X’s John Doe reveals the values that keep the L.A. punks going strong
With the first of our two-part conversation with John Doe, singer/bassist for long-running L.A. punk standard-bearers X, he spoke of keeping the band going in the face of COVID-19. He also mused on ALPHABETLAND, the amazing new LP that was the first studio full-length from the classic X lineup—Doe, singer/co-songwriter Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake—since 1985’s Ain’t Love Grand! The 68-year-old singer/songwriter/actor/poet/bassist/guitarist also articulated the benefits of sticking to your strengths as a band and Zoom’s role in keeping X “honest.”
Entering the conclusion of our conversation, Doe grew philosophical and expansive, speaking to how the group—basically active since 1977—have withstood personal differences, even his and Cervenka’s 1985 divorce. He also addressed the various strengths each member brought to the band. As he highlighted the values/friendships/creative relationships that have sustained X—values that permeate his songs for the band and his own solo career—Doe frequently sounded like the only adult in the room known as “punk rock.”
X have never exactly been teenage music, their songs deeper, more substantial than those of the typical, three-chord, bare-knuckle punk band. X were grown-ups when they began, and their music poetically reflected adult concerns. They played with unabashed energy, but the subject matter could have been delivered with an acoustic guitar. It is what made X so crucial, vital to this day.
Considering the times we have been in, I know there are very differing points of view within X. How has that affected, if at all, the ways that you guys work?
Oh, we don’t get into that. When I lived in the mountains outside of California, there were a lot of various political opinions and worldviews. But you have to get used to it. You have to accept people. Our friendship and dedication to what we do overrides that. People are people, and this doesn’t have to be a monoculture. If somebody gets on my case for being too progressive, I’ll push back and say, “Well, it’s just not that important.”
Sometimes it makes me feel like, like in any family or relationship, “Fuck this! It’s too hard!” Then you ask yourself, “Well, what’s important?” That’s what we did when Exene and I split up: “What’s important? Are we gonna be children, or are we gonna be grown-ups?” Not to say it wasn’t hard, but X was worth more than just our own ego or our own pettiness: “You hurt me! I hate you!” That’s all there is? That’s short-sighted isn’t it?
[Laughs.] I hate to keep sounding like I’m pimping that last book [More Fun In The New World: The Unmaking And Legacy Of L.A. Punk, with Tom DeSavia], but that Ain’t Love Grand! chapter is all about that. But sometimes, you’ve got to own up to your failings and own up to what your role in a situation is or was. With Exene and I, I think she was just tired of being thought of as an “and”—John and Exene. The way that people are and the way the world is, they don’t see women as equals.
But we did realize and believe that the band and our creative union was more important than our marriage. Not to say that it wasn’t hard as hell, and there are a lot of songs from Ain’t Love Grand! that came out of that. Because it was hard. “Burning House Of Love” was all about that. I still play that to this day, and it’s a really good song.
I’m eternally grateful that Jeffrey Lee Pierce [The Gun Club] didn't take those chord changes! I wrote those chord changes, and I thought, “Damn, this sounds like a Gun Club song!” I called up Jeffrey and said, “Hey, man! I think you could write the shit outta this song!” He goes, “Nah, nah! You just do it!” [Laughs.] So, I’m glad for that!
I’m not bragging, but that’s the way things were back then. Dave Alvin [The Blasters] did the same thing. Jim McBride came to him. He’s a movie director, and he was working on Breathless, the remake with Richard Gere. He contacted Dave and said, “Hey, we want you to play this song with Exene singing.” He said, “Well, why don’t you just get X to do it?” He goes, “Oh! Great idea!” [Laughs.] Dave thought, “Fuck! Did I just talk myself out of a great gig?”
But that’s off the topic of Exene and I. Whatever failings were there? I’ll defend Exene as long as I live. Some things that she’s been part of or that she says, I don’t agree with. She can say the same thing for me. But I know that she’s got my back. She’s a soulmate. People don’t get a chance to experience that very often, and to disrespect that is a crime.
I’m not saying that so I can be the good guy. I’m saying it because it’s a hard lesson to learn. What’s important? What do you as a person place value on? OK, maybe you should value this. Maybe you’ve got to think about that. I don’t mean to get so philosophical, but it is like, “OK, motherfucker. You’ve talked the talk. Now walk the walk.” What is loyalty, and what is friendship, and what does love mean? It means more than just what’s easy or fun or whatever the fuck it is. It’s more than that.
I don’t want to get too deep into this stuff, though. That’s another story.
