One thing needs to be stated at the outset – I was never cool enough for punk.
As a theologian in my 40’s, I doubt my ‘street cred’ in punk circles could ever be established, so I won’t even try. Granted, I love(d) the Clash (especially “London Calling”) and living in the UK gave me a deeper appreciation for “The Guns of Brixton” as art and much needed social commentary. What I appreciate the most about punk qua punk is the constant move against being categorized – to be labeled ‘punk’ per se is to be labeled ‘not punk’. Where the church often errs is in the search for categories and labels which end up being the source of praise and argument rather than the content the labels and categories point toward.
Perhaps this is why in the punk family, John Doe and X makes sense to me – a band member and band that labeled essentially ‘non-labeled’.
The LA band ‘X’ was formed in 1977 after songwriter and bassist John Doe (b. Feb. 24, 1956) met (and later married and is now his (e)x) Exene Cervenka (b. Feb. 1, 1956) at a Venice poetry workshop, with rockabilly veteran Billy Zoom (b. Feb. 20, 194?) on guitar and D.J. Bonebrake (b. Dec. 8, 1955) on drums, the band garnered an immediate following. “Discovered” by ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, he took the band into the studio for the recording of Los Angeles in 1980. In theory, punkers and folkeys don’t find a lot to talk about especially at this point in the late ’70s when both camps were fighting a common enemy – namely DISCO! That said, X’s merging with an ex-Door was not only tolerated, but earned them stature as California’s preeminent punk band when the record earned across-the-board rave reviews.
1981 saw the release of the similarly punked-up Wild Gift, while their 1982 album, Under the Big Black Sun, began what would be a long career in merging hard rock, country and folk into their fiery mix. The band successfully began to mix in their populist politics with an eye toward matters of the heart.
Lead singer and songwriter “John Doe” was dreamed up in Los Angeles in January or February ’77 after an exhausting trip from Baltimore on Halloween, 1976. As Doe says in his bio – speaking in the 3rd person about his persona:
“[John Doe eventually] settles in Venice, CA (‘cause that’s where the Beats lived), goes to the Venice poetry workshop and meets Exene [John Doe’s now (e)x yet X and Knitters bandmate]. X band starts, records a single, gets more popular (1979 there was a line around the block at the Whisky), signs to Slash Records and by 1981 the L.A. “punk-rock explosion” is all but over. X’s first two records have poetry and hard rock; it connects with the audience’s guts and brains and the critics really like it.”
John Doe’s latest solo album, “Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet” (Yep Roc) is on constant iPod rotation during my commute. Where most people see punk rockers as screamers without a voice – John Doe has an authentic sound with tons to say. While this comparison will be seen by some as praise and others as blasphemy – John Doe treads much the same path as Bruce Springsteen, at times with equally striking results. Punk is like folk music in its need to tell stories of truth – the difference in genre is that folk will walk slowly through metaphor, punk is existentially Marxist in its direct, no-holds barred approach to “in your face.” In this way, “Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet” plays the ‘via media’ blending cracking punk and introspective folk with a casual intensity. What is stunning in the record is just how ‘easy going’ this effort seems – Doe just gives the impression that making razor-sharp music keen with insight is oh-so-easy to do. Listening to “Twin Brother,” his heartbreaking duet with Grant-Lee Phillips, is about as good as this kind of music can get and reminds me what people seem to mean by ‘americana’ before it got corporate. There are hints of the Lizard King Jim Morrison on “The Losing Kind,” and “Hwy. 5,” a great duet with Neko Case that John Doe wrote with his ex-wife, X’s Exene Cervenka, recalls his old band’s later years – it has all the funk and swagger that made punk in the ’70s something more than noise – it was the heartache of Beat poets amped up and storming the stage with truth in its teeth.
Showing that genre is something for A & R guys and record companies alone, the personnel of X just released a new album under the guise of the Knitters (an old alias (with Dave Alvin) which yielded one Slash album, Poor Little Critter in the Road, in 1985) for a new album 20 years later entitled “The Modern Sounds of the Knitters” (Rounder). Dave Alvin rejoins John Doe, Cervenka and others to celebrate the rough, rocking side of country music. The CD includes two X tunes and reinventions of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” and Ralph Stanley’s “Rank Stranger” – showing that the ‘old timey’ nature of “O Brother Where Art Thou” may have been more punk than anyone realized…
For a free download of John Doe, you can get his duet with Go-Gos Jane Wiedlin – “Forever with You” off his 2002 “Dim Stars, Bright Sky” here – a nice tune for your weekend driving. In many ways, given the tragedies in America’s Southland in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Doe’s lyrics seem poignant – in the end of all things after systems (whether religious, government, or institutional) fade away amidst tragedy (“we’re not united/but stand for each other/when the whole world let us down/no red, white and blue/no more ‘underground’/standing up for you/I’m Forever for you…”) – we are left with each other. Perhaps this is where we begin to understand what ‘forever’ is to look like as we finally see one another in the aftermath, shame, and grace that comes…
If this is what it means to be “punk” – maybe John Knox was more like Sid Vicious than I thought…