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Shaking Up the Norm

Exene Cervenka is comfortable with being a role model to her fans, younger bandmates


Exene Cervenka has just suspended a dice game backstage before a gig in Atlanta to take my phone call and--damn the pleasantries--already I'm busting out the pseudo-intellectual hypotheses. She humors me.

Punk icon, poet, songwriter, visual artist and mother of a teenage son, Cervenka is above all a pioneer in female rock singing, which is to say that she helped conceive a new vocal aesthetic. Although her voice has never sounded typically pretty or technically adept in an American Idol sort of way, the manner in which she sings--her style is an emotive collection of yowls, snarls and purrs--is very beautiful in an ugly sort of way.

She agrees.

"I feel that way about my singing, too. I am definitely not a Chrissie Hynde type of singer. I have never sung in a typical, technically proficient way. But what I find more interesting is that men in rock music have always sung in all sorts of styles that aren't conventionally 'good,' like Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan, and no one has questioned their greatness as singers.

"For a woman, it's harder to establish a unique voice and to be respected as a singer when you don't sing 'pretty.' You really have to be one of those women who shakes up the norm, like a Laura Nyro, a Joni Mitchell or a Tori Amos, to get respect for doing it your own way."

Or an Exene Cervenka.

She's a founding member of the legendary Los Angeles punk rock band X, which still performs to this day. She also has sung with The Knitters, the country-folk offshoot of that band, made lots of solo records and recorded with the punk super-group Auntie Christ.

Her latest effort is the raw punk band Exene Cervenka and the Original Sinners, which is touring to the support the release of its second album, Sev7en. The band will play Wednesday night, April 12, at Club Congress.

Born in Chicago in 1956, Cervenka grew up under the constraints of a strict Catholic household. The ironic name of her current band and the recurring Catholic imagery in her writing and artworks might have tipped you off.

She was inspired by writing and writers and really didn't have any musical heroes growing up.

"I just listened to what was on the radio. I never wanted to be a musician as a child. When I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, it didn't make me want to run and form a band; it just made me feel really excited and crazy."

The story of Cervenka's entrance into music is the stuff of legend. She almost sounds bored repeating it.

"So I moved out to California, and I met John Doe, and he had already hooked up with Billy Zoom, and I joined them in X. I had never been in a band before. I had never even sung before."

By the time the 1980s rolled around, Cervenka was on her way to becoming one of the central figures in the development of Los Angeles punk. Riding the unique, off-kilter harmonies of Doe and Cervenka, the jazz-influenced drumming of DJ Bonebrake and the rockabilly guitar of Zoom, X became a standard bearer for American punk rock and D.I.Y. creative expression. The band brought a playful intensity to its apocalyptic visions--the perfect antidote to the Reagan era.

But by 1985, Cervenka and X took a detour into the twangy Americana of The Knitters, which included singer-songwriter Dave Alvin, of The Blasters. That group has now released two albums, recorded 20 years apart.

In addition to making several solo albums, Cervenka has recorded and performed often with friend and performance artist Lydia Lunch. She is an active spoken-word artist, and the Santa Monica Museum of Art last year presented the first exhibition of Cervenka's visual art.

While X had disbanded in the mid-1990s, Cervenka formed Auntie Christ with Bonebrake and Rancid bassist Matt Freeman, reinfusing punk rock with the old-school fire it once had.

The Original Sinners also were intended to make the music go bang. Since the 2002 release of the band's first album, the personnel has turned over, with Cervenka and guitarist-producer-singer Jason Edge the returning members.

The rest of the Original Sinners these days are bassist Chris Powers, guitarist Dan Sabella and drummer Kevin O'Conner. When not moonlighting as the Original Sinners, that trio is known as The 7 Shot Screamers, an aggressive St. Louis psychobilly combo that tours incessantly.

Combining elements of punk rock, classic pop, '50s rock 'n' roll and surf music, with the occasional rockabilly string-bending, Sev7en shows Exene and band having much more fun.

Part of that might be attributed to playing with a lineup of musicians a generation younger. "Yes, they're young and smart and fun and really good. I love them all," Cervenka says of her fellow Sinners.

She also owns up to not feeling guilty about being a role model for younger musicians and artists.

"It's not a burden. Bad role models feel the burden. Good ones don't feel a burden. It's an honorable, positive position to be given, and it carries a lot of responsibility with it."

At the same time, Cervenka also respects younger generations striving to reject the paradigms of those artists who came before them. "That's the job of the young. To make new stuff, throw away the old stuff when it becomes useless and bloated. Their job is to change society, to guide society to evolve."

Soon after the Original Sinners play in Tucson, Cervenka will head back to Los Angeles for the summer. Her next goals: Get her teenage son off to college and move to St. Louis, where she has a house.

She has lived in the City of Angels for most of the last 30 years--only interrupted by a two-year stint in Idaho--and is ready to leave.

"If I hadn't been out touring so much during all those years, I would've never been able to last this long in L.A. It just wears you down, you know?"

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