#288: X, "Los Angeles" (1980)

X's Los Angeles is film noir poetry describing the underbelly of the Beautiful Great Dream City of the West Coast. The album shows us the dark underbelly is the Beautiful Great Dream City. That it’s all underbelly actually. Los Angeles is a landscape that remains beautiful but indelibly marked with the dark sordid textures of skid row violence, unspeakable cruelty full of tortured souls caught in the current of life reeling past them and through them at the same time. Here we find the city of Los Angeles as the fantasy temptress and destroyer of dreams where everything comes at a cost that can’t be measured in dollars.

As a kid, Los Angeles is a dream to me. I am a million miles from anywhere resembling life as it ought to be. This small town rural America hole I am living in is the polar opposite of where I think I want to be. There is a city a mere 70 miles away, but that requires money, a car, a license. Those might as well be a private jet and pilot. I am all adolescent existential crisis. X’s Los Angeles is a dark oasis, like the mythical city of Cibola built on sin, vice, release, and redemption. I am merely wandering my current sociocultural desert until I can descend unto my real people. Thus finds 14-year-old me encountering the darkest record I have ever heard. There are a ton of these stories about music, youth, awakening, and discovery. This one is mine. There are a million squared songs about love and relationships with no end in sight. They keep coming because we never really find a full, complete understanding of the subject that embodies, drives, and haunts us. Thus it is with these personal stories of art and redemption. That’s what all punk rock is eventually: redemption. Redemption from an oppressive state of being. Redemption from stifling burdensome places. Redemption of self. Redemption of others. Even at its angriest, bleakest, and most hopeless, Punk rock is a belief that somewhere, some way there is something more, something better. Punk rock is the hope that something is worth screaming about, while demanding its instantaneous manifestation.

In one furious sweep of musical slate, X wiped away the loud angry punk rock standard spiel with a musical vocabulary that blended more influences than anything before it. Los Angeles melds the bleakness of the Velvet Underground with the ferocious power of the Stooges, the pure  rebellion of Sun rockabilly and the literary sensibilities of Carver and Bukowski. It is literate, contemplative, and observant in an era of punk when almost nothing else was. It redefines the expectations and possibilities of punk. It raises the bar for an entire genre of rock music.

John Doe and Exene Cervenka were emigres to Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a collection of observations, experiences, and feelings of the foreigner in a new land that is at once alien, overwhelming, and exciting, enhanced by the discovery and catharsis of the power, possibility, and freedom of punk rock. It is, at turns, dark impulses or redemptive cleansing framed in beauty, fear, excitement, confusion. They were children in a really vicious playground and they reflected that outwardly on this album.

I came to this album a high school punk rocker in a tiny East Texas town when punk rock barely existed outside of big cities on the coasts. Landing squarely in the heart of these songs, they mirrored all the bleakness and confusion of my hyper-adolescent angst and anxiety. Unable to see a road out, no hope on the horizon, I existed in that peculiar teen mental state of dread filled with irrational insanity, where how things are is a permanent unchanging state. Los Angeles was Promethean. I saw a dark disturbing place that was terrifying, exciting, fascinating, ugly. It was full of thrills, dangers, and sexual tension. The Los Angeles of the record was like a punk rock Anti-Oz and I wanted to follow its brick road to this place far away from rednecks, jocks, tiny minds, and tiny souls. If the darkness in this crazy previously unimagined world was as inevitable as the oppression of home then let’s at least add the excitement of a world where something interesting happened.

From the opening track of “Your Phone’s Off the Hook But You’re Not” to the conclusion of “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss,” Los Angeles is a musical equivalent to Bosch’s “Garden Of Earthly Delights.” It all comes down to Sin and Redemption. Los Angeles is a glittering, unflinching look at the worst aspects of the Great West Coast Dream City that always carries with it the hope. It tells us that even though things are terrible, they can be better, showing that the ugly and the beautiful are inexorably intertwined and parasitic in nature. That was a lot to take in as a kid. Like most kids, I took what I wanted and ignored the rest. I’ve carried this album with me in one form or another for the better part of three decades. Its power and beauty have only increased for me over the years. What it has meant to me has varied, morphed, and transcended. It remains through all of that a friend, a yardstick, and a touchstone.

—Bosco Farr