The X-Man Cometh: A Conversation with John Doe of Legendary Punk Group X
We spoke to the bassist about his new book 'Under the Big Black Sun,' and the early days of the Los Angeles band.
“The west is the best,” Jim Morrison sang in 1967. “Get here, and we’ll do the rest.” In 1976, John Doe took Mr. Mojo Risin’ up on the invitation. Fed up with the bleak fatalism, shitty weather and general played-out-ness of the east coast scene, Doe loaded up the truck and headed to the City Of Angels, where he would soon meet fellow east coast exile/aspiring punk poet Exene Cervenka. Together they would form the legendary X— arguably one of the few bands that could convincingly stake a claim to The Clash’s status as The Only Band That Matters, and light the fuse of the impending west coast punk explosion. The rest is history, all of which is detailed in Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History Of L.A. Punk, Doe’s just-published memoir, co-authored with SoCal punk luminaries like Mike Watt of The Minutemen, Henry Rollins of Black Flag, Dave Alvin of The Blasters, Jack Grisham of TSOL, Charlotte Caffey of The Go Go’s and Exene, to name but a few. We got Doe on the horn to discuss the history of West Coast punk as well as his swell new album, The Westerner.
NOISEY: The world knows you as John Doe but you were born John Nomenson Duchac, am I pronouncing that right?
John Doe: You mispronounced just like everyone else does.
Please school me.
No reason to. I could have said that my real name was Adolf Hitler but I didn’t think it would go over so well, or that my name was Samuel Clemens. It doesn’t matter. It’s much more fun to be John Doe than anyone else.
You were born in Decatur, Illinois and came of age in Baltimore. What was the final straw, like 'That's it, I'm outta here, I’m going to Los Angeles…'
I moved to LA because I was sick of the East Coast. There are a lot of ghosts on the East Coast and there is a lot of sleet and shitty weather. Baltimore, as you know, only has one truly famous person which is John Waters. I had been to CBGB’s, I’d been to Max’s Kansas City. I’d seen the Talking Heads and The Heartbreakers and realized that that music scene was already pretty locked up by 1976. I went to LA with a friend and it was glorious. I was a huge fan of the writers that came out of LA -- of Nathaniel West and Charles Bukowski and people like that. There is a freedom on the West Coast that is not available to people who grow up on the East Coast.
It was sort of like, "Let’s go out to LA and invent punk, it hasn’t hit there yet?"
It was just getting started, you know, everywhere. It was in the air, that's why it took hold so fast in England. The Ramones went there in what, ’74, then POW! everything happened. There were people who were also musical outcasts living in LA at the time. We got here right as it was starting.
In the book there's a great chapter where you talk about LA in the 70s, how cheap and livable it was, how little gridlock there was, how you could buy these cool vintage cars from the 50s and 60s for $500 bucks and [X guitarist] Billy Zoom would help you fix it up. You could always be in the desert or the Pacific Ocean in less than an hour. How did that kind of mobility impact the West Coast punk scene?
Yeah. I think it included the [predominantly Latino] East Side that allowed everybody to break out and have a certain speed and freedom to do the same. Made me feel more connected to my rock 'n’ roll heroes, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran and people like that.
Because they were always celebrating the freedom of the open road?
Yes. It was always meant to be about freedom, and there's nothing more liberating than being in a car. I mean, you're deciding where and when you're going to be some place. That's why people get so pissed off in cars. Because somebody else is interrupting their space and time. Get out of my fucking way! I'm supposed to be there!
What was the first time you met [X’s singer/songwriter] Exene?
Well, I ran a poetry reading series in Baltimore. There was a fairly popular and vital poetry world in Baltimore and D.C. at that time, when poetry became a performance medium rather than just on the written page. People were writing funny stuff and there was a gay and lesbian element that was included in that. I figured the best way to meet people in LA was to be in the poetry world. Exene had just gotten a job through a government program to work at a small press called Beyond Baroque. Beyond Baroque had a writing workshop, like a poetry workshop, I think it was Tuesday nights and we met there.
Was it love at first sight?
Oh, you know, she cut a very eccentric figure back then, and she does now. I don’t know if it was love at first sight, definitely wasn’t for her. I mean, it took me a good eight or nine months of hanging around and being annoying for her to really…I don’t know, we were friends first. Then we were romantically involved. I realized that we had some kind of soul mate connection and we will have that as long as we live.
There were definite parallels between X and The Doors. Both bands were literary, transgressive, noir-ish and based in LA. What did you guys make of those comparisons? Did it irk you or were you flattered by that?
We were huge Doors fans. They were real rock royalty, if you want to call that. They had number one hits and they did it on their own terms. Their music sounds the same now as it did then. Whereas some of Jimi Hendrix stuff sounds dated because it was so based in blues music and American blues. We were incredibly flattered that people saw a connection. I think because we felt some of the same themes that Raymond Chandler or some great film noir movies addressed: In LA it's all the more obvious to the have-nots how much money is being wasted by the haves. That was sort of where we were coming from in 1977.
There is a lot of beer drinking in the book. As far as I can tell, beer was the drug of choice for the West Coast punk scene. Is that accurate?
Absolutely. There was also gin just to get a little psychedelic and speed, whenever we could find it, some black beauties were part of the mix, and things like that. But it was like, "what's cheap and available?"
You also talk about what a destructive force heroin became. In the book, you have this great metaphor for your brief flirtation with the drug: you slowly crept up to the edge of the cliff and looked over and saw how far down it was and stepped back and said "Let's just keep moving." I’m assuming you guys must have dabbled in that a little bit and decided this is not going to end well and moved on from there. A lot of scene people didn't make that choice and paid the price.
