It happens every nightat some point during a concert, out of habit, John Doe glances to his side, expecting to see his ex-wife and longtime partner, Exene Cervenka, leaning into a microphone to join him in harmony. Only now, she’s not there. “I don’t think there will be a time when I don’t instinctively look over for her,” he says.
As leader of The John Doe Thing, Doe is currently on his second solo tour across America. His new album, Kissingsohard, is the second he’s made apart from Exene and the band X, the most artistically accomplished and acclaimed group to emerge from the Los Angeles punk rock scene of the early 1980s. X remains active; Doe, Cervenka, drummer D.J. Bonebrake (who’s playing on The John Doe Thing tour) and guitarist Tony Gilkyson completed an unplugged tour earlier this year. Doe describes X’s recent album, an acoustic reworking of old songs titled , as “a successful record because it helped refocus what X was about. It put the focus back on melodies and lyrics and songwriting and the interplay between band members. In a way, the songwriting in X has been overlooked because we have a lot of power. It became more of an event than about what was being said. But I always thought we had some good songs underneath all of it.”
He’s right. Early songs like “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss” and “We’re Desperate” became underground punk anthems not only because of their fury, but also because of how well they summed up the social and cultural stasis that paralyzed young adults in the Reagan era. X also wrote about the volatility of young lovers with insight and honesty, and they were more adventurous and musical than most punk groups, blending rockabilly energy and metal thunder with the basic three-chord dash.
By the late 1980s, the band lost its sense of direction. Cervenka and Doe divorced; original guitarist Billy Zoom left the band, replaced by ex-Blaster Dave Alvin and, later, Gilkyson. X’s 1987 album See How We Are reflected the confusion; the band sounded ex-hausted and directionless. In 1989, they announced they were going on hiatus.
Cervenka went on to release several spoken-word collections and a couple of country-influenced albums. Doe had already started appearing in movies, starting with Allison Anders’ Border Radio in 1985 and Oliver Stone’s in 1986. He’s since continued to play roles in both independent movies (Slamdance, Matter of Degrees, Without You I’m Nothing, Roadside Prophets and Liquid Dreams) and occasional big-budget affairs (Great Balls of Fire, Road House, Pure Country and Wyatt Earp). In the upcoming Georgia, he appears with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.
“That one was real rewarding,” Doe says of Georgia. “Acting can be a wonderful creative outlet, especially in the more independent projects. When there’s less money involved, they tend to rely more on script and dialogue and character development and stories, rather than just on personalities or blowing things up.”
In a way, he says, the independent aesthetic applies to music as well. “There’s less expected of The John Doe Thing than of X, and that widens the boundaries and the possibilities,” he says. “Lyrically, the themes don’t vary much; it’s still about relationships and politics and society. The main difference is it allows me to be more personal. That’s how we decide what is good for us solo and what is good for X. If it isn’t something both [Exene and I] can sing, then it’s for a solo album.”
Doe’s previous solo album, 1991’s Meet John Doe, blended ferocious rock ’n’ roll with roadhouse honky-tonk songs about drinking and dissolution. The John Doe Thing’s latest release is less rootsy and, overall, harder hitting. Halfway into the album, the core emerges with two back-to-back mid-tempo songs. “Tragedy By Definition” and “Kissing” both take a hard-eyed view of modern relationships; the songs suggest that romance is as likely to be a painful exercise as it to be a comforting experience that affirms the possibilities of love.
In “Kissing,” Doe juxtaposes comments about his own partner with the observations of others. Sounding as though he’s expressing admiration, he sings, “She’s made of rocks much stronger than me.” But the situation is more complicated than that, he suggests, when he later adds, “She’s made of snakes much smarter than me, made of sand much scarier than me, and 10 times blacker.... [She’s] so much darker than I’ll ever be.” He then recounts a scene in which he describes himself as missing in action, “walking through fluorescent tunnels late at night, breaking up young Latin couples plastered to the wall, kissing so hard.” As he recognizes their passion and their desperation, he simultaneously longs for and curses both.
In “Tragedy By Definition,” which is set to an equally edgy arrangement, Doe sings, “I see couples breaking apart at the seams.... Romance has got to be, the greatest tragedy.” Ultimately, however, the song speaks of seeking something stronger than the spark of romance, something deeper than physical pleasure and emotional sparring. “When it all falls away, I don’t want you to have to be anything,” he sings. “I just want you to be in love with me.”
Asked about the songs, Doe explains, “Love and romance are not the same. Romance is an element of love, but not all of it. As romance becomes less, there’s love to replace it. You have to be dedicated enough to work on a relationship. I firmly believe in this. I believe in true love and in working on a relationship, if it’s worth saving.”
Doe feels the same way about touringit requires work and dedication. “You get better at it,” says the 15-year music veteran. “I don’t drink very much when I’m on the road. I’ve learned to take care of myself so that I’m able to focus on what’s good about it, about what you can get from it creatively.”
Just as he balks at those who suggest relationships must stay romantic and easy, he also recoils from the idea that traveling the country playing music is one continuous good-time party. “To be realistic about life, whether it’s relationships or music or whatever, is to see that it’s not always going to be happy. It’s not all fun and happiness. It kills me when people ask, ‘Are you having fun on this tour?’ You’d have to be a moron to say it was fun.” He mocks a childish, simpleton voice as he continues, “Oh boy, we get to get on a bus and go to radio stations and stay in different hotels every night. Oh boy!” He laughs. “You’d have to be a fucking idiot to think that was fun, at least at this age. But, if it works well, it can be creatively rewarding. At this point, that’s all I know how to do. Make stuff and try to communicate it. If you feel like it’s going well, then you get a certain amount of satisfaction out of that.”
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