"I'm going to see X play at the TLA!" I exclaim, fairly vibrating with anticipation.
Either you know X or you don't. Either X irrevocably altered your vision of rock music or it didn't. Either X changed your life or it didn't. X was never a band "that you used to listen to." X was a band that you lived, that you absorbed, that absorbed you.
In 1981, my older brother brought home X's second album for Slash Records, "Wild Gift." Unlike the Sex Pistol's "Never Mind the Bollocks" that he had previously exposed me to, "Wild Gift" resonated with me. More country inspired, less acidic, and far more
singable than British punk, X's brand of L.A. punk was less of a political statement and more about having a beer or three and getting in the pit. The L.A. punks were just as poor as their British predecessors, but felt less oppressed by the socio-economic climate. In Britain, punk was a reaction to a society that did not have opportunities to offer to its young. In New York and L.A., punk was a rejection of opportunities and a creation of different ones.
One of my greatest regrets in life was not having the chance to see X play in the 80's, in their prime. A paradox of the punk movement was its incredible work ethic--being "punk" didn't mean sitting around on your ass, it meant "DIY" (doing it yourself), recording and distributing and touring your music any way you could. A combination of regular recording and touring did not make the members of X rich financially, but it cemented their status as one of the most musically influential bands of the late 20th century. Until last night, the closest I would come to seeing X in the flesh would be as their alter-ego, The Knitters (with Tony Gilkyson, instead of Billy Zoom, on guitar). Less oriented towards moshing and more towards the Merle Haggard-ethos that singer/bassist/songwriter John Doe and singer/songwriter/former Mrs. Doe and former Mrs. Viggo Mortenson Exene Cervenka have always loved, The Knitters was always fun, but it wasn't X.
However, seeing X live for the first time as the band members are safely ensconced in mid-life posed a question: had the band and the music aged well? Or was this going to become some hideous, Styx-reunion-tour trainwreck that I would regret wasting both my money and youthful memories over?
As I arrive at the TLA in Philly, opening act The Fags have taken the stage and are serving up a youthful version of punk-pop. Less guitar-twang and drum-tom driven than X and its immediate offspring, The Fags are a tight, bright 3-piece who are obviously benefitting from an extremely competent soundman. The sound was some of the best I have ever heard in the TLA: crisp and loud without being painful. The citizens of Punk, Grunge, and Rockabilly Nations are in full attendance: a couple of contemporary mohawks mix through a crowd of Bettie Page and Carl Perkins lookalikes, sprinkled with the occasional faded Sub Pop t-shirt. I am elated to see a crowd that stretches the gamut of generations. There are people ranging in age from 18 to mid-50s. Not only have X's fans aged with the band, but they have dragged along the next generation. A woman of indeterminate age in full Brit-punk drag careens through the crowd with a smile on her face, trying to incite the spirit of a bygone era.
As X take the stage and launch into "Your Phone's Off the Hook," one can see that age and gravity have been no more nor no less kind to Exene, John, Billy Zoom, and DJ Bonebrake than the rest of us. Billy has forsaken the peroxide bottle, opting for more of his natural light brown hair color. DJ has chosen to camouflage his receding and graying hairline with a buzz cut. And Exene and John are, well, Exene and John, just more so. The sparkling sound that had blessed The Fags momentarily retreats--it takes a roadie several tries to get a working mic for Exene, who simply co-opts John's, and the right speaker stack in front of me is a bit buzzy. While John's voice has retained all of its velvety crooniness, it takes a few songs for Exene to get the crackles out of hers.
Once the band hits "We're Desparate" (the song that Exene lamented in the film "The Decline of Western Civilization" that they would not be able to play live much longer, because the band's success would tarnish its credibility), evidence of age is forgotten, and the floor center becomes a roiling mass of moshing bodies. Billy and John spend the entire set grinning like the happiest inmates in the asylum. The band gave the people what they wanted, playing virtually the entire song catalog from "Los Angeles" to "More Fun in the New World." As the band leaves the stage at the end of their main set, an encore is naturally demanded. The band returns and delivers a 3-song encore, that, most pointedly, does not include "Johny Hit and Run Paulene," their infamous paen to a 24-hour bout of perhaps-not-entirely-consensual-drug-fueled sex. That comes, after much screaming from the crowd, at the end of the second 3-song encore. By the end of the night, the rookies of Punk and Rockabilly Nation are painfully yet happily tugging at their X-damaged ears, while I, blessed with the wisdom of age and experience, simply pull out my ear plugs and cruise merrily into the night.