John Doe on X: "We thought that punk rock was a return to what rock and roll should be"
Autumn De Wilde
John Doe (due this weekend at Lion's Lair) is most well-known for his tenure in the influential punk/roots rock band X. That band was known not just for a fiery intensity as a live act but also for its combination of primal rock and roll and thought-provoking lyrics, which had roots in the work of the Beats. Parallel to his songwriting in X, Doe embarked on a solo project in 1990 with the critically acclaimed album Meet John Doe.
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Doe's richness of tone, both vocal and in musicianship, coupled with an unaffected thoughtfulness, emotional vibrance and poetic imagination is what has made his work outside of a band context stand well apart from anything resembling a standard singer-songwriter effort. We recently had a chance to speak with the uncommonly candid and good-humored Doe about his roots in poetry, X on American Bandstand, Jill Sobule and what he has found rewarding about working in film.
Westword: What did you get your degree in at Antioch?
John Doe: Writing, specifically poetry. Because I wanted to have a career. [But seriously,] I went to school for about a year and realized it was a waste of time and I quit for about two years. A friend of mine said there was a writing program at Antioch and turns out there was. I majored in poetry and writing in general and minored in American Literature or something like that.
Were there particular poets that sparked that interest or a specific era?
New stuff. I had a great teacher, and she said, "Don't read anything old. Read anything from the Beat poets forward." They spoke in a language I could understand and used vernacular and slang.
Did you ever get to see any of them speak or read?
Yeah! I saw this guy Anselm Hollo, who was kind of popular then. He sort of became a friend. A lot of DC poets. Terry Winch, Kenneth Koch, Diane Makovsky and Galway Kinnell. It was right at a point where a bunch of people said poetry should be heard and not just read. It was the early '70s, and there was a big performance element to it. Patti Smith was part of that.
Especially in DC, the gay community was getting more out and up front. I helped run a reading series in Baltimore at a place called The Theater Project. It was in an old Theater and they did a bunch of experimental shit. So we were the poetry project. That's kind of how I met Exene [Cervenka] as well. I went out to L.A. and went to this poetry workshop and she was living there and had a job there doing typesetting. The place was called Beyond Baroque, which still exists. A big and small print library.
Did you start playing music and writing poetry around the same time or did one of those come along a little later?
I was playing music when I was like fifteen back in Baltimore. I started playing electric bass because I thought it would be easier. which I think it is. Bass players have a few more social skills than guitar players do because they're not sitting in their bedrooms for hours, hours and hours.
Were there any bass players who were kind of your heroes back then?
No, not then. Maybe a little later. I learned a lot from Rick Danko, who is one of my big heroes, along with Willie Dixon and Paul McCartney, I suppose. If I had to pick one it would have to be Rick Danko. I was also really influenced by Motown and soul music where bass was really prominent.
Oh, sure, The Funk Brothers had one of the best bass players of all time with James Jamerson. Do you feel that X was accepted by the punk world when you were starting out? L.A. sounds like it was pretty diverse then if We've Got the Neutron Bomb is to be believed.
Yeah, to a degree. Some people even in L.A. thought we were a bunch of hippies because we played our instruments a little better and we were a little older than some. We had slower songs. We were a little different. We had more of an eye toward the classic. We thought that punk rock was a return to what rock and roll should be which is freedom, shorter songs and not a bunch of shitty guitar leads. That's something the Ramones, Blondie and people like that were [embodying at the time].
There's that great bit in X: The Unheard Music where, I believe, Billy Zoom read a negative review of a Ramones record, and it sounded exactly like what he wanted to play.
Yeah, that's a good one. Short songs, no guitar leads. We do that nowadays. You read a film review by somebody that you usually hate, and you think, "Well, I'll love this movie.
Did X actually play on American Bandstand, and how did that come about?
We did. We played there a few times. I think Dick Clark had a crush on Exene. She is pretty bewitching. She's a bewitching person. We played twice that I remember and a couple of special events like Halloween. We were just in L.A. and Dick Clark was open enough and smart enough to feel like, "I don't care if they look weird and their songs sound fast. They seem like they're going to be part of something new, so let's ask them on to the show. What do you say?"
He seemed to be a really nice person, good hearted, and seemed to love music so good for him. And we were thrilled. We couldn't believe it. Everybody knew that Dick Clark was the real deal. If you're on Dick Clark you've pretty much made it. Maybe at that point nobody watched Dick Clark but he didn't care. You could tell your parents you were on Dick Clark and they'd say, "Oh, so you're not wasting your time completely.
When your first solo album came out in 1990, some people here in Denver got to see an interview you did with Teletunes. Were those songs you didn't feel fit in with X?
