Sunday, February 12, 2012

Musical Couples: Exene Cervenka & John Doe

X: White Girl

When I graduated from high school in 1978, rock radio in New York still mostly played classic rock, even on the now legendary WNEW-FM, which was tamer than in its true heyday, but still played a little broader selection of music. We really didn’t hear much punk music, but some of the “new wave,” like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson began to infiltrate the playlists. At some point that year, WPIX-FM began to focus on playing new wave (their slogan was, “From Elvis to Elvis”), but by the time it was beginning to get some traction, I was off to college. Starting in early 1979, I began to work at WPRB-FM, our college radio station, which I have mentioned more than a few times already. It was there that I began to really be exposed to new wave, punk, and hardcore music. But even then, it was still enough of a niche that we had a “specialty show” that ran once a week after midnight called “Crest of the New Wave.” (Along with others, such as “The Musical Box,” for prog rock.) I learned to mix in the newer sounds with more of the music I had listened to in high school, leading to, I hoped, an interesting and eclectic mix on my shows, and later when I became program director, on the station as a whole. I still try to do that on my iPod, and that appreciation for a varied mix of music is why I have long been a fan of this blog and have enjoyed writing for it over the past few months. I’d also like to point out that my son is a college DJ at WSPN-FM, and his show is called “Throw It Against The Wall And See What Sticks,” designed to allow him to play pretty much whatever he wants, so maybe that gene runs in the family.

None of that really relates to the theme, but I write it to give some context for how I came to appreciate this song. “Los Angeles,” the debut album by X, is considered by many to be one of the seminal punk albums, mixing the energy of punk with rockabilly, country and classic rock, and featuring great lyrics, musicianship and vocals. I remember listening to it when it came out in 1980, and not really getting it, probably because I lacked the foundation to understand it at the time. I played songs from it on the radio, intrigued by the fact that this punk album was produced by Ray Manzarek of The Doors, a classic rock band that I was certainly familiar with, although I have always considered them overrated.

But over the next year, my musical horizons continued to broaden, and in 1981, X released “Wild Gift,” and I finally got it. It is just a great album (and yes, I also learned to appreciate “Los Angeles,” too). It won all sorts of critical awards and acclaim, which were justly deserved. What I liked was that “Wild Gift” wasn’t all fast songs—it was eclectic but was still coherent. To me, the standout track is “White Girl,” a slower song about punks in love, or at least in lust. Exene Cervenka and John Doe’s harmonies reminded me in many ways of those of Grace Slick and Paul Kantner from the early Jefferson Airplane music that I had become obsessed with in high school, but the subject matter of “White Girl” was rooted in and describes its own time and place. Cervenka and Doe met in 1977, formed X that year and married in 1980. They divorced in 1985, the same year that X released the ironically titled “Ain’t Love Grand.” Despite the divorce, they continued to write and record together, as well as separately, producing more excellent music.

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