Meet John Doe

Former X leader's solo muse returns with Dim Stars, Bright Sky.



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8 p.m. Sat., Oct. 19


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1 p.m. Sun., Oct. 20

AFTER VIEWING the Sex Pistols documentary, The Filth and the Fury, John Doe decided maybe the Sex Pistols were OK, after all. "I ended up liking them better," he says. "I guess there's a certain amount of resentment. They fucked up a lot of stuff for other musicians who were trying to bring in something new, exciting, creative, and good to music, and the Sex Pistols really blew that for everybody. They pissed off the record companies, the radio—so everybody saw punk rock as a joke."

If anyone has a right to feel resentful toward the Johnny Rotten-led British hype-machine that churned out a series of mesmerizing singles, one solid album, and a shortlist of worse-than-bad live performances, it's John Doe. Two decades ago, his band of outsiders, X, released some of the decade's most emotionally charged music—a twisted stew of rockabilly guitar licks, beatnik poetry, and power chords set to ambidextrous rhythms and off-kilter harmonies. Their first two independent albums, Los Angeles and Wild Gift, remain textbook examples of L.A.'s "punk rock" brilliance. Though the band signed with major label Elektra, X never got the masses to see beyond the dead-on-arrival punk tag.

"The Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads, who were originators of [punk and new wave], were all left in the lurch," says John Doe.

X never crossed over. Life went on. For John Doe, that meant getting divorced from his leading lady, Exene Cervenka, remarrying, raising kids, acting in films and on TV's Roswell, and, from time to time, pursuing a solo career. His latest album Dim Stars, Bright Sky (ArtistDIRECT) is his finest solo work to date, featuring an incredible array of musicians from Aimee Mann and Old 97's Rhett Miller to Eric Clapton/Rolling Stones/Bob Dylan keyboardist Jamie Muhoberac. Though billed as an "acoustic" venture, the album—produced by Doe, Joe Henry, and Dave Way (Macy Gray, Christina Aguilera)—features a strong rhythm section and some down and dirty electric guitar. "It's a mighty seductive instrument, that electric guitar," admits Doe. In other words, this isn't the sit-around-the-campfire album that some hard-core Doe admirers hunger for.

"I'd say this record is the most disciplined," he says. "There's experimentation, but it's within a certain frame."

Doe fans should be glad his albums come out at all. There were times in the mid-'90s when the muse shut down her call. "I was temporarily blocked by the methods I used. Writing songs mostly on bass, not transitioning to guitar, writing lyrics first, melodies second. It was a loss of inspiration. Two hundred and fifty songs later, what the hell do I do now? I wasn't listening to much new music, which was part of it. I guess I had run out of ideas."

So, what was the turning point? "I don't know. Getting fed up and feeling like I wanted to quit and realizing no one cared?" he laughs. "Not wanting to let the bad guys win? I got off Rhino and went looking for a new contract, and there wasn't much interest."

IT WAS EASIER for Doe than most to let the music be. He'd fallen into acting after appearing in Allison Anders' film, Border Radio, and it managed to fulfill his creative urge. "The reward is a very selfish and personal one," he explains. "Once you've done a scene that you know is right, it feels good. You don't need anyone to tell you that it happened. You were there. You lost yourself in the character. There's all different ways to get to that intuitive state. I've learned the value of intuition—the value of being and not thinking."Those values, in turn, have influenced his songwriting. "A lot of X's songs were written intellectually, sort of piecing things together. The delivery was intuitive. But the songwriting was methodical. Now I'm just trying to write words and music and melodies all at once, trying to just let it happen. Songs like "Forever for You" and "Faraway (From the North Country)" were like that. That's my tribute to Bob Dylan. There was a moment when driving across the Midwest, snow blowing across the road, and you just remember that point in time to write that song. Hopefully, it comes back strongly."

These days, Doe performs mostly solo, and his upcoming local swing will include a trio of gigs in a variety of settings, from Hell's Kitchen to EMP's Family Concert Series. However, he's not averse to letting the genie out of the bottle. X, with all its original members, will be taking the stage at the Showbox in late November. "It's not a nostalgia trip," he says, reflecting on the powerful pull of his old outfit. "We love playing together, simple as that."


Dim Stars, Bright Sky


John Doe's first solo album went out of print all too quickly, for reasons that were, if unfair, somewhat understandable at the time. 1990's excellent Meet John Doe was a singer-songwriter album in the John Hiatt vein, a seemingly odd pass for the former X frontman—this was, after all, the same guy who'd written the screaming "Los Angeles" and the wickedly perverse "Adult Books." Doe always had a dose of Haggard in him, though, and if Dim Stars, Bright Sky isn't quite the "acoustic album" the press kit claims it to be—we're only one song in when a fuzzy, sustained electric chord announces the opening of "Closet of Dreams"—the music contained therein is stripped entirely to its outlaw bones, instrumentally and emotionally.

In a way, though the songs on Dim Stars are far removed from the young man blues Doe used to sing, they're his rawest work since X's Wild Gift; however, they're songs a young man couldn't have written. The harrowing "Backroom" finds Doe commenting (without lecturing) on the thousand self-destructive behaviors to which youth is heir. "Forever for You" is, among other things, a celebration of tough love (not the faux validation whined for by co-dependent wet ends: Real love, even though I can be a macho asshole, and you can be a ball-breaking bitch).

These are the topics Doe always tackled at his best, but the music here is more complicated than on previous releases; unexpected chord progressions and creative harmonies make Dim Stars, Bright Sky a more intricate, more satisfying album than Doe's ever released on his own. (It also doesn't hurt that JD's in excellent voice; oddly, he sounds younger here than he has in years.) When all the cylinders are firing, as on the remarkable "Employee of the Month," Doe achieves a sort of timeless dirty grandeur: "standing in the doorway/finger and your thumb/pointing at your temple/pretending it's a gun/it's over for me."

You say you've been there? Well, meet John Doe. Again. ERIC WAGGONER

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