Love Between the Haves and Have Nots
By Hans Fink
Whether she’s performing at a benefit for flood victims, exhibiting a collage at an art show or writing letters to her senator, Exene Cervenka leads an active lifestyle three decades after founding seminal punk band X with her partner in crime John Doe. Currently a solo artist hot off the heels of her recent record store tour, this L.A.-based legend continues her impassioned pursuit of all things creative. One part artist and one part activist, Exene is obviously concerned about all things social and political. She is concerned with relationships. Deeper still, she is concerned with love. For love, she contends, is at the root of solving all of the world’s problems.
Last I talked to you, you mentioned you were starting a new album.
Yes I am working on a new album, and it’s pretty exciting for me because I have really great people playing on it, and I’m just thrilled with the way it’s coming out.
Any particular reason why you decided to go with love songs as opposed to the more political material?
I’m very political, but I didn’t record any of the political songs, and also I think love is at the heart of the problem anyway. Interpersonal relationships are really interesting to me, between men and women especially (or women and women as well or men and men as well, depending on your view of course). They’re universal. It’s just what I’m interested in. It’s what I grew up listening to on the radio in the early ’60s. It takes a certain talent to write a love song that hasn’t been written before.
And didn’t you just finish up a tour?
I am always on the road with one band or another but the biggest tour that I did was the in-store tour. I play record stores for free at 7 o’clock at night and then that way all the kids can come, the parents can come; nobody has to get a babysitter or spend a bunch of money.
You have a very active lifestyle in spite of the fact you’ve been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Well, I’ve been battling that for 15 years. I’ve been diagnosed before with it, but I just kinda went “maybe I do, maybe I don’t.” But the last time I was diagnosed, it was after a pretty major symptom and I was on medication after that and told, “Yeah, it looks like you really do have this,” but I haven’t been sick in a year. It’s a weird little disease that can make you really sick really fast or it can just be in there and not bother you too much. Depends on who you are and what version of it you have. I just stay really happy and I try to stay in a state of love for all things; and no negative vibes, no anger, that kind of stuff . . . when I start to feel those kinds of emotions I immediately deal with them and I just focus on positive energy. I mean, if we loved each other, we wouldn’t be at war.
In what ways would you encourage your fans, and especially the younger generations, to be active and help change the world?
What I said about love is really important. Anger, resentment and negative energy, you gotta get that out of your system first or you won’t be able to help yourself or anyone else around you. The second thing is I think everybody has to have a job to make a living. You have to have a second job and that second job is to make a difference. So you can do your first job and make your money and all that, and then you have to have a second job, whether it’s rescuing animals or writing letters or whatever it is, pick something that you’re interested in, in our society, and you work on it. It could be equal rights for gay marriage. Just find something like that and just go for it, in a peaceful positive way, a non-violent way.
At CULTURE, our focus is on the medical marijuana lifestyle . . . last time I spoke with you, you mentioned that you don’t use medical marijuana to treat your multiple sclerosis. However, you advocate the right of others to do so.
Oh, absolutely! I think it’s ridiculous that alcohol and cigarettes are legal and marijuana isn’t. It’s beyond belief. One is a passive medicine, and the other two destroy the nervous system, and the immune system and the kidneys and the liver and heart and the lungs . . . and the other is a mild anxiety reducer, in every way an effective pain killer—it’s like aspirin, it should be in every medicine cabinet. The thing in California that I see coming is that it will be legalized because we need the money, and that’s the only reason. And they want to control the trade. Because down here [in L.A.] they just closed all those [dispensaries]. That indicates that they are trying to get it under control. Not so they can outlaw it, but so they can take it over. That’s just how our system is, you can’t get away from being taxed and regulated.
True . . . although there is a certain basic ethos to the premise of if you use it, you should contribute to it, such as a road tax.
Well I’m 54 years old and I know that taxes used to give people things: schools, roads, libraries . . . all this used to come out of our taxes. Now nothing comes out of our taxes, it all just goes to the corrupt people. The bailout was another indication of this. The corruption in big business and collusion with the government is so transparent now that the whole country, the whole world can see it. Everyone in the country can see it, everyone in the country knows what the problems are, but no one can agree on a solution.
In your opinion, what would be a logical solution?
There’s plenty of money. California makes more money in the lottery and all the gambling funds from casinos—probably more than any other state—and has the second worst school system. Why is that? It’s not about taxes, they could double our taxes and you’d still get the same amount or less back because there is so much incredible corruption. I don’t know where the money goes I just know it doesn’t come back.
What I’m asking is what would be the best solution to reform the corruption?
Well, what I’m saying is that the corruption is so endemic that I don’t know if there is a solution . . . I guess the solution is to vote in new people. I think is for people to be aware politically and stop being passive. Because what’s happening is that they got away with so much stuff that they just kept pushing it and pushing it and pushing it. BP and the oil disaster in the Gulf is a real good example of 50 years of people pushing it until they get whatever they want and then they’re so used to it that at some point the collusion with the regulatory agencies, the government, the businesses, the inspectors, everyone involved, they’re all corrupt. Money is the root of all evil, and that’s another important thing to remember.
The money itself, or people’s attachment to it?
The money itself has a corrupting effect unfortunately. But, yeah, it is our attachment to it for sure. I think most of the people in this country just want enough money to live on, to raise their kids,. They’re asking for a job and opportunities for their kids. That’s not too much to ask but they won’t even give us that. Schools should be free and so should healthcare. We spend a trillion dollars on a war in Iraq, now we’re in Afghanistan, how soon can we get out of [Afghanistan] and not look stupid? We’re addicted to war.
Let’s talk about your art.
I’m a collage artist and I exhibit around the country and Southern California and it’s something I just do a lot, I make a lot of art, I’m getting ready to do another art show, but I’m not sure on where or when, I haven’t decided. I just make art all the time and make music all the time and you know, that’s all I like to do, really. Art and music are so fantastic because they’re physical, they’re emotional, they’re mentally stimulating, they’re intellectual, they’re passionate pursuits, they’re hobbies, they’re work, they’re discipline . . . they’ve got everything covered. If you sit down with a guitar and a notebook and start to work on songs you’re just bettering yourself, your whole entity is better off. I always encourage people to do as much creative stuff as [they] can, because it just really enriches you.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I’d like to encourage people to shop independent. When you have a friend who makes candles, that’s who you buy your candles from. If you can’t buy candles, then you trade. But I think the further we get away from corporate culture, that’s the best chance we have to overthrow the corporate culture that really rules our lives and every aspect of our lives, and that’s one of the reasons I’m doing the whole independent record store tour is because even though I love clubs and have had great experiences my whole life playing clubs, I really just think that everybody needs to help each other right now.