John Doe. His name is synonymous with a letter, a city and a genre of music. Helping form the punk band X in a seedy Los Angeles forty years ago, Doe and his bandmates Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake are celebrating that genesis with a 40th anniversary tour that began on May 1.
“I think the time was right for when the punk scene happened. The time was right for younger musicians to want to share their music,” drummer Bonebrake told Glide in 2012. “It was just a lot of people who were creative but had no outlet.” While New York was humming with the fast sounds of the Ramones and the cool vibes of Blondie, it seemed LA had a harder edge to what they were saying and playing. “We told real stories, exaggerated the facts or just plain made them up,” Doe wrote in his 2016 book about the LA punk rock scene, Under The Big Black Sun. “We commented on a world that, to us, had become unbelievably crass and stupid, a world that was just recognizing the separation between rich and poor.” He said that the music was, “meant to be played live, loud and sloppy.”
“Underfed intellectually and refusing to conform to a dumbed-down vanilla sensibility,” wrote Pleasant Gehman in a chapter in Doe’s book. “We were constantly searching for like-minded souls, people who shared the same arcane frame of reference.”
Doe had only been in LA a short time before hooking up with Billy Zoom and forming X. He had come from Baltimore and was on a pot-holed road to nowhere roofing houses before being drawn into the poetry world. It was at a poetry reading he would meet Exene in Venice.
X’s first album was the appropriately titled Los Angeles, produced by The Doors’ Ray Manzarek. “He didn’t try to totally change us,” explained Bonebrake. “His attitude was, ‘You guys have something great, let’s make it happen in the studio, whatever it is, whatever it takes to do that, to get a perfect take, translate the live show into a recording.’” X went on to make several more records under the supervision of Manzarek, including the electrifying yet heartbreaking Under The Big Black Sun in 1982.
In 1986, Doe appeared in his first major film, the Oliver Stone directed Salvador. In 1989, he made Road House with Patrick Swayze and Great Balls Of Fire with Dennis Quaid. He also recorded his first solo album, Meet John Doe. More movie and TV roles came his way, as did albums and tours. In 2016, not only did he compile and contribute to the aforementioned book on the LA punk scene but release his first album in five years, The Westerner, inspired by his time in the true west of Arizona.
For the songwriter/singer/musician, who recently moved to Austin, Texas, “Life is an adventure. Why not take advantage of it.”
You’re about to start this tour celebrating forty years of X. What do you think about that?
It’s mind-blowing. No one would have ever thought that we would survive let alone maintain a friendship and a band for that long. I think everyone hopes that you can but you don’t really expect that you will.
How is Billy doing?
He’s doing great. Billy is doing fine. He’s had treatment so he’s doing well. He’s just on this kind of low-maintenance program.
Tell us about the songs you guys are going to play on this tour. Are you bringing out some of the older songs that are special for this setlist that you haven’t played?
We’ve been developing kind of a concert show for the last couple of years and now we’ve really locked it down, you know, so that we can play a number of different things. You know, punk rock is our bread and butter and we always play punk rock, cause that’s how we distinguish ourselves. But we started getting offers to play performing arts centers and places where people sit down and it was just weird playing nothing but punk rock so we started to develop this other show where we’re playing some really deep cuts or songs we’ve never played even when they were released cause they were just too complicated. We have another player that comes along with us. So DJ is playing vibes and Billy plays sax on a few songs so it’s cool. It starts out big and gets weird and then ends up with punk rock.
What are some of these complicated songs that you didn’t play before?
“I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” “Come Back To Me.” It’s rewarding that, at this stage of the game, that we can expand. Like I was saying, it’s an adventure, you should take advantage of it. I think that’s kind of the point here. It’s easy to just coast and we’re not doing that. We’re expanding and playing these songs that are kind of odd for us and that feels good, you know, challenging yourself and so forth.
Do you remember the first gig that you guys did together?
