Exene Cervenka helped invent what Los Angeles is now and helped save the best of what it used to be. She releases a new solo album Somewhere Gone on Bloodshot in October and is moving back to California after years in a historic farmhouse in Missouri. She speaks now while camping on the beach. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
How do you feel America’s garbage has changed in the last thirty or forty years?
Ooh—interesting. It’s changed for the worse. The garbage that I used to find on the streets was a lot better because it was regional garbage and now it’s just national garbage.
What specifically have we lost in our garbage?
Flyers for fortunetellers. Candy wrappers that only exist in certain places.
Do you agree with Philip K. Dick that the symbols of the divine show up initially at the trash stratum?
Sure—I think that’s neat.
Lydia Lunch once said that you and her share a similar moral imperative—to tell the truth about injustices to the individual and to scream into the void. Do you think that’s true?
I think that’s something more strident than I would see myself as being. I definitely feel like I’m not giving a voice to the voiceless—now I’m giving myself a voice. I don’t know what imperative means. I understand what it means but I also think that—I don’t know, ‘moral’ is a weird word. I like it. I like the word ‘morality’ but that is a weird concept. I just try to be a compassionate human being. I’m trying to make myself a better person as I go along.
How hard has that been to learn how to do?
Easy once you get the hang of it.
Do you think that’s necessary in music to have that?
Yes. Is it necessary to treat people okay? It is for me. Maybe not for you.
Maybe for me.
Maybe not for the next guy but for you or me, yeah.
You said once that most of your songs are written about love but that’s not to say they aren’t political. The Monks have said that all songs are love songs at heart—what’s the overlap there?
I’m just trying to take that in. Every song is a love song? Yeah, I’d agree with that. Because you love what you’re writing about.
They also said love is the only way to get out of your own ego and connect with something bigger than yourself.
Yes, I agree with that.
What’s a moment in your own life when that became apparent?
Now. Now in the more general sense. I agree with that completely. When I got diagnosed with MS—that is when it became apparent to me.
Did that diagnosis change the way you write and work?
It doesn’t change that, unfortunately. You’d think it would make you more… Well, I work pretty hard as it is so I’m not gonna work harder—but it doesn’t really change that stuff because why should it? At some point it’ll bite me in the ass but right now I’m healthy.
There’s a line by the poet Anna Akhmatova…
Oh, I love her—she’s my favorite poet. She’s great, especially considering she wrote that stuff in the teens and the twenties. Well, not all of it—but the stuff she wrote in the teens and the twenties is so relevant and so good.
In one poem she asks, ‘Why is this century worse than those others?’
I think everyone thinks their century is worse than the others. I think that question can be answered. We don’t know if it’s the worst, or if things will get worse. I believe things will get worse in our culture and our economy and in the world in general—I think water shortages and things like that. I mean we’re dealing with a bad economy, but other people are dealing with much worse and that’s gonna continue.
How do you think things have changed in your lifetime?
It’s kind of a big perspective now. I thank the hippies for health food every day—I’m grateful to them every day I eat and I think that generation changed the world for the better. They didn’t change it completely but I definitely have a lot of respect and gratitude to that generation. The generation previous to mine. And the feminists for doing what they could in their times to try and make women somewhat equal, which will probably never happen.
What makes you say that?
Because it’s so hard. I’ve struggled my whole life and so has every woman and decent man I know—it’s so hard.
How do you reconcile yourself to the possibility that these kinds of things are going to take longer than maybe any person can imagine?
That depends on if you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing. If you’re doing the right thing then the outcome doesn’t really matter because your goal is to do the right thing, not to change the world.
Mike Watt says when he reads Ulysses now, it seems like a sad book to him—that it seems like the only victories we can have are the tiny victories between people.
No. I don’t agree with that. I think tiny victories are very valuable and personal relationships are very valuable but I think you can aspire to a lot more than that. I would not settle for that, no.
What do you still aspire to? I found a quote where you said you felt you’ve done everything you wanted to do in your life.
Do the same things again better.
Well, that’s the question. That’s my problem, isn’t it?
What do you miss most about the past?
Architecture. The architecture in Los Angeles used to be quite amazing. Architecture everywhere in America used to be amazing—I miss that a lot.
Why do you think that changed?
Because of progress. Yes, that’s what they call it. Because of the economy. Because you have to keep stimulating the economy by tearing down and building again—and sprawl and fear. Los Angeles used to be a really amazing city in the ‘70s, but I miss all that. I wish men wore hats.
