John Doe goes solo on some “basic roots shit” but that doesn’t mean X is dead

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 2, 1990

By Steve Newton

Some rock musicians, when you ask them about their music, go to great lengths to describe the sounds they create. Not John Doe. “It’s your basic roots shit,” says the recently-gone-solo former bassist/vocalist for California’s X. “But we try to keep twisting it around.”

As the co-vocalist/co-songwriter of X—along with Exene Cervenka—Doe has been twisting and stretching the limits of rock for 10 years, coming up with bleak, bizarre, and emotionally direct music, and garnering maximum amounts of critical acclaim in the process. The band’s debut album was named best of the year by numerous publications, and Rolling Stone labelled its 1981 follow-up, Wild Gift, “the finest American punk album ever”. After seven X albums, Doe is now striking out on his own with the solo effort Meet John Doe. But that doesn’t mean X is dead.

“We like to say we’re on vacation,” says Doe. “Exene’s working on her new record—she put one out last year, and she’s working on another one now. So the band’s taking a break, figuring out what else is going on. But no one else does what we do, so it’s valuable to keep it alive.”

Die-hard X fans can breathe a collective sigh of relief—and take solace in the fact that Doe has come up with a pretty impressive little record himself. He’s put together a super band—”kind of your college/alternative all-star band”—that features guitarists Jon Dee Graham and Richard Lloyd (from the True Believers and Television, respectively), bassist Tony Marsico from the Cruzados, and former Dwight Yoakam drummer Jeff Donovan. They’ll be burning down the Town Pump next Thursday (August 9).

While Doe hasn’t exactly been clamouring to get out of his role in X, the thought of pursuing a solo career is not all that new to him. “I got an offer to do one back in ’85,” he says, “and just got around to doing it now. I felt like there was a little that was unfinished with X at the time that it was offered, around the Ain’t Love Grand period, so I wanted to do a couple more X records first.”

Doe wrote or co-wrote all but three of the songs on Meet John Doe. One that he didn’t, “Knockin’ Around”, has pretty peculiar origins. “I heard this song on a tape someone gave me at a gig—it had no credits and I had no idea who recorded it. I played it for three years and offered money at shows to anyone who could tell me who wrote it. Finally, I’ve discovered it’s Butch Hornsby, a guy from Louisiana who has a great album called Don’t Take It Out on the Dog. He’s as great and whacko a songwriter as has come down the line. Someday I hope to meet him. He’s gonna get paid.”

While X made its name by creating a stir on the Los Angeles alternative/post-punk scene, Doe has recently made the move to more serene environs. “The city just wasn’t inspiring anymore.” Now he lives on a ranch, somewhere between L.A. and Bakersfield, California, with his wife Gigi and two-year-old daughter Veronica. Over the phone you can hear noisy renovations being done on the place. “There’s a big Skilsaw goin’ right over my head,” Doe says. But Doe hasn’t taken this back-to-the-country approach too seriously.

“I haven’t designed a new phase for myself,” he says. “Nineteen-seventy-six and now are the same thing. The only difference is that instead of living in Hollywood and getting loaded every day, I’m living out in the sticks and shovelling horseshit on my ranch every other day.”

Doe’ s previous time spent in Tinseltown did pay off by getting him involved in another area of the entertainment biz, though. In recent years he’s managed to snag acting role in such films as Slamdance, Salvador, Roadhouse, and Great Balls of Fire. The latter film saw Doe get plenty of screen time as Jerry Lee Lewis’s bass player, J.W. Brown, and while the role of a rock ’n’ roll bassist might not seem like much of a stretch for Doe, he says it was his most demanding role so far.

“I did play bass in it, but I also had to be somebody’s father, so I had to go through all those emotional changes.”

Doe’s most recent film appearance is in Without You I’m Nothing, during which he duets with Sandra Bernhard on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. He says that his move into acting was a casual one.

“Some people just said, ‘You wanna do this?’ And I figured if they were gonna ask me then I ought to learn how to do it. The rest was just goin’ out and trying to convince somebody that I could do the job—which usually is a lot like becoming a trick dog, you know, fetching bones and jumpin’ through little fiery hoops. That’s the auditioning part, anyway. Doing the movies is a lot of fun.”

Exene Cervenka, who was married to Doe for four years before they split up in ’85, has also been getting her feet wet in acting. She gets a special thanks in the album credits, and her name appears next to that of a fellow named Viggo Mortensen. Now wait a second. Isn’t he the guy who starred as the ghost of an executed prisoner in Renny (Die Hard 2) Harlin’s overlooked horror flick, Prison?

“I can’t believe that you saw that movie!” laughs Doe. “You’re kidding me! Well Viggo is Exene’s husband—she met him doing a movie called Salvation, which is pretty interesting. It came out just before the Tammy and Jim Bakker thing hit. Exene plays an evangelist, and she sort of takes over for this TV evangelist. She’s very funny. And of course Viggo is a big, brutish kind of Marlon Brando—a real asshole.”

Although an avid film buff when not behind the cameras himself, Doe says that he hasn’t had much time to check out recent movies, what with being a responsible dad and all. “Having a child puts a cramp in your movie-going style,” he says. “But it’s worth it; it’s well worth it. I finally saw Drugstore Cowboy, though, and that was an amazing movie.”

Uh-huh. And that leads this inquisitive reporter to carefully pose the question: did John Doe relate to the characters in that movie, as far as, you know…

“As far as drug use?” chuckles Doe. “Not to that degree. I mean in the past there have been some pretty desperate hours. But no, not with that much stamina and dedication.”

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