With the long and established career he has enjoyed, John Doe certainly needs no introduction. Recently he released his second book with Tom DeSavia – entitled More Fun in the New World: the Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk. This book focuses on the L.A. punk scene from 1982 to 1987 and is told from the perspective of people like Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go’s and Tim Robbins. By phone, Doe discussed the inspiration behind the book, the enduring influence of X, and the legacy of L.A. punk.
Glide Magazine: What was the inspiration to doing a follow-up book to Under the Big Black Sun?
John Doe: The publishing company had an option, and they said, “Your first one did good. We’d like you to do another one.” Then we thought, Oh fuck! What do we do? I talked to our partner, who is now our creative consultant, and I explained the concept. I explained that it was going to be about the community falling apart, and hardcore taking over. A lot of the stuff you see in The Decline of Western Civilization, the movie. It’s about people going on tour, getting signed to record deals. People were getting lied to. They were getting on drugs. People were dying. A lot of it was negative, and she was right in saying there was some other legacy that took hold with different people. I talked to Tim Robbins, Shepard Fairey, and Alison Anders. They all took the punk rock DIY way of doing things and applied it to a different kind of art form. That’s an overarching theme of this new book.
GM: What’s the challenge in presenting the book in the voices of people who were there?
JD: It’s not much of a challenge because people want to tell their story. Especially if you’re part of some era people are interested in knowing about. There were a few people that got scared, or weren’t interested, or were just too busy. I guess maybe the challenge is if they turn in 12,000 words and you asked for 6,000. That’s a challenge. Do you want to edit this, or do you want me to? I was constantly surprised. I didn’t know that Tim Robbins started The Actors Gang right around this era. I didn’t realize the degree of Maria McKee’s pressure. She went from playing The Palomino to opening for U2. She went from being a young kid who liked to sing and having her brother sort of look out for her to having Bob Dylan and Jimmy Iovine working with her. She didn’t know how to handle it – an 18-year-old who can sing pretty good. She’s getting compared to Dolly Parton. That’s a lot of pressure.
GM: One of the recurring themes in the book is how influential X was. Did you realize that at the time?
JD: I knew that we were doing better than some other people. If you start realizing that, then you’re lost, and you’re not going to do your most original or best work. I’m one of the faces of the two books, so people want to talk about us a little more maybe. We were one of the bands that stood out, but so were The Go-Go’s. They were a little bit more mainstream at least at the time. They didn’t break as many conventions as we did. They weren’t as weird. Maybe if you’re weird, you influence people. I don’t think we thought of ourselves as being weird. We write fairly conventional songs with a verse and a chorus, a bridge. We’re not Sonic Youth.
GM: Looking at it now, what does it mean to you that X was so influential at the time?
JD: As you get older, you’re more grateful because you have a little more perspective. There are moments when you wish you had a big, fat bank account, but then you get lazy. If you’re Joan Jett and you can play any casino anywhere or any county or state fair, maybe those gigs aren’t as rewarding as some others. Maybe those are harder gigs to feel like you matter. We’ll play a 2,000-seat theater, and then we’ll play a 500 capacity club. It’s hard to say which is better.
GM: Top Jimmy gets mentioned a lot in the book. He seems like a legendary character. How would you describe him for someone who wasn’t around to see him?
JD: The stories that we told about him scratch the surface. In the previous book it was The Screamers. We kind of knew that Top Jimmy would be the bonus material. He was a raconteur. He was funny, sweet, careless. He lived life to the fullest, and he didn’t mind being broke most of the time. The sad thing was that addiction got the better of him. I think we go into that pretty fully. Jimmy was great. I wish there was some record of all the crazy shit he did. The things that I told and Billy (Zoom) told are a few of them. The other advantage of doing a book like this is that you get to shine the light on guys like Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Top Jimmy, Rank and File, or some people that are maybe not in the public consciousness. You get to say that this was worthwhile and hopefully people will go back and learn more about them. You know who was kind of surprising when I listened again is The Long Ryders. There was some terrific playing and good songwriting.
GM: One of the great things about this book is revisiting artists you’ve forgotten.
JD: Going back to your question about the challenge. With some people who were a little more reticent, we would play the card that someone’s going to tell your story. Do you want it to be someone you don’t know, or do you want it to be you? That was a great encouragement.
GM: What do you think ultimately is the legacy of L.A. punk?
JD: I think It’s the legacy of all the punk rock scenes. Do it yourself. Don’t trust the man. Trust your instincts. Keep it grass-roots. All the things you associate with punk rock. In L.A., there were a lot of different genres: cowpunk, Paisley Underground, the stuff that Fishbone did, ska mixed with punk rock definitely had an effect on Rancid and No Doubt. That’s the legacy. In the next-to-last chapter, I talk about people getting credit for what they’ve done, how they did it, and why. If it wasn’t for the cowpunk movement, maybe Bloodshot Records wouldn’t have started. Maybe Whiskeytown, Son Volt, and Wilco wouldn’t have had a reminder that this is a cool genre. You can’t say there’s a direct line, but there’s something to it.
GM: Do you have plans for any more books in the future?
JD: I might write a memoir, but it’s not going to be “On February 25, I was born in Decatur, Illinois.” No. It will be more ideas and situations that are interesting. No more L.A. music books. From ‘87 onward, that’s someone else’s story. We hope that it inspires other people to write their stories whether it’s Minneapolis or Houston. Jane Wiedlin and Pleasant Gehman should totally write their own memoirs. If this encourages them, we’ve done a good job.
More Fun in the New World: the Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk is available everywhere now. To order your copy or to see if John Doe will be at a book signing near you, visit http://www.theejohndoe.com/live.