“The Unheard Music” gives us a close look at L.A. punk band X’s personal lives in the early ’80s

By on May 23, 2017

1985’s X: The Unheard Music — a truly low-budget labor of love, filmed over a period of several years during the early ’80s by director W.T. “Bill” Morgan — is one of the best music documentaries ever made, and certainly one of the best we’ve ever offered up to our subscribers on Night Flight Plus, providing a close look at the band members personal lives in the early 1980s.

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The L.A. band X are credited on the back of the late 2011 DVD and Blu-ray release from our friends at MVD with “changing the face of punk music with their vibrant, original style.”

The band’s original members made themselves available to Morgan and his partners at Angel City Productions in a way that few bands ever do, especially so early in their careers, letting Morgan take a very close look into their personal lives, where we get to see intimate scenes like guitarist Billy Zoom playing the clarinet and drummer D.J. keeping time and pounding out polyrhythms along to the syncopated sound of his bubbling coffeepot.

X: The Unheard Music — titled for one of their earliest songs, where they sing about being “locked out of the public eye” — also gives the band’s own perspective on their struggles they faced early on to have their music heard, pushing back hard against radio stations that didn’t want to play their music, and dealing with a mostly-indifferent L.A. music business that didn’t seem to care about them, not at first anyway.

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Believe it or not, during the nascent days of the mid-70s punk rock explosion, there were more than a few who thought that punk music would never find a foothold in Los Angeles, perhaps thinking that the left coast’s lazy, freedom-loving denizen would never be able to fully embrace the darker themes found in the music, not to mention punk’s trashy and gritty urban lifestyle.

We’d just come through the 70s, remember, and all across the country (and perhaps the world), the L.A. music scene was still being associated with the cocaine-and-hot-tubs Laurel Canyon-based folk & country rock scene, which was comprised mostly of denim shirt-wearing singer-songwriters and laid-back, long-haired dope-smokers like the much-hated Eagles.

A lot of music fans living outside of L.A. (mostly those who’d never visited the city) just couldn’t connect the images they had of sunlit clear blue sky and sandy beaches — the ones they’d seen in Hollywood movies, glossy magazine photospreads, or early music videos — with punk rock.

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They were wrong, of course, as the sun-scorched traffic-laden sprawl of L.A. was the perfect counter-cultural Petri dish, where punk rock not only grew like a mutating fungus, but ultimately flowered in its own unique way.

X: The Unheard Music goes a long way toward capturing the mutating vibe of the L.A. music scene, but much of the film also feels like a re-telling of the love story between two principle members of X, Exene Cervenka and John Doe.

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High school dropout Christine Cervenka — born in the Chicago suburb of Mokena, Illinois, and raised in Tallahassee, Florida — had moved to Santa Monica in the spring of America’s bicentennial year, 1976.

She was twenty-one years old and had gotten herself a job as a librarian at the Beyond Baroque Foundation in Venice, California (she was their first librarian, in fact), when she first met 23-year old Illinois-born Baltimore-raised John Nommensen Duchac one night at a Beyond Baroque poetry workshop.

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Duchac had already been in a few bands by that point, including a bar band called Stump (just one of a few names they went by) who played both originals and ’70s-era country-rock covers by artists like Neil Young and The Band. Duchac also dug the poetry scene in the Washington D.C. and Baltimore area, and he even studied poetry in school.

In the fall of ’76, after Duchac had already been to New York and didn’t really connect with the music scene there, as it was already so full developed, he and a Stump bandmate named Jack Chipman (who had been John’s best friend since junior high) drove out to L.A. with the intention of becoming denim-shirt wearing laid-back L.A. songwriters.

Duchac had already visited L.A. six months earlier, and something had clicked for him, and he thought they should give it a try, and they wrote some songs together and even sold a few before Chipman decided he’d had enough of L.A., moving back to the east coast.

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Duchac liked the L.A. vibe, though — in an interview he did with No Depression magazine in 2000, he said he the city’s“state of decay” had reminded him of Baltimore — so he stuck around.