Sure, it was in a house in Hancock Park, which is an area of Los Angeles. Billy had lived there and he had moved out but Exene and I had moved into a room there. It was an old Victorian house, very little furniture in the front room and the living room and we just set up and played four or five songs and people jumped around. There were probably thirty people there and people jumped around and had a good time and we liked it. Forty years later, there are a few more people and they still jump around on occasion and it’s a good thing (laughs).
What was going on in the local music scene at that time?
With the help of several other people, I wrote a book last year and if you really want to get into it, that’s the best place to start. However, that’s not a shameless plug it’s just difficult to put that into twenty-five words or less. But, music is pretty corporate. Most shows were in big places and they excluded a lot of people, a lot of musicians who were trying to do something a little bit different. So in LA, the live music scene was kind of dead. We thought, with a number of other misfits, that we’d kind of try to revive it. I guess we had a little more ambition or staying power. We feel like, in a way, we’re carrying a torch. We’re not as pretentious as some people that say we’re the, you know, standard-bearer, we just do our thing and still enjoy it. It’s good.
How did your book come together?
The most defining element of the early LA punk rock scene was the community and the collaboration. So a couple of people were bugging me to write a book and said, “You should write a book about LA punk rock.” And it sounded like too much work, number one, and I didn’t want to be THE authority. So I thought within that sense of collaboration and community, I would reach out to people that were there that could write. So Jane Wiedlin and Exene and Henry Rollins and Dave Alvin and Mike Watt and all the different people that are still around that were there, I contacted them and they wrote chapters. I write at the beginning, throughout the whole book smaller pieces, a couple in the middle, and then one at the end. So I’m kind of a narrator.
I applaud and really love the fact that women were an equal member in the punk rock world then. But I couldn’t write a chapter about what it’s like to be a woman so you get that perspective. It’s pretty well-balanced I think. They had to write dedicated chapters. It’s not just oral history cause oral histories can be pretty flawed with their fact-checking cause you call me up and say, “Hey, what happened that night?” And I just ramble on and you’re not going to interrupt me and say, “Actually, that’s not exactly right, is it?” (laughs) So Please Kill Me is great and We Got The Neutron Bomb is great. But people just say shit (laughs) and whether it’s true or not, I mean, it makes for a good story so you don’t want to interrupt that, but on the other hand, if you have to write a dedicated chapter, the city of Los Angeles plays a bigger role. You actually get to feel what it was like there and I think that had a crucial effect on the way the music sounded.
You grew up in the East and you had seen some of the punk bands in New York. When you went out to LA and you and Billy formed X, what elements of those New York bands did you want in your band and what did you not want from having seen them?
That’s a good question. I think we wanted the simplicity and the speed and we didn’t want the seriousness; we wanted a little more melody and more fun and freedom.
When you went into the studio to record Los Angeles, were you more excited or more intimidated and how did Ray Manzarek control that situation?
It’s a combination of both, terrified and excited, but the fact that Ray Manzarek was a bona fide rock star, we felt a measure of confidence or validity. I mean, he wouldn’t waste his time on someone that wasn’t any good so it gave us this feeling. We had been playing for a couple of years before we recorded so it wasn’t just brand new and Billy is a terrific musician, and I had been playing for ten years at least and same with DJ, so we knew we could play. It was the act of actually putting it down that was actually intimidating.
Had you been in a studio before that?
No, not really. Well, I mean, we had recorded a couple of singles for Dangerhouse, which were terrible, terrible recordings (laughs). You know, I recorded with them for Black Randy as well and the Randoms and I think we used two hotel rooms. We set up the board in one room and ran mics to another room and that was it. I know, ridiculous and it sounds like it, you know (laughs). It sounds fucking terrible. It’s really badly recorded but whatever, you know. We did our thing.
“Unheard Music” from Los Angeles has all these different textures. What can you tell us about the creation of that song?
