Meet John Duchac
X Frontman and Solo Artist John Doe Revisits His Baltimore Roots
It was Nov. 3, 1983, and there onstage at the Ontario theater, the faded Washington, D.C., movie palace, was X, touring behind its best album yet, More Fun in the New World. Sitting behind the drums was the boyish, curly-headed D.J. Bonebrake. Standing with his legs spread and his platinum pompadour perfectly in place was the black-leather-jacketed guitarist Billy Zoom. At one microphone was Exene Cervenka, the short, bouncing woman in the stringy henna hair and black pullover shirt. At the other mic was the wired and wiry John Doe with no shirt beneath his blue denim jacket and bass strap.
The quartet kicked off the show with "We're Having Much More Fun," and they quickly made the title persuasive. The three instrumentalists cranked up the same propulsive, convulsive thrash that had launched X from the Los Angeles punk scene three years earlier. The music had that pell-mell momentum that always seemed about to collapse into chaos but never quite did. But in the two lead vocals, you heard something new, a willingness to reach beyond the insular boundaries of punk to grab melodies, lyrics, and feels from other, earlier musics. This was unmistakable when Doe started channeling the old Motown star Martha Reeves, shouting "Baltimore and D.C. now!" as he turned her "Dancing in the Street" into the political satire of the new X song "The New World."
Afterward, Doe was leaning against the band's silver tour bus parked on Columbia Road. The rolled-up handkerchief he used as a headband was soaked through with perspiration, and he was surrounded by a coterie of fans. He had that adrenalized alertness many musicians have after a performance and he recognized me even though we hadn't seen each other in seven years. He was, in fact, the same shambling poet I had known in Baltimore during the early '70s, back when he was still known as John Duchac.
The original wave of punk had a way of obliterating the past, of pretending that no rock 'n' roll had existed before 1976. With their made-up names and their Ramones-meet-Patti Smith songs, X encouraged this illusion. It was a useful myth, for it allowed musicians to wipe the slate clean and create something brand new, but it was a myth just the same. The musicians did have corny childhoods, awkward adolescences, and earnest college years; they were influenced by a lot more than just Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.
Doe, at least, had the good grace to cheerfully admit as much. I still have the notes from an interview we did two weeks after the Ontario show, and he conceded, "Sure, we're a part of the past--everybody is. Five years ago, when we were starting out, we had to reject that to be ourselves, to come up with the X sound. Cutting myself off from the past at the beginning freed me to be myself."
I reminded him that his once-repressed past was now leaking into his new songs, not only in the Martha Reeves allusion in "The New World" and the Woody Guthrie reference in "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts," but also in the rhythms and melodies that depart from punk orthodoxy to hint at folk rock, R&B, and country music.
"You let it back in," he explained, "because it's great music, and it has just as much soul as the music you created when you threw it all away. You get to a point where you're so conscious of your own sound, so confident, that you can incorporate something else into it."
Today, nearly 25 years later, Doe has three bands going. The John Doe Band, which showcases the new songs from the seven solo albums he has released since 1990, performs in Baltimore and Washington this week. The original lineup of X, which does 20 to 70 shows a years, has concentrated exclusively on songs from the first five X albums but is now contemplating its first album of new songs since 1993. The Knitters, the country/folk/rock band that features Doe, Cervenka, Bonebrake, Jonny Ray Bartel, and Dave Alvin, released its second album in 2005, a full 20 years after its first.
Doe just turned 55 this month, and history is very much on his mind. Last November he separated from his wife of 24 years ("Yes, that's what the last two albums were about," he confesses), and he is now living in Bakersfield, Calif., a city awash in musical history thanks to such hometown heroes as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. His recent solo albums have increasingly turned to the past for inspiration--not just Bakersfield country but also the Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, the Woodstock folk rock of the Band, and the California harmonies of Sonny and Cher.
He now finds himself wrestling with questions such as: Can I write new songs for X without sounding like an imitation of my younger self? How can I use older styles on my solo albums without being trapped by them? How much history do I let in and how much do I keep out? That history is not just musical; it's also personal, and for Doe, a crucial chunk of it took place in Maryland.
X was founded and developed in the city that supplied the title of its 1980 debut album, Los Angeles, and the songs written by Doe and Cervenka are imbued with the sights, sounds, and spirit of that sprawling metropolis. But Doe's pre-X history--the prehistoric John Doe, if you will--is bound up in Baltimore. It was here that he absorbed not only his literary bent and self-initiative but also the sense of humor that made X so different from many other punk bands.
