Thursday, Dec. 8, was a special night at the Independent. Not only was it the first night of a four-date set for the legendary Los Angeles punk band X, but it was also drummer and percussionist DJ Bonebrake’s 61st birthday. The crowd was informed of this by the many signs taped up on the bathroom mirrors, imploring them to help him celebrate during the encore.
Of course, there were many die-hards in the audience who probably didn’t need to be told this.
“I first saw them when I was 15,” a woman in the bathroom who looked to be in her forties told me as I took a picture of the birthday invitation.
X’s four-date set at the Independent is part of the seminal punkers’ 40th anniversary tour. The band — consisting of bassist John Doe, singer Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom, and Bonebrake — emerged out of the Los Angeles punk scene in 1977, just as the Reagan Eighties were about to get underway. Doe and Cervenka, who had met in a poetry class, penned songs about alienation and the darker corners of Southern California, particularly against the backdrop of its sharp class divide. The hollowness of a yuppie’s sex life takes center stage in their early hit “Sex and Dying in High Society,” while “We’re Desperate” is a simple and direct mantra for the working class struggle. The X tune, “The New World,” which was not played at the Independent, presciently laments how “It was better before they voted for What’s-His-Name.” Though the band was talking about Reagan, it’s almost eerie how relevant the lyrics to that song, and many others, still are today.
Known for their sonic and stylistic departures from the punk playbook, the quartet — which was occasionally joined by drummer Craig Packham to give Bonebrake time on the vibraphone — tackled its well-known hits and deep cuts in equal measure.
Doe and Cervenka still had that classic vocal tag-team chemistry, and seemed equally at home on duets like “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” and slower ballads like “Come Back to Me.” Zoom, known for his stillness and habit of making intensely direct eye contact with unsuspecting audience members, executed energetic rockabilly guitar licks in a manner that appeared absolutely effortless, while Bonebrake held it all down with steady percussion. Even when a skirmish broke out near the front, Doe kept his cool and said, “I don’t know how there can be any trouble with so much weed being smoked.”
The standout song of the evening that encapsulated X’s anxious lyrics and musical versatility was a version of “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” from 1983’s More Fun in the New World. Cervenka introduced it as a possible mantra for San Francisco, with its message of being fed up with “both sides.” A slow-building number, it allowed for improvisation, which meant the crowd was treated to solos from both Bonebrake on the vibraphone and Zoom on the saxophone.
For their final stretch, Doe declared, “Let’s play some punk rock,” and X finally let loose on fast and frenetic numbers from their early catalog, like “Jonny Hit and Run Pauline” and the titular “Los Angeles” from their 1980 debut. The latter takes on White flight and the protagonist’s feeling of being displaced by “Every Mexican that gave her shit/ Every homosexual and the idle rich.”
Again, it’s hard not to think about the 2016 election and buzzwords like “economic anxiety” and “identity politics” with X’s music.
But the crowd gathered to mosh to this very tune was the definition of diverse — in terms of age, race, gender, and sexuality. It reminded me that alienation and frustration is not just normal, it’s downright universal. And as long as X continues to channel those feelings, they will always have a place in this brave new world.