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X singer Exene Cervenka reflects on growing up in St. Petersburg, her band's legacy

X has had the same lineup since it was formed in the ’70s: from left, D.J. Bonebrake, John Doe, Exene Cervenka and Billy Zoom. The band performs Sunday at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg.
X has had the same lineup since it was formed in the ’70s: from left, D.J. Bonebrake, John Doe, Exene Cervenka and Billy Zoom. The band performs Sunday at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg.
Published May 12, 2017

Holidays are a blur for Exene Cervenka.

"Christmas, New Year's, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Fourth of July, we're always on the road," the singer for the seminal punk band X said by phone from Los Angeles. "But we're spending it with our fans and the people that love us, and that we mean something to. They're giving up their holidays to spend it with us. So it's really neat to do that."

But the moment she realized she would be in St. Petersburg for Mother's Day, it felt a little extra special.

"Mother's Day. You're kidding. Isn't that something?" she said. "I should go up to Central Florida and visit my mom."

Margaret Cervenka is buried there, has been since the '70s. Exene Cervenka was a teenager then, a high school dropout who worked to support her sisters before moving west to join L.A.'s early punk scene.

Returning to the region where she spent her formative years will bring back old memories — especially since X's show Sunday at the State Theatre is part of a 40th anniversary tour, a career milestone few bands can match. In the punk world, the fact that they've stuck with one lineup throughout — Cervenka, singer-bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake — is virtually unheard of.

"We're the only surviving all-original punk band," said Cervenka, 61. "It's us and Los Lobos and ZZ Top. It's weird to be that band."

And considering they've endured serious health scares in recent years, no one knows how much longer they'll be at it.

"Billy survived cancer twice," she said. "We're in our 60s. Why don't you come see us while we have a chance? Because don't come up to me in five years and say, I wish I would have seen you play. That, to me, is like: What are people thinking?"

Cervenka's family moved from Illinois to St. Petersburg in 1969, then Pasco County for a while in the 1970s. Cervenka dropped out of St. Petersburg High School on her 16th birthday — Feb. 1, 1972 — and started working odd jobs.

"I worked at Webb's City in the toy department, on the fourth floor with the mermaids and the animals," she said. "I sold cemetery plots. I worked for the Leukemia Foundation as a phone solicitor. I worked as a waitress. I worked as a busboy multiple places. I babysat. And then I sold vintage clothes and antiques at flea markets."

After her mother's death, when she wasn't working to support herself and her sisters, Cervenka wrote poetry and befriended artistic types, including Paul Reubens, a Sarasota native who later found fame as Pee-Wee Herman. She attended concerts by Alice Cooper and Mountain. But she never fell in with any particular art or music scene.

"I think me and my friends were the art and music scene," she said. "I'm not saying there weren't cool people living there; I'm just saying that when I was living there, there was a gay bar, and that was it. It was pre-punk. There wasn't a bunch of do-it-yourself bands going out and playing live in underground clubs. It wasn't like that."

After a stop in Tallahassee, she sold her 1950 Cadillac and moved west. In Los Angeles, her all-American thrift-store aesthetic — plucked from spots like the Wagon Wheel Flea Market, where she found "all this really cool stuff for pennies" — helped her stand out in a scene that spawned the Germs, Black Flag and the Minutemen.

X's music also stood out, with a twangier sound informed by members' rockabilly roots and appreciation for Americana. If they debuted today, they might not even be considered punk.

"People don't even know what punk means anymore," she said. "I think we would just be considered a great rock and roll band. Nirvana was a great band. They weren't considered a punk band, but if they were around in the late '70s, they would have been a punk band."

X was critically adored, with Cervenka, in particular, becoming a crushable figure for a certain type of man — she and Doe were married for five years, and she has a grown son with actor Viggo Mortensen. They had brushes with mainstream fame, including videos on MTV and tours with Pearl Jam and Blondie. That's Cervenka you hear wailing Wild Thing when Ricky Vaughn exits the bullpen in Major League.

There have been times when things looked dark, especially in the past decade for Cervenka. In 2009, she announced she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis — a diagnosis she later said was inaccurate.

"I was told I had that by multiple doctors," she said. "Then I was told I didn't have it by multiple doctors. It's a weird disease to diagnose."

In 2014 she found internet infamy for a series of conspiracy-theory videos she had posted about mass shootings, the Boston Marathon bombing and other topics. The videos have been removed, but there's a lot about the world Cervenka still doesn't buy, especially in the wake of her neurological problems.

"I believe it's environmental," she said. "We're being fried from Fukushima, we're being fried from our phones, from our wireless, from smart meters. We're fried. So I'm surprised I'm still walking around at all."

She's happy touring with X, visiting "towns that heroin and bad government haven't destroyed, and the globalists haven't destroyed." She said it's especially important considering the world keeps losing iconic influences like Chuck Berry and Merle Haggard.

"It's just the way life is," she said. "You move closer to the front of the line every day, and you see less people in front of you. But that's why we make music, so that it lives forever."

Today she sees multiple generations of fans at X shows. In St. Petersburg, there may even be a few moms and daughters out for Mother's Day.

"A lot of families come to see us now," she said. "We take it very seriously, and with a lot of gratitude that people do still want to go see us."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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