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Fabulous Flip Sides – Interview with X’s Exene Cervenka

We spoke with X’s Exene Cervenka about The Doors’ Ray Manzarek, who produced their first 4 albums on Elektra, Exene’s latest solo album, X’s upcoming tour with The Damned, Violent Femmes and Squeeze, the KAABOO festival, baseball and her family.

By Warren Kurtz

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Current X photo by Gary Leonard

D J. Bonedrake – drums

Billy Zoom – guitar, saxophone

Exene Cervenka – vocals

John Doe – vocals, bass

GOLDMINE:In 1979,On Ray Manzarek’s 40th birthday, I interviewed Ray about The Doors, following the release of the album An American Prayer from the fall of the prior year. We discussed new wave bands in L.A. and he told me, “I like new wave. It’s the wave of the future. I think it’s the way music is going to go.” When did you start working with him?

EXENE CERVENKA: We met him in ’79 and our first album that we did with him came out in April 1980, called Los Angeles. We met him at the Whisky A Go Go club where The Doors used to perform. Back in the late ‘70s, there wasn’t a lot of interest in what we were doing on the west coast with punk and new wave. New York and London had the scenes with producers, engineers and record labels with interest. California and many other places were overlooked. Ray was perceptive and smart when he saw the L.A. scene. It was just a few years after The Doors’ era. It seemed like light years, but it wasn’t. He was still very connected musically to what was going on in the world. As a producer, he left us alone to make our own mistakes, etch our own strengths and make our own decisions. He didn’t say, “You can’t say that. You can’t sing that. You can’t play that.” Instead, he would say, “If that is what you want to play, then play it better. If that is what you want to sing, sing it better next time.” He made some musical suggestions. His remarks made us feel confident. His comments encouraged us to do better and take it more seriously. When I look at the work ethic of The Doors on how hard they worked and how dedicated they were in the studio, we didn’t all have that ethic back then. We didn’t even know if our recording was going to be released, but then there were a bunch of labels that became interested in signing us and Elektra seemed to be the most sincere and dedicated. They had a great track record, not just with The Doors, of course, but with Love and others. There were still enough people at the label at the time who we thought could understand us. The people at Elektra shared the same attitude as Ray, encouraging us to be who we are and do it the best that we can. They were great with, and we had Ray. Up through the first four albums, things went well.

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GM:Your first four albums have just been remastered and rereleased through Fat Possum Records. Let’s talk about one of those albums, Under the Big Black Sun, from 1982. My wife Donna and I were living in Dallas at the time and one of our favorite radio stations was KEGL, Eagle 97 FM. They had a show called “New Music Hour” each week and in October 1982, I finally heard X on the radio with “Blue Spark.” I was amazed by the attack of Billy’s guitar, punctuated by D.J.’s drums, the depth of John’s vocals and the vocal harmonies that you brought to the song.

EC: Cool. We still play “Blue Spark” live. Those songs from the early albums were really good songs. John’s a great musician. He wrote that one. It is beautiful and should have been a hit record.

GM:“Blue Spark” was released as a single, and on its flip side was the next song on the album, “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes.” The ‘60s feel to it and the tropical guitar sound are fun. It is so melodic.

EC: That is an old Leadbelly song and even goes back before Leadbelly. We really love the old music, all American music, we know it well.

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Flip side: Dancing with Tears in My Eyes

A side: Blue Spark

Debut: 1982

Elektra 7-69885

GM:Another favorite of mine from that album is “Come Back to Me,” with almost a Cass Elliot-like dramatic delivery. You have a line in there about playing in Cleveland on a Wednesday night. We are from there and we spent many nights in the ‘70s seeing bands.

EC: We were on tour, and it was right after my sister Mirielle died in a car accident, and I was sitting upstairs at the Pirate’s Cove club, in an office with a typewriter. I was still very sad and devastated about my sister’s passing and I could hear the opening band downstairs banging out their song, while I was typing away.

GM:How about that, in the flats in Cleveland. I can picture it. Also, the twin lead vocals on the album’s opener, “The Hungry Wolf” are edgy and certainly offer a Jefferson Airplane-type style to that song, followed by a pair of songs on par with what The B-52’s were doing at the time.

EC: You know, we weren’t influenced by what other groups were doing. I didn’t have the ability, skill or experience to want to sound like something that I heard. We were just doing what we did, and I think that is one reason why it was so original. People loved it or hated it because it didn’t fit in. It wasn’t like a template, but I think we all fall into some kind of category in the end, whether we intend to or not. To be associated with something like that is a great compliment that is totally accidental.

GM:“The Have Nots” is a great finale for the album.

EC: I wrote the words. We were on tour and would go to some cool old motels in small town America. You would overhear conversations in old bars. It reminded me a lot of my dad, coming home from work, having a shot and a beer, part of the American blue collar experience, where I grew up in Illinois. I did go to the tavern with my dad all the time, because in our town there was only one place you could go to. On Saturdays, kids would go there and play the jukebox and drink pop while the dads would drink beer and watch the game in the summer. The priest would be at the bar too, drinking and watching the game. If we had a nickel we were lucky, so people would put money in the jukebox for us and every song was good. There were The Supremes, Johnny Cash, The Ronettes, and all the good music of that era. I really loved country music as a kid. It was all mixed up together back then on the jukebox and AM radio. You could hear Ray Charles and Ray Price back to back. The tavern owner had a daughter who was my friend, so she, my sister and I would dance around. So that was my growing up experience with my dad. Being an adult woman, and sitting in the same type of bar that my dad would go to in a small town or Chicago made me feel like I understood it, so “The Have Nots” reflects on that era and experience.