He ended up finding a music scene that he connected with too, where bands were playing at a club called the Masque, located on the corner of Cherokee and Hollywood, in the basement below the famed adult movie theater, the Pussycat Theatre. It was pretty far removed from Neil Young, the Band and whatever other country-rock-ish sounds that had originally drawn him to L.A. in the first place. (There’s great footage in the film of the late local punk pioneer Brendan Mullen conducting a comical tour of the Masque, by the way).

In the winter of ’76, Duchac had signed up for the poetry workshop at Beyond Baroque, based out of the original Venice City Hall building, hoping to find a new poetry scene where he’d fit in. Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski were both alumni of the workshop, which was sponsored by a famous small literary press, and regularly held readings and workshops, in addition to offering up a stage for offbeat musical performances.

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Duchac set next to Cervenka, and they were filling out cards and listing their favorite poets when she pointed out to him that he’d written down Bukowski’s name twice (“I must really like him,” he told her). That night Cervenka read a short poem about Superman’s Lois Lane that Duchac liked, and so he asked her out.

They went from being writing partners and friends who slept together, to being a couple and moving in together, sharing a four-room house located at 1118 N. Genesee Avenue, in West Hollywood, a block north of Santa Monica Boulevard, where they would live during most of X’s early days, between 1979 – 1982.

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At some early point they both changed their names to monikers they maintain to this day.

Duchac became John Doe, which was the name that cops or city morgue workers give to a male corpse as a placeholder because their identity is still unknown (one of many reasons for its use, actually).

The name was inspired, he has said, by wanting a punk-sounding name that had a humorous aspect to it, and John Doe had the kind of black humor vibe that he’d always associated with legendary John Waters, the patron saint of Baltimore who had by then already become the “Pope of Trash.”

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Christine Cervenka, meanwhile, rechristened herself Exene, changing the “ine” spelling at the end of her name to “ene,” so people would pronounce it properly.

The name was apparently inspired during a time when Christians were already declaring that there was a “War on Christmas,” complaining that the use of “Xmas” had removed Christ’s name from their holy holiday.

Exene was a lapsed Catholic, but her name change was probably more in the spirit of punk name changes than any kind of religious statement.

That very same winter of ’76, Doe placed an ad in the Recycler, a popular weekly free-ad newspaper where musicians wrote up their own adverts hoping to find like-minded future band members.

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That’s how he connected with guitarist Billy Zoom — real name: Stuart Tyson Kindell — who was a shit-hot rockabilly guitarist who had already playing in bands with legends like Gene Vincent, but he was looking to move on from the rockabilly sound since that was proving to be a dead-end in L.A. simply because there wasn’t enough of a scene at the time.

Zoom already had his incredible guitar chops when Doe met him (he’d placed his own Recycler ad), and he had already perfected what would become his signature on-stage stance, standing to the side and wailing away on taut, economical guitar riffs, his legs set apart and steady, with an ear-to-ear Bob’s Big Boy-ish grin plastered across his face.

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Doe and Zoom were still figuring things out with their original drummer, Mick Basher, when they decided to make a change in early ’78, after seeing a drummer named Donald James Bonebrake, who was playing with a punk group called the Eyes.

After seeing Bonebrake — who went by Don at first but usually now goes by “D.J.” — at the legendary underground club The Masque, playing with his punk band the Eyes, they realized he had the kind of the precise rhythmic crackle and pop they needed, and they persuaded him to leave his group and replace Basher, which happened in February of 1978.

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Exene — who had been writing poetry all along — ended up working on of her poems into a song lyric, which Doe then set to music.

One night he brought her to the band’s rehearsal, to have her sing the lyrics to the song they’d written together, called “I’m Coming Over,” and she ended up joining the band as X’s co-lead singer and lyricist.

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Their hard-edges voices together weren’t exactly a blend of soft L.A. Mamas & Papas-style harmonies, true, but somehow Exene’s singing voice — Newsweek magazine later described it as “a keening kind of punk plain-song” — along with Doe’s simultaneously nasal and throaty country-inflected darker tones made for a rich, dark blend of punk vocals, one that perfectly suited their songs.

Those songs were meant to sound like “songs you could hear once, probably catch the title & possibly remember the next morning. These songs were meant to be played live, loud & sloppy,” which is how John Doe describes it in his chapter titled “Unvarnished, Detailed West Coast,” published in 2016’s Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk.

