Knit one, punk two

Under the hot lights of a stage, Exene Cervenka is the picture-perfect rock star. Her patented style — cherry lips, an odd, unkempt beauty and one of the most recognizable voices in modern music — makes her the kind of woman who was always destined for something. Her fans understand that somewhere within her imperfectly perfect vessel there lies some truth.

Then again, when she’s not fulfilling her duties as one of the few emergent female punk rock stars from the ’70s and ’80s, the 49-year-old teaches youngsters their multiplication tables and ABCs.

“They said they’ll give me some time off to finish the tour,” Cervenka says of her job as an assistant teacher at a California progressive elementary school. “I love playing music and stuff, it’s being part of a community — punk rock became my community, now the school is.”

If the confluence of punk rock icon-turned-elementary school teacher poses a conflict for you, you should know that Cervenka is an accomplished poet and author, and the mother of a “happy, healthy” 17-year-old boy.

From her hotel room in San Francisco, Cervenka takes time to talk to Metro Times about her upcoming tour with country-rockabilly-honky tonk outfit the Knitters. On the phone, she’s off-putting yet kind, opinionated yet nonjudgmental, punk matriarch yet mom-next-door.

Cervenka’s career began in 1977, when she and John Doe, Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake started the California punk band X. Known best for their snarling mix of literate lyrics and guitar-driven punk minimalism, X swirled in the L.A. undertow, part of a scene that rejected the music business’ coke-spoon-fed decline into mediocrity. In short, X, with many other bands of that ilk, helped to preserve music as a DIY process and maintained that — while music could be marketable and well-liked — it could still be called art.

Cervenka and Doe, (who were married from 1977 until 1985) wrapped up an X tour last year only to immediately regroup and hit the road again — this time, with the Knitters. Named in tribute to ’50s folkies the Weavers, the Knitters started up in 1985 as an X side project. They’ve stayed together in fits and starts for 20 years. Other members of the twang gang include ex-Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin and Johnny Ray Bartel from the blues-rock combo the Red Devils. It’s punk pedigree with a side of hillbilly done well.

And while Cervenka reluctantly enjoys her status as one of rock ’n’ roll’s most famous females, pop culture as a whole completely confounds her. Particularly how the music biz eats its own tail.

“What hasn’t been done now?” Cervenka says. “It’s harder when you can’t create in a vacuum. [In the late ’70s and early ’80s] you had the Replacements in Minnesota, the Ramones in New York and X in L.A. — we had never heard each other. We were not influencing each other. There are a lot less opportunities to isolate yourself these days. It’s like trying to invent a new kind of wine. How do you do that?”

Maybe it’s her discomfort with the status quo that makes the retro appeal of the Knitters so attractive. “It isn’t a protest against what’s now,” she says of their roots rock. “We just don’t know what is now. We’ve just always liked what we’ve liked.”

The Knitters latest release, The Modern Sounds of the Knitters on Zoë/Rounder Records is a (20 years later) follow-up to 1985’s Poor Little Critter on the Road. And while it definitely harks back to a pre-rock ’n’ roll era, Modern Sounds is no nostalgic wink to honky-tonk days of yore — Cervenka’s pitch-bending vox and Alvin’s Link Wray-like guitar guarantee this. Sure, the album’s backward-glancing, but it’s also an unironic joy: a drunken romp in the barn with some old squatter punk pals.

“Some people think we are making fun of country music. That really pisses me off,” Cervenka says.

And while singing with the Knitters can be more demanding vocally, Cervenka appreciates the opportunity to take herself a bit less seriously. The song “Skin Deep Town,” an obvious middle finger to L.A.’s vapid downside, is a sardonic rockabilly jaunt, while such covers as the Stanley Brothers’ “Rank Stranger” smack hard of heartbreak. “Hopefully, we alternate between making you want to laugh and want to cry.” And, God knows, any country band (punk rock icons or not) worth their salt, should do that.


See the Knitters on Friday, Aug. 8, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700) with Phranc.

Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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