X released their first album on the independent Slash label in 1980, the same year John married his bandmate and songwriting partner Exene Cervenka (they divorced 5 years later). Titled Los Angeles, the album explored the dark side of the city - a common theme in the early years of X. Produced by Ray Manzarek of The Doors, it got plenty of positive press, with the Los Angeles Times calling X "The most acclaimed new rock band in America." Two years later, they signed with the major label Elektra and carved out a following well beyond the Pacific Ocean.
Most early-'80s L.A. punk bands didn't have a long shelf life, but X evolved accordingly, moving away from the loud and fast approach and toward the kind of songs they can perform on Letterman (see clip below). Their staying power has a lot to do with their songwriting, which lyrically became much more positive.
We spoke with John about creating the songs, the evolution of X, and making music with his X-wife.
John Doe: (laughs) Well, all the really crappy songs I wrote back in Baltimore and no one ever heard. I probably wrote, I don't know, 15, 25 or so songs back in Baltimore before I even thought about starting X. And I had written with another person, and she was more of a musician and I was more of a lyricist. She would write chord changes and melody and I would plug words into it. So I had that experience to avoid all the really crappy songs.
Anyway, Exene and I both had a similar worldview and even though Exene wasn't an experienced singer, she knew how to write songs. She would write lyrics for songs top to bottom. She has great time. And she had great tone in her voice. But that doesn't really affect songwriting. She had that song "I'm Coming Over," which is a total punk rock kind of song. She had that written from beginning to end with the melody and I just put some chords to it.
There's other things - I would take a couple of lines and fill in a story around it, or I would take a phrase and write a story around it. Sometimes I would suggest a melody and she would change a lot of it. So that's the short version.
Songfacts: I notice that throughout your career all your songs are credited to the both of you. But I imagine, especially when I think about (1982 album) Under the Big Black Sun, and all those really personal songs, those seem to be really her songs. Was it a decision that you made to list each other as co-writers even though maybe one or the other of you wrote primarily the whole song? Or did you, in fact, contribute to all of each others' songs?
John: Well, we made a decision to share writing credit. And you might be surprised, because I wrote most of the lyrics to the song "Come Back to Me," and she wrote most of the lyrics to "The Have Nots," a song that I sang; kind of a working man, drinking song.
Songfacts: I love that song. That's the song where you name-drop all the different bars, right?
And, let's see, she wrote most of the lyrics – probably all of the lyrics and a lot of the melody for "Under the Big Black Sun" and I did a majority of "The Hungry Wolf," and she wrote most of "Motel Room in My Bed." But she would do a lot of editing in mine, or vice versa.
Songfacts: How is it writing with somebody and having a professional relationship with somebody that is an ex-wife? It's hard for some of us to imagine working with our exes, but you seem to have a great relationship still. Was it an easy transition?
John: No, it wasn't easy at first. During (1985 album) Ain't Love Grand! it was pretty hard. But it certainly was friendship based on respect first, and then it became more of a romantic relationship. We started on a good footing and it hasn't always been easy, but we've been able to maintain it.
Songfacts: Most of the members of X came from somewhere else. I know your story and Exene's, but I didn't realize that (guitarist) Billy Zoom was not originally from California either.
John: No, he was from Illinois. Yeah, Illinois and Iowa.
Songfacts: And I wonder if that affected the perspective, that maybe it brought a freshness to your viewpoint. Because you wrote a lot about the city of Los Angeles and X were one of the best bands to really chronicle that time in Los Angeles. And it kind of makes me think about Guns 'N' Roses with Axl coming from the Midwest and what he saw in L.A. Do you think that helped you to be a better commentator on the city?
John: Well, the easy answer is yes. (laughs) Maybe a little bit less now, but even nowadays the West Coast is a place of freedom and a place where not only is the physical horizon a long distance, but the possibilities are less limited than in the Midwest or on the East Coast. And musically I think that's continued to be proven true. I include Billy and DJ (Bonebrake, drummer) in this, because certainly their musical ability and the way they play has opened up possibilities – I can do whatever I want, really. And as far as the lyrics, yeah, things were fresh, things were new, and we could do them with a bit of a more innocent eye, because we hadn't grown up around it. Plus it was a time in which Hollywood was similar to New York, it was really kind of crumbling. And none of the urban renewal had started and crime was still pretty bad. So that added to all of those elements.
Songfacts: Do you think you have a sort of a love/hate relationship with the city?
John: (laughing) Uh, sure. I mean, I have lived in L.A. for many, many years, and I'm just about to move up north in San Francisco. So I like L.A. for all of its subsidiary contributions from all its writers, and some of its architecture, and just the city of dreams and all that kind of stuff. I was already sold on Los Angeles before I moved here. That's why I moved here.
