Courtesy of Bloodshot Records
Courtesy of Bloodshot Records

Citizen Exene

A punk rock legend makes her home in mid-Missouri.

By Lindsay Eanet | Oct. 14, 2008

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The images that usually cover the surface of mid-Missouri are those of expansive grasslands, cattle farms and giant billboards sporting Bible verses or support for ethanol. None of these images is decidedly "punk rock." Punk is an urban movement, convention says, a beast out of New York, London and L.A. It thrives best in cities.

But, in the same manner that punk rock has been telling convention to go screw itself since its birth some 30 years ago, Exene Cervenka, frontwoman of legendary L.A. band X, is still proving punk can thrive everywhere, even in rural Central Missouri, where she resides, south of Columbia.

"We're really happy where we are," Cervenka says. "We're isolated, which we like - not being near a city. Except there's St. Louis and Columbia to go to, so we're pretty good."

And while X remains a seminal band in L.A., Cervenka found it hard to be creative there.

"Living in Los Angeles is like living in a glossy, airbrushed magazine ad night and day where you're just trapped in this artificial world of people who are desperately trying to be famous," she says. "So that's what you're up against - the people you just met, and I just find it really impossible to thrive creatively in an area where everyone's trying specifically to be famous."

But punk doesn't need a city to thrive, and Cervenka recognizes the "punk" ethic in more rural genres. Throughout the years, X has covered country and blues songs by artists such as Leadbelly and Merle Haggard.

"Old-school Americana is punk rock," Cervenka says. "Punk rock is bluegrass or mountain music in that it tells the story. It's fast and driving, and playing for just folk. Punk rock is for people. It's not elitist music. And we picked up on that in the '70s, how bluegrass and punk were really the same thing. We always think of punk rock as folk music."

X formed in 1977, a year associated with the birth of punk. After an 11-year hiatus, the band reformed in 2004 and is still making music.

"In 30 years you get to be either mortal enemies or past the point of being friends, and we're past the point of being friends," Cervenka says. "It's hard to be proud of ourselves that we've been around a long time, but we also realize how lucky we are. We don't take it for granted because it's a second chance. We're a better band on some levels than we were in the early days. We appreciate what we have more."

Cervenka says despite the fragmentation of punk into many subcultures, there remains a unified punk ideal.

"It's survived for 30 years and that's really amazing," Cervenka says. "I didn't know that people would still be embracing the punk concept."

Whereas rock 'n' roll may have been a boys' club, Cervenka says punk was a movement for everyone regardless of race or gender, giving the example of the essential punk movie, "The Decline of Western Civilization," directed by Penelope Spheeris.

"There were a lot of women in the movie and in the band," Cervenka says. "It was pretty egalitarian. But everyone had just come out of the '60s. We were tired of the hippie things but we wanted to be something completely new. It meant women playing instruments for one thing, instead of being backup singers. But a lot of those bands got lost in the shuffle and by the time they were picked up, it was The Go-Go's."

While sexism was uncommon, she says, the double-edged sword of egalitarianism is that everyone ran the same risk of being involved in a post-show brawl.

"I've gotten punched several times, just being a punk rocker," Cervenka says.

Over the years, Cervenka has been involved with other bands, including Auntie Christ, The Knitters and the Original Sinners. She still tours and records with X, who are working on new material, and she's recording a solo album at Columbia's Red Boots studio.

"There will be session musicians, but it's not going to be a bombastic thing," she says. "It's going to be me with an acoustic guitar for the most part. It's been a while."

Music isn't her only creative endeavor. Cervenka began making mixed-media collages in the '90s and had her first show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2005. Her most recent installations, "Epic Hero" and "The Spirits are Alive and Well," were shown at New York's DCKT gallery this past summer.

"It's very much like being a kid again and having an art project where you're gluing pieces of paper together," Cervenka says.

Cervenka says her next art exhibit, 'Vanishing,' will be focused on life in rural Missouri.

"I go to farm auctions and the Salvation Army and estate sales, and their guns and items are auctioned off," she says. "You get an idea of who these people were, what they collected, what they loved."

Cervenka uses yet another creative discipline - this time, poetry - to commune with loved ones. She created a poetry fanzine, "DARK STAR DUST," so friends and family members could share their work with one another.

"I created this publication for all the friends of mine and people I admire," she says. "They would get copies of this fanzine and get to know each other by reading each other's poetry. My sister in upstate New York could meet my friend who lives in Vermont and they could get to know each other by reading each other's poetry and maybe become friends."

Cervenka got involved with Columbia's Citizen Jane Film Festival after speaking with a friend about the event and will be performing at the afterparty at Mojo's Friday night.

"I'm pretty excited about the whole thing," Cervenka says. "I want to see the movie 'Trouble the Water.' I'm really just excited all these women in the closest town I can go to who are doing cultural activities and just have some interactions."

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