I’m not a fan of poetry. I think it’s one of the most awkward forms of expression and takes so much goddamned work to appreciate. Enjoying music can be kind of passive and the production is collaborative such that there are several elements that go into a good song. If the lyrics aren’t particularly good, there’s a beat and melody and the quality of performances to make up for it. Prose kind of just is what it is, an honest and straightforward presentation of ideas. Poetry is this unfortunate midpoint that needs to be both lyrical and idea-driven with absolutely nowhere to hide pretension or awkwardness or stupidity.
My prejudice against poetry extends to songwriting with poem-inspired lyrics, even though my point above about there being nowhere to hide doesn’t stand. Also, the extent to which I’m tolerant of lyrical poetry varies based on whether I actually kind of hate the artist. To wit: I think Lou Reed is a genius but the very thought of Patti Smith’s Horses record sends me into a rage, the difference being that Lou’s vagaries make me rub my chin and say “hmmm” whereas Patti’s make me roll my eyes and quietly declare her the absolute worst*. This prejudice against lyrical poetry or poetic lyrics obviously doesn’t extend to X, which is maybe my third favorite band in the world. I was about to declare X the quintessential punk-poets and I think that’s arguably true, but in checking my facts via Google, I remembered that Richard Hell is a thing, so I’ll leave that point as arguable and resist boldly declaring.
*I’ve felt this way for a long time and kept it quiet because I don’t want to shit on anyone’s interests but MAN do I think her music sucks. I also hate that she’s the poster child for punk legitimacy. A person of my father’s generation, in avoiding remarking on any specific aspect of punk he respected while still trying to relate to Pete and I in conversation said something to the effect of “punk is--punk is great. Yeah, there’s...well, there’s Patti Smith! She’s a *poet*” and when those last words came out of his mouth, I really wanted to leave the room because it sounded like such a desperate, generic compliment I’m sure I’ve heard a million times before with that exact same inflection. I might have even actually left the room, but I think we were in a moving car at the time. I want to say that even Tipper fucking Gore made the exact same pro-Patti argument while disparaging the Dead Kennedys as if to say “see? I’m not so square!”
“White Girl” by X is on this list at #60*. I just went back and reread the post and I go on and on about “White Girl’s” fairly straightforward lyrics, which now strikes me funny since I decided to open this post about “The World’s a Mess,” the lyrics of which are complete gobbledygook. See:
Some facts here
Which refuse to escape
I could say it stronger
But it's too much trouble
I was wandering down at the bricks
Hectic, isn't it?
Down we go, cradle and all
The what? This is just the most inscrutable of a pile of nonsense; the whole song’s like this. But it manages to work really fucking well. I’m fairly certain, aided by the selected words in the song title and the chorus, that it amounts to an outpouring of general apocalyptic hopelessness, a theme that I truly believe lends itself to particularly eloquent gibberish.
*I almost forgot to mention that I’m fairly certain Pete and I share our top two X songs, which has never happened in the history of life. And we’ve never talked about why, for as many of these types of discussions as we have. And I think we love “White Girl” and “The World’s a Mess” for the same reasons.
Idle optimism expressed online in late 2016 would suggest that a lot of us thought that the Trump era would feel a bit like the Reagan era and would result in some really great political music and I don’t think it did that exactly*. Reagan and pals were less crazy than Trump but America was also way more sold on Reagan than Trump. So while in the year of our lord 2020, we all have firsthand experience with the shock at the degree of stupid our leaders demonstrate and the ease with which they waltzed into power, in Reagan’s time, it was more the feeling of drowning in stupid. It must have seemed like everyone in the world was down. Add to the anxiety the real and plausible fear of nuclear annihilation that we were largely unbothered by in Trump’s time, “No one is united, and all things are untied. Perhaps we're boiling over inside!” is very relatable.
*Film however, took leaps and bounds during this time.
All of this says nothing about “The World’s a Mess” musically. It starts with Billy Zoom’s guitar, sounding an awful lot like the good* kind of rockabilly. Exene’s vocals come in fairly immediately and sound particularly** moany. She sings a clear lead in this one, which is kind of unusual for X, which is why I assume she was the songwriting lead as well. It’s quite the feature. In addition to it being my favorite X song, I think it’s considered in some ways to be the definitive X song. At some point--I think initially during the first chorus, though it sticks around for most of the rest of the song after that--the musical unsung hero of this song, the keyboard. I think you could argue that it elevates the song from really very good to a love fuck of an innovative musical revolution. I hate the Doors. But it’s very Doorsy in the only tolerable way. In the bridge and outro, the keyboard really shines and goes a little off the rails, but in a song about how the world is ending because people are nuts, it’s absolute perfection.