And never shorts, either. For decorum.
Yeah—for decorum’s sake.
Can you identify anything in your lifetime that was a tipping point? Where things went the left way and not the right way?
I have those all the time.
Can you identify them as they happen?
No. Immediately after. I’m pretty good at knowing what’s happening. The tipping point is a good thing because it makes you get up and do something about whatever it was that you couldn’t do anything about. It forces your hand.
You once said, ‘I want to be worthwhile in this world, I want to give something—otherwise that’d be selfish.’ Is that the way you feel you have to live?
Yes. Because that’s the way it is. That’s the way it works—because if you don’t do that then it doesn’t work. Society falls apart. Civility is lost. Which may be a good thing. But that’s just the way I choose to live. If somebody came to my door and wanted help, I would help them.
I heard runaways used to show up on your doorstep in the middle of the night.
Well, let me put it this way—if someone needed help, I would help them.
What’s a time when somebody really helped you exactly when you needed it?
You’d be amazed. I have a list of the things since I was diagnosed—I am really, really grateful because I had so many people come to me with advice and help and prayers and thoughts and presents and things. So I think that when that happens, it transforms you.
How does it feel to be living in California again?
Not as strange as you’d think. I haven’t decided yet where I’m moving.
What’s your favorite scene in one of Raymond Chandler’s books?
Oh gee, I read those books so long ago. I can’t really remember. I should re-read those and I should read John Fante while I’m at it. Now that I’m back here I should reacquaint myself with where I am. John Fante—he’s my favorite L.A. writer. Because he just did it the best. I love Raymond Chandler too. And Charles Bukowski and other people. When I moved to L.A. in ’76 there were people just coming back from Vietnam who were hippies when they went that were dropping acid a week before they landed in Vietnam. They still had chops and acid and hippies—it was really neat. And there were still those detective doors in some of the office buildings—you know. The glass doors with the lettering. And the architecture was much more detective-y—much more Marlowe.
When you first moved here, who was the person who taught you about L.A.?
I didn’t have one. It was me and John Doe struggling to find our own way. Everything from the ground up. I came from Florida and he came from Baltimore and we didn’t know anything about California or Los Angeles—we were just trying to figure it out. We’d go to shows, he’d talk our way in—he’d talk the doorman into letting us get in for free to go see the Runaways and Tom Petty and Blondie.
You were talking about punk once and said, ‘We were ghosts then and we’re ghosts now and we’ll haunt your malls and catwalks forever.’
That’s definitely true. Because we thought of stuff that other people didn’t think of and it’s just now starting to disseminate into society—or has been for a while but is kind of starting.
Do you remember the first time you saw the Eagles play?
The Eagles? I saw the Eagles play in Las Vegas about 15 years ago. I was at the Hard Rock Café the night they opened. I wanted to see who they were because I heard so much about them.
Did they live up to everything you’d been told?
Exactly. Hit the nail on the head. They are good musicians—very competent at what they do, very good at what they do.
What a carefully chosen adjective.
Yup. They were very good at what they do.
You use ‘we’ really effectively in your lyrics.
I use ‘I’ too much. I think about myself too much.
Are there any of your songs that you feel have come true?
No. Sometimes they do. ‘New World’ is like that. That comes true every year.
How did you feel on election night last year?
Pretty darn good.
Did you cry at all?
No I didn’t. I had a nice celebration though—we played in Seattle and Eddie Vedder sang ‘The New World’ with us on election night. It was fun. And he slow danced with me.
Did he step on your toes?
No—he’s a great dancer. Are you kidding?
Who’s the best dancer?
Have you ever cried on an election night?
No. I don’t cry for those people. I save my tears for my friends.
EXENE CERVENKA WITH JOHN DOE, AMBER FOX AND DAVID J. CARPENTER ON FRI., SEPT. 11, AT A BENEFIT FOR ANDREA FOLMER AT ALEX’S BAR, 2913 E. ANAHEIM ST., LONG BEACH. 8PM / $10 / 21+. ALEXSBAR.COM. AND WITH JOHN DOE AND KID CONGO POWERS ON FRI., OCT. 9, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 8PM / $25-$27 / 18+. ATTHEECHO.COM. EXENE CERVENKA’S SOMEWHERE GONE RELEASES TUE., OCT. 6, ON BLOODSHOT. VIST EXENE CERVENKA AT EXENECERVENKA.COM OR AT MYSPACE.COM/EXENECERVENKA.