It started as a poem. I was probably influenced some by the Doors and maybe some of the later New York bands, being a little more dissonant. It was a poem about people and their experience to that point, a pretty young experience. I was meeting latch-key kids that I wasn’t exposed to that much in Baltimore. California is a little more wild. Then the Whisky A Go-Go also factored into the imagery, setting the trash on fire. We would do that just for entertainment value (laughs). I didn’t necessarily but someone did. It wasn’t anyone in the band but if you set a dumpster of cardboard on fire and the firetrucks have to show up, you can just stand across the street and watch all the people run around and do their thing. It’s very entertaining. If you can’t get into the Whisky, you might as well cause some trouble (laughs).
The punk sound was so interconnected in X with rockabilly and country & western undertones. For you, where did those roots come from, especially since you went further into that when you started doing your solo albums?
I think it was unavoidable. The era that we grew up in, we couldn’t help but be exposed to rockabilly music and rock & roll music and country & western and things like that. But I give Billy Zoom most of the credit for including rockabilly in punk rock music. I mean, the Cramps did it to a degree but with the kind of guitar playing that Billy had or does, nobody else did that at that time. And I think he did it because that’s what he knew. Like for the intro to “Johnny Hit & Run Pauline,” which is a takeoff on Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” intro, I think he just did it on a whim. I said, “That’s great, let’s do that and start the song like that.” I also think that people gravitate towards making sounds, making music that can be believable. I can sing maybe country style or alt country and it’s believable so that’s why I do it. It sounds right.
After coming off the chaos of X, was it natural to tone down and stay in that roots sort of music for your first solo album?
I think that was where X had gone. There’s not a big divide between See How We Are and that first solo record. We had also done the Knitters, which was our tribute to country & western music and old-fashioned music. Things were kind of going in that direction anyway.
What X song has changed the most for you in terms of meaning, maybe has grown into a different song over the years?
They all have changed in degrees but it’s hard to say. When a song is really working, you’re seeing the past and the future. I’m not saying that to be evasive, it’s kind of all together, but I can still feel the feelings that I had when we first played them and when they were first written. I can still feel that feeling. So what we were doing on Los Angeles, I still have that feeling of people getting disassociated and becoming racist and the kind of culture clash that goes on, that went on and still goes on.
To you, what was your first big I can’t believe I’m here moment?
Probably when we sold out the Whisky. You know, we would play two shows in a night and if the first one sold out then you’d play a second show. There was a dressing room upstairs where you could see out onto Sunset Boulevard and the side street, which I can’t remember, and we saw that there was a line around the block and we thought, guess we did good (laughs).
What band did you see back in the early club days that you thought were great but there was hardly anybody in the crowd?
That would be the Talking Heads at CBGBs. I saw a bunch of local bands in Baltimore but they were just local bands playing sort of blues, psychedelic music, nothing great. But they [Talking Heads] were so completely engaged in what they were doing. I never saw that with other Baltimore bands. They were totally committed and then at the end of the show they played “Psycho Killer” and David Byrne just ripped off his guitar and just walked out through the crowd out to the street and I thought, this guy is so crazy he may just be gone and that may be the last anybody ever sees of him, cause he was very twitchy and odd and naturally so. And I was like, wow, I just saw something and maybe I’ll never see it again. And that’s thrilling.
Do you feel a new album brewing up for you since you released The Westerner last year?
Yeah, absolutely. I have some ideas but nothing concrete yet.
How long will this tour be going on?
I think total we have about eighty dates, which is a bit more than we normally do. We normally do maybe forty or fifty. So we have a solid month here, a few in-between dates in July and August, and then a full month in September. We’re also having a museum exhibit at the Grammy Museum in LA and that’s pretty exciting. It’ll run for six months or something [June 30, 2017 – February 25, 2018]. The Grammy Museum is good. You can debate whether you approve of the Grammys in general but it’s great to feel you’ve qualified to be in a museum. That’s pretty rewarding.
Being appreciated by people you never thought you’d be appreciated by
(laughs) Yeah totally
Live photograph by Leslie Michele Derrouh -portrait by Frank Gargani