By the Way

Punk pioneer John Doe talks songwriting, X before Frank Brown Songwriter’s Festival show

X founder John Doe will be playing the Frog Pond Sunday Social in Mobile as part of the Frank Brown Songwriters Festival.
X founder John Doe will be playing the Frog Pond Sunday Social in Mobile as part of the Frank Brown Songwriters Festival. Courtesy John Doe

John Doe is a lot of different things to many people — punk rock pioneer, LA icon, rock and roll cowboy, actor and poet are juts a few of the ways people relate to Doe.

But on Sunday, Doe will be performing on the Gulf Coast in the role in which he is probably the most comfortable — the role of a songwriter. Doe will join Randall Bramblett, Rick Hirsh and Stan Foster, Alex McMurrary and Paul Sanchez at the Sunday Social at the Frog Pond at Blue Moon Farm in Mobile. The Sunday Social is part of the Frank Brown International Songwriter’s Festival, which runs in LA (lower Alabama) though Nov. 19

Admission to the Levon Helm-style “Ramble” are $30, but you can’t just go to Ticketmaster and scoop them up. You have to be invited to the show and the best way to do that is to send Frog Pond curator Cathe Steele and email at thefrogpondbluemoonfarm@gmail.com and plead your case.

Doe is one of the founding members of the seminal LA punk band X. The band was featured in “The Decline of Western Civilization,” Penelope Spheeris’ groundbreaking documentary and “Urgh! A music War.” X, Social Distortion and Husker Du were influential bands for many teens in the 1980s.

And X was only the beginning of Doe’s career. He released his first solo album, “Meet John Doe” in 1990. His latest album, “The Westerner,” dropped in 2016.

Doe has also had a celebrated career as an actor, with several film and television appearances that includes roles in Allison Anders’ “Sugar Town” and the Paul Thomas Anderson classic “Boogie Nights.”

Those first X albums meant so much to me, especially as a teenager. I think they saved me from Motley Crue.

Glad to be of service, my friend. I’m glad I could help another teenager through their dark times. Jesse Dayton once told me that X and Joe Strummer was the thing that saved him from Foghat.

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

Yes, I do. Of course I do. It was terrible and I’m glad that I didn’t stay there. It was called “Stable Boy” because I had to rake leaves or something and I felt like I was being held against my will by my parents and I was being forced into indentured servitude. I had to rake leaves and sweep the patio —horrible things like that.

Tell me about writing songs with (X member) Exene (Cervenka). How did that partnership work, especially when you were married?

It was a mix-and-match thing. I would write music that didn’t have any lyrics, things like that. Exene would write words and sometimes I would write words. I would take a group of words and match them with the music. Sometimes, it was easy and you could snap your fingers and it was done. At other times, there was more sweat equity. I would have a general idea of thought the melody should be, especially for the songs I thought Exene should sing and she would pair it to what she heard. That’s the short version.

I remember the first time I heard “The New World” and how the lyrics “It was better before, before they voted for What's-His-Name, this was supposed to be the new world” really stuck with me. It was one of the first politically-charged songs that I remember hearing.

The song is timely and it always will be. Exene wrote the words so that it fit rhythmically. But Exene being the forward-thinking or being prophetic, didn’t say, “Reagan’s a (expletive.)” The first verse is told from the perspective of a bum. He just wants to go have his drink but he goes to his bar and his bar is closed. And he thinks, “they must be voting for some (expletive) in a line of (expletive).” The song will always be prophetic.

The second verse is all about sending jobs overseas and shutting down Detroit. We saw this in 1982. The American dream was ending. Trump said he’s going to bring industry back and it’s like, “No you’re not.” And it’s a little bit sad. We knew it back then, but no one cared and they still don’t. All of these presidents are the same. They are all corporate shells. The days of politicians doing good for Americans is done and that makes me sad.

Obama was cool, but he just a better salesman. He was smarter and more handsome. But they are all the same. Trump just doesn’t care. So in a way, I don’t mind it as much. He’s just more up front about it and he’s not going to play nice.

“The New World” is told from the perspective of a have-not and I think that’s always going to be relevant.

Who are some songwriters you like?

I really admire Elliot Smith and Mance Lipscomb, and Neko Case is a great songwriter because she’s so linear and her idea of a chorus is like no one else. I’ve covered a lot of people. If a song says something to you, you’ll look under the hood and hopefully learn a little bit more.

Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with?

You know, sure. But I can’t think of anyone. Co-writing is so personal that I find it hard to do. I haven’t really co-written with anyone except Exene and Dave Alvin. I just signed a new publishing deal so maybe I might.

So the Nashville method of punching a clock and getting in a room with some other people doesn’t appeal to you?

No. I would much rather go dig a ditch. But I’m not judging it because I’m trying not to judge things. I think that’s one thing you learn as you get older that judging things is a mistake. It’s not my thing.

We lost Chuck Berry this year. Tell me about his influence on the band’s sound.

You talk about a great songwriter — he’s one of the greatest, mainly because of his lyrical flow. I think it’s manicured but not self conscious. He had to clip and trim and massage all of those words into that flow but it didn’t seem like heavy lifting for him.

(X guitarist) Billy (Zoom) put the intro to “Promised Land” in “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” was just something he did in rehearsal one day and we all picked up our heads and said, “Ohh, do that again.” But I would also give Billy credit for putting rockabilly guitar playing into punk rock. Nobody did that the way Billy did. The Cramps brought Link Wray into it a little bit, but nobody played rockabilly the way Billy did. If it weren’t for him, all of the pyschobilly bands that came after him, they may not have gotten there if they didn’t have him showing them the connection between what we wanted to do and the music of Chuck and Little Richard and the Sun Records guys did.

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