X photographed in Los Angeles circa 1980.
X photographed in Los Angeles circa 1980.
George Rose/Getty Images

X's John Doe Reflects on L.A.'s Place In Punk History & the Benefits of Having 'A Small Dream'

If you listen to a John Doe album from the past decade or so, you might peg the Illinois-born, Bay Area-based singer-songwriter as a Sun Records devotee specializing in country- and/or blues-tinged roots rock. But before his lengthy solo career (which kicked off in 1990 with Meet John Doe), Doe fronted pioneering first-wave Los Angeles punk band X with his ex-wife Exene Cervenka. While many of their punk compatriots proudly flaunted their slipshod instrumental command, X was a technically tight unit combining breakneck tempos with rockabilly swagger and Bukowski-esque lyrics.

Formed in 1977, X dropped four stone-cold punk classics from 1980-1983; the first two of those albums, Los Angeles and Wild Gift, rank as some of the greatest of any genre, ever. But unlike the much-romanticized CBGB milieu in New York City, the L.A. scene never quite gets the same attention when it comes to historical retellings of the genre's early days -- and when it is mentioned, it's usually to focus on the hardcore scene, frequently at the expense of the stylistically and ethnically diverse outfits that laid the groundwork before white boys from the 'burbs took over.

But Doe's recent project, Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk (credited to John Doe with music writer Tom DeSavia), aims to change that. A collection of personal histories from veteran L.A. punks that reveal the city's larger story, Under the Big Black Sun is a great book and a superb audiobook, with everyone from Henry Rollins to members of The Go-Go's to Pleasant Gehman narrating their chapters (listening to X's Cervenka dismiss '70s rock gods as man-children playing on sheltered clouds of cocaine is worth the price of admission alone).

Up for best spoken word album at the 2017 Grammy Awards, Doe is hoping they might win the trophy, not so much because he cares to have a golden tchotchke on his mantle, but to help validate the Los Angeles punk scene's place in history. "[A Grammy win] would mean Los Angeles got a seat at the table," Doe says. "I don't believe in competition in art… but that part is rewarding."

Ahead of the 2017 Grammys, Billboard spoke with Doe about tapping his rock Rolodex for Under the Big Black Sun, how L.A. punk differed from the London and New York scenes, and whether Trump will bring about the end of the world.

Let's start at the beginning. With this book, why did you decide to involve so many people instead of just telling your own story, as most musicians tend to with memoirs?

To start at the beginning, Tom DeSavia and my sweetheart kept twisting my arm and saying "you should write a book" and it all sounded like too much work and discipline. Then I started thinking what was the core of the scene, and that was collaboration and community, so I applied that to writing the book. I couldn't tell all the truths that need to be told. I appreciate and loved the input of east L.A., but I wasn’t from there. I embraced and loved the equality between men and women, but I'm not a woman. It seemed natural to do an audiobook and we got [a publisher] to agree to make physical copies, which was a wonder. Everyone involved lived in L.A. or around southern California still, so it was relatively easy. Scott Sherratt, who's done a ton of Grammy nominated or even winning audiobooks, was a great [audiobook] director in that he was patient. He wasn't giving line readings like, "COME ON, give it to me!"

How did you decide who to involve?

Tom and I made a big list of what was important to the scene. What were the elements that made the scene different. And then thought, "Who could tell the story?" Charlotte [Caffey] was telling her story through the lens of songwriting. She's gone on to be a songwriter with other people, not only through Go-Go's. Everyone was given a topic for their chapter that we felt was their area of expertise. Exene's was about the cultural revolution we were part of. Dave Alvin's was about the roots music being pulled into punk rock, El Vez was about being an actual teenager and being from the Latino community, Henry Rollins' is about someone who came from a very small scene in D.C. to a bigger scene [in L.A.] and thrust into it. Mike Watt was part of the Hollywood early scene and then got pulled into the hardcore scene. Jane Wiedlin's was about living in Canterbury, which was where everyone figured out what was punk rock or what was art and what we wanted to do. We gave everyone a topic to tell their story through.

You're Grammy nominated for this. How does that feel? What would that mean to get it?

It would blow our minds. There are so many people who are in the running to get nominated. Chrissie Hynde had a book out. I'm glad neither the president nor his wife or any of the other presidents had a book out, because they're the ones who win this invariably. What it would mean is that Los Angeles got a seat at the table. We came six months after [New York], and the major media had written off punk rock by the time L.A. was out there. It was like, "Yeah, yeah Sid Vicious threw up on somebody, whatever." And that's not what it was about. It was the next version of rock n' roll. And it's always nice to have a seat at the table. I don't believe in competition in art, that's an odd thing, Oscars and Emmys and whatever. But once you're thrust into it it's like, "Cool, Los Angeles gets a seat at the table along with New York and London." That part is rewarding because we always felt like, "Hey, wait a minute…."

So you set out to give L.A. punk its due.

Yeah. And also to paint a picture of Los Angeles at the time. It was pretty naïve and wide open. 

I interviewed Alice Bag last year about that time period, and she felt that L.A. punk got more homogenous when hardcore took over. Do you think that's true?

Everything changes. Evolution is inevitable. No, punk wasn't as inclusive in the hardcore scene. But I would argue the early SST Records were just as eclectic. The Minutemen and Black Flag were nothing like Meat Puppets, and there was a lot more variety. As things went on, yeah, it got more violent and it wasn't safe for Exene and I to go out because someone wanted to hit me because they thought I was a "rock star" or some bullshit like that. And that's sad, and we deal with that in the book, but that's the reason I asked Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L. to write his chapter. Which was wonderful. It was "you started this shit, we finished it, what's your problem?" and I loved that. It's unrepentant. "Fuck you." Fine.

Anything you learned that you didn't already know?

I was not surprised by Jane Wiedlin's being the spiciest of the chapters. We all knew when they were America's sweethearts where they came from. I was pleasantly surprised by Jack Grisham not caring. That was just what I had hoped for. I didn't know Henry Rollins was quite as shocked by the nihilism in some of the kids he encountered in the hardcore scene. I think we were all surprised that everyone saw it so similarly. I thought there would be more dissension or telling same stories from completely different points of view. I think that collaboration and community is why people are loyal to each other. It was a great time and deserves attention.

Was any of it hard to remember?

As you started doing it, you get better at it. The memory gets a sharper as you think about it. In editing or reading other peoples chapters as they would turn them in, I'd say, "Well what kind of car were you driving?" or "what kind of guitar was your first guitar?" It's just Writing 101. Be specific and paint a picture. I think with important experiences, it still resonates. The time it happened was formative for everybody, early twenties. Once you start thinking of those events, it starts coming into better focus. Not that you're making up stuff but you start remembering details. And then you can fill in some other stuff with some bullshit. [laughs] "Oh that sounds good, we'll make it that way -- it sounds great." [laughs]

Now that you're well past X into a different part of your life, how do you see yourself from that time?

I think I was probably an asshole. I think an older you always thinks or hopes you're getting better. Exene called me a slavedriver. We did a panel recently and she said, "You were a slavedriver." I guess? I don't know. I was pretty driven. I had an idea of what we could do and I really wanted to get there.

Did you?

Oh, absolutely. I had a small dream. I dreamed small and we got there. Punk rock didn't get where we thought it might but I don't know that we cared. Honestly, I had an idea we would be as big or as notable as like the Velvet Underground or something like that. Yeah, we did that. I had a vision we would be playing to a lot of people over a long period of time and yeah, we did that too. We stuck around. I still have that same ability or a quality of momentum. I can make things move forward. I did it then with a lot more ego and I try to do it now with a lot more understanding.

Now that you're playing music in a more roots rock direction, how does it feel to reflect on that punk period?

I almost feel it's the same thing. X and West Coast punk rock had more in common with Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry and Sun Records. I think the New York bands were more influenced by the Shirelles and Phil Spector and the Velvet Underground, and the English bands were influenced by England's version of rock n' roll. We had cars and nice weather -- so it isn't a stretch to go from there [West Coast punk] to roots music because that is roots music.

You came up as Reagan, a showbiz person turned president, was elected. Reagan obviously inspired a lot of punk music  -- do you see protest music coming back with our new showbiz president?

I hope people take to the streets if things become as bad as everyone believes [Ed. Note: This interview was conducted before Trump's inauguration]. I'm not a fan of Trump, but I haven't been that much of a fan of Obama either. When Exene wrote, "It was better before they voted for what's-his-name/this was supposed to be the new world" [in the song "The New World"] it will always resonate because we didn't mention Reagan. But from the perspective of being a grownup, when Reagan was elected, everyone was setting their hair on fire. And yeah, he fucked up some stuff. We're still recovering from the union busting he did and turning people out of mental hospitals so they're homeless, we're still suffering those effects, but Armageddon didn't happen. I think now people are starting to realize, okay, this may be a bit of a struggle, but I don't think it's gonna end up with everyone in concentration camps and World War III. On the other hand, I do hope people take to the streets, I hope there's a lot of protest music. Oppression isn't all bad for the arts. 

You started this to avoid writing a memoir. Now that this is done, do you think you'll get around to that?

I'm going to write a memoir. Sure, why not. It was enjoyable. Once you start going back in time and thinking, you realize there are more stories.

Check out Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk here.


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