*The 1950s kind, not the nostalgic White Privilege Cosplay kind of the last couple of decades.
**She’s always a little moany and I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s perfect for X and most perfect in “The World’s a Mess.”
“The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss” is the last song on X’s debut album, Los Angeles, which is hilarious because I really thought it was on Wild Gift. See, after Pete and I fell in love with X after watching the 1981 minor motion picture The Decline of Western Civilization, he went out and purchased the CD version of their first two albums on one disc. Ever since, I’ve always thought that the correct way to listen to X is by listening to each of the two in succession and without interruption. In the digital music era, I find it too much of an imposition to play one and then the other, so I created a Spotify playlist that will do this for me. After years of discomfort, I have arrived at home again.
In any case, though “The World’s a Mess” is my favorite X song, I think Wild Gift is a slightly better record because it presents more X songs than X SONGS, which is to say, it doesn’t sound as much like they’re trying to cultivate an image. They’re all great songs, but I have trouble grooving naturally to “Sex and Dying in High Society,” “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline,” as well as the title track because they sound too much like “we’re here, we’re X, get used to it!” Wild Gift generally sounds like a more confident band who knows the world knows exactly who they are. That’s why “The World’s a Mess” feels like a Wild Gift song. It seems to have more in common with the sexy and mysterious Wild Gift tracks like “Some Other Time,” “Year 1,” and “Beyond and Back” than the aforementioned standout tracks on Los Angeles. I’m really splitting hairs, here. They’re both stellar albums.
As I think I heavily suggested if not outright implied in my previous post, I’ve always wanted to be X. They’re just the coolest. They make marriage seem scandalous and sexy, the influence of which may have lead Pete and I to see being married punk rockers as an imperative, which partly explains why we got married so young. They’re crazy good-looking. John Doe is like, normal-guy handsome, which makes his transition to acting* make a lot of sense. Exene** of course is cute as a button, a compact, punk rock Stevie Nicks totally out of her mind and her chemistry with John is electric. They also both sing incredibly well. I’ll admit that during the pandemic, I’ve been working hard at self-improvement and practicing singing more is one strategy to that end. The goal is to approach singing as well as Exene can, sounding more like her. With a rich, confident authority. That’s the dream. And their playing! The music itself doesn’t strike as simplified or dumbed down in any way, not always a bad thing, but in comparison to their time/place peers, their commitment to virtuosity makes the stand out. And in fact, if they were as well-known as Patti Smith, I think they’d be far better exemplars of punk legitimacy thereisaidit.
*His filmography is impressively long, including a one-off appearance on Party of Five in 1997.
**I didn’t know where else to put this, nor do I have any idea how I avoided stumbling upon this information for so long, but Exene was married to Viggo Mortensen from 1986 - 1997.
Never did my desire to be X come into focus more than when we finally* watched the 1986 minor motion picture, the Unheard Music. I’d recommend watching it as their definitive music doc if you haven’t yet. I personally found it really inspiring, like, all the way around. They have an unmatched style and philosophy as a band, which kind of brings me back to the poetry piece. They insisted on being artsy and projecting an intentional, consistent aesthetic, well in advance of the internet and “aesthetic” being a word to throw around in casual conversation**. Anyway, in one memorable sequence, John Doe recounts the band’s appropriation of the letter X from the X-Lax building in Brooklyn. I was like “holy shitballs, that’s outstanding,” picked up my phone, did some scavenging of my own and purchased a light-up E and a G from Amazon, which have been featured prominently on the stage with us during live shows ever since, which you can see here, in this pic of us in a City Paper article from 2017. Yeah, we stole that idea from X. People have asked us whether we stole them off of a marquee, so. Mission accomplished.
*This was as recently as like 2017. I have no idea what took us so long.
**I think in the early 80s, the corresponding term was “vibe.”
I feel like I have mentioned this before but can’t trace it, so at the risk of repeating myself, I’ll tell this story (maybe)* again. We saw X play with Blondie at the 9:30 Club in September 2013. Excited as I was to see both bands, maybe even equally, X really stole the show for me. It wasn’t even Blondie’s fault (more on this later), but I enjoyed X’s set so much more. When I finally see bands I’ve been listening to and loving for a really long time, I get this tear reflex. Like, I get a lump in my throat and my eyes briefly fill up. That definitely happened with X, they just looked so much like themselves. They looked like younger actors with makeup and gray streaks added to intentionally age them, intoning the passage of time. And were so on point! As energetic as ever. I loved it, and would very much love to see them again, were that only possible. After This Is All Over!!
*OK, no, I’m pretty sure I talked about how I want to cry when I see bands live for the first time in my post about Descendents.