By Shawn Mafia
“Friends warehouse pain, attack their own kind . . . a thousand kids, bury their parents,” sang John Doe and Exene Cervenka in unison. The big black desert sun had already sunk down behind the mountains surrounding Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. What was billed as the first ever acoustic performance by the seminal Los Angeles punk pioneers X, featuring all the original members of the group was well on its way to being in the books. A performance destined to become another high note in an already illustrious career, or was it? Singer/bassist John Doe was nervous, “This is fucking scary,” he told the crowd a few songs previous. “We rehearsed the shit out of this but getting up here (on stage) and doing it is a whole other thing.”
Moments before X were to take the stage punters pushed forward to fill whatever gaps remained towards the front. A middle aged couple elbowed in with their two young children. The mother bear, fearful for the safety of her cubs flanked me from my right and questioned, “What kind of dancer are you, a mosher?” I put her mind at ease stating I was in fact a “watcher.” Appeased by my answer, dad moved in next to me hoisting his young daughter onto his shoulders for a bird’s eye view. This was a strange twist, as I surveyed the crowd and determined that the 1000 kids who had once “buried their parents” were now in fact, parental figures.
In the middle of it all stood Exene Cervenka still playing the part of the disheveled, punk poetess. “Alright, here we all are . . .” she intoned almost channeling the ghost of Jim Morrison, as if to say we’re all inside this moment and no one is quite sure what is about to happen, not even the band.
Billy Zoom straddling a bar stool (he would remain seated the entire show) gripped a candy apple red Gretsch acoustic guitar. He began to play the opening notes of “Hungry Wolf.” Doe fell in time with him on bass. D.J. Bonebrake, positioned behind a stripped down drum kit, found the same rhythm yet it was an unfamiliar trotting pace, a slower wolf stalking from a far.
What started to unfolded was something not so much acoustic as it was acoustical. During the second song, “Beyond and Back”, Zoom would shed the ole’ gutbox in favor of a clean electric guitar sound. He would remain on electric guitar for the majority of the show.
Moving through “Drunk in My Past”, “We’re Having Much More Fun”, “White Girl”, “In This House that I Call Home” (among others) X explored a brand new space inside the music. With the raw-nerved distortion banished and the tempo slowed the audience was given a more intimate look inside the songs themselves. It seemed even the band was discovering a renewed innocence and passion for the material. As John Doe edged his way into “Adult Books” he momentarily lost the rhythm only to look across the stage to find the always grinning Billy Zoom leading him back in with a sly wink. Doe returned the gesture with a nod. This would one of the more telling and poignant moments of the show.
A week prior, X had just finished up a four night stint at the Roxy in Los Angeles running through the first four albums in their entirety. When asked what he thought the difference was or would be between that and the acoustic appearances D.J. Bonebrake remarked, “Well, I don’t know. It was more of a challenge maybe (the acoustic show). We’ll see how it goes. We’re still working on it. We’re trying to determine how to approach the songs. Some we’re trying to play more quiet but intense. It’s hard to find that balance. So I don’t know. I’ll tell you in a couple of weeks, which ended up being harder. They’re both challenging.”
As X continued, what we thought might veer in the direction of “country tinged rock-a-billy” ultimately ended up evoking more of a 50’s surf style with pop undertones. Transforming songs like “Sugar Light” into something akin to the Beach Boys meets William Burroughs. Exene found a new home for her poetic musings within the slowed, softer musical structures. Spinning songs like “World’s a Mess it’s In My Kiss” into spoken word punk rock cabaret.
Another odd twist was the addition of multi-instrumentalist Michael Kilpatrick. He joined X for this particular tour allowing D.J. Bonebrake and Billy Zoom the freedom to take on other duties. Zoom would switch over to the baritone sax and D.J. the vibraphone. Perhaps the climax of the night would come as the band performed “Please Come Back to Me” a song they only had recently begun doing live. Billy Zoom would lick his guitar pick and stick it on his forehead before weeping tenderly through the sax. Coupled with D.J. on the vibes and Kilpatrick on the drums the sound was expansive and moody. Not a dry eye under the stars as Exene crooned tenderly over the tragic death of her sister and Doe ended the lament visibly breathing a sigh of relief as he played the final bass notes.
On a lighter note fans were treated to a John Doe issued spoiler alert for one song in particular, “Anyone form the west coast? Then this songs for you!” he exclaimed proceeding to throw up a pair of south central gang signs as the group launched into the punk classic “Los Angeles.”
Despite the twists and turns X seemed to enjoy the Hi-Desert setting of Pappy & Harriet’s. Even Doe was enamored enough by the club to add it to the list of bars and dives during the song “The Have Nots.” “At the hi-d-hi and the hula gal, A Bee-Hive bar and the Zircon lounge, Pappy & Harriet’s, the gift of love . . .” Speaking with D.J. Bonebrake at the conclusion of the performance he offered, “It went as well as we figured it would. It’s our first (acoustic) show. It’s a fun venue. We really love it out here.”
Just when you thought X wasn’t capable of coming with a musical experience that feels fresh and sounds different they do, with a subtle reinterpretation of the classic songs that transcends nostalgia and re-stakes a claim to relevance and long term stability. I was only a small kid when X first played milestone gigs at venues like the Masque and the Whiskey. Needless to say it always felt like I had missed out. But this time, as X concluded their first ever acoustic show, I can proudly say . . . I was there.