We did it. We didn't just dabble. We didn't smoke it or any bullshit like that. We really went all the way and maybe a total of ten times? Something like that. I'm talking about myself. I say 'we' because there were other people around, which I won't incriminate, but it was great. It was like a vacation in one room, and it's just the best and that's why it is so -- that's why it's called the King. And I understood really early that it was too powerful, that it would have too much power over me, and I had other things to do.
Punk was often mischaracterized as being this anti-hippie thing— like it was the punks vs the hippies. But the reality is that anybody that was serious about music and art that was involved in the punk scene could see that it was basically the same Bohemian impulse -- the pursuit of freedom and meaning in a meaningless world -- that motivated the punks and the hippies and Beats before them and the jazzers before them, and so on. Different haircut, different clothes, but it's essentially the same motivations. Yes?
Absolutely. We can say that now, but then it was a different time and everybody wanted to wave the flag and draw the line and the peace and love motto or mantra had become old and tired and it stood for things that slow. Everything slow. We wanted everything fast. And so I think a lot of it had to do with marking your territory, drawing a line saying, "That was then. This is now." And it was clear that the times had changed with Altamont moving forward. There was no peace and love. That was a bunch of bull shit. At one point, ‘65 to ‘68 maybe, it would hold water, but not from ‘75 onward. Nowadays, we could look at the Patti Smith group and realize that they were just a bunch of hippies. And the Germs actually used to call us hippies because we occasionally played slow songs.
The LA punk scene was notorious for its violence, specifically the transition from punk into hardcore in the early to mid-80s. Can you explain how and why that happened and how that changed things?
I wish I could, and we tried to in the book. I think it was just a natural progression. The kind of music that we played was really wild and there was no prescribed way to reacting to it, but it was pretty fast and furious and what are people going to do to come after that is play faster and more furious, then the scene gets bigger and then it branches out into Orange County and young healthy men, manboys, are just full of testosterone and have to run around and then they're getting beat on like [TSOL frontman] Jack Grisham says in his chapter, then they want to beat on each other, then it just becomes more and more strange.
That Jack Grisham chapter is one of my favorites in the book. It's just really powerful piece of writing, I mean, just feral in its rage and intensity.
I was really gratified to see that it was as intense as that, and I loved his sentiment, which is that "You started this shit, we finished it, what's your problem? Go fuck yourself." And that's great. That's really the attitude that people had then and I'm glad that he still was able to bring that up, but he's a much more reasonable person in the flesh. I kinda loved that.
LA cops had a rep for being racist bullies and was not uncommon for punks to get hassled if not beaten up and arrested on sight just for looking like a weirdo. Did you have any experience with any of that?
Yeah. I got pulled over leaving rehearsal one time and they asked me what I was doing, I said I was rehearsing, and they said "What kind of music?" and I said, "Well it's kind of oldies music" and then they had me sing "Be-Bop-A-Lula" through their squad car loudspeaker. I was kind of shitting my pants as this was happening. I don't know if I wrote that in the book.
It is in the book, now that you mention it.
I also remember there was a full on police riot at one of these Masque benefit shows on St. Patrick's Day. A bunch of people got stitches and billy clubbed and things like that. I watched a lot of that from the safety of a dressing room overlooking MacArthur Park. I was really lucky to get out of there without getting beaten, but a lot of people did. [The cops] didn't understand it. They weren't getting paid off. It seemed more threatening, like it was real. Whereas the next wave of the LA scene, the kind of hair-metal band/Motely Crue wave had way more people just hanging around on the sunset strip but it was cartoonish and all the boys and girls were fitting into their little niches that cops could understand. The girls had daisy dukes on and the boys looked like what they would probably consider "fags" and so it's like “Okay, fine, I don't need to bust this up” but with punk rockers it was like, “Oh that is just an abomination! That's weird, so I don't like it.”
You and Exene got married in Tijuana and you were joined by a couple dozen friends. In the book you allude to it somehow going awry and some members of the wedding party winding up in jail. Can you tell me that story, what happened there?
Yeah, we had a roadie named Chuck Barren and Exene had an old friend, Johnny O’Kane. They were both dangerous men. They're both dead. That's what happens to dangerous men. He was from New York and Chuck was from LA and we were at a bar called La Ballena, which means The Whale, having our reception, of course. Where else? And they just kept clashing, getting into it, and we would calm it down, and then finally it just boiled over. They started fighting. It went into the street. The police arrested them and both of them had big knives. I think one of them had a switchblade. So they went to jail.
Well, I don't think it could be a punk rock wedding unless somebody does get arrested in the end, right?
I guess not. That's the way we rolled back then.
The cover art of your new album, The Westerner, is really beautiful. Tell me about that.
Well it's by Shepard Fairey and the record is dedicated to my friend Michael Blake and he was a big fan of the Doors, so I was just looking around on the internet and I had already decided on the title of the record, "The Westerner" and I saw that image and I thought "Wait a minute, maybe it should be the cover." I had met Shepard a couple times before and he was a fan of X, he was willing to re-purpose it for my cover and it's part of a campaign called Protect The Sacred, which is about Native American rights and that was also very important to Michael, my friend, who wrote "Dances With Wolves." So I believe that my friend Michael, from The Great Beyond, helped me find that cover.
Last question. Bernie or Hillary?
Good answer, John. Good answer.
However I think that the media is showing how much people hate women by the way they're treating Hillary Clinton. I think the whole world, or the whole US is showing how much they hate women. I'm not saying that Hillary Clinton is innocent by any means, but it's just typical bullshit. The whole thing is just a fantasy. I'm so disillusioned and have been, even as Obama’s second term winds down. I'm preferring to think that I am really on a different plane and all this is just a fucking illusion because it's so ludicrous at this point.