Songfacts: Really? Was there was one particular experience that prompted the move?
John: (laughing) Yeah, getting the fuck out of Baltimore. That was the experience. Thirteen years in Baltimore. And at 20-whatever - I was, 22, 23, 24, something like that, I knew that it was time to get out of Baltimore. I'd been to CBGB's and Max's and seen Television and The Heartbreakers, seen Talking Heads and bands like that, and I thought, well, this is all locked up already, so I've got to find some other place. I was tired of the East Coast, anyway.
Songfacts: When you say that you were in your early 20s, it seemed a little old to be starting a punk rock band. But then again, punk rock was a new thing at the time. Did you intend to be a punk rock band?
John: Yes. There was a time to draw a line between what had gone before and what was going to come after. We used all the chord changes and abilities that we had in songwriting. Now I can use all those influences in my songwriting, but at that point we didn't. And also, punk rock was not as youth-oriented at that time. It was as far as the audience, but the Ramones were a similar age. I think Joey was older than me. I know Patti Smith is either my age or a little older. So most of the bands were a little older.
Songfacts: My son is 17 and doesn't really understand punk rock as I see it, because I've always seen it as an attitude and he sees it as a musical style. Does it disappoint you that punk rock has lost whatever it was that made it so special and so important to so many of us and now has just become another genre?
John: No, it doesn't really disturb me. I think there were always people that wanted to fit into a certain rigid sound of what punk rock was - not at the very beginning, but certainly by '80, '82, '83, when hard core came along. And after Black Flag had been out for a little while everyone wanted to sound like Black Flag. It was really badass and no prisoners. But I think you're right, that punk rock is sort of a state of mind or an attitude, and things get calcified as they go on. But there's plenty of bands that have punk rock attitude that don't sound like punk rock nowadays.
Songfacts: One of the other things that you were part of is what we now call Americana music. And I don't think you guys get enough credit for what you did. But I can remember there was one line in your song "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts" where you said that Woody Guthrie sang about B-E-E-T-S, not B-E-A-T-S, which I loved and still love to this day. You must have been kind of alone at the time loving roots music and trying to bring that Americana music to the fore. Did you realize at the time that you were a groundbreaker in that respect, as well?
John: Well, I don't think we were that alone, because The Cramps loved Sun Records and loved rockabilly, Billy Zoom loved Gene Vincent, and the Ramones loved early rock and roll music. One of the driving forces behind punk rock was to get back to what rock and roll is supposed to be, which is 3-minute songs, and the lyrics weren't all mysterious and stuff. It was about real things.
But as far as Americana, at the time the Blasters had come along, there was what they called cal-punk, which was a really unfortunate name for some pretty good bands. And there was sort of a return back to some more country-leaning sounds. I mean, I was proud of the fact that we looked elsewhere besides the subject matter that was on the Los Angeles record; we looked a little further and felt freer to reintegrate the first influences we had.
Songfacts: You kind of dissed some of the British bands that were sort of one-hit-wonder hair bands of a different genre. Did you ever hear back from any of those bands?
John: (laughing) No, we weren't popular enough to start any sort of feud or anything.
Songfacts: They didn't think of you as a threat?
John: No. I mean, we did get guff from people when we signed with Slash. But people said that we sold out when we signed with Elektra. You realize pretty early on that that's a bunch of bullshit and you can be only so righteous taking care of your audience and stuff like that. And I'm glad that nowadays people really do care about their audience, and it's all about writing songs like that.
Songfacts: It's interesting you mention selling out, because now, with the direction that the music business has gone, where labels are not nearly as powerful as they once were, I always hear about artists that are signing deals with, like, Converse, the Converse shoe company kind of a has a label, and I think Mountain Dew has a label. And you see these bands that are singing for corporations. It makes your signing to Elektra seem like small potatoes in comparison.
John: Yeah, I don't know. Let's not get off the subject, because we could go on to a whole different world of greed and the worldwide economy sucking up everything and taking advantage of people and turning people into slaves and all kinds of stuff like that. Let's go back to the songwriting part.
Songfacts: A lot of the songs you wrote when you were much younger. Do songs take on new meanings as you get older?
John: Of course. I mean, at one point we were singing about our audience. Nowadays we're singing to an audience, and maybe about a time in life, because the audience is still fairly young, or at least some of them. So yeah, it definitely changes. But you find a way to relate to it, so the song doesn't ring false.
Songfacts: Are there songs you can't sing anymore?
John: You mean physically, or…?
Songfacts: (laughing) You just don't feel it anymore.
