John Doe Reflects on 40 Years of X

For four decades, X has been the sound of Los Angeles. Born from the city’s punk scene in the late ’70s, the band set itself apart with its male/female perspective, courtesy of singers John Doe and Exene Cervenka, as well as a willingness to move beyond punk into country, roots rock and beyond.

John Doe has also released a number of solo albums—most recently The Westerner—and has had a career as an actor in films such as Great Balls of Fire! and Boogie Nights and TV shows including Roswell and Children’s Hospital. Last year, he added author to his résumé with Under the Big Black Sun, a combination of autobiography and history. X is celebrating its big birthday with a 40th anniversary tour and an exhibit at L.A.’s Grammy Museum. Doe recently talked to Vegas Seven about it all.

Did you imagine that there would be an X 40th anniversary tour? 

Of course not. It’s shocking, but I think we’re old enough to be grateful for it. We’re one of the last bands standing [with] all original members. No matter when you start, you always have hope that it’s going to be successful and rewarding.

We still enjoy each other, probably more now than maybe 10 or 15 years ago. You go through a bunch of shit, like Billy [Zoom] having cancer, just the toll that playing music takes [and] traveling—and then you stop sweating the small stuff. You’re just like, “This is cool. You mean I get to make money and have a career doing this thing?”

X shows draw a diverse crowd in terms of style and age.

There are young people, 16 or even younger. It’s generational: Fathers with sons and mothers with daughters come to see us. It feels like a young person wants to see something that’s been around, that’s real, that has stood the test of time. … You don’t get a big head about it. You’re just kind of happy that someone wants to see it, and that there is some added attention given to legacy stuff nowadays.

How did you decide which songs to play on this tour? 

X’s music is not just one thing. There are four unique personalities. Now we are doing a show that includes some of the more outside and varied songs—it’s not just a straight-up punk rock show. We have another person who’s playing with us, Craig Packham, and D.J. [Bonebrake] plays vibes on a few songs, while Billy plays saxophone on a couple songs. We’re playing these songs that we haven’t played, like “Come Back to Me” or “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes,” and then we’ve also reimagined a few songs so that they are in that same outside, weird realm.

Punk rock is very … The way it’s put together is like a string quartet. You can’t step out because if one part changes, only three instruments [are playing], it sounds horrible because the sound changes radically and it all falls apart. It’s somewhat more rigid. … This new stuff gives everyone a chance to mess around and do different things.

X has an exhibit at the Grammy Museum right now. Did you have to dig relics out of your garage for display? 

We took all the stuff out of things we’d collected. Some of the instruments that we have that are going to be in the exhibit are ones that we still use—luckily, I’ve got a spare bass. … They wanted to have us represent for the West Coast the way that they have the Ramones to represent from the East Coast. So, yeah, it was very rewarding to have someone put [on] that stamp of approval. We’re legit. We’re in a museum. That was always the goal!

You know, I like to make light of this, but I think everybody appreciates when you work at something for a long time and then somebody else gives you some validation. We might pooh-pooh it, but when it happens, you think, “Oh, wow, that’s great.”

Your book, Under the Big Black Sun, wasn’t the typical “Here’s my rock star life” autobiography. You brought in a lot of other people to tell their stories. Why did you decide to do it that way? 

I didn’t really live a rock star life, first of all. Exene and I were married most of the time, and I was faithful to her, most of the time. And that was something we were against, the rock star life. … But I didn’t want to have to be the authority—it also was a lot more work. And I realized that if I got other people to tell their stories, number one, it would be similar to the spirit the rest of the scene was, which was kind of a collaboration and community, and, number two, it’d be a bigger picture of everybody’s truth.

I can talk about how I appreciate the equality that women had in early punk rock, but I can’t talk about what it’s like being a woman: Jane Wiedlin and Exene and Kristine McKenna, they could. Everyone who we thought were experts were given a topic as well. Dave Alvin was an expert in what it was like for a roots band to get pulled into the punk rock world, and Jane Wiedlin was an expert on the Canterbury scene—that was where people exchanged a lot of ideas and got high [and] created the scene by their alliances. Henry Rollins was an expert in being from out of town and getting pulled into this pretty well-developed, hardcore scene, so he could tell that truth.

X is so identified with Los Angeles, but only one member is actually from that area. Do you think coming to the city from the outside gave you a different perspective? 

Definitely. Some people, like directors and writers, can capture an essence sometimes better than a person who’s from there. For me, it was like the candy shop was open, and it was also really dirty and falling apart, and I thought, “That’s what I need. This is the decline of Western civilization, and I can just be a chronicler, a reporter.”


September 6, 7:30 p.m., $30–$35, Brooklyn Bowl, brooklynbowl/las-vegas