X's Exene Cervenka's Advice to Female Musicians: "Don't Get Married"
X set itself apart from its first-generation punk contemporaries with Exene Cervenka and John Doe's dueling vocals and a serious dose of roots and rockabilly in its sound.
X has a difficult and fascinating history. Cervenka and Doe started the band as a couple, got married, divorced, wrote a few albums together, went on hiatus, reformed X, Cervenka married Viggo Mortensen, both singers started side projects, Doe did some acting on the side, and Cervenka got sick. In spite of it all, the band continues to tour.
We recently caught up with Exene Cervenka to discuss multiple sclerosis, touring with Pearl Jam, and an ongoing struggle with Warner Brothers.
Up on the Sun: A doctor diagnosed you with multiple sclerosis, and another said you were misdiagnosed. Is there any news on the medical front?
Exene Cervenka: Fifteen years ago, I got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, can you believe that? And then another doctor said, 'No, you don't [have it],' so I went with the doctor who said, 'No you don't.' About six years went by and something else weird happened, so I went to this doctor who said, 'You definitely have it and you're going on this medication.' I had to start giving myself shots everyday for a while, and then I ran out of money and had no insurance, and the shots are really expensive -- $7,000 for three months. So I just said, 'Well, I may have it, I may not,' but I can't take the medicine anymore because I cannot afford it.
I did a picture collage for someone I didn't know, and her friend's brother is the head of neurology at a hospital near me. He agreed to see me for free -- he's trying to figure out what it is. It's a very hard thing to diagnose and I'm finding, from being public with my diagnosis that many, many women are coming to me and saying the same thing happened to them. They were told they had this, that, or the other, but it's some immune system thing that people can't quite pin down. The systems are similar but nobody knows what it is. It's weird. I'm just going along trying to be healthy.
I think it's remarkable that you continue to tour in spite of all of this. How has the runaround affected your outlook?
Nothing affects my outlook. I have a straight line in front of me and I stick to it. It's all you can do.
You guys just wrapped up a tour with Pearl Jam. What was it like touring with them and playing in South America?
I can't even put it into words what it was like. On certain levels, playing with Pearl Jam -- which we've done before -- is awesome because I love the band and I really love them as people. Their organization is really good, and their crew is excellent, and they took really good care of us. They made it really easy for us to come along and enjoy the tour and all of them.
But South America, the audiences [are] not comparable to the United States, so I don't even know where to start. They're so over the top that they sing along with the guitar solos. We come out and there's 50,000 people there. They know that that's the beginning of the show, that we're some American punk band that Pearl Jam must like, or we wouldn't be in South America.
It was this joyous exchange of energy that you could feel physically, but it wasn't brainwashed, like, "Oh we're all gonna dance around in a circle with our shirts off because we're young guys" -- and that's what young guys do. It was this spontaneous explosion of love energy flowing toward you. I've never felt anything like it, and I'll never forget it.
Again, playing with Pearl Jam is really fun. [And] we were really good because you have to be. You can't go out there and 'just play' in front of an audience like that. You've got to give them 190,000 percent.
Each city has its own peculiar ways of responding. In Mexico City, they do this thing with lighters and cell phones, where this whole area of the 70,000 people just kind of lights up at once like a million fireflies and goes out, and then it starts again next to that area, and then above that area, and then it goes out, then somewhere else in the stadium, a whole bunch do it and it moves around the stadium in big waves.
What someone explained to me is in that world, people have no rights, but they have total freedom. Here we have rights, but we don't have any freedom. I thought that was a very interesting statement. Even going through airports in South America, you don't have to take your shoes off. You walk through the metal detector, it doesn't go off, you grab your bags, you go to customs, they stamp your thing and you walk through. Then you come back here, and to get on a plane it's like, oh, my God . . . It's just not a police state.
These are supposedly -- South America, Central America, Mexico -- countries we consider Third World horrible countries or dictator countries. Not anymore. There's a horrible underclass poverty thing going on down there and a terrible wealth factor. An Illuminati, kind of higher echelon of the world people. There's also a middle class, and their economy isn't doing as bad as ours. It was a real confusing situation to walk in to, to tell the truth.