In the fall of 1980, I left home for the first time, to attend college at UC Berkeley. I’ll go to my grave believing that one of the most important aspects of college is the social aspect of college life – living in the dorms with a bunch of people that you don’t know (at least, not at first), and that in many instances you don’t have anything in common with, outside of a fairly sound academic record.
My first year at Cal, I was in Deutsch Hall on Durant Avenue, a couple of blocks south of the campus. In those days, dorm life was a bit different than what you find at college campuses today. On my first night there (a few days before classes started), the official dorm event was a wine and cheese tasting. On Halloween, the official activity was a “trick or drink” event where all four dorms in our Unit were serving a different cocktail. And during the course of the school year, each floor in the dorm received an amount of money to spend however they saw fit – and yes, most floors saw fit to use the money on alcohol, and to throw a party for the entire dorm (and whoever else might show up). If you were smart, you would charge money to attend your event, providing your floor with more money…to buy more alcohol.
There are certain times of your life where your memories are burned into your brain and you can remember things as if they happened yesterday. That first quarter (late September through early December of 1980) is one of those times for me, and a lot of those memories have to do with music. In October of that year, I saw my first Bruce Springsteen concert. I also saw Talking Heads, along with the English Beat – to this day, one of the best double bills I’ve ever seen. And I was introduced to a lot of music that I’d never heard before.
One of the albums that I heard for the first time that fall was X’s “Los Angeles.” And while I had always considered myself to be fairly progressive in my semi-popular music tastes (to borrow Robert Christgau’s term) – I’d bought The Clash, I’d bought The Sex Pistols, I’d bought The Ramones, I’d bought Gang of Four – there was something about this album that seemed, even compared with those previously mentioned, to be “out there.” The band was from Los Angeles, and led by the husband and wife duo of John Doe and Exene, joined by the always grinning but never moving Billy Zoom on guitar and D.J. Bonebrake on drums. Their music was loud, it was fast, and it painted a picture of Los Angeles that was in parts exciting, scary, and a bit dangerous. To quote Greil Marcus: “the story Los Angeles has to tell takes place in a junkie pad off Santa Monica and Western, and who knows what you’ll find when you open the door?”
I was invited to an X concert by the girl on the fifth floor who introduced me to the band, but for some reason I begged off – maybe I actually had to study that night; maybe I was just scared of what might be in store. All you have to do is view the clip below of a concert from that time to find out what an X concert was like.
“Nausea” remains one of my favorite songs on the album. And what normal, red-blooded American college student couldn’t relate to these lyrics?
Today you're gonna be so sick so sick
you'll prop your forehead on the sink
say oh christ oh jesus christ
my head's gonna crack like a bank
tonight you'll fall asleep in clothes
so late like a candy bar wrapped up for lunch
that's all you get to taste
poverty and spit poverty and spit
nausea bloody red eyes go to nausea
bloody red eyes go to nausea
bloody red eyes go to sleep
Not for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure. And that’s barely scratching the surface. As Marcus also said in his original review of the album:
After a time, you may begin to listen for some sign that the story on Los Angeles is just a story, or that the story is basically artful, a sharp use of seedy Hollywood locales and bus-stop drifters. You’ll find neither. What there is to be found, behind the parade of small-time horrors implicitly mocked by L.A.’s quick fix of sun and easy money, is an insistence that those horrors have made the people who live in them and who sing about them better than those who don’t: not just tougher but morally superior, if only because they’ve seen through the moralism other people only pretend to believe in anyway.
And then you reach the album’s last song, and my favorite, “The World’s A Mess, It’s In My Kiss.” This is my favorite song on the album, it’s my favorite song by the band, and it’s one of my favorite songs, period. It contains one of my favorite moments of any song that I’ve heard – the organ solo by Ray Manzarek (of The Doors, who produced the album). At the point the solo begins, John and Exene are trading lines, and then suddenly, the organ takes center stage. All you hear is Zoom’s guitar, Doe’s bass, Bonebrake’s drums, and Manzarek’s incredible organ.
For me, it’s a supremely exciting moment. I’ve heard it hundreds if not thousands of times, and the feeling is always the same. I don’t want it to end, and I feel more alive while it is playing. At that moment, the lyrics and the themes don’t matter. All that is left is the music.