The punk rock band X turns 40 this year. And that, says John Doe, is something he never saw coming when he helped found the group while Jimmy Carter was still president. Nor did he foresee all the things that come with surviving—and thriving—for four decades. Longevity. Respect. Moms and dads in the audience. With their kids. Because yes, at this point in its life, X is that genuine unicorn: fun for the whole family.
No one is more pleasantly surprised by all this than Doe himself. “I don’t want to get full of myself and say that we had a plan,” he said on a recent afternoon in New York City, where the band was playing as part of a year-long celebratory tour of some 90 concerts. “We just did what we did and I think we hoped that we’d have a career. I think we had good intentions. I think we wanted to make art. Not fine art but popular art. We were never obscure, we were never obtuse. We certainly weren’t ready—and still aren’t—for prime time, because the way Exene and I sing and the kind of songs we write just don’t fit in. But we wanted to make stuff that we thought was cool and poetic and still have the core of what was important to the beginning of rock and roll. Like stuff by Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, all the people who did that stuff. And a few that came before. We reference Woody Guthrie, and we’re fans of that stuff too.”
Populist, unpretentious, urgent, furious at the world’s bullshit, and dead set against the 10-minute guitar solo—X with its original line-up of Doe, singer Exene, drummer D.J. Bonebrake, and the inimitable guitarist Billy Zoom still embodies punk’s DNA.
But unlike a lot of punk, X has always been a tight band (but never, ever slick) with swinging musicianship married to a songbook packed with earworm hooks and lyrics that never fail to send a shiver (“The world’s a mess, it’s in my kiss”). The sum of all that imbued the band with one thing not on the off-the-rack punk rock checklist: class. When I once wondered aloud if this wasn’t straying a little outside the punk outline, a friend who lived in the LA punk world for a long time assured me that “X is absolutely LA punk royalty.”
The songs that Doe and Exene crafted way back still work, buoyed by imagery that manages to sound specific and ambiguous simultaneously. “When Exene was writing political stuff during the Reagan era,” Does says, “she was smart enough to write, ‘It was better before they voted for what’s his name,’ rather than rail against Ronald Reagan. Because that song begins from the point of view of a bum, of a drunk. It’s like, what happened? The bar’s not open. What the fuck! I can’t get my drink. It opens like a Raymond Carver story. So we can still sing that now, and no matter whether you’re conservative, left wing, libertarian, whatever, you’re going to think, it was better before they voted for what’s his name.”
The same holds true for a song like “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” which meant one thing when the band first performed it in 1983 and now, to Doe, means something altogether different while losing none of its original power: “I think what inspired Exene’s lyrics—and I don’t want to put words in her mouth—but I think we thought, oh my god, things are in such chaos that it’s over our bandwidth, even though bandwidth wasn’t even a thing then! We cannot contain in our conscious thought all these things that are going on at once, holey moley. And the phrase ‘I must not think bad thoughts’ was sort of ironic and sarcastic at that point. It’s like, here’s all the bad shit that’s going on, but oh I must not … I must take my happy pills. And now I think of it more as a mantra or reminding yourself that you cannot live in chaos. You cannot live with all the negativity. You can, but it’s going to eat you up. Literally or figuratively. You can live with that but it’s better to say, I’m going to try to manage it and I’m going to try to do good things for people that I care about, or causes I care about. And that goes back to the idea of the durability of the songs, and taking on new meanings as things roll along. I’m really glad we play that song now.”
So how does the band’s long run feel from his side of the footlights? “Sometimes a little creaky,” he admits. “But that’s just physical and you have to overcome that. As you get older, you become more grateful for the things that you do. And the things you’ve done. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have appreciated everything that we’d accomplished up to that point, and now I can appreciate most all of it. You know, you think the Grammys is bullshit, and it kind of is, because I don’t believe in competition when it comes to art. But then we got that Grammy nomination for the audio portion of the book I did last year [Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk], and it was suddenly like, oh, you know, the Grammys are pretty cool.”
He laughs at himself. “Oh god, the hypocrisy, where everything is bullshit ’til someone asks you to come in the club and sit at the hip table, and you’re like, oh, suuure. But the fact that the Grammy Museum said that they would do a big exhibit for X [opens in LA on Oct. 13] similar to what they did for the Ramones, y’know, that feels, well, like you’ve been validated a little bit. The Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard has this Rock Walk of Fame and about ten years ago they called us up and said, we want to put you in the rock walk, and we said, eh, well, yeah, it’s not exactly Grauman’s Chinese Theatre but it’s something, so OK. And then when we did it, it was kind of … overwhelming. It was like, oh my god, I want to take my grandmother.”
Funny, self deprecating, easy going, Doe’s even extremely patient in the face of dumb, obvious questions he’s probably been asked a thousand times. Résumé-wise, he’s also a little intimidating, because he’s so damned versatile. Besides being an accomplished singer, songwriter, guitarist and bass player, he’s also an actor (Boogie Nights, The Good Girl) and most recently an author.
