By Eleni P. Austin
Beginning in the mid-70s, Los Angeles had a thriving Punk Rock scene that rivaled New York’s. It was a backlash to the laid-back music of Fleetwood Mac and cocaine cowboys like the Eagles. Back then, The Germs, the Weirdos, the Plugz and Fear crowded into scuzzy clubs like the Masque, the Anti-Club and Madame Wong’s. The best band to emerge from that era was X.
X was formed in 1977 by Baltimore transplant John Doe (born John Nommensen Duchac) and L.A. guitarist Billy Zoom (born Tyson Kindell). During band practice, Doe brought along his girlfriend, budding poet Exene Cervenka (born Christene Lee Cervenka). She ended up joining the band and the line-up was complete when Donald J. “DJ” Bonebrake ditched the Eyes to pound the drums for X.
X was one of the first bands signed to Slash Records, a fanzine turned record label. The band released their seminal debut, Los Angeles in 1980. They quickly followed up in 1981 with their sophomore effort, Wild Gift.
Both were so critically acclaimed that big labels came a’courtin.’ X signed with Elektra and continued their streak of excellence with 1982’s Under The Big Black Sun and 1983’s More Fun In The New World. All four albums were produced by Doors keyboardist, Ray Manzarek. It was as though he was passing the L.A. music torch to the next generation.
X went beyond the confines of Punk. Originally, the music was characterized by short, sharp songs accented by nihilistic doom-tastic lyrics. X had plenty of songs like that, but their sound also encompassed American roots music, like Rockabilly, Country and Folk.
The lyrics, written by Doe and Cervenka, touched on real world issues like poverty, drug addiction, death and politics. Doe and Cervenka had married in 1980, and their soulful vocal interplay positioned them as the George Jones and Tammy Wynette of Punk Rock.
By 1985, Doe and Cervenka were divorced, but they maintained their professional relationship. Mainstream success continued to elude X. Switching from Ray Manzarek to Heavy Metal producer, Michael Wagener, they opted for a more streamlined sound on Ain’t Love Grand! The strategy failed and Billy Zoom left the band.
X soldiered on, replacing Zoom temporarily with ex-Blasters founder Dave Alvin, and more permanently with ex-Lone Justice guitarist, Tony Gilkyson. They released See How We Are in 1987 and a live record, Live At The Whisky A Go-Go, in 1988. Then the band went on hiatus.
X would rebound in the ‘90s releasing a final studio album, Hey Zeus and a live, unplugged collection, Unclogged. By the end of the century, Zoom returned to the fold and the original line-up has been touring ever since. In fact, they will be playing a rare acoustic set at Pappy & Harriet’s on July 19th.
In between X tours, the band members all stayed busy with side projects and solo endeavors. John Doe has carved out a respectable career as a character actor. Beginning in the late ‘80s with Allison Anders’ “Border Radio,” and continuing with critically acclaimed films like “Georgia,” “Boogie Nights” and “The Good Girl.” But he has really come into his own as a prolific solo artist. Since 1990 he has released eight solo albums.
The Best Of John Doe: This Far is a generous 21 song collection offering highlights from Doe’s extensive discography. The album opens with “Telephone By The Bed,” an urgent rocker, accented by plangent guitar and a jittery beat. The lyrics limn the frustration of romantic miscommunication.
Doe mines his Punk Rock roots on three tracks, “A Step Outside,” “Safety” and “Love Knows.” “A Step..” weds a stutter-step beat to scabrous guitar riffs. Doe’s voice feels crackly and filtered as he broods over a relationship that’s “punctured and collapsing.”
On “Safety” growly guitar notes see-saw, ricocheting between Jazzy time-signatures. Doe’s yowly vocals underscore the pain of loneliness, noting there’s safety in numbers.
Doe is at his most vitriolic on “Love Knows.” Spitting the verses out over dark, circuitous guitar riffs that slash and swirl with menace. The lyrics are a bitter denunciation of betrayal… “love knows what you won’t tell me, time knows where you’ve been spending.”
Doe’s warm baritone shines best in a duet setting. Five tracks,“The Golden State,” “Hwy 5,” “Never Enough,” “Forever For You” and “This Far” pair Doe with crackling female energy.
Teaming with Canadian singer Kathleen Edwards, “The Golden State” offers a skewed encomium to true love… “You are the hole in my head, I am the pain in your neck/you are the lump in my throat, I am the aching in your heart.”
Anchored by a click-clack rhythm and fractious piano, Neko Case accompanies Doe on “Hwy 5,” a Bukowski-esque travelogue…. “Dirty needles in the street, petals soaked in blood and dirt/welcome to this town.”
On “Never Enough,” Doe and (original “I Kissed A Girl” girl-kisser), Jill Sobule rail against materialism. A percolating conga beat and Los Lobos’ sax man Steve Berlin propel the action.
“Forever For You” pairs Doe with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s. This tinkly shuffle offers an intimate look at a couple locked in a complicated pas de deux… “we’re not united, but we stand for each other.”
Finally, “This far” with Aimee Mann, paints a vivid picture of conquering addictive love…”Sometimes I miss you, but I won’t be with you/a memory is a terrible thing to waste.”
Several tracks here burnish Doe’s Country Rock cred. “7 Holes” is a minor key, cracked Country waltz. Guitar, piano and mandolin intertwine as Doe spins a vivid yarn of regret and co-dependence…”I never did drink like you, but I held back your hair, like a girlfriend would do/When I told you how much I cared, you turned away with a laugh and a stare.”
Doe tries to out run heartache on “Faraway (From North Country).” On “Grain Of Salt” he’s broke down and busted, with only soaring pedal-steel and quiet piano for company.
John Doe is at his most beautiful in the quieter moments. “Take # 52” is a bare-bones ballad. Meta and completely self-referential, Doe offers a window into his artistic process, as he sings a song about attempting to record a song.
On “Poor Girl” he reconfigures the old X song, stripping the propulsive cha-cha-cha rhythms. It’s just his yearning vocals and acoustic guitar. Doe tries to unravel the mysteries of this enigmatic girl who says “I’ve been very ill and I’ve tried waking up. Now I want to be alone…” but she remains elusive.
With a few deft phrases, “Twin Brother” sketches a lonely portrait of two brothers trying to navigating the shoals of an abusive childhood…. “Mom’s gonna be mad, probably scream for an hour, put us in our room and won’t give us dinner.”
Other interesting tracks include the barbed tone poem of “Catch Me,” the ernest “Tragedy,” the shambolic blues of “Worried Brow” and the Rockabilly thrust of “Dying To Get Home.”
The album closes the philosophical “Sueltame,” (loosely translated from Spanish, it means “leave me alone”). Here Doe rhetorically asks “How can anyone know how life cuts you down and it lays you low/How it fills you up and lets you go?”
X and John Doe have been around so long that people overlook the stunning songcraft he has been creating for more than 35 years. His economic use of language begs comparisons to California writers like John Fante, Nathanael West and James M. Cain.
His melodies are both meaningful and memorable, touching on all idioms of American music. His vocals are soaring, passionate and intimate. Ironically, X and John Doe have been eligible for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame for nearly 10 years.
The Best: So Far allows new admirers to become acquainted with John Doe’s expansive catalog of songs. Longtime fans are able to view his music in a different light, since the album is sequenced by mood, rather than chronology. So go ahead, what are you waiting for? Dig in.