Cervenka’s New Life as an Old Wife
The past two years have brought major changes to the life of Exene Cervenka. As vocalist with the seminal L.A. band X, Cervenka was the high priestess of the L.A. punk scene from 1976 to 1987, when the members of X wandered off to work on various solo projects. (For the record, the group is not officially broken up, but hasn’t recorded a studio album in nearly three years.)
During her tenure with X, Cervenka’s persona was that of a dark and brooding loner with a stormy disposition fueled on despair and rage. Fans who quaked in her formidable presence then would hardly recognize her today.
Sitting in a Hollywood coffee shop for an early-morning chat before racing off to catch a plane, Cervenka is noticeably more relaxed and open than she was when she stood at the center of the roiling punk scene. The radiantly happy mother of an 18-month-old son, Henry, she left the fast track of Los Angeles--the city that was like a muse for X--for life in a tiny town in Idaho, where she has lived for a year with her husband, actor Viggo Mortenson. Her neighbors know nothing of her glory days in Los Angeles, nor that she recently released her first solo LP, “Old Wives’ Tales.” And that’s how she wants it.
“I moved to Idaho because I wanted to live in a place that still had mountains, lakes and trees,” she says as she struggles to get breakfast into her baby rather than on the floor. “I thought that would be a nice place to raise my son, and I’ve found I really love it there. I doubt if anyone there ever heard of X and that’s fine, because I didn’t go there to be a musician--I went there not to do that.”
She loved Los Angeles when she first moved here from St. Petersburg, Fla., “and as a writer I was inspired by the duality of wealth and poverty you find here. I’d never lived in a city prior to coming here, so it was thrilling to me in many ways. But there came a point where living here was the root of all my problems.”
Though Cervenka’s love affair with Los Angeles is over, she spent a good amount of time here this year working on “Old Wives’ Tales,” a politicized synthesis of folk, punk and country that Cervenka describes as “a record for and about women.
“Women have it harder than men in this society and I don’t see that improving--in fact, women seem to be getting more unliberated. With people like Madonna as role models for young girls, women are being taught that what’s important is to be wealthy and sexy, and that they should use the same rotten rules men have always used to be powerful in a man’s world.”
Cervenka’s feisty views on sexual politics played a central role in the writing she did with X, and they haven’t changed. However, the 10 songs on “Old Wives’ Tales” are markedly different from her earlier work in several respects.
“I wrote the music for these songs and I never wrote music with X,” she says. “I always wanted to, but every time I committed myself to learning the guitar something would come up. I not only finally found the time in Idaho, but I had to learn because there was nobody else around to put music to my lyrics.
“I’m also writing about different things now--the biggest change being that I don’t write about myself anymore. I’ve lost interest in autobiographical writing because it’s selfish, limiting, and I grew bored with it. I used to turn to writing about myself when I was totally miserable, but I’m really happy now, so it doesn’t serve that purpose for me anymore.”
Featuring guest vocals by Eliza Gilkyson and Julie Christensen, “Old Wives’ Tales” is for the most part a one-woman show, with Exene carrying the weight of the record alone. But she is eager to share credit with producer Tony Gilkyson, X’s guitarist and a member of her touring band.
“My credibility as a musician has always seemed to be predicated on my involvement with X and John,” she says, referring to John Doe, the band’s bassist-singer and her husband for seven years.
“When John and I split up, certain male musicians treated me differently. I guess they never really respected me--I was just part of the baggage that came along with X and John. Tony’s always been great as far as encouraging me, and that’s why I wanted him to produce my record. He really believes in me and thinks I can sing and write songs. I wouldn’t have made this record without him.”
Though Cervenka’s other former bandmates are conspicuous in their absence, their musical imprint can be detected on several songs. Fans hungry for new music by this well-loved group have latched onto a raucous track titled “He’s Got a She” as being in X’s style, but Cervenka disagrees.
“Because it’s a little peppier, people are saying that’s like an X song but it’s really not. In fact, when I played that song for John, he said it was pretty good but that it would be better if I put some more chords here and there--in other words, if I turned it into an X song,” she says with a laugh.
“John and I are still involved in one another’s work--I stayed with him on this trip to L.A.--but we haven’t worked on songs together for a while. X’s contract with Elektra is done and we haven’t figured out if the band is together or not. We’re all busy with other things right now, but if we wanted to do a benefit for a good cause I think we could.”
The main thing Cervenka’s busy with right now is gearing up for a three-week tour of the East Coast (she’ll do some L.A. dates in late November) that will reflect her intensified commitment to social activism.
“This’ll be a real low-budget tour and we’ll travel very sparsely--it’ll be four guys in a van with a trailer. I want to do as many benefits as I can, and I plan to invite charities and activist groups to set up booths at the shows. I probably won’t make any money on the tour but that’s OK. If people buy my record and come and see me, that’s nice.”
LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale Sunday for Eurythmics’ Nov. 20 concert at the Universal Amphitheatre. . . . Guitar whizzes Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck share the bill Dec. 1 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. . . . L.A. Guns headlines the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim on Thanksgiving.
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