Given punk’s exaltation of a DIY collaborationist ethos, Doe appropriately wrote only about half of Under the Big Black Sun (although his chapter on the intersection of punk and LA’s car culture is worth the price of the book). For the rest, he conscripted other eyewitnesses to fill out the story of punk’s earliest years on the West Coast. “Because punk rock wasn’t about stars, it wasn’t about stepping on somebody to get higher,” he says. “I thought if everyone wrote a chapter instead of an oral history, then they’d have to look at the page and say, Is that the story I want to tell? And also it brought in Los Angeles at that time, which was, like New York, full of decay, because somehow civic pride had just gone to shit. Two of the Os in the Hollywood sign had fallen down. But like I said in the book, that was awesome, that was like Tennessee Williams, that was fantastic. I loved it. And we also did topics. So Jane Wiedlin wrote about living in the Canterbury, which was where people exchanged all their ideas. Those were our salons, and what’s punk and what’s not and what are you going to do with your life and what are your funny stories? Then Dave Alvin’s chapter is about roots music getting pulled into punk rock, and Henry Rollins’ is about coming from a very small scene in DC to this wide open beginning of hardcore. So we had all these different aspects and I didn’t have to be the authority. As much as I appreciate women playing and speaking with equal voice, for example, I can’t speak from that. But Exene can, and so can Kristine McKenna and Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey.”
Under the Big Black Sun is all about the music created in Southern California in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and that intense desire that every generation has to be part of something that is only theirs. But more than anything it celebrates community and egalitarianism. “Especially in the beginning, there was no separation” between the bands and their audiences, Doe says, “because the people in the audience were usually musicians, and they knew what the songs were written about because they were there or experienced something very similar to it, and they were going to be on stage after you or had just played before you.”
X’s audiences today are a lot bigger and more eclectic than the ones that packed those tiny, sweaty clubs so long ago, but to Doe, the spirit that pervades is pretty much the same. “There are some generational couples—father/daughter, father/son, mother/son, the whole family. We try to do as many all-ages shows as we can, although our ticket prices are not that friendly to them, because it’s like 25 to 40 bucks. But that’s what tickets prices are for … legacy artists. I don’t know how you can write legacy in a sarcastic/ironic way, but please try. But yeah, 16 year olds to people our age, 50s-60s, and it’s pretty evenly mixed between men and women, which is nice. To be mercenary and honest, if we didn’t make a pretty good living and it was all a bunch of old dudes who just wanted to look at Billy’s hands to see what kind of riffs he played, I’d be way less interested. But seeing some young woman in the audience looking up at Exene thinking she’s a role model, that makes my heart feel good. It makes me feel as though we’ve done a good thing.”
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, “We still play hard,” he says. “And now we’re doing this show where Billy plays sax a on couple of songs, and DJ plays vibes on a few things, so it’s not just a punk rock show. Which is fine and we did that for a long time. But then we started getting these offers from performing arts centers and festivals where playing a punk rock show didn’t really fit in. So we thought, OK, let’s see what we can do. And it’s energized us all, ‘cause we can improvise a little more. And a good song is a good song, you can do it all kinds of different ways.”
One thing you won’t catch Doe doing is romanticizing the past. After spending most of his life in California, he recently relocated to Austin (“where I can actually afford to buy a house!”), and he wouldn’t think of living in LA again, “because so much has changed, and it’s unpredictable, and it doesn’t have the same kind of allure it did when I lived there. I think a lot of that ’30s to ’60s Hollywood is gone, and the literary thing is gone.” Not that he’s blind to the upside (his Instagram feed identifies him as a “glass-half-full-guy”): “The one thing that remains is that sense that anything can happen, that there is a kind of openness, and you can still make your name.”
When he fills out his tax form, Doe tells Uncle Sam that his occupation is “entertainer,” because, with all the playing and writing and acting, he is indeed a man of parts. But when pushed, he’ll tell you that first and foremost, he’s a musician, “because that’s what pays the bills.” And what still engages him the most. Ask what intrigues him the most about music and he comes right back with “Everything! I’m actually a much better musician now. I think I crossed over that 10,000 hour thing, because now I can just hear stuff and play it, whereas before I would really have to sit down and figure it out. And it’s a great time for music these days. It’s just a bad time for the music business. The biggest challenge nowadays is to rise above the static. I feel so fortunate that we have a leg up, and that I have something of a career, so that if I put out a solo record, some people will say, oh, wonder what John Doe’s up to these days. And now there’s the book. But if it hadn’t been for X, I wouldn’t have had any of the opportunities I’ve had.”
So, whither X?
“To be honest, I don’t know what we’re going to do next. That’s why we’re talking about recording. Finally. ‘Cause we can’t come back to the same cities next year and just say, Now we’re 41!”