"Hotel Ghost" from the album A Year in the Wilderness
"Meanest Man in the World" from the album A Year in the Wilderness
Last week, I got off the phone from a 15-minute interview with West Coast punk/rock icon John Doe — one of my favorite West Coast rock musicians from that late '70s/'80s rock underground heyday. Doe played bass and sang alongside California's answer to Siouxsie Sioux, Exene Cervenka in the band X. His demeanor was super-cool — earnest, kind of tough and raggedy, but totally sincere. His baritone bellow blended perfectly with Exene's more piercing style. His bass was an old Fender Precision.
"Hey, I just had a great chat with John Doe from X!" I shouted to the staff, but my young staffmates had nothing but blank stares: "Who's John Doe?" Wow, I must be getting old. But Doe's music certainly isn't getting old. He was due to play an opening set with Wilco this Friday in support of his recently-released A Year in the Wilderness (Yep Roc) — a dynamic, melodic, 11-song collection of pure Americana.
"If you're down with the adventure and if you want to experiment, you'll find something new to influence you every couple of years," Doe said, speaking from California on the eve of his Southeastern tour. "It's ongoing, which is sort of good and bad. You don't have the luxury of putting in your eight or 10 hours a day and then leaving it. It's really a 24-hour-a-day project. Inspiration strikes at any time. It's not a bad thing, but it can be a little overwhelming or annoying. Some people lose it early on; other people don't."
Fans certainly remember Doe most foldly as the bassist/singer of twangy Los Angeles quartet X. Formed in 1977, X wrote and played fast-paced rock songs steeped in the underbelly themes of urban Southern California: guilt, paranoia, sex, drugs, heartbreak, smog, etc.
The first four X albums — Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under the Big Black Sun, and More Fun in the New World — were produced by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek with increasingly eloquent hints of country, rockabilly, and power-pop in the mix.
Doe and singer Exene — a married couple through most of the band's career — were the stars of director Penelope Spheeris' 1981 rockumentary of the L.A. punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization. The band's high-energy sound and twisted vocal harmonies inspired the likes of Minutemen, Meat Puppets, The Blasters, Social Distortion, and the rougher side of the Paisley Underground.
On A Year in the Wilderness — produced by Dave Way — Doe played acoustic and electric guitar; sang lead and harmonies with vocalists Kathleen Edwards, Aimee Mann, and Jill Sobule; and jammed with guitarist Dave Alvin (of The Blasters) and Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys), among others.
The dense texture of Doe's music fits the poetic, personalized lyrics, and helps illustrate the themes he's trying to get across. It's consistent with the best stuff he did on X albums and solo efforts.
"If you don't let the song dictate how it should be arranged with which instruments, if you're not intuitive and aware about that, you're not doing your job," Doe says. "On the other hand, if you over-think it, you could ruin it very easily."
Doe and his current backing band — bassist David Carpenter, drummer Brian Head, and singer/percussionist Cindy Wasserman — continue their March tour with Wilco this week. I hope I can take the office youngsters to one of the shows!