Out of the Past

They packed into the House of Blues on Sunset Strip, that strip-mall museum with its overpriced booze and overfried food, and held their breath. They chanted ("X...X...X...X!") and waited, pushing toward the stage until the crowd became a crush. They wore their faded tour tees and talked about their favorite songs, waiting for the curtains to part and the present to give way to the past. And when it did, when the crowd's rumble gave way to the guitar's roar, they exhaled until their cheers became overwhelming, orgasmic. The night was April 21, 2000, but for a moment, it was a long ago, faraway yesterday--Los Angeles, 1980, punk rock, beautiful sleaze, John Doe, Exene Cervenka, D.J. Bonebrake, and Billy Zoom. X played for two hours, sprinting through its history, but the echoes linger. It was hard not to stand in that club, in that city, and not vibrate a little as Exene and John sang "Los Angeles." In Los Angeles. That's what they call being in the right place at the right time, even if you got there 20 years too late.

For years, the four of them tried to outrun their history, tried to reduce it to a speck in the rearview mirror. They tried going their separate ways, recording their solo projects, acting in George Strait movies, fixing guitars, and finding God. They said their farewells and moved forward, only to find yesterday staring them in the face whenever they turned around. In the end, history outran them: X was too much alive to bury in the history books. So there they were, for only the 10th (or so) time in recent years, sounding every bit as vibrant and viable as they did two decades ago; it was no nostalgia trip, no dance through the graveyard. They put aside their differences, shoved aside bittersweet memories, and played like they were still kids, still in love, and still desperate. And for those of us of a certain age, it was like seeing the Replacements or the Clash back together again, long after they said their final farewells and fuck-offs to each other and their audience.

But it was hard not to stand in the audience and wonder how it felt for Doe and Cervenka and Bonebrake and Zoom to share a stage with each other. It was hard not to wonder what they got from being together again, if only for this rare moment. Could they still get off on music they made 20 years ago, or can it only be a drag to rehash ancient memories for a paycheck?

"What do I get out of it?" the 44-year-old Doe says, speaking from a hotel room in Massachusetts, where he's currently shooting Above and Beyond (he has appeared in more than 40 films and TV shows, from Boogie Nights to an episode of Veronica's Closet). The subject arises because just two days before this interview, he was back in Los Angeles playing with his other band, the Knitters, X's folk spin-off that recorded a single album in 1985. Though he's about to tour in support of his third and best full-length solo album, Freedom Is..., Doe has long since discovered he can no more escape his past than his own skin.

"I give back something to the audience, especially with X, and it's a lot of fun," he says. "The music holds up, and I get paid. It's all those things, in that order. I think if getting paid was the first thing, we'd try to do some sort of national reunion tour. We've done 10, 15 shows in the last couple of years with Billy Zoom. A lot of people kept asking what Billy Zoom was doing and all that shit. I would say, 'He's fixing amps in Orange County, finding himself.' We did that boxed set [1997's Beyond and Back: The X Anthology] and started having communication again, good offers came in, and we rehearsed a couple of times. After two or three hours, it sounded great. If it sounded terrible, I don't think anybody would have done it. Not to sound like an actor, but if you're not in the moment, you're fucking blowing it. You just gotta be there, so it's a thrill. There are a few times with X when the history sort of creeps into the back of your mind, and there's a sort of bittersweet feeling about that."

It's unfair to judge a musician by his past, to compare The New Stuff to The Old Shit, if only because no one wins when you start playing that game. If you hate the new albums, you find yourself running back to the old ones for a little reassurance; if you love the new ones, you still go back to the old ones, wanting to hear those songs that made you fall in love way back when. It's tempting to say the best song on Freedom Is... is "Ever After"--yeah, the one on which Cervenka sings, conjuring echoes of the days when the two singers-writers tangled their voices together. Someone who didn't come of age wearing out copies of Wild Gift and Los Angeles may beg to differ. But someone who didn't come of age listening to X probably ain't buying John Doe solo records. Their loss, on all counts.

Freedom Is... is, at last, the solo record John Doe has always had in him, that perfect hybrid of acoustic, folk-tinged chime and plugged-in, ragged charm (it sounds like the best of 1995's KISSINGSOHARD and his 1998 EP For The Rest of Us). He travels familiar ground--that desolate, wind-swept wasteland drenched in the spilled sweat and blood of failed relationships and vanished friends--but for the first time in a long while, he sounds like the confident tour guide. It's a far cry from his 1990 solo debut, Meet John Doe, on which he tried to wipe clean the slate and begin again as...a country artist. Indeed, that now-out-of-print album is the only thing in his past he would prefer remain buried; even now, it haunts him a little bit.

"As recent as three weeks ago, I played a radio show in San Diego, and as I was driving down there, I tuned in the station and heard an ad for the show," he says. "The promo said, 'He used to play music with punk band X, and now he makes his own music--and it's country.' And it's like, if Freedom Is... is a country record, I'm the fucking Queen of England. The first thing you do is the most lasting impression, and I don't have a lot in common musically with Dave Alvin or Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Nothing. I'm much more interested in rock stuff. It was where I was at at the time, but the newer records are more me, and Meet John Doe is more of a persona.

"I really kinda hate country music at this point. I'm not Merle Haggard. I don't wanna be. I wanna be me. I'd much rather listen to AC/DC than Merle Haggard. It's hard to be lumped into a musical genre you don't feel any affinity for. It's kind of a drag. I feel more of a connection to people like Aimee Mann or Elliott Smith than I do with Wilco or the whole No Depression clan." (This doesn't include his friends the Old 97's, with whom he's often shared stage and studio: The band recorded the song "Cryin' But My Tears Are Far Away" with Doe for the 1999 Knitters tribute album, and Doe graciously performed with Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond at last year's Dallas Observer Music Awards. In exchange for his appearance, Doe wanted only a glass of red wine.)

For a while, Doe tried to dodge his yesterdays: He never played X songs with his own band (The John Doe Thing, featuring a rotating door of musicians), for instance, as he tried to cajole an old audience to follow him down a new path. But he has since added such songs as "White Girl" and "The Hungry Wolf" to his set list. And his three-piece band features a drummer named D.J. Bonebrake. The actor has settled into his role: Meet John Doe, entertainer.

"Last year I started doing a few X songs, because I realized people like to hear it," he says. "It's fun. I don't really take it that seriously. I think it's a little self-absorbed to deny your past: 'That was bullshit. This is what I'm doing now.' You can do that in your bedroom, ya know? It doesn't mean you have to do an R&B show with dancers and shit, but if you play a couple of songs people know, what's the big deal? I'm like that. I'll go see Paul Westerberg and hear a Replacements song and go, 'Hey, I know that song!' Then he'll play something new, and I'll go, 'There's another song I don't know. Well, that's interesting, but I don't know it. That sucks. Don't know that either. Sucks.' It's just fun, and people dig it. I'm an entertainer. That's what I do."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky