Sunday, February 1, 2009

Punks Pack Slims at X show

Christmas in Frisco, the crowds fill the street, the guy on the corner plays a bass and his brother has a three piece trap to keep the beat. Macy's is packed, the sidewalk is cracked, and there is no shortage of places to eat. Ally, Hawkeye and I step out of the Drake and heed the call of the night. "Taxi!"

Opened in 1988 by legendary R&B artist Boz Scaggs, Slim's ( is a live music nightclub with food & drinks, and a variety of American Roots Music--Blues, R&B, Cajun/Zydeco, Jazz, and Alternative. The club is located in the South of Market district of San Francisco, a hub of nightlife in the city. The premises consist mainly of an open floor on a main level. At one end of the floor is a performance stage. At the other end we have a small balcony with table seating for 70. Often packed beyond what I would think is the capacity, there are very few places upstairs to sit, let alone a safe place to stand on the floor below. Besides, you have to buy food or two drink minimum to park it up there. As we entered the quickly filling room, I spied a large sign" No Moshing, No Stage Diving, and No Slam Dancing!" Ha! They'd be lucky to pogo at this gig. We stayed down on the floor.

The opening act was the Twisted Hearts, an edgy Pop band sporting black fedoras and up-beat attitude. Between their sweet Anglophile melodies, they occasionally hawked their CD which sat off to the left of the mountain of X paraphernalia. We enjoyed drifting through the crowd, dancing to the back beat rhythm and rock. There was a brief intermission, so we decided to slip out and sit on a flower box outside the club, lighting up a smoke to enhance the Punk experience. Soon after, the mob filled the club. The only safe place to stand was by the entrance, so we hung back where we could at least see a glimpse of the band. Then, the lights went down and the thunderous beat of D.J. Bonebreaker filled the air. A dim blue spotlight pulls up on the drums as a shadowy figure struts up to downstage right, electricity buzzes through the air. A staccato of twang guitar drives the drums faster as a red spotlight comes up on the striking figure of Billy Zoom. Another shadowy figure runs up to the opposite side of the stage, pow! John Doe is at the mike flailing on his bass. Last but not least, a small figure of a shapely woman skips onto the stage in a flower print dress from an Andrew Wyeth painting, steps up to the center stage. The crowd is jumping up and down, people are spilling drinks over each other to get a better look at Exene . John purrs into the mic, "Sheeee, had to leave.." The crowd sings along with Exene calling back, "Los- an- gell -ees!" You could tell there were hard core fans out there. People in black, people with gray, young punks, old punks, feel alright on a cold San Francisco night.

X was founded by bassist/singer John Doe and guitarist Billy Zoom. Doe brought his poetry-writing girlfriend Exene Cervenka to band practices, and she eventually joined the band as a vocalist. Drummer DJ Bonebrake was the last of the original members to join.

X's first record deal was with independent label Dangerhouse, for which the band produced two singles, "Adult Books" (1978) and "Los Angeles" ("We're Desperate" was the b-side to "Adult Books"). The Dangerhouse session version of "Los Angeles" was also featured in a Dangerhouse compilation in 1979 called "Yes L.A." (a play on the now-famous No Wave compilation No New York), a picture disc that featured other early-punk-era LA bands like the Weirdos and Black Randy. As the band became the flag bearer for the local scene, a larger independent label, Slash Records, signed the band to issue its first LP.
The result was their first LP release, Los Angeles (1980) (produced by The Doors' keyboard player, Ray Manzarek). It was a minor hit and was well received by the underground press and mainstream media]especially the remake of the Doors "Soul Kitchen". Much of X's early material had a rockabilly edge, mainly due to the twang-king Billy Zoom on guitar. Doe and Cervenka co-wrote most of the group's songs, and their slightly off-kilter harmony vocals remain perhaps the group's most distinctive element.