"Humor keeps rock 'n' roll from getting overbearing and morbid and completely sobering," he said in 1983. "Yeah, you have to write about the unhappy parts of your life, but you have to balance that out with fun. Unfortunately, after the hardcore bands took over punk, that humor got lost.
"I always thought that the point of punk was coping with bullshit, and humor is an important part of that. That's why I changed my name to John Doe--not to be a rock star or to be taken seriously, but because I thought it was funny, like it was funny Declan McManus changed his name to Elvis Costello. I always thought punk had a certain amount of John Waters in it--the insanity, the goofy clothes, the song titles like `Our Love Passed Out on the Couch.'"
Doe wasn't claiming that he had more than a passing acquaintance with Waters while he lived in Baltimore. He was claiming, rather, that Baltimore consistently deflates the pompous and reveals the ridiculous, that the city itself was the source of the humor that he, Waters, and so many more have drawn from.
John Duchac lived in the Baltimore area from 1963 through 1976, attending Campfield Elementary School, Sudbrook Junior High School, Woodlawn High School, and the now-defunct Antioch College, a predecessor to today's Sojourner-Douglass College. Most of those years were during Baltimore's Dark Ages, the period between the 1968 riots that emptied much of the city and the 1980 opening of Harborplace that marked the beginning of Baltimore's still-unfinished revival.
"I felt incredibly lucky to be part of a city that had not been homogenized," he says in a recent phone interview. "Baltimore had been forgotten, and urban renewal had taken so long to come through. It was an open city. It was inspiring. People did art for art's sake. There was no way to exploit being an artist in Baltimore because there were no opportunities. No one was more famous than anyone else, so that was a great training ground. I remember walking out on the piers where Harborplace is now, watching the rats run around, drinking beer, and shooting the shit. It was incredible.
"In Fells Point, I knew I was part of something that felt like a real bohemian lifestyle, even though a lot of times it was just a bunch of drunks. This was before all the suburbanites invaded and you still ran into sailors from the ships docked nearby. You could still see Edith Massey sitting behind the counter of her store. I remember how fertile the art community was that sprung up around Antioch and the [Maryland] Institute [College of Art]. There was a lot of cross-pollination between painters, writers, and musicians."
Duchac was actually born in Illinois, and his family lived in Tennessee and Wisconsin before they moved to Maryland. ("It seemed like the big city after Wisconsin," he recalls. "The kids were using sarcasm, which baffled us. What's this thing where you say one thing and mean another?") His parents were both librarians, so there were always plenty of books in the house. When the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, on Feb. 9, 1964, Duchac was a wide-eyed 10-year-old kid in Lochearn.
"It's all the Beatles' fault," he declares. "I was in the third grade when they first came out, and they made a huge impression. Soon our heroes were John Lennon and Johnny Unitas, Mick Jagger and Brooks Robinson. We became slaves to Top 40 radio, but Top 40 radio was different in Baltimore than elsewhere. James Brown had his own station in Baltimore, WEBB, which still played doo-wop and Chuck Berry.
"Baltimore was weird--like it had been set aside, like it was modern but things had fallen through the cracks, things like doo-wop on the radio and horses on the street. We lived right at the edge of the city line, and even though it was segregated, there was still a lot of black influence. The street arabs would come through, leading their horses and yelling, `Strawberries.' The Buddy Deane Show was a big deal--we all watched it. The Double T Diner was picketed for not allowing `those damned Negroes' to be served. John Waters documented that era very well."
Duchac picked up a guitar at 15 and started a band with his Woodlawn High pal Jack Chipman. It was the late '60s, and they fell under the folk-rock sway of the Byrds, the Band, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. When they played covers, they called themselves King Dance; when they played more of their own songs, they called themselves Strump--a Duchacian coinage that conflated strum, stump, trump, and strumpet.
Doe now dismisses Strump as playing "bad, pretentious, derivative music," but he's too hard on himself. I remember seeing Strump at Levering Hall on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus in 1976, and if the band was far from immortal, it was thoroughly enjoyable. The quartet had a good grasp of the day's Americana rock with catchy tunes and lyrics that already hinted at Duchac's gift for language. "I'm tearing up this back road," he sang on "The Dancehall." "The hot air gives me a thrill/ some leaves are torn in my grill/ the gravel dust rises when I slam on my parking-lot brakes/ and check out the girls that are standing at the front gate."