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In the book — which explores the early days of L.A.’s punk scene, circa 1977-1982, and which was named for the title of X’s third album, released in ’82 — Doe further described writing the band’s earliest songs this way:

“I wanted to tell stories about this city that filled my eyes w/ decay & anonymity. A place where random violence breathed in & out like the ocean. I didn’t want to tell stories like Bob Dylan but like Bukowski (w/out the lurid sex but a suggestion of it) — minimal, unvarnished, detailed West Coast, filled w/ the kind of darkness The Doors and Love had promised.”

“We dug for images & sounds opposite to what everyone in American thought of Los Angeles at the time. Our melodies were simple & chord changes oftentimes went one half step off of what was expected. We were contrary & always reached for something just left of center. But at least we always had two verses & a chorus you could identify over a shitty sound system and the audience jumping all over each other.”

Doe goes on to describe in his chapter how he would try to match the music to the lyrics that Exene would write, trying to match “the cadence of the words.”

Read more in our interview with Doe’s co-writer on the book, Tom DeSavia.

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In 1978, X would issue their debut single, “Adult Books”/ “We’re Desperate,” on the short-lived Dangerhouse Records, which was one of first West Coast indie punk rock imprints.

The label had been founded a year earlier by David Brown (ex-Screamers) and Pat “Rand” Garrett, who were both members of another L.A. punk band, Black Randy & the Metrosquad. In addition to putting out vinyl singles by their own band, Brown and Garrett’s Dangerhouse had already released 7-inch singles by the Dils, the Avengers, the Weirdos and the Ally Cats.

Mostly, the band focused on getting gigs, and by 1979, they were playing steadily and already a huge draw on L.A. club scene, headlining packed-out shows at the Whisky a Go-Go to crowds that had been lined up around the block for hours hoping to get in (your humble author was one of those fans).

Local L.A. writers began to take notice, of course, and one of those writers — Night Flight contributor Chris Morris — would end up writing about seeing X play in an article for the long-gone L.A. Reader, which was published on July 6, 1979.

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That article (titled “Sounds Like Murder: An Odyssey Through the L.A. Rock ‘n’ Roll Vortex”) is acknowledged in the film as being the reason that the Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek decided to check out the band at their next Whisky gig.

X also just happened to cover the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” — their version is a lot faster and louder — and you can see Manzarek join them onstage in the film to perform it.

That first night, Manzarek saw how the band were connecting with their fans and he ended up meeting them that night, backstage at the Whisky, and suggested that they work together, telling them that he was interested in producing an album.

At the time, X were just about to sign a record deal with Slash Records, a small independent record company in L.A., who would go on to release the band’s debut album, Los Angeles, titled for the song which kicks off Side B.

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Los Angeles — recorded for $10,000 in January of 1980 at Golden Sound Studios, where some of the footage included in The Unheard Music was also filmed — was released on April 26, 1980, eventually going on to sell 80,000 copies during its first year (Doe and Cervenka would also get married that same year).

It turned out that naming their first album after the city where they lived was the band’s way of putting a flag in the sand, so to speak, a move that really helped to finally put L.A. punk rock on the proverbial map.

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Their appearance — along with bands like Black Flag, The Germs, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, Fear and Alice Bag Band — in Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization, released in 1981, also helped to solidify the city’s underground punk rock scene, which soon thereafter was taken much more seriously by the national rock press, especially those who had been ignoring L.A.’s then-current music scene altogether.

After Los Angeles, the band’s music fractured and splintered off into all kinds of new directions, and suddenly X were no longer a punk band but a band embracing cowpunk, roots rock, country and other genres. For John Doe, and for Billy Zoom, these new addition were actually a return to playing the kinds of music they’d played years before punk came along and changed everything.

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Ray Manzarek would also produce the next three X albums, beginning with 1981’s Wild Gift (1981), which would sell just 50,000 copies but ended up on the Top Ten year-end lists of several heralded publications, including the New York Times,the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and TIME magazine, among others.

That same year, the band would appear in Urgh! A Music War, which we told you about here.

