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The best and most interesting art asks us to hold conflicting ideas in our head and grant that they might both be valid – a concept that makes us particularly nostalgic these days. In the realm of punk music, no band forced that perspective like X, one of its most important and iconic definers.
Co-founder and bassist John Doe is himself a study in duality, a poetry student in steel-toe boots who drove west from Baltimore and proved there was room for musicianship, diverse influences and even occasional humor in punk’s loud, sloppy, angry, three-chord aesthetic. Along with Billy Zoom, Exene Cervenka and D.J. Bonebrake, Doe and X became a shining nuisance for purists with strict ideas on what the L.A. DIY music scene of the 70s and 80s was all about. As No Depression put it, “For John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X, there was room in the adrenaline rush of punk for the full range of human experience, including politics, romance, melody and even older music.” Doe would probably just say they wanted to play music that wasn’t bullshit.
He grew up in Decatur, Illinois, where his first show involved going classroom to classroom in fifth grade, playing “House of the Rising Sun” on a borrowed guitar. After college on the East Coast he moved to L.A. because “it’s the place of dreams, my friend.” It seemed a place where people could roam and reinvent themselves; plus, he’d long been a fan of the noir novels that made the underbelly of the city strangely beautiful. He settled into fairly crappy digs and signed up for a poetry workshop where he met Cervenka. X played their first gig in their house for about 40 people. By 1979, lines wrapped around the Whisky A Go Go for their shows, and they had yet to release an album. Major labels didn’t get punk, let alone an act that was pushing its boundaries with tinges of country, actual storytelling and harmonies that could sound like nothing ever heard before in recorded music. It was unlike anything else, and it was thrilling.
The Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek did know what to do with them. He produced their first album, 1980’s Los Angeles on indie label Slash Records. Writing about a collection of songs it called remorseless, exhilarating, wrenching and funny, Rolling Stone said that in tracks like “Sugarlight”, “Nausea” and “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” “X have already perfected a style that achieves jolting effects through enormously compressed, elliptical imagery held together by succinct, brutally played guitar and drum riffs. Such a strategy – poetry plus power–unites the band with influences from opposite coasts.” The next year they released Wild Gift, which was named Record of the Year by The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Rolling Stone, which anointed it “the best album by an American band this year and the finest American punk album ever,” its critic writing, “X are too worldly and worn to believe in a born-again future – for music, love or society – that doesn’t involve making an uneasy peace with the past.” It took those two albums selling tens of thousands of copies for a major label (Elektra) to get interested. The band made five more albums before essentially breaking up in the late 80s, but X continues to reunite and tour regularly, their relevance still deeply intact. As Cervenka recalled, “I remember going to [L.A. club] The Masque and watching bands and feeling awe, bliss and gratitude at how amazing the scene was, even though there was pee on the floor and drunk people walking around. It was transcendent, and I feel that now. We are still alive. We’re still playing music. People are still coming to see us – lots of young people – and they tell us our music got them through bad times or their kid turned them on to us or their parents turned them on to us. Everybody that comes to see us has a story. This is exactly how punk was supposed to end up.”
That’s one very valid viewpoint. Doe collected many others in 2016’s Under the Big Black Sun, a seminal book about punk’s heyday in which his is only one perspective. He had Los Angeles punk’s most influential artists contribute essays with their own take on its salient people, places and events. The Los Angeles Review of Books noted it wasn’t the first book about the scene, but perhaps the first that truly took us inside. “We don’t read books like this just to get information; we read them so we can imagine we were there. If a book on its own can’t fully communicate what the music sounded like, it can convey how exciting and important it felt to get up on a stage and scream into a mic to other passionate freaks at a shitty dive behind a porn shop in Hollywood in 1977. Go look up that performance by The Zeros or The Brat or The Bags or The Germs after reading Under the Big Black Sun. It’ll feel new now.”
Doe’s Renaissance-man career includes acting in over 60 films and TV shows (Slamdance, Great Balls of Fire!, Boogie Nights, Roswell), contributing to film scores and to date, 11 solo albums. His first was 1990’s Meet John Doe, of which review site AllMusic said, “Now he’s out front, and the impact is quite immediate. Meet John Doe roars into action with a blaze of Texas-styled rhythm guitar and a gorgeously weathered voice that’s a sheer delight to listen to. There’s no effort to deliberately go after a certain style, though; this all has the feeling of falling together naturally, the way the best albums often do. Many of the lyrics here verge on raw poetry and carry a breathtaking force…Doe’s worn voice is one of his greatest assets; the expansive sound of his music fits right in with that.” No Depression acknowledged the contradictions that Doe weaves so seamlessly and poetically in its review of his 1995 follow-up, Kissingsohard. “The lyrical content is what we’ve come to expect from Doe –bleak character portraits and surroundings, yet not without a glimmer of hope.” In describing his most recent release, last year’s The Westerner, American Songwriter said, “songs like the yearning ‘Alone in Arizona’ with its reverbed, almost spaghetti Western guitar and the closing ‘Rising Sun’ capture a raw, passionate Americana vibe that feels honest and emotionally driven. Doe is clearly one of the most distinctive and passionate voices to emerge from any American punk band, one that is as comfortable with the more in-your-face attitude of his legendary work with X as this folkier but no less edgy music.”
Listening to these albums, you hear influences of his music and literary heroes like Charles Bukowski and John Fante. You listen in black, white and sepia, hearing light and wide-open spaces and a tempered optimism for whatever might be over the next hill. Doe is 64, and given his statesman status, one could say he’s already summited. But he’s also an inveterate explorer who’s retained the “F*** yeah!” attitude that drove thousands of us, sweating, swarming and screaming, onto beer-drenched concert floors. But that’s never been enough for a guy whose creative life seems to depend on evolving. “A good songwriter and a good song has adventure and experimentation, and it kind of surprises you as it develops.” Doe’s an artist who always has, and always will.