But John, I am glad you are bringing this stuff in, though. Because I am listening to you talk about this philosophical stuff, and it occurs to me that this sounds like a lot of common themes in X’s music, and in your own solo work, as well—these values. It’s a lot deeper than writing, “Fuck the government!” Or whatever.
Yeah. For better or for worse. [Laughs.] I’ll give Billy credit for accepting the fact that this is a merit. He’d much rather we write songs like the Ramones, lyrics like the Ramones. But he’s willing to accept something that’s not in his list of favorite things.
It’s part of what you brought to punk rock. I’ve felt that what was most important among your contributions to punk is a certain writing style—a certain sense of being punk that is perhaps tied to a more bohemian tradition and a more literary tradition than what you were seeing at the time.
I guess we felt we could, and that was part of the ethos of punk rock: You can do whatever you want. You have to walk a line between being literary and being pretentious. Sometimes, you cross over that line. Sometimes, you pull yourself back. But there were some other people who had laid out the template. I give credit to Patti Smith. I give credit to the Ramones and Blondie, even though we’d all been influenced by the same stuff. So all the groundwork was done, in listening to the Velvet Underground or the Doors or whoever. We’re all coming from the same soup, but we could make adjustments.
I’ve said it before, but the reason that punk-rock songs usually have a chorus that is just one line repeated over and over again is because we weren’t assured of the fact that we’d ever make a record. So you wanted to be able to play it live, have an audience hear “Johny Hit And Run Paulene” or “Beat On The Brat” and say, “Oh, that’s that song that’s called ‘Beat On The Brat!’” Because you said it 15 times in the song! [Laughs.] Or “We Got The Neutron Bomb”: “Oh, that’s that song ‘We Got The Neutron Bomb!’ Cool! I know that song! I’ve heard it twice!”
So Exene and I were willing to get a little further out, a little more poetic. That’s what attracted Ray [Manzarek, Doors keyboardist and X producer] to the band, a big part of it. So, we’re grateful for that. Jim Morrison had a lot to do with my lyric writing. Bob Dylan as well. They opened the door, the same way Blondie and the Ramones opened the door for us. You’ve still gotta walk through it. If you come to the party, you’ve got to have something to contribute to it. You can’t just be a copy of something.
Thanks to Billy and DJ and all of us, we had something a little different. Exene and I were singing together, and Billy was playing a lot of rockabilly stuff, and DJ had his love of Captain Beefheart and weirdass shit like that. [Laughs.] It came together. And when I say “weirdass shit,” that is a huge compliment.
And when I’ve heard DJ talking about Beefheart, I thought, “Well, I can’t hear it in X, but I’m sure it’s there!”
He was willing to go outside. But that’s where Billy would say, “Hold on a minute!” [Laughs.] Ultimately, even though it was a bitter pill to swallow at the time, we were grateful for it, in retrospect.
Well, Billy’s tendencies may have helped X the same way Johnny Ramone’s conservatism helped create his distinctive guitar style—very minimalist, always hewing to a certain stricture. Billy was more expansive than Johnny Ramone, in that he had that rockabilly background and could really play.
Yes! Billy is more expansive. Billy is a consummate musician, and he sticks to his roots. But his roots are Les Paul and Django Reinhardt. He played woodwinds before he played guitar, so he’s got a lot of depth. We made use of that in songs like “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.” But that’s all part of it. Punk rock didn’t mean you couldn’t play, although you didn’t have to. You didn’t have to have a great vocabulary or technique. You didn’t have to have that because it was all about playing from your gut, playing from your heart.
But if you did have some of that, you had to wind it back a little bit so that you didn’t play from your virtuoso brain and you played from your “Wild Thing” heart. So that’s maybe where we have a leg up, but we had to step it back some. We had to say, “OK, I’m going to play something, but I’m not going to play everything.”
I thought that was what was great about the Yardbirds. They were this three-minute hit singles act, but they had Jeff Beck on guitar. He was this virtuoso, and he could play this wild-ass shit! But he had to fit it within this three-minute pop song.
Yeah, they were pretty damned great.
They’re an unsung part of the punk-rock continuum. I’ve talked before about being a teenager and getting into punk bands like the Sex Pistols or X, then I’d hear things like The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust or the early Kinks singles. And I’d think, “Well, this is all punk rock!”
Yeah! It’s pretty straightforward, pretty elemental.
It was fun, realizing, “Well, this is nothing new. This is basic rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s exciting!”
Yeah, too bad some of the gatekeepers didn’t think the same thing! [Laughs.] But it is what it is.