Their follow-up effort, 1981's Wild Gift, broadened the band's profile when it was named "Record of the Year" by Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and the Village Voice. Wild Gift, like their debut album, was released on Slash records, and was similar in musicial style, although Wild Gift featured shorter, faster songs; arguably their most stereotypically punk-sounding record.
X then signed to Elektra in 1982 to release Under the Big Black Sun, which marked a slight departure from their trademark sound. While still fast and loud, the album's country leanings were evolving and its raw punk sound was channeling raw guitar power chords. The album was heavily influenced by the premature death of Exene Cervenka's elder sister Mirielle (Mary) in an automobile accident in 1980 ( while living up here in Humboldt County). Three songs on the album, "Riding With Mary", "Come Back To Me", and the title track all directly relate to the tragedy. A fourth, a high-speed version of Leadbelly's "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes", was indirectly attributed to Exene Cervenka's mournful state of mind years later. The stark black & white cover art and title were also a reflection of the somber mood of the band during this time. Nonetheless, this album remains Exene's favorite X album.

The majority of the Slims show was material off these albums, excluding the jolly versions off Chuck Berry's Run Run Rudolph and the classic Santa Clause is Coming To Town and the Doors Crystal Ship with their own flavor, naturally.

1983 saw the release of the More Fun in the New World album. X slightly redefined their sound with this release, making it somewhat more polished, eclectic and radio-ready than in previous albums. With the sound moving away from punk rock, the band's rockabilly influence became even more noticeable, along with some new elements like funk on the track "True Love pt. II" and Woody Guthrie-influenced folk protest songs like "The New World" and "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts." The record received critical praise from Rolling Stone and Playboy, who had long been stalwart supporters and fans of X and their sound.

A side project of some of the band members was Poor Little Critter In The Road in 1985, underthe name The Knitters: X minus Zoom, plus Dave Alvin (of The Blasters) on guitar and Johnny Ray Bartel (of The Red Devils) on double bass. The Knitters were devoted to folk and country music; their take of Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" "may be the definitive version."

Despite the overwhelmingly positive critical reception for their first 4 albums, the band was frustrated by its lack of wider mainstream success. Billy Zoom had also stated that he would leave the band unless its next album was not more successful. The band decided to change producers in search of a more accessible sound. Their 5th record, Ain't Love Grand, was produced by pop-metal producer Michael Wagener. It featured a drastic change in sound, especially in the polished and layered production, while the band's punk roots were little in evidence, replaced by a countrified version of hard rock. The change in production was hoped to bring the band more chart success, but although it got somewhat more mainstream radio play than their earlier releases, it did not represent a commercial breakthrough. Zoom left the group shortly thereafter in 1986, the same year in which the feature-length documentary film, X The Unheard Music was released.

Zoom was initially replaced by Alvin on guitar. The band then added a 5th member, guitarist Tony Gilkyson, formerly of the band Lone Justice. By the time the band released its 6th album, See How We Are, Alvin had already left the band, although he plays on the record along with Gilkyson. Like Ain't Love Grand, the album's sound was fairly far removed from the band's punk origins, yet featured a punchy, energetic, hard-rocking roots rock sound that in many ways represented a more natural progression from their earlier sound than the previous record had. After touring for the album, X released a live record of the tour entitled Live at the Whisky a Go-Go, and then went on an extended hiatus. Much to my delight, Billy returned to the band to play his signature rockabilly leads and occaisionally make robotic facial gestures to the adoring fans.

I was pleased that the original line-up playing with such fervor. You could tell that this was all second nature to them, but they were re-discovering their own material. A stripped down raw sound that moved me to the pit of my stomach, X was back with a vengeance. I remember seeing them in 1982 at a small club called Mojos in Arcata, CA, and they had much of the same energy now as they did then. My friend and guitarist caught John Does pick the first show there. When they returned a year later, Stevo, being the kind guy, returned John his pick and ended up having a smoke with him "Nice guy!" Well, tonight was no exeption to their kindness, and wow, the driving force with zero dead air. These guys are my peers and they still put out the buzz! Exene gave great banter with John and the audience, "Smells like weed out there", big grin. She used her shy charm to sweeten up the flavor and keep the vibes cool. I must admit, for a punk show, the crowd was very well behaved. The worst part of the show was trying to see around unusually tall people. It might be my imagination, but I am certain that the audience members have gotten taller. I saw a guy in there that stood at least 7 feet. "Wow!", I thought to myself, "Wheres my Jumbo-tron? " The people kept coming through the door till the doorway was packed with standing hopefuls. It had been a long time since I have been to a punk show, so I hung in there as long as my legs could stand. There comes a point when you gotta call it a night. The cab ride home was a relief; food, smoke, shower, love, and to all a good night!

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