X would leave Slash Records and sign a much better record deal with Elektra Records, who would release their next two Manzarek-produced albums, Under the Big Black Sun (1982) and More Fun in the New World (1983), which also led to their more hardcore L.A. punk fans to accuse the band of “selling out.”

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By 1984, X were splintering even more, and Doe and Cervenka would end up recording a rootsier punk-folk and country album for Slash as The Knitters.

By the time The Unheard Music was finally screened in 1985, after a long period of difficult post-production related issues (including very expensive music licensing), mostly related to the filmmakers’ shoe-string budget, Billy Zoom would no longer be a member of X, leaving just after the release of their album Ain’t Love Grand.

By the end of that same year, Doe and Cervenka were getting divorced. They decided to keep working together, however, and in 1986 they were joined by guitarists Dave Alvin — known for his work with the Blasters, and ex-Lone Justice member Tony Gilkyson — but the band as depicted in the film were no more.

X: The Unheard Music, therefore, represents a unique period in the band’s career, the kind of personal look at the band’s early years that you don’t often get to see.

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Director W.T. “Bill” Morgan had gone to Stanford University, where he was the editor of the Sequoia Literary Magazine, in addition to focusing on a number of areas (according to his LinkedIn profile, he received his BA in Communications/English/Political Science).

Morgan became friends with Chris Blakely and Everett Greaton, and the three formed a partnership they called Angel City Productions.

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Originally, after spending time together in the Palo Alto, California area, and also in Italy, Morgan and Blakely began sharing an an office in Ocean Park, where Morgan concentrated on writing screenplays. The initial idea for the documentary was to do a short film on three L.A. punk bands, one of which was the Alley Cats, but eventually decided to focus on just one, X.

Their film’s scrapbook-style collage assemblage collects numerous live concert and staged studio music video performances, which are interspersed with interviews with all four band members (as well as some of their friends and family members).

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The film also features lots of early 80s film footage, including home movies and scenes filmed inside L.A. record stores and radio stations (Rodney Bingenheimer, the so-called Mayor of the Sunset Strip, and longtime KROQ deejay, makes an appearance), along with snippets from old newsreel footage, vintage TV commercials and other filmic ephemera, including animated ’50s-style vacation post cards to depict the life on the road of a touring band.

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Morgan’s wife, associate producer/actress Alizabeth Foley, appears in the film as “Paulene,” a fictitious character whom Morgan describes as “an archetypal – and over-identifying – X fan.”

Night Flight’s Chris Morris — along with Bill Morgan, the film’s director — worked with an editor and ended up cutting together a commercial for the film, to give to MTV, which ended becoming the film’s trailer.

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The definition cards at the start of the trailer were adapted from the beginning of his book on X, Beyond and Back: The Story of X, a photo chronicle of the group’s career by f Stop Fitzgerald, and text written by Morris.

We asked Tom DeSavia to give us his impressions of The Unheard Music, and here’s what he shared with us:

The Unheard Music remains one of my favorite documentaries — music or otherwise — of all time. Director Bill Morgan is a genius; the bizarre structure of the film is so wonderful. It’s an amazing exploration through not only the story of the band, but the scene and the city – with the songs serving as narrator of the whole journey. The songs, ultimately, are the stars of the flick.

The performance scenes are filmed with such urgency that they still make me hold my breath. I still marvel at the house moving sequence each and every time I see it. I just love it. I was already a fan of the band, and The Unheard Music really cemented my loyalty. I can’t watch it without grinning from ear to ear. Required viewing.”

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Next month — on Friday, June 30th — the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live will will open a new exhibit titled “X: 40 Years of Punk in Los Angeles,” which will be displayed on the Museum’s fourth floor.

The Unheard Music will be screened as part of the exhibit, which will give visitors a glimpse into how X’s four original members -– Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom, and DJ Bonebrake –- quickly established the band as one of the best in the first wave of L.A.’s flourishing punk scene.

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Items on display will include: Original instruments and gear played by the band; Handwritten lyrics and notebooks by Exene Cervenka and John Doe; Clothing and other personal items; Original concert flyers for L.A. shows; Rare photographs and artwork by Exene.

“X: 40 Years of Punk in Los Angeles” will be on display from June 30, 2017, through February 25, 2018.

Watch X: The Unheard Music — and other great music documentaries — over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.