Songfacts: Lou Reed said that the Velvet Underground had a rule that they couldn't play any blues licks because they didn't want to be associated with the whole blues revival that was happening right around the time that they started, because they didn't want their sound to be dated. And you can listen to Velvet Underground albums and they still sound unique because they didn't try to ape what was going on at the time.
John: Yeah. I think that's good advice. But we certainly were not alone. We took a lot of inspiration from the bands that were in L.A. and bands that were in New York. I know I did. I think in songwriting I was inspired by the sort of frivolousness that Blondie had and the sort of simplicity that the Ramones had. Not that I tried to do that, but I still was inspired by it.
Songfacts: You've had the pleasure of working with a number of great guitarists, Billy Zoom and then Tony Gilkyson and then Dave Alvin. And I wonder, did your writing style change because of the guitarists that you worked with?
John: I wish I would have thought of that. (laughs) No, I didn't. Most of the early X stuff, I'd say probably the first three records, I wrote all of that on bass guitar. So I wasn't coming up with the guitars figures. That's why Billy had a lot of freedom there. And I think by the time we were working with Dave and Tony, I started playing a little more guitar. So yeah, to a small degree the style of playing was influenced, but I can't say I wrote for them.
Songfacts: Well, I wanted to close things out here by talking about what you're doing musically these days. What projects are you working on?
John: Well, I've traveled and recorded with Jill Sobule several times over the years, and she and I just did a live-in-the-studio record, which was really, really fun. That's going to be available digitally in the next month or so.
Songfacts: And did you write with her?
John: No. We did new and old songs of each others'. And then I'm starting to record a new record on Monday. Very exciting.
Songfacts: And this is a solo album?
Songfacts: Okay. So what has inspired your writing?
John: Well, it's more personal, and I would say it's similar to the last two solo records that I did, except that now it's about love, but the last two the subjects didn't really achieve their goal of being in love and being together. And this time they do. And I've also been living in Bakersfield for the last three years, so that has definitely cropped up in it.
Songfacts: And did you move to Bakersfield because of your love of its country music history, or do you have family there?
John: Totally unrelated. Personal reasons.
Songfacts: What do you think about Bakersfield?
John: It's kind of awesome in its old fashioned qualities. There are a lot of very conservative people, but it hasn't changed as much as, say, Los Angeles
Songfacts: My sister lives in Oildale, and we stopped at an Arco station on the way home and there was this guy that had these big sideburns that I haven't seen for 30 or 40 years. And in Bakersfield, I guess that's perfectly fine.
John: Totally fine. That's the neighborhood that I live in, as well. Living up in the 'Dale.
Songfacts: How about that. Do I take it from what you said that you are in a good place romantically now?
Songfacts: That's good. So your writing, do you think it's taken on kind of a positive spin?
John: It definitely has. And after being so negative for so many years, it was a real challenge. (laughing) It's really difficult to write songs that are about being relatively satisfied and happy after having made a career out of looking on the dark side and being sort of negative and all that stuff.
Songfacts: But as a music fan, when somebody comes from that background, to me it carries more weight if somebody's had a difficult time that, when they truly find love, to me it's more believable because it's not like that Barry Manilow – not to rag on Barry, but...
John: (laughing) I think you could rag on Barry.
Songfacts: Okay. You know, that sort of paint-by-numbers romanticism. Instead, it's earned romanticism.
John: Yes. Well, on several records, there have been other songs that are truly unbridled romantic songs. But it has been a challenge, and there's some classic rock almost on this record. And definitely the same sort of mix of folk and country. Got some really good players, people that I've played with for a while. Jamie Muhoberac is playing piano, I've worked with him on several records. And Smokey Hormel is playing guitar, he's played with Beck and Tom Waits and all that. It's really cool.
Songfacts: Do you have a title and a label? What else can you tell me about it?
John: It'll probably be on Yep Roc, hopefully it'll come out in June or July. And right now the title is Keeper.
Songfacts: What about the Knitters, any plans to do anything new with the Knitters?
John: I think we're going to play in May, late May and early June around Southern California.
Songfacts: Okay, because I got a chance to see you at Stagecoach the last time that you were there, and it was great fun.
John: Yeah, it is fun, always fun. I'm here at McCabe's. I'm going to do a sound check with the band Jackshit, and we're going to do a few songs with Jackshit tonight.
Songfacts: You're at McCabe's tonight?
John: I am.
Songfacts: Oh, my goodness. I love that place.
John: Yeah, it's a great place. It's not my gig. I'm just sitting in singing a few songs.
We spoke with John Doe on December 3, 2010. Get more at xtheband.com.
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