"Reunion" shows are typically transparent attempts to cash in on the money-to-spare, now-that-the-kids-are-gone Boomers who once made up what may well have been a fairly intense fan base at one time.
And then there's X, a band that gave the American West its own form of punk rock - and while the region may have been slightly late in developing compared to the British and New York scenes, it was one that, spurred by X, ultimately became richer musically, with its nods to rock 'n' roll rootsiness and a greater sense of the poetry that could be conveyed alongside churning and screaming electric guitars.
X was never just three chords, never a band that could've been pinned down as anarchist instigator wannabes, and never a band that stopped innovating. And though I was somewhat prepared for the stage presence and general excellence of X by a Knitters show I saw almost three years ago, this was my first time seeing the band itself. So, though I'm not typically a front-and-center type of show-goer (at least once the crowds climb past 1,000), I wasn't going to take any other position for this one. There was going to be no action-figure-sized musicians in my recollections of the night, no back-of-the-hall timidness to mar my evening.
The quick review? Incredible, bad-ass, inspirational and memorable, not only because I finally got to engage a long-time favorite band close up, but also because those incredible songs just kept coming, and as my eyes kept scanning their way across the stage's four outstanding and iconic musicians and I kept jumping up and down, I felt as though I could've been there at the beginning, that I was stuck in some sweaty and dingy LA club back in the day, that it wasn't 30 years after the music was burning-white-hot new shit. The furthest thing from a nostalgia show is one that convinces those who were never around the scene to begin with that they just might've been. Had I not been an infant in those days, I would've belonged, that's for sure.
And X delivered. The freshness and the energy the band brought to the Rialto Theatre Saturday - the final night of the band's 31st anniversary tour - was so clear, and so clearly dependent on each of the four band members, that it could've lit the marquee itself. Those four reunited punks have emerged three decades later as legends for no other reason than they are legendary:
Exene Cervenka simply has the most commanding presence of any woman ever to front a punk band - fierce and menacing on the microphone, with a confident sass that she's built up over 30 years on stage. As I wrote about the Knitters, Exene's and John Doe's vocals just meld into this otherwordly thing altogether, a synchronized wail that slowly becomes its own singular creature, born to breathe fire and shout heartache.
At 54, John Doe looks as if he was born to live in this sort of extended middle age. A few wrinkles only make his face all the more expressive, and hint at a backstreets wisdom that's precisely in line with the sound and style of music he plays, particularly the loud thump-and-wail of X, but also the weary troubadour country- and folk-tinged songs he churns out solo. No wonder he's an actor. Dressed all in black at the show, Doe is the archetype outsider, a rebel intellectual who found his home in punk rock. But in other eras of American life he would've been a beat poet, a James Dean, a drinking buddy of Hemingway, a rail-car compatriot of Guthrie, or a pen-pal of Mark Twain.
Billy Zoom engages the audience more than any performer I've ever seen, and all without a microphone. He's the king of eye contact. With his lightning fast punkified Chuck Berry guitar riffs coming from muscle memory, Zoom was constantly scanning the crowd for any camera or camera phone pointed his way, and he'd just mug away, eyebrows bouncing up and down as he zeroed in on each fan. Dipping his guitar neck for the front few rows of people to touch and constantly smiling and winking (I think he got me four times), Zoom must've personally connected with hundreds of people in the crowd - stretch that tally night after night across the whole tour and there are thousands of X fans, some old but most young, with the smiling and slightly wrinkled face of Zoom forever etched in memory, a silver pompadour combed high and a personalized guitar strap signifying not only celebrity but legend. Billy Zoom is practically ready to run for office.
Zoom brings an effortless virtuosity to the band, and D.J. Bonebrake is an equally gifted musician on the drums, a dynamic powerhouse and one of punk's standout rhythm-men. Perhaps the most appropriately named musician ever to walk this Earth, D.J. Bonebrake still comes across on stage as a teenager having the time of his life. It wasn't until he took off his pork-pie hat midway through the set that it was clear his hair is white, rather than just the typical bleached look of punks.
(And now a bit of a break to complain about the annoyance of moshing, which assaulted me countless times during the show and turned my attention from the band during some of their best songs.)
I never liked moshing when I was 16, either as a participant the couple half-assed tries I gave it or as the more sane crowd member who didn't join in. And I've only grown more curmudgeonly about the senselessly assaultive practice since those days of my early punk shows. If rumblers wanted to rumble with rumblers at shows that would be one thing, but moshing takes no pains to avoid the non-participants, most of whom have turned their backs to the pit to actually watch the band, and are rewarded by incessant shoving that comes close to whiplash each time. Few things can be more distracting than literally having to defend yourself from being pummeled. Moshing is meat-headed and jockish at its core, something that in my mind never really fit in with the music, especially for a band as intelligent and reverential of its forefathers as X is.
(And now back to focusing on the music, as I was mostly able to do at the show once security booted the most grievous instigator, some rough and dread-locked chick who looked like she was out for nothing more than a fight.)
X holds a truly crucial place in the canon of American rock music. The band is rightly understood as one of the lynchpins, one of the bridges between styles and generations that - along with the Beach-Boys-loving Ramones - made punk fit, made this left-field energy and amped-to-11 sound seem like something Elvis would've been into if he'd only come along 20 years later, raised in a faltering inner-city instead of the rural South.
Punk was less a rebellion against anything in particular than a back-to-basics approach that reconnected with what made rock 'n' roll what it was in the first place. Punk rendered rock 'n' roll relevant again - it was a bunch of disaffected youths harnessing the power of the amplified guitar and the kick-and-snare backbeat. And if early rock 'n' roll was a response to the repressive Eisenhower years, punk rock returned again to turn American society on its head during the Carter and Reagan era.
While X is a band that didn't record minor works, the group's debut Los Angeles remains its best work and there's no denying that on the final night of the 31st anniversary tour. Seven of the albums nine songs made the set list and they were more often than not the ones that sent energy pulsing through the crowd. X was a band that landed fully formed, with Los Angeles as the template for its uniquely rootsy punk sound that chronicled dirty LA and the lovelorn rebel life as they lived it. The next three records to follow were all outstanding, but for its immediacy, its rawness and the dedicated following it spawned, Los Angeles is really what was being celebrated on this tour.
I realize that I've written as much about the band in general as I have the show in particular. But that's simply because, during the course of the show, I just kinda felt X in its entirety. The live performance is so well-honed, and the band's catalogue so impressive, that to be in an X show is to literally be embracing the band for all that it has accomplished in 31 years. I was born too late to be there for so much of the music that I love, and while I have no hesitation in catching a band well-passed its prime, that just can't be said for X. Not for this tour. X plays with fire every night, and as I could see from my front-and-center position, they're legends who inspire everybody, including the excellent openers Detroit Cobras, who spent the night jumping and dancing and generally rocking out in the wings like they were star-struck fans instead of tour mates who'd been there night after night.
X - The World's A Mess, It's In My Kiss (live 2008-05-27, Cat's Cradle, Carrboro, N.C.)
X - Positively Fourth Street (live, Bob Dylan cover, 8-2-1986, The Ritz, New York City)