What I remember most about Duchac was his passion for verse, whether it was lyrics to be sung or poetry to be read. He could transform his days out on the Baltimore wharves into a stanza like this one from the poem "To Ralph on the Dry Dock":
Swells return rocking the boats
to sleep on their sides. Listing as dry
paint and slime curl away from midnight barnacles.
Fathers wield broken boards as
the old ones recline smoking Bugler . . . ,
Wives receive them dusty and sunset, after
pool shots at Jake's Seafood
sky is colouring unembarrassed on
an iron lulling day.
"Going to Antioch made me serious about poetry," Doe says today. "My teacher Grace Cavalieri had an incredible ability to always be positive. She'd say, `Read these poets and try it yourself, and I'll help you see what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong.' So you'd look at the poets who just came before us, folks like Robert Lowell, W.S. Merwin, and the Beats, and you'd go, `Oh, I see how this works,' and then apply it to your own poems. It wasn't rocket science--if you had a little talent and worked at it, you could write some interesting poems. Maybe you couldn't be great, but you could be respectable."
Duchac started traveling up to the St. Mark's poetry series in New York and to the Mass Transit readings in D.C. He decided there should be a similar series in Baltimore and, without waiting for someone else to start one, he became the co-founder and co-director of the Poetry Project.
"It was a great time for poetry because we believed it was something alive to be performed," Doe insists today. "I remember setting up chairs in the Theatre Project basement and talking to Kirby Malone about who to book. We had a DIY sensibility, even then. We told ourselves, `We can do this. Who says we can't?' And we did--look what happened. I'm sure it was very amateurish, but we were doing something."
"We took things in our own hands," confirms Ellen Carter Woodbridge, another co-founder of the Poetry Project. "We didn't worry too much about who was going to publish us and what big reading we might get. John always went after what he wanted--he had a lot of faith in himself. I remember being impressed that he just took off for California. A lot of us had day jobs, so we could do our art at night and on the weekends, but he didn't do that. He said, `I'm going to go out there and make it in the music business.'"
Terence Winch, who co-hosted the Mass Transit series with Michael Lally, remembers Duchac "as this good-looking, earnest young man from Baltimore who wrote poetry and played folk music. We had that in common, because I was writing folk songs for my band, too. I was surprised when he went to L.A. and became a punk leader, because I expected him to follow more of a folk path, but his creativity took him where it took him. He sent back all these postcards about meeting Exene and starting a punk band."
Duchac was savvy enough to grasp that Baltimore may have been a great place to do art for art's sake, but he wanted more than that. He wanted to create art that made itself felt, that found an audience. His parents had moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., just as he was starting Antioch in 1972, and on his visits up there to hear poets read at St. Mark's and to hear bands like Television and Johnny Thunder's Heartbreakers at CBGB's, he realized that these writers and musicians weren't so different from the ones in Baltimore; they'd just found a way to make a bigger splash.
"Baltimore was a great place," he says today. "But you couldn't have the big-time impact you could in New York. But I also realized New York was already locked up--they had their own thing going. I wasn't interested in San Francisco because I was so tired of winter weather. Plus, I was enamored with Nathaniel West, Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler, and Frances Farmer. I decided Los Angeles was the place to go."
Duchac graduated from Antioch in 1975 and spent the next year working construction and playing in Strump. As much as he loved the Poetry Project, the Fells Point demimonde, and the harbor docks, he felt like he was spinning his wheels. He and Chipman made an exploratory trip to L.A. in the spring of 1976 and they were encouraged enough to plan a permanent move in the fall.
I interviewed Duchac during the summer between those two trips, and he lamented that "the best a group around here can hope for is a local fan base that will follow them from club to club. I want to go somewhere where I can make a living with my music and not have to install aluminum siding. For a long time I didn't feel obligated to say anything to anybody in my writing. I just felt an obligation to myself. Now I think that's selfish. I mean, who wants to be cryptic? I'd like to be singing songs that produce a gut reaction, but if I have to write more commercial stuff for people to get to know me, I will."
It wasn't a very punk attitude, but Duchac and Chipman weren't going out there to be punks; they were going to be tunesmiths--Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel. They weren't going west to change their Baltimore sound but to get paid for it. They even sold a few songs after they found an apartment near the ocean in Venice Beach, still a run-down, bohemian neighborhood back then. But in a matter of months, the partners had split and Chipