There never was a romance quite like it: beat poets/star-crossed lovers Exene Cervenka and John Doe form a little rock band with guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D. J. Bonebrake — a list of names straight out of a Charles Bukowski novel — then get married, hit it (relatively) big, and become icons of the L.A. music scene. The two eventually divorced in 1985, which was the same year Zoom would leave X — he returned about a decade later, having been replaced by Blaster’s Dave Alvin in the interim — and the same year the group would be accused of selling out; so, like most puppy-dog love, the whole thing was relatively short-lived. But, in the early days, Doe and Co. were more interested in just trying to secure studio time than in garnering radio play, relying on their producer, Ray Manzarek of Doors fame, to forgo his salary in order to record their first two albums. And he did it, not because they seemed like a great investment, but because he believed in their talents — he even went as far as to compare Doe to Jim Morrison, calling their work “real American, Los Angeles poetry,” and further stating: “I immediately thought of Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, that ’30s gangster stuff. Jim is part of that tradition, too.” This was the ruthlessly nihilistic iconography that would serve as the foundation for their debut album, while their follow-up — the faster-paced, hook-driven Wild Gift — was markedly lighter in terms of lyrical content. There were still tracks that illustrated the fraught, hyper-precarity of city-dwelling (the now-classic “We’re Desperate,” in which Doe and Cervenka proclaim in unison that “our whole fucking life is a wreck,” belted out with a comically despondent tone), and there’s certainly no taming the unstoppable Zoom when he gets into one of his signature rockabilly-inspired solos. But here, everything that could be deemed “inaccessible” about the group was streamlined into a more compact product.
More significantly, the biggest new feature this time around is how the dynamic interplay between X’s vocalists is given a heightened presence. The duo engages each other in off-kilter melodies that intersect and play off one another; Doe even structured this new batch of songs with the intention of providing Cervenka more to do while performing (he said it best: “what was she going to do otherwise — dance?”). “White Girl” opens with Exene dejectedly describing one of John’s crushes (“She’s blonde”), only for him to quickly counter by singing the same line with a softer, more romantic tone. This is quickly followed by his wife repeating what she’s just observed, marking two distinct points of subjectivity through differing vocal modulations. “Adult Books” finds her ecstatically moaning in tandem with Doe’s elongation of the phrase “yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees,” with the follow-up track having her coolly respond to each line of his abstract lyricism with an icy moodiness. Even when just contributing backing vocals, like on the chorus for “It’s Who You Know,” or providing the impassioned charge of “I’m Coming Over,” Cervenka serves as the more world-savvy, level-headed counterpoint to Doe’s wide-eyed dramatist. They profess their undying feelings for each other, they fight and indulge in acts of infidelity, and they usually kiss and make up by the two-minute mark. So, in a sense, listening and re-listening to Wild Gift is an act of engagement in a dizzying cycle of constant coupling and uncoupling, one that’s equal parts carefree and sincere. Again, there truly never was a romance quite like it.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.