Friday, March 17, 2017

X, "We're Desperate"

Last week I re-watched the original Decline and Fall of Western Civilization documentary about the early 1980s LA hardcore punk scene. It's an amazing cultural document of a subculture, one that we're lucky to have. I do have to say watching it made me cringe a bit.

For about three years in my teens (16-19) punk rock was the music that mattered most to me. It was the most real, the most primal, the most immediate. As a meek, good little Catholic altar boy, it also spoke directly to all of my buried anger and feelings of alienation. I was not a well-liked kid at school, but putting on a punk record made me feel like I was part of a secret fraternity of people a whole lot cooler than the jocks and burnouts who mocked me in turn. (Both of these types jump on a meek weirdo like sharks on chum.)

For a time my views on music got stupidly doctrinaire, and I was obsessed with authenticity, something I now find to be highly overrated. Anyway, because no club ever wanted me, I never became a punk. I didn't chop my hair at an odd angle or wear safety pins in my face. Because I lived in the middle of nowhere, there were no all ages shows to go to. Then as now I am very wary of subcultures, they remind me too much of religious zealotry. I remember hanging out with some goths in my Chicago days. They were nice people, but the efforts they put into being goth seemed ridiculously overwrought. So I listened to and loved punk, but never came close to being punk.

LA punk was cruder and even less musical than other forms of punk rock. It produced only two bands that I can still listen to and enjoy: Black Flag and X. In the documentary both come across as thoughtful, rather than just being droogs out to shock people for the hell of it. X is also interesting for not entirely following the punk formula. Guitarist Billy Zoom could actually play, and there's a touch of rockabilly in his riffs and solos. The lyrics of John Doe and Exene Cervenka could be shocking, but it was a deeper, more considered kind of shocking. "We're Desperate" is among my favorites by them. It's pretty self-explanatory: the narrators are desperate characters behind on the rent and one step ahead of the bill collector. It's the stop-start sound of living a life on the margins that's falling apart. Lesser punk bands would have turned it into a diatribe, X make it a kind of character study.

My favorite part about X, of course, were their vocals. Male-female vocal duets are not the first thing to spring to mind when anyone mentions punk rock, but here we have a kind of extremely twisted, gutter rat version of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. A friend of mine one joked that they made "harm" not harmonies. Their voices clash, but it is a beautifully damaged clash. Punk rock's raw spontaneity was always its saving grace, even if I cringe now at much of the rest of it.

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