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Exene Cervenka: From X To Missouri

London had The Sex Pistols. New York had the Ramones. And Los Angeles had X — the punk band that blended the rockabilly guitar of Billy Zoom with the lyrics and wailing vocals of John Doe and Exene Cervenka. In the 31 years since X was created, disbanded, and re-formed, Cervenka has continued to tour with the band, as well as make albums with ex-husband John Doe as The Knitters and release albums of her own. She's also begun to make visual art.

Two years ago, Cervenka moved to central Missouri, where she lives on eight acres overlooking the Osage River. Since X's touring days, Cervenka has collected memorabilia and strange artifacts from the road — everything from religious tracts to porn pinups and lots of kitsch, like wide-eyed little girl-dolls and teddy bears.

She assembles these scraps of quirky Americana into collages. Art critics describe them as folk art, and they evoke an unsettling innocence — postcards from the American road.

Dennis Christie is co-owner of DCKT Contemporary, an art gallery in New York City that has just opened its second show of Cervenka's work. Like many art-world thirtysomethings, Christie can remember the exact time and place that he first heard an X song. Cervenka's music followed Christie's career through his adulthood and into his own career as an art dealer. Four years ago, he read in ArtNews Magazine about a show of her collages in Santa Monica. He got on a plane, viewed the work, and immediately began plotting to bring the show to New York, which he did in 2006.

Christie says there's a thread going through all of Cervenka's art projects — a sense of place. The objects she puts in her collages used to come from the road, but now they come from old photographs and artifacts found at Missouri country auctions.

Cervenka explains that she sees the isolation she experiences on her farm as comparable to the isolation she felt making punk music as a 20-year-old in a crowded Los Angeles.

"I think isolation is the only way to create," she says. "I think that's why the punk scene worked out so well, is every city was totally isolated. And there was a vacuum... so everyone was doing whatever the f--- they felt like. And then, that way, it came out all original. Now, it's impossible to create in a vacuum, so you have to kind of isolate yourself in a big old farmhouse, I think. And just be a quirky weirdo. And not let the outside world influence too much what you write or come up with."

Cervenka's isolated life is punctuated with frequent tours. She's on the road most of this year, performing with X, The Knitters, and her own band, the Original Sinners. The summer will also bring a new project: Cervenka begins recording some recent songs, which she hopes to do from the agitated quiet of her own living room.

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Transcript

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with Day to Day. London had the Sex Pistols, New York had the Ramones and Los Angeles had X - the punk band that blended the punk Billy guitar of Billy Zoom with the lyrics and the wailing vocals of rockabilly guitar of Billy Zoom with the lyrics and the wailing vocals of John Doe and Exene Cervenka. That was 30 plus years ago when X was created. Since then it's disbanded, it's reformed, and Exene has continued to tour with the band as well as making albums with her ex-husband John Doe as The Knitters and releasing albums of her own. As reporter Janet Saidi found out Exene Cervenka's artist pursuits these days are coming from an unlikely place, a less punk rock place.

JANET SAIDI: On a cold morning in central Missouri Exene Cervenka is trudging out to her barn and talking to her cat, Fluffy.

Ms. EXENE CERVENKA (Singer): Fluffy. Come on in the barn.

SAIDI: She's wearing black cowboy boots with her trademark vintage jewelry and a second hand dress.

Ms. CERVENKA: Is there a bird in here? There's a bird in here.

SAIDI: Two years ago Cervenka moved to central Missouri where she lives on eight acres overlooking the Osage River.

Ms. CERVENKA: You can see the river..

SAIDI: But the bucolic landscape doesn't necessarily bring a sense of peace.

Ms. CERVENKA: I'm a very agitated person. I have to be doing something at every minute. So I do a lot of going back and forth to the barn to do art out there and then I write and play music inside the house and write songs. And then, of course, I'm like a Suzy homemaker type so I clean my house.

SAIDI: It's not easy reconciling this former priestess of punk with a self-described Suzy homemaker type. But Cervenka's always been a little bit country.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. CERVENKA: (Singing) Call it a lie. Call it a lie. Call it a lie. I don't understand. Jackie Suzanne meant it that way. I don't -I don't understand. Jackie Suzanne meant it that way. I don't -I don't understand. Jackie Suzanne.

