John Doe strings voices of L.A. punk together
For a guy who adopted a stage name that implies death and anonymity, John Doe possesses a lively creative spirit.
Since 1976, when Doe decided New York’s punk scene was too saturated, he’s operated out of California, where he made several classic SoCal punk albums with X, a successful roots-rock side gig with the Knitters and also knocked out 10 albums of his own. Not to mention dozens of film and TV credits.
Last year he also put together a book, “Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk,” that includes essays about that scene by those who lived it, including his ex-wife and X band mate Exene Cervenka, Black Flag’s Henry Rollins, the Minutemen’s Mike Watt, the Blasters’ Dave Alvin, and Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Go’s.
Last year Doe, 63, also released “The Westerner,” for my money his best solo album, and one filled with a rough-hewn reflection on life and death as one gets closer to the latter. The imagery fits the mood, with shoes dropping, trains departing and characters looking for just a sliver of sun. Doe comes to town this week with the album and book in tow for a show that will cover his four decade career.
Q: You’ve put a pretty evocative title on this album. There’s possibility and discovery implied, as well as possibly finding an outermost boundary. Were those themes going through your mind?
A: The title just came to me. A lot of it was inspired by my good friend Michael Blake, who wrote “Dances With Wolves.” He went through a pretty long battle with Alzheimer’s. And he passed away right on the very day we started the second round of recording in Tucson. He taught me a lot. To me, he embodied the whole idea of being from the west. It’s all about the possibilities and the endless horizon and living a full life.
Q: It also could apply to you, as an Illinois guy who found his career out in Los Angeles.
A: Sure, that could be in there. And to a degree, every song is autobiographical in a way. They’re all about how you relate to the subject in story and song and stuff like that. So we went with it, in the music and also the cover. I was really fortunate that Shepard Fairey was a big fan of X. He and (photographer) Aaron Huey allowed me to use that image. It was part of a campaign they did for Native Americans. That was also one of Michael Blake’s big passions, so it all came around, really. “The Westerner” and this image of a kid, you don’t know if he’s a hippie or a Native American. Turns out he was a Native American. So I got to tip my cap to that as well.
Q: So you used the H-word. Music culture has sort of made “hippie” a bad word. But I felt like Los Angeles punk wasn’t kicking against the hippies as much as it was the huge ’70s arena rock. Any thoughts or clarification you can offer?
A: Well, at one point the hippies were the rebels, and they were the ones pushing things. But then that whole thing became soft, nondescript. So we wanted to stir things up. But I didn’t have any problems with the hippies. Man, the Germs accused us of being hippies. We had slow songs. We had songs that weren’t all fast. I guess if any culture becomes complacent, it becomes a target.
Q: There’s an autumnal quality throughout the record, both the moody sound and also the lyrics. It’s not about the end of something as much as it is the shuffle toward the end. Is it safe to say that’s due to Michael running out of time?
A: I wrote the songs over a period of three years, and he was going through all of that. Like the process of losing language, which is interesting because he was a storyteller. He was always up in his head, using words and telling stories. When he lost that, it was interesting to me, because he started relating to people intuitively and emotionally. He couldn’t just fall back on telling stories. And I value that now. Writing or relating to people on an intuitive level. From the chest rather than from the brain. The brain usually gets you in trouble. (Laughs.) You know what I’m saying? It’s unreliable.
Q: There are a few lines in “Sweet Reward” that I liked particularly because it was so unfussy. Some people may have tried to overwrite it: “He ate good food every day. ... He liked getting dirty, then getting clean.”
A: Well, I like Steinbeck better than I like Faulkner. I think with X, whether they were Exene’s lyrics or my lyrics, (we) paid attention to economy. It all seems pretty simple to me. It’s why I related to Bukowski. There are stories I’ve written as I get older with some lighter lines that give me a certain amount of satisfaction that I don’t think I could’ve written when I was younger. That doesn’t mean you have to be out singing about being happy like Bobby McFerrin. But you also don’t want to be an angry old person. That’s no fun. But I know people and see them around who are that way. And I think, “Is that working for you? Being pissed off and grumpy and closed down and not expanding your understanding? If it’s working, great. But you seem unhappy.’?”
Q: Your book about the Los Angeles punk scene ended up being a tapestry of recollections by your peers. Did you always envision it that way? Or did you consider writing it all yourself?
A: No, that was just self-serving, because I didn’t want to have to write it myself. That would’ve required discipline. (Expletive) that. Where’s the fun in that? (Laughs.) No, a lot of it had to do with the fact that everybody has a story, and one person’s truth couldn’t represent the main thing, which is that the L.A. scene was a collaboration. So in that way, the way the book was written mirrors a core element of the scene. So we assembled a list of topics that were important to the scene and assigned those topics to people we thought were experts. Exene wrote about the cultural revolution part, that was her main thing. Dave Alvin wrote about roots music being pulled into the punk scene. El Vez wrote about being a teenager from a Latino background. I acted as a narrator and tried to string the voices together.