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GM:You mention country music. When I listen to your latest solo album, The Excitement of Maybe, country music is a big part of it.

EC: All my solo records have that, country and bluegrass.

GM:I love the moodiness of “Alone in Arizona.”

EC: There are a lot of sad songs on my solo albums and there are celebrations of relationships, but it seems that brokenhearted songs that are the biggest hits. I think that is also what X has done so well. You listen to our music and enjoy it, but then you listen deeply to the lyrics and might say, “Holy crap! That’s some dark stuff,” yet the music sounds fantastically fun.

GM:It certainly does. You mention a jukebox as well on “I Wish It Would Stop Raining,” with the line, “The jukebox would stop playing.”

EC: I wouldn’t say that I live in the past, but I gravitate toward imagery and iconography from a different time.

GM: “Half Past Forever” has wonderful musicianship and orchestration.

EC: Thanks. I had some good players on the record too. I had Christian McBride, one of the greatest bass players and jazz guy ever. He is a real stand out. I had my friend Cindy Wasserman with us, who sings with me too.

GM:How is Cindy doing? I know she is a breast cancer survivor.

EC: She is doing really good. We just took a little vacation together to the California desert to see the flowers and the stars. She continues to sing with Dead Rock West and with other people too and her health seems to be doing really well right now.

GM:That is good. I had read about her with Sweet Relief Musicians Fund and yourself as well.

EC: Cindy got a lot of help from them. No matter what, in this country right now, it is a little hard when you get sick and people have to rally around each other. You know I have helped a lot of people. Bands have helped a lot of people and someday people will be helping me. So far, I have been fortunate to manage on my own.

GM:We were talking about jukebox oldies earlier. X covered Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Breathless” and you played it on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

EC: Someone approached the band, The Blasters, to record “Breathless” for the movie of the same name, and asked if they wanted to do that song with me singing it and they said, “Why don’t you just get X to do it?” So that is how we got to do it.

GM:In Dallas, next month, you will be there with The Killers and Kid Rock at the KAABOO Festival. Our daughter Brianna, who was born in Dallas, and I saw Kid Rock recently here in Florida and found him and his group to be so exciting. With The Killers, we lived in Nevada in the prior decade when they debuted. What a great voice Brandon Flowers has.

EC: It will be great. I love those festivals because it is stress free. The entire show is not on you. Everybody is sharing in the rewards or difficulties of the event. The best part is that you get to meet people and see all the bands. I’ve seen Kid Rock, but I’ll get to see him again. It is so much fun. That whole tour will be amazing. There are some dates with Violent Femmes, some with The Damned and some with Squeeze. This is something we have waited our whole careers for. In recent years we have played with Pearl Jam, The Psychedelic Furs and Blondie, opening for all of them. I love being around Deborah Harry. I am in awe of her presence. We want to reach new people. Pearl Jam really opened up that possibility for us. The success of these shows has come later in our career but at least it has arrived, and it is rewarding. This year is really good for us. We are playing towns we have never played before and that is what we try to do year after year. With our New York leg, we are planning to go to Cooperstown to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

GM:Didn’t you throw out a first pitch at a baseball game recently?

EC: Yes. It was a Dodgers game for “X Day Los Angeles.” I threw out the first pitch and John sang the national anthem. At the Grammy Museum they have my jersey and a photo of me throwing out the first pitch. That is probably my favorite public experience that I have had in my life. I feel very fortunate.

GM:How is your son, Henry Mortensen? What is he doing?

EC: He is great. He is making a documentary film about a band named Skating Polly. They are from Oklahoma originally. I met them when they were children. I hope it is out this year. Thank you for asking.

GM:Speaking of Mortensen films, Donna and I saw Green Book. Then I spoke with Nat King Cole’s twin daughters about it for an interview, celebrating 100 years of Nat King Cole. Timolin Cole had seen the movie too and she shared with her sister Casey all about the inclusion of their father’s music and racial importance, telling her it was the most poignant part of the film. What a great movie.

EC: Thanks. I’ll pass that along to Viggo. That’s so cool. Nat King Cole was the greatest, and he is my all-time favorite male singer. I have country singers that I love. I have blues singers that I love, but overall it is Nat King Cole for me, “Nature Boy” and more. The Nat King Cole Trio were great. What a man. What a musician and singer.

GM:In addition to the upcoming tour, I know you are working on an album.

EC: Well, we have half the songs for an upcoming album. We have five done. I hope we can get in the studio again this year. We only have 18,000 boxes of lyrics, you know.

GM:Also, you are one of the few acts on tour with all the original members.

EC: Yes, just a few bands that I can think of. Please come to a show and say “Hi.”

Related Links:

Goldmine Ray Manzarek 1979 Interview