Exene & John. Photo by Julie Eaton

Exene & John. Photo by Julie Eaton

The Salem music scene is a rather overgrown family tree, and the connections run pretty wide and pretty deep.  This point is brought into focus as we all filed into Tim Knight’s reopened Guitar Castle, a music store fixture that is well known and well loved among musicians and up-and-coming strummers alike.  Tim’s connections to Salem run deep – he and Kit opened Ranch together back in the day.  So it’s no wonder that for a kick-off party, he’d book some pretty incredible guests.  

The fact that it was John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X is not only impressive, but illustrative of just how connected Tim is.

There is something to be said for “in-store” performances, and in stripped down situations where performers are grabbing an acoustic guitar to belt out some songs… let’s just say it can be disastrous in the wrong hands.  It’s one thing to be on a stage with a full band backing you, monitors blasting your face off, several hundred people in front of you screaming and getting you pumped up.  Of course you’re ready to destroy.  But it can fall short in intimate environments.  Sometimes, it just can’t translate.

Unless you happen to be, you know, Exene Cervenka & John Doe, who have been playing shows like this as often as the big gigs every chance they get.  John has an entire side-project dedicated to it, and Exene is such an in-the-room performer anyway she can rule a crowd of any size.  

January 15th was no exception.  As they promptly took the stage to a small gathering of about 50 writers & DJs and musicians and Salem Rock ‘n Royalty, they cruised through an incredible set of old favorite X tunes and Knitters’ classics that felt like everything and not nearly enough, simultaneously.  It is at this point that this observer can no longer remain impartial, because they brought me to tears no less that three times throughout the performance.  I have seen X before, enough times now that I feel like I knew how I would feel to hear those songs again.  I’ve even spent an hour with Exene on the radio in 2010, and if that isn’t enough of a fanboy moment to make one too-cool-for-school, I’m not sure what possibly could.  How could someone so jaded be so moved?  

Setlist. Photo by Julie Eaton

Setlist. Photo by Julie Eaton

Except, in this space, surrounded by die-hard fans and friends, I felt something that I hadn’t felt the times I’d seen them before.  “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” is now a 30 year old song, and yet in this far-flung futuristic era where we are about to see what the Orangerlord has in store for us, the full impact of their lyrics really hit home.  “I’m guilty of murder / of Innocent men, innocent women, innocent children / Thousands of them / My planes, my guns, my money, my soul / My blood on my hands / It’s all my fault.”  There is something so painful and direct about those lines, how could I turn around and go to work the next day with all of those, front and center in my mind?  Why am I not screaming for reform and tearing down every failed institution in this country?    

“It was better before / before we voted for what’s-his-name? / This is supposed to be the New World?” they belted out, and as we cried and considered John & Exene – the tumultuous couple that have brought us endlessly beautiful and tragic songs – it is hard not to think that the song wasn’t written last week, instead of in the first part of their 40 year career as performers.  But when they sing together, when their voices mesh, every minute of that career comes down to deliver something special, like a choir belting out realistic rock songs about life in these here United States.  

Their sense of humor was in full form, and between filling our hearts they also got in some jabs at the early hour of the show, the shortened set they would have to play, and during their rendition of the Knitters’ tune, “The Call Of The Wreckin’ Ball,” Exene even took some on-point swipes at the indecipherable nature of texting culture in the hands of less-gifted texters.  When they first started out in the late ‘70s, they were usually able to keep the interest of a bar full of rowdy and drunk punks.  A music store full of dedicated fans hanging on their every word was just too easy for these pros, and even with all the asterisks and caveats, they rocked the fuckin’ house.  

The place was electric, and for some time after they finished everyone milled around, chatting, connecting with new and old friends, making plans for the rest of the week.  As the elite of the Salem scene all looked each other over, wanting to bond over the magic of the show, there was a tiny amount of sadness that punctuated the night.  There’s something about the last portion of a Sunday Evening, where you just want to make the weekend last a tiny bit longer, and squeeze a little something else out of the time that is slipping away, that seems extra tragic, almost too perfect for an X show.  There is a part of me that wishes we were younger, and that the day of the week didn’t matter.  That I could find the next party, rave about this great show I saw earlier, and move on to the next adventure.  But there is another part of me that smiles at the fact I was home by 6:45 with time to spare, that I could make myself a dinner and reflect on what an incredible show I’d seen before my enforced bedtime.  

But the end of the weekend wasn’t all that undercut the evening.  John likes to boast that, “We only sing about it once in every twenty years,” but when it comes to him and Exene, that is just not true.  They sing about it every night, because it is a message that still needs to be delivered.    I’ve come to love and appreciate X from my years as a teen, through my adulthood, and with each passing year, I find a new line that I appreciate, and a new angle to their music that bears considering.  

But as they urge us to, “See How We Are,” I only now realize that they aren’t just trying to offer a slice-of-life point of view that will tell a story that we can all relate to.  In my middle age – in this modern age – in this future world that we are all coming to grips with – they are urging us to put our goddamn phones down, and to take a good hard look at How We Are, indeed.  It isn’t pretty.  If we really want to participate in this “so-called community,” we need to take a good hard look at ourselves and work on being better people.  

Maybe not perfect.  Maybe we like to rock and roll on a Sunday night.  Maybe we even want to go get drinks afterward and gossip about all the times we’ve gotten to seem them before in the past.  At the very least, we want to be decent fucking human beings.  

Like John and Exene.