SAIDI: It's been 23 years since that original X line up broke up and 23 years since John Doe, X's other lead singer and Cervenka split up.

Mr. JOHN DOE (Former Lead Singer, X): At this point Exene and I are best, best friends. BFF. Sometimes you can be a better friend to someone without being married to them.

SAIDI: But Doe and Cervenka have led parallel lives. Both grew up in Illinois listening to a lot of AM radio before meeting up in California, and John Doe has also retreated to a quieter life. He's lived in the mountains of California for the past 20 years.

Mr. DOE: I think Exene living on a farm or living on property in Missouri is her going back to her Midwestern roots. I mean, I think people have to live where they're inspired.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. CERVENKA: (Singing) And everybody out there. Seemed to be a right stranger. No mother or dad. Not a friend did I see. They knew not my name. They knew not my name. And I knew not their faces. I knew not their faces. I found they were warm. Like strangers to me.

SAIDI: Exene Cervenka has always gone off the beaten paths. Since the X touring days Cervenka has collected memorabilia and strange artifacts from the road. Everything from religious tracks to porn pinups and lots of kitsch, like wide-eyed little girl dolls and teddy bears. She assembles these scraps of quirky Americana into collages. Art critics describe them as folk art and they evoke an unsettling innocence. Postcards from the American road.

Mr. DENNIS CHRISTIE (Co-Owner, DCKT Contemporary): Incorporating all of this kind of ephemera and Americana and her own writing and different personal things into collage, into standalone visual artworks. That's what kind of clinched it for us.

SAIDI: Dennis Christie is co-owner of DCKT Contemporary, an art gallery in New York City that has just opened its second show of Cervenka's work. Like many art world 30-somethings, Christie can remember the exact time and place that he first heard an X song: In high school, in a car.

Mr. CHRISTIE: I remember driving in the mall parking lot in Florida where I grew up and the song that came on was "Dancing with Tears in my Eyes," and I made them play it again.

(Soundbite of song "Dancing with Tears in my Eyes")

Ms. CERVENKA: (Singing) Trying to smile once in a while But I found that it wouldn't do.

Mr. CHRISTIE: And it just, you know, went from there.

SAIDI: Cervenka's music followed Christie's career through his adulthood and into his own career as an art dealer. Four years ago he read an art news magazine about a show of her collages in Santa Monica. He got on the plane, viewed the work and immediately began plotting to bring the show to New York City, which he did in 2006. Christie says there's a thread going through all of Cervenka's art projects. A sense of place. The objects she puts in her collages used to come from the road; now they come from old photographs and artifacts found at Missouri county auctions.

Mr. CHRISTIE: The work is always about her place. Where she's at. Where she's been. And this is where she's been living and she's looking to that area and region for inspiration.

(Soundbite of music)

SAIDI: Sitting on a green, crushed velvet chair in her cavernous living room, Cervenka talks about how great the acoustics are in her 1833 stone house.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. CERVENKA: (Singing) I don't live storm tossed and lost. Looking left and looking right. Please take my hand and walk me across the night.

Ms. CERVENKA: Do you want to hear that back in C?

SAIDI: And she explains that she sees the isolation she experiences on her farm as comparable to the isolation she felt making punk music as a 20-year-old in a very crowded Los Angeles.

Ms. CERVENKA: I think total isolation is the only way to create. I think that's why the punk scene worked out so well as well, as every city was totally isolated, and it was a vacuum and there was no MTV radio, or air player, or any interest in what everyone was doing, so everyone was just doing whatever they felt like. And in that way it came out all original. You had a million bands in New York and a million bands in L.A. all doing completely independent things, and then finally meeting each other and finally coming across the country and playing for each other. Now it's impossible to create in a vacuum so you have to kind of isolate yourself in a big old farmhouse I think, and just be a quirky weirdo and try not to let the outside world influence what you listen to too much, or what your write or come up with.

SAIDI: Cervenka's isolated life is punctuated with frequent tours and the summer will also bring a new project. Cervenka begins recording some recent songs which she hopes to do from the agitated quiet of her own living room. For NPR News, I'm Janet Saidi in Columbia, Missouri.

BRAND: Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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