I was slow to appreciate the music coming out of LA in the late 70s/early 80s. There was too much good stuff in New York, or a cheap Laker Air ticket away in London. If London met the end of the postwar boom with a political howl and New York with a cynic’s shrug, early singles by Germs and others sounded, to my ears, like a nihilist tantrum. It made it easy to write them off, joking “our junkies are better than your junkies.”
I’ve since changed my mind. Los Angeles is now my home, and the city’s history is a fascinating subject. Dropping by the preview of “X: 40 Years of Punk in Los Angeles,” opening today and up until February 25th at the Grammy Museum in Downtown LA, at times felt like being a guest in someone else’s nostalgia. I didn’t have the direct connection others felt (and it was interesting to read the opening of Chris Morris’ 1980 Rolling Stone story on the scene…which is, sadly, not available online), but I came away feeling the excitement and creativity of the era. (X also plays a part in my personal history of Los Angeles, as they were the first band I ever saw in LA, at the Roxy in November 1982.)
Located on the museum’s second floor, there are hand bills and posters along one wall—a riot of clip art, press-on type, and rough-hewn design—and photos along the other; in the center, each band member has their own tall vitrine filled with mementos, a short bio on printed on the side. The polka-dot dress that was almost Exene’s trademark hangs in her display, alongside collages she made for her lyrics. DJ Bonebrake was a collector of t-shirts, and Billy Zoom has one of his guitars and two receipts from for rehearsal space rental, signed by Masque founder Brendan Mullen.
For John Doe, the band’s bassist and co-writer, the exhibit was nothing short of “surreal.” It’s “very strange” to be confronted with the remnants of the band’s past, he said, especially seeing how X is still a working, gigging band, playing over 100 dates a year. But he laughed at the sight of a black mesh shirt, looking almost brand new next to a ragged denim jacket. “This proves the superiority of nylon,” he joked, adding that while he doubt he’d ever wear it again, he did save it. But his two favorite items are the notebook where he first wrote the lyrics for “Los Angeles,” and the first bass he ever owned. “You can see where I spilled beer or something on it, where the ink ran through,” he pointed out, and noted the sweat stains on his bass. “That’s life.”
Scott Goldman, the Museum’s Executive Director, took pride in the exhibit, pointing out his favorite item, an Olympia manual typewriter that John and Exene used to type out their lyrics. What made it so interesting, he said, was they couldn’t agree who it belonged to. When asked about it, Doe took the diplomatic way out: “we got it from a thrift shop on Santa Monica by Fairfax.”
While he was taking it all in, he brushed off the suggestion that something like the late 70s could happen again. “That’s the beauty of the a scene: it’s there for a moment and gone forever.” But X, even after 40 years and becoming literal museum pieces, plays on.