“Zen and the Art of Punk Rock”?
If anyone were utterly qualified to write such a book, it would be John Doe and his longtime musical partner and ex-wife, Exene Cervenka.
On the heels of the recent release of their first duet album, “John Doe and Exene Cervenka Singing and Playing,” the two express such a matter-of-fact, “accept life as it is” view that the founding members of X and its rootsy offshoot the Knitters often seem to have reached some level of enlightenment.
Even though they divorced 15 years ago, Doe and Cervenka are still regarded in many quarters as the first couple of Los Angeles punk and roots-rock music as they move firmly but unconventionally through middle age alternately playing solo shows, periodic reunions with X and the Knitters and, as of a few years ago, outings as a duo.
“There is no grand plan, and I like that,” Doe, 58, said on a cool spring morning last week between bites of a blueberry muffin at a former gas station in Old Towne Orange that now houses a restaurant. “There are just opportunities.”
He was soon joined by Cervenka, 56, who was running a few minutes late.
“We just do these things as they come up,” Doe said before Cervenka arrived. The Zen attitude manifests in matters big and small: When a representative of the new Orange-based Moonlight Graham record label who was with Doe asked whether he’d heard from Exene, he smiled and said dryly, “I’m not my songwriting partner’s keeper.”
Once she did show up, their exchanges had much the same combination of acerbic wit and mutual respect that came through during the 2009 duet tour that eventually led them to record “Singing and Playing.”
“Oh, we’ve been doing shows together forever,” Cervenka said at one point. “This is nothing new.”
Doe responded, “But not just you and me.”
“Sure we have,” said Exene, a utilitarian-hooded sweat shirt thrown over her characteristically colorful vintage print dress.
“OK, maybe you’re right,” he said, deferring to Cervenka. “But I think it was only about three years ago when we started doing the shows billed as ‘John and Exene.’”
Their give-and-take, push-and-pull has the quality of an old unmarried couple, but musically they still mesh expertly, as evidenced in the eight tracks on the duet CD, including two latter-day renditions of the X classic “See How We Are.” At the moment, they’re caught up on a string of X 35th anniversary shows and don’t have immediate plans for more duo performances.
There’s also a level of acceptance apparent when Doe and Cervenka talk about the different outlets they use for their creative lives. Cervenka has recently added “record executive” to her long list of accomplishments, taking the post of vice president of artists-and-repertoire, a.k.a. talent scout, for Moonlight Graham. The record label grew out of the vintage clothing and memorabilia shop of the same name along Orange’s downtown antique-store row.
“I’ve done every job in the music business, and I can do any job as good or better than anyone else,” she said without a trace of boastfulness. “I understand the business because I’ve seen the mistakes that have been made, and I’ve still ended up with a long career, so that must mean something.” Her first signing: Skating Polly, an Oklahoma sibling duo whose first album is due in July.
Likewise, Doe still believes firmly in what he, Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake created decades ago at the dawn of L.A. punk rock, and has no qualms about revisiting that song trove, as X did Saturday night at the Greek Theatre during the inaugural Los Lobos Cinco de Mayo Festival.
“Sometimes you feel a little guilty that maybe you’re cashing in on what you’ve done in the past,” he said. “I think a better way to look at it is that 35 years ago we made an investment: We put some creative juice in the bank, and now it’s paying off. Even if you didn’t do anything new, you made an investment and it was actually a good investment, rather than making a [lousy] investment that isn’t worth anything.
“That’s something that I’m glad that I’ve gotten over, and gotten to the point of being able to accept something for what it’s worth. I’ve worked hard — if somebody wants to pay me for my hard work, then fine.
“It’s a great relief,” he said. “I suppose it’s a little bit Zen or eastern religion to be able to accept things, to be able to be grateful for things as they come along and feel like, it doesn’t matter if there’s a reason or not. It is, so be happy about it. I’m healthy, and I’m still playing rock music, and thank goodness.”