Yes, I think that I was looking for another outlet. When there's an opportunity you're foolish not to take advantage of it and see what happens. At that point Billy had left the band. We didn't really have as clear a picture of what we wanted to do so why not?
With X you did at least two Doors covers of the years. Did you actually get to see a Doors concert?
I did. I saw them twice. It was fabulous. I saw them back in Baltimore. They were good and I saw them after Strange Days and after Morrison Hotel. It was great so you can imagine that getting to work with Ray [Manzarek] was quite a thrill. Both Exene and I were big Doors fans and he was great producer and practical and encouraging and he gave us another mystical edge.
We felt a certain legitimacy working with someone who was so real in the pantheon of rock royalty. I say this on the eve of X playing the Whiskey A-Go-Go for its 50th anniversary. It's crazy because we played there 37 years ago. And it was only there thirteen years before? What the hell? A lot of people phoned me up and said, "Hey man, can I get on the guest list?" "No! It's full!"
When you've taught poetry workshops what sort of thing do you try to convey to your students?
That poetry is not a mystery only known by white haired old men and creepy little ladies. That poetry is everywhere and it's rewarding, hard and beautiful. I guess try to hear the music in the words. If you can hear it, you can find it.
You have a long-running collaboration with someone from Denver, Jill Sobule. How did you come to meet and work with her and what do you appreciate about her as an artist?
I could go on and on. Jill is one of the few people I know that's so full of life that it makes me feel better. When X was doing the Unclogged tour, [we crossed paths with her while] she was in the middle of [touring for] her [self-titled 1995] breakout record with "I Kissed A Girl" and "Supermodel" and we just kept in touch.
We're different enough that she is the wild and crazy one and I'm the sort of sad and emotional one. She likes to dip into my world and I love to dip into her world. We've been able to fashion a set of playing each other's songs. It's not one or the other, it's the John and Jill show or the Jill and John show. She gets to play electric guitar and she's kind of a shredder. A not so closeted shredding guitar player who will do it at the drop of a hat.
I love the same thing everybody loves about Jill which is she's some kind of time traveler where she's constantly saying, "Come on kids, let's go put on a show. My uncle's got a barn out in the country and I know someone that will donate the paint. Come on kids." She's also a soulful songwriter. And I've got a secret crush on her mom. Not so secret. It's a mutual crush that we have on each other. She says I'm just too young for her. It'll never work.
You've done a good deal of film and television and film acting over the years beginning, at least in a more commercial/mainstream sense, with Oliver Stone's 1986 film Salvador. How did you get into that and what is it about acting that you enjoy that is different from playing music and writing? Perhaps you enjoy it for similar reasons.
Well, I can blame or credit Allison Anders for getting me into it. The first piece that I did was in Border Radio, a kind of post-graduate project she did with Kurt Voss and Dean Lent. She got a bunch of L.A. musicians as lead actors. What's rewarding is that you know when it's good, you don't have to rely on an audience to respond. It's usually the director who usually ends up being kind of a father or mother figure and says, "Good job!" and gives you a nice pat on the back. But you can feel it. You can feel when it's real. You can feel when you've transported yourself and captured that [vibe] for a moment.
And the research is fun. I worked with Allison Anders recently to do the June Carter story with Jewel. I read a bunch of books and listened to and researched the Carter Family. Which I knew something about but I didn't know as much as I found. Finding that character within yourself, whoever that person is, that's the thing. I take it seriously but I'm not a serious enough an actor to gain or lose fifty pounds or be method about it. But I take it very seriously and I'm not cavalier in any fashion but it's hard.
It's really difficult to just be natural and it's really difficult to just be cool and be there and not be awkward. You see many musicians on screen and they're sometimes very awkward. It's not like anything you can put your finger on but you can look at them and tell that they're shitting their pants. I don't ever watch what I do but I've seen a few things here and there and it's nice to see that I don't look like I'm shitting my pants. At least nowadays. I did maybe when I was working with Harry Dean Stanton. I was definitely shitting my pants. I love Harry Dean.
You've worked with one the great American guitarists and songwriters often over the years, Dave Alvin of The Blasters. Obviously you're friends but what do you feel that Dave does especially well as a musician and songwriter?
His songs are incredibly well-crafted and each word has been considered and put into place where he wants it to be. That's a talent. They also have a very clear story and point of view. As a musician he plays from his pelvis and not from his brain. A lot of guitar players just try to play a lot of notes and they're all sort of meaningless. He plays from his crotch and means it. That's admirable. Dave is incredibly smart but he doesn't let that get in his way. He'd like that.
For whatever it's worth I'll be playing solo and it'll be an "Evening With..." There's no band to get in the way, and I'll be taking requests and trying to muddle my way through what I can remember of them and playing my own songs, playing X songs and stuff like that.