John Doe is a punk rock legend. Together with ex-wife Exene Cervenka, drummer D.J. Bonebreak, and guitarist Billy Zoom, they formed X. They were a band that literally changed the musical landscape in Los Angeles in the late ’70s and early ’80s. They paved the way for countless other bands to leave behind the corporate rock and disco mentality that was so prevalent in the country at the time and shake up the music world as we knew it.
John Doe, despite being punk rock royalty, has always had a bit of folk and country in his soul—folk, rockabilly, and country are laced liberally throughout many X songs. John also tapped into these roots with The Knitters, a side project he formed with fellow X band members Exene Cervenka and D.J. Bonebreak. This group showcases a genre very different than that of X, with original music, covers of country music songs, and acoustic versions of X songs.
In The Knitters, as well as in X, John’s lovely voice and really good songwriting was often overshadowed by the stage presence and exceptional songwriting of Exene. John needed to be on his own for his light to shine as brightly as it was capable of doing. When he released his first solo album, Meet John Doe, in 1990, his brilliance and ability to stand on his own became clear. Over the last 16 years, he has released 11 albums and has continued to grow even stronger in his songwriting, lyrics, and personal style. His star really shines most brightly when performing his own solo music.
When I spoke to John recently at a book signing and live performance at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, I asked him how difficult it was to be touring with both bands this summer. He looked at me, laughed, and said “Well, somebody has to pay all the bills.” That’s the bittersweet thing about someone who has influenced music so greatly. Their influence can be heard in musicians decades behind them, but their paychecks and mainstream recognition don’t always match up to those following in their footsteps. Like so many artists, writers, and musicians before them, these innovators often don’t reap the benefits of being the ones that changed the landscape. They often have to work their hearts out just to survive in a comfortable manner.
Bandmate and sometimes-opening-act Jesse Dayton recently joked about aging punk stars using country music as “their retirement plan” and how the “alternative country” or “cowpunk” genre seems to be all the rage, particularly among aging punk and alternative artists. The difference with John is that he’s been performing this music since the times it defied classification. This music isn’t something he’s cashing in on. It’s just the music that seems to flow seamlessly from his soul.
John, at age 63, is not slowing down. He has recently released a book of essays about the punk scene in Los Angeles in the late ‘7os and early ’80s called Under The Big Black Sun. With essays from John and other musicians including Exene and Henry Rollins, the book provides an insightful and accurate look into how these musicians lived, what they felt, and the music they made during this time. As a lifelong X fan (My kids knew the lyrics to most X songs from the time they were in diapers), as well as a huge fan of John’s solo work, I was thrilled to read Under The Big Black Sun. As a punk fan from NYC and CT, I’d often been intrigued by how the L.A. punk scene started and what it was like being in the midst of it. This book really brings me there (I will say, however, that as an East Coast/NYC punk, I did take slight offense to John’s assertion that L.A. punks were tougher than New York punks, but I digress…). The L.A. scene, often overshadowed by the New York and London punk scenes, was just as critical to music. This book really brings that point home.
As if he weren’t busy enough, John has also released a new album, entitled The Westerner. This album was inspired by his time in Arizona, when he was recording and spending time with friend and author Michael Blake (Dances With Wolves), in the hours leading up to his death. Themes of this beautiful and haunting album include the inevitability of mortality and the dark expanse of loneliness, so beautifully exemplified by images of the Arizona desert. Most of the tracks on this album are softer and more haunting than what we are used to if we only know Doe through his work in X. Doe is joined by Debbie Harry of Blondie on one of the albums more upbeat tracks, “Go Baby Go”, but when you are finished listening, the songs that stick with you are beauties such as “Alone in Arizona” and “Rising Sun,” which speaks of friend Blake, “In his dreams he still flies, In his dreams he still rides,” touchingly .
Doe describes this album as “not country, but most definitely western” and that says it all. The Westerner is Americana at its finest.
I was able to see John and his band perform at Café Nine in New Haven on June 11, 2016. The band, with the incredibly talented Jesse Dayton on the guitar and X drummer D.J. Bonebreak on the drums, was excellent. Jesse Dayton is a shining star, and his guitar playing is exceptional. He was the opening act for John, and his talent is clear. Jesse was a guitarist on the late Waylon Jennings’ last two albums, and it’s obvious why a star like Jennings would want to work with Dayton. He is gifted and I expect that we will be hearing a lot from him in the future.
The setlist was filled with classic John Doe songs such as “The Golden Sate,”, but also included X classics, such as “The Have Nots” and “4th of July.” New releases, such as “Alone in Arizona,” really showcased John’s voice and talent. At 63-years-old, his voice remains clear and true and his passion for his music is evident. In this world of one-trick ponies and one-hit wonders, I’m relieved to see that there are still musicians out there with the capability to sing songs that range from hard and classic punk to lovely and poignant melodies. John Doe is a class act. And one with a very long career both behind him and ahead of him.