Under the Big Black Grammy Sun with X's John Doe

John Doe
John Doe
Sugarwolf

He was born John Duchac from Decatur, Illinois; but, we all know him as John Doe. In his early days, co-founder and bassist for legendary punk band X called Baltimore home. After one too many cold winters, he decided to head out west in ’75 to that goo-goo muck that was Los Angeles. Who knew that within a short period of time he’d meet the people that would shape his musical journey for decades. Most notably, there’s a very funny story how John met guitarist extraordinaire, Billy Zoom, the following year. The story is that they met through an ad in the Recycler. Zoom, a phenomenal guitarist, was really into rockabilly back then and was already sporting his trademark spread-eagle stance and infectious smile that fans have grown to love over the decades. Doe and Zoom were only part of the band. There’s lead singer Exene Cervenka, and drummer DJ Bonebrake. Together, they formed X. Their music rose above the static by relaying messages like a folk song, while turning up the volume and speed.

Coming from the Midwest, Doe is as humble as they come. He makes time for fans and media alike. John considers this as part of the job description if you play in a band. Being authentic is a big deal for him. Which is refreshing because not all artists share in this view. Luckily, like a few great artists, he is somewhat insulated from his fame and good fortune. He is aware of his success, but doesn’t dwell on it. In addition to being a rock star, John has appeared in several television and film projects. He’s been in films like Great Balls of Fire!, Road House, Boogie Nights, Wyatt Earp, The Good Girl and Walk the Line among many others. As for TV, he was on Law & Order, CSI Miami and One Tree Hill. Anyone that loves conspiracy theories, and a good alien UFO story, knows Doe played a recurring role as Jeff Parker in the 1999-2002 WB television series Roswell. That’s a big deal for all us UFO nuts.

That all being said, Doe has some incredible stories coming from his life as a pioneer of the L.A. punk scene. Like many artists with great stories, he was asked time and time again to write about it. The truth is, John will be the first to tell you, he really wasn’t too interested in writing about what the scene was like. Being that humble guy, he’s said he really didn’t feel he had the skills to tell the story and, frankly, it was way too much work. Be it the music gods, or friends just wanting to hear the stories in perpetuity, he was finally convinced by  music journalist, Tom DeSavia, to tell some of the cool stories, and some not so good ones. Since he knew so many artists that also had amazing stories, the idea took root about doing something where we could hear stories from various viewpoints, not just his. Admittedly, he loved the contribution from the East L.A. Punk scene, and how women were viewed as equals within that domain. These were areas he didn’t have that needed insight, and stories solely about sick boys and bro hymns wouldn’t be true to the time. To get proper perspective, Doe ran enlisted the help of a number of punk legends and the end result was a collaborative effort ending in the Audio Book entitled: Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk.

The book explores the origin of the L.A. punk scene and its evolution to hardcore punk. If it wasn’t for bands mentioned in the book, who knows, bands like Minor Threat, Pennywise, Fugazi, NOFX, The Vandals among many others might not have ever happened. Luckily for all of us, L.A. was a place for punk to thrive. Once the seed took root, Doe teamed with DeSavia, to tell this epic story.

The time period was set from 1977 through 1982; they then had to figure out who they wanted to team up with. There were two basic considerations in preparing this list of contributors: 1) Who was still alive and 2) Who lived the life and was an expert on the topic. The aim was to share adventures and descriptions from personal stories from the infamous of the time. With that in mind, the contributors include the stories and voices of: Exene Cervenka (X / Knitters), Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Mike Watt (Minutemen/ Firehose), Jane Weidlin and Charlotte Caffey (both from the Go-Go’s), Dave Alvin (The Blasters, Knitters and The Flesh Eaters), Jack Grisham (T.S.O.L.), Teresa Covarrubias (The Brat), Robert Lopez (The Zeros / El Vez), Chris D. (The Flesh Eaters) as well as Pleasant Gehman (Writer/Poet), along with “Legit Writers” Kristine McKenna and Chris Morris. There is an entry from long-time friend Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day. Armstrong is a figure that Doe feels doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his contributions to the scene, but that’s another story, for another day.

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Doe narrates a real life depiction of Hollywood and its back-alley dealings and lifestyles. He tells us how he came to meet members of X, especially Exene herself. The book expresses stories of friendship, ambition and dreams, love, disagreements and that rage against society and not to mention the seedy underbelly that was or is the music industry. We travel back in time to the clubs of the era, places like The Masque, clubs that defined the scene, as well as to the street corners, vacant lots, apartment complexes where artists called home. Exene covers the cultural revolution of the time, while Jane goes into living within an artist community. Alvin covers roots music in punk. Grisham, Rollins and Watt also provide their take on the scene.

As a result of this collaborative effort, Doe and friends have been nominated for a Grammy in the “Spoken Word” category. If you’re anything like me, you’re asking yourself, “What the hell is a Spoken Word Grammy?” When we think Grammy, we think mostly pop music or really old dudes. Artists like Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Adele and of course, Tony Bennett. Although, the Grammy’s have been getting flak over the years for their lack of Award winners from the Rock/Alternative-non-banjo/punk genres. Notwithstanding the past decade, the trend has softened respectively due to Best Album Awards going to U2, Arcade Fire, Daft Punk and Beck, by way of the “Kanye incident.” It’s the sign of the times when a Rap artists and social media helps put a spotlight on the alt-rock/punk genres.

Bands like X knocked down the doors so-to-speak so bands like Cage the Elephant, Blink 182, Weezer and the Foo Fighters can stand on that grand stage. Spoken word in itself has been a category since 1959. What’s even funnier about the history of the Grammy’s is that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences almost initially called the Grammy Award “The Edi Award,” after Thomas Edison. Luckily they stuck with the Grammy Award (short for gramophone). Historically, along with Best Album, Best New Artist, Song of the Year, there’s Spoken Word. This year marks the 59th Grammy’s, and the nominees for excellence in the Spoken Word category include Doe (et al.), Amy Schumer, Carol Burnett, Patti Smith, and Elvis Costello. It should be noted, past Spoken Word winners include Poets such as Maya Angelou; Presidents, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; Comedians, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart; and Actors, Betty White and Michael J. Fox. Needless to say, Doe has elevated himself to the elite of communicators. After all, he has an advantage being a rock star and all. The voting is in, and the 59th Grammy Awards air on CBS, February 19th.

Regardless of how this Grammy nod turns out for Doe, he remains the class of the music world. He tours regularly with X. You can catch this legendary and iconic band play beloved songs like "Los Angeles," "Breathless," "Devil Doll," "White Girl", "Hungry Wolf," "Blue Spark," "Wild Thing," "The New World," "4th of July" among countless others when X plays a show in your neck of the woods. Just be warned, going to a Punk show is loud, it’s bold and in your face; it’s not intended for the squeamish. My advice, do yourself a favor and check out this Audio Book, and catch X or the other bands in this article, so you can have stories of your own to tell. If you live in a rural area where bands like these visit you only once every Neveruary, at minimum, check them out on YouTube, Spotify or iTunes! After all, seeing legends like these or knowing about them makes us all look cooler than we really are.


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