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Cervenka, Exene

Exene Cervenka

Punk rock singer, songwriter

One of the pioneers of punk rock in the United States during the years when she first sang lead vocals for the band X, Exene Cervenka has been an extremely influential figure, even if something less than a household name. She has stuck with her creative career despite meager financial rewards, releasing albums of her own, continuing to tour with X during periodic reunions, and making spoken-word appearances, remaining true all the while to her counterculture ideals. Many of the attitudes of progressive, punk-influenced young women in the years after X's heyday could be traced back to Cervenka, but she received only sporadic credit for her influence. Asked by WWD whether she had gotten used to looking out from the stage and seeing fans dressed like her in the audience, Cervenka responded, "That isn't weird. What's weird is seeing girls who look like me who don't know who I am."

Exene's given name was Christine Cervenka. Of Czech and Irish background, she was born in Chicago on February 1, 1956. She grew up in a small town in downstate Illinois, and in Tallahassee and St. Petersburg, Florida, where she quit school on her sixteenth birthday. She bought her clothes in thrift shops, partly from financial necessity, but also with a distinctive retro style in mind. Cervenka had a strong creative streak that showed itself while she was still in Florida; she wrote poetry and gave a reading of her work in 1975, before she became involved in music. The following year she put $80 in a sack and took off for Los Angeles, moving into a one-room apartment with five other people. Soon she got a job at the office of a literary workshop called Beyond Baroque.

It was there that Cervenka met bassist and singer John Doe. The two began making music together, and it wasn't long before they added guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake to form X, at which time Cervenka changed her first name to Exene. Punk was on the rise in Los Angeles, where bands such as the Germs eked out a marginal existence while drawing frenzied fans to clubs. Cervenka, in the book Forming: The Early Days of L.A. Punk, likened the punk movement to the hippie culture of a decade before: "It didn't even have anything to do with bands," she said. "It was about people being bohemian even though they didn't know what bohemian meant."

X issued a seven-inch single, "Adult Books," in 1978, and began to attract crowds. The following year Cervenka acquired her first tattoos, putting her well out ahead of a coming fashion trend. In 1980, the year Cervenka married John Doe, the band issued its debut album, Los Angeles, on the Slash label. It was produced by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek. Thanks to Cervenka, X stood out among American punk bands. As a woman, she was a rarity in the male-dominated punk scene. And, though X could match other bands for ferocity when that was necessary, their sharp, alienated lyrics, written mostly by Cervenka, were also important. Los Angeles was hailed by rock critics and named the best album of 1980 by the Los Angeles Times.

Featured in the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, X released several other successful albums in the early 1980s. For 1982's Under the Big Black Sun, they moved to the major Elektra label, and even if they couldn't quite be called stars, they were one of the best-known punk bands in the world. Success, however, seemed to make Cervenka restless. She embarked on side projects, publishing a book of poetry, Adulterers Anonymous, with performance artist Lydia Lunch, issuing a spoken-word album of her own, Perfection, in 1984, and teaming with Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman for the poetry album Twin Sisters the following year.

Cervenka and Doe divorced in 1985 but continued to work together; with Bonebrake and Blasters' guitarist Dave Alvin they formed the countrified punk band the Knitters in 1985, releasing the album Poor Little Critter on the Road. The group's name was derived from that of the legendary 1950s folk group the Weavers. Cervenka wrote most of the original lyrics for the new project, and this merger of punk and country music again anticipated developments that were a decade or more in the future. X continued to exist, releasing the Ain't Love Grande and See How We Are albums on Elektra, but the group gradually dissolved in the late 1980s. Cervenka made several film appearances, and she met Danish-American actor Viggo Mortensen (later to star in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) on the set of Salvation! in 1986. The two married the following year, and in 1988 they had a son, Henry Mortensen. They divorced in 1998.

X continued to reunite and tour periodically, releasing the albums Hey Zeus! (1993) and the acoustic Unclogged (1995), and they continued to explore their country leanings with a track, "Home Motel," that was included in the Twisted Willie compilation of rock tributes to country singer-songwriter Willie Nelson. For most of the 1990s and 2000s, however, the focus was on Cervenka's solo career, which was more successful those of her X bandmates. Occasionally she bemoaned her relatively obscure status, pointing to the increasing influence of major labels in rock music and telling Chris Dickinson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "the soul is imprisoned in a corporate mold." But Cervenka was able to continue her various creative enterprises without compromising her ideals and her critical stance toward American culture.

She recorded several solo albums, including Old Wives' Tales (1990) and Running Sacred (1991), and in 1997 she formed the band Auntie Christ and recorded the album Life Could Be a Dream on the small Lookout label. The group's name, Cervenka told Jane Scott of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, suggested the idea of "women reclaiming something that we've lost. I've been reading a lot of Gnostic scriptures," she said. "You realize then that Mary Magdalene is left out of other scriptures. It's outrageous. She was really important. She was the 13th apostle. She would have been in the Bible if it had been allowed." On tour in the Czech Republic in the mid-1990s, Cervenka changed her last name to its Czech form, Cervenkova (in Czech, Cervenka would be a male form of the name). But she soon returned to the earlier spelling.

Many of Cervenka's efforts were devoted to text rather than music; she recorded several spoken-world albums, including Surface to Air Serpents and a new collaboration with Lydia Lunch, September (both 1995). Cervenka also published several books. Some, such as 1993's Virtual Unreality and 2002's A Beer on Every Page, were journal-like collections of Cervenka's ideas on various subjects, but she also collaborated with photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke on Just Another War, a photo essay on the Gulf War. Cervenka also worked as a visual artist and had her works exhibited at various venues around Los Angeles.

For the Record …

Born Christine Cervenka on February 1, 1956, in Chicago, IL; married John Doe (a musician), 1980 (divorced, 1985); married Viggo Mortensen (an actor), 1987 (divorced, 1998); married Jason Edge (a musician), 2002; children: (with Mortensen) Henry.

Formed X (with John Doe), 1977–78; sang lead vocals on albums by X, 1980–; released spoken-word albums, early 1980s; formed the Knitters (with John Doe), 1985 (revived 2005); released solo albums Old Wives' Tales (1990) and Running Sacred (1991); released spokenword album Surface to Air Serpents, 1995; with Lydia Lunch, released spoken-word album September, 1995; formed Auntie Christ, 1997; published six books, including A Beer on Every Page, 2002; worked as assistant teacher in elementary school, mid-2000s.

Awards: L.A. Weekly, Lifetime Achievement Award, 2005.

Addresses: Home—15237 Sunset Blvd. #11, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272. Website—Exene Cervenka Official Website: http://www.exenecervenka.com.

Cervenka met her third husband, drummer Jason Edge, in 1999, and the two married in 2002. Living in suburban Los Angeles, Cervenka worked as an assistant teacher at an elementary school, seemingly an unusual occupation for a punk rocker, but for Cervenka a logical development. "I love playing music and stuff, it's being part of a community—punk rock became my community, now the school is," she explained to the Detroit Metro Times. She continued to perform. Among various forms of recognition for her contributions was a Lifetime Achievement Award from the L.A. Weekly newspaper. The year 2005 saw the release of a new live X album and DVD, and the Knitters reunited for their first album in two decades, Modern Sounds of the Knitters.

Selected discography

Albums

(With the Knitters) Poor Little Critter on the Road, Slash, 1985.
Old Wives' Tales, RNA/Rhino, 1990.
Running Sacred, RNA/Rhino, 1991.
(With Christopher Tyng) Across the Moon, 1993 (film score/music supervision).
(With Auntie Christ) Life Could Be a Dream, Lookout, 1997.
(With Original Sinners) Original Sinners, Nitro, 2002.
(With the Knitters) Modern Sounds of the Knitters, Rounder, 2005.

With X

Los Angeles, Slash, 1980.
Wild Gift, Slash, 1981.
Under the Big Black Sun, Elektra, 1982.
More Fun in the New World, Elektra, 1983.
Ain't Love Grande, Elektra, 1985.
See How We Are, Elektra, 1987.
Live at the Whiskey A Go-Go, Elektra, 1988.
Hey Zeus!, Big Life, 1993.
Unclogged, Infidelity, 1995.
Beyond & Back: The X Anthology, Elektra, 1997.
X The Best: Make the Music Go Bang, Rhino, 2004.

Spoken word recordings

(With Wanda Coleman) Twin Sisters, Freeway/Rhino, 1985.
Perfection, 1984.
(With Lydia Lunch) Rude Hieroglyphics, Rykodisc, 1995.
Surface to Air Serpents, 2.13.61, 1995.
(With Lydia Lunch) September, 1995.
The Unabomber Manifesto: Selected Excerpts, Year 1, 1996.

Selected writings

(With Lydia Lunch) Adulterers Anonymous, Grove Press, 1982.
(Contributor) Poetry Loves Poetry, Momentum Press, 1984.
(With Kenneth Jarecke) Just Another War, Bedrock Press, 1992.
Virtual Unreality, 2.13.61 Publications, 1993.
A Beer on Every Page, 2002.

Sources

Books

Cervenka, Exene, and others, eds., Forming: The Early Days of L.A. Punk Smart Art Press, 1999.

Periodicals

Albuquerque Journal, July 10, 2002, p. 21.

Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), October 27, 1999, p. L10.

Library Journal, November 1, 1999, p. 83.

Metro Times (Detroit, MI), August 3, 2005.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 3, 1995, Arts & Entertainment section, p. 16.

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), September 5, 1997, p. 10.

San Francisco Chronicle, January 14, 1996, p. 38.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 1, 1995, p. E8; September 7, 1997 p. C4; September 8, 2005, p. 3.

Washington Post, June 30, 2002, p. G2.

WWD, September 4, 2003, p. B28.

Online

"Exene Cervenka," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 12, 2005).

Exene Cervenka Official Website, http://www.exenecervenka.com (September 12, 2005).

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