “It was exciting because every song was a little bit different. I could be creative and try to find drumbeats that worked within each context.”

It's taken years for fans to appreciate what Bonebrake recognized back then – musically, X is more closely related to American rockabilly and folk, than it is to British punk. In his review of the band’s July 10 performance at The Roxy for the Hollywood Reporter, writer Roy Trakin put it this way: “What once sounded like white noise is now revealed to be what it is — American roots music, merely revved-up to 120 miles per hour.”

In the pre-Internet and social media days of the early 80s, it took countless hours on the road – often performing to half-empty rooms – for bands to build a following.

“We had the enthusiasm of youth, and we knew we would make it work,” Bonebrake says. “We took some positive steps back then that some bands didn't take. We drove to New York in 1978 to play CBGB’s. People in New York had never seen an L.A. punk band at the time. After that we just continued to tour. We couldn't get signed to a major label, so we signed to the independent Slash Records. This was before it was distributed by Warner Bros. Sometimes our records weren't in stores. Sometimes we played in towns that never heard of us, but we were determined.”

Bonebrake says that the fans who did come out to the shows in the early days were as committed to the scene and as enthusiastic as the band itself.

“Often they were trying to start their own scene locally,” he says, “and they were really excited that we were there.”

Many of those fans are the same ones who have stuck with X for over 35 years.

“Our fans are great,” Bonebrake says. “There's no doubt about that. That’s why we take our part seriously. When we’re on stage we really give it our best.”

This summer the band has been performing its first four albums in their entirety in select cities. They also played a series of acoustic shows on the West Coast.

“Both of those things were really stimulating for me personally as well as for the band,” Bonebrake says. “Doing the four albums, we had to learn about a dozen songs we hadn't played for years, or that we had rarely played at all. We had to rehearse quite a bit. That was followed up by three days of intense rehearsal trying to reinterpret the band in a more acoustic manner.”

Even though the Philadelphia date is not one of the complete album or acoustic shows, Bonebrake says that fans who come to the Trocadero on Thursday will likely be treated to some rarely heard songs from the band's catalog.

“The good thing about learning all of these songs is that we will probably throw in songs we haven't played for a long time, so hopefully that will be fun for the fans,” he says. “We’re playing songs like ‘Drunk in My Past,’ ‘Real Child of Hell,’ ‘Make the Music Go Bang,’ ‘Universal Corner,’ ‘When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch,’ and 'Under the Big Black Sun.’ John makes the set list the night of the show, so it's different every night.”

With a welcoming fan base and a group that continues to enjoy performing together, there’s no reason to doubt that X will be celebrating its 40th anniversary tour in a few years. What seems less likely is that the tour will be in support of a new album.

“You never know,” Bonebrake says. “There's always a possibility we'll put out some new material, but it's not going to be soon. We've talked about working on new stuff, but to actually make it happen is more difficult.”