John Doe on X: "We thought that punk rock was a return to what rock and roll should be"
Autumn De Wilde
John Doe (due this weekend at Lion's Lair) is most well-known for his tenure in the influential punk/roots rock band X. That band was known not just for a fiery intensity as a live act but also for its combination of primal rock and roll and thought-provoking lyrics, which had roots in the work of the Beats. Parallel to his songwriting in X, Doe embarked on a solo project in 1990 with the critically acclaimed album Meet John Doe.
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Doe's richness of tone, both vocal and in musicianship, coupled with an unaffected thoughtfulness, emotional vibrance and poetic imagination is what has made his work outside of a band context stand well apart from anything resembling a standard singer-songwriter effort. We recently had a chance to speak with the uncommonly candid and good-humored Doe about his roots in poetry, X on American Bandstand, Jill Sobule and what he has found rewarding about working in film.
Westword: What did you get your degree in at Antioch?
John Doe: Writing, specifically poetry. Because I wanted to have a career. [But seriously,] I went to school for about a year and realized it was a waste of time and I quit for about two years. A friend of mine said there was a writing program at Antioch and turns out there was. I majored in poetry and writing in general and minored in American Literature or something like that.
Were there particular poets that sparked that interest or a specific era?
New stuff. I had a great teacher, and she said, "Don't read anything old. Read anything from the Beat poets forward." They spoke in a language I could understand and used vernacular and slang.
Did you ever get to see any of them speak or read?
Yeah! I saw this guy Anselm Hollo, who was kind of popular then. He sort of became a friend. A lot of DC poets. Terry Winch, Kenneth Koch, Diane Makovsky and Galway Kinnell. It was right at a point where a bunch of people said poetry should be heard and not just read. It was the early '70s, and there was a big performance element to it. Patti Smith was part of that.
Especially in DC, the gay community was getting more out and up front. I helped run a reading series in Baltimore at a place called The Theater Project. It was in an old Theater and they did a bunch of experimental shit. So we were the poetry project. That's kind of how I met Exene [Cervenka] as well. I went out to L.A. and went to this poetry workshop and she was living there and had a job there doing typesetting. The place was called Beyond Baroque, which still exists. A big and small print library.
Did you start playing music and writing poetry around the same time or did one of those come along a little later?
I was playing music when I was like fifteen back in Baltimore. I started playing electric bass because I thought it would be easier. which I think it is. Bass players have a few more social skills than guitar players do because they're not sitting in their bedrooms for hours, hours and hours.
Were there any bass players who were kind of your heroes back then?
No, not then. Maybe a little later. I learned a lot from Rick Danko, who is one of my big heroes, along with Willie Dixon and Paul McCartney, I suppose. If I had to pick one it would have to be Rick Danko. I was also really influenced by Motown and soul music where bass was really prominent.
Oh, sure, The Funk Brothers had one of the best bass players of all time with James Jamerson. Do you feel that X was accepted by the punk world when you were starting out? L.A. sounds like it was pretty diverse then if We've Got the Neutron Bomb is to be believed.
Yeah, to a degree. Some people even in L.A. thought we were a bunch of hippies because we played our instruments a little better and we were a little older than some. We had slower songs. We were a little different. We had more of an eye toward the classic. We thought that punk rock was a return to what rock and roll should be which is freedom, shorter songs and not a bunch of shitty guitar leads. That's something the Ramones, Blondie and people like that were [embodying at the time].
There's that great bit in X: The Unheard Music where, I believe, Billy Zoom read a negative review of a Ramones record, and it sounded exactly like what he wanted to play.
Yeah, that's a good one. Short songs, no guitar leads. We do that nowadays. You read a film review by somebody that you usually hate, and you think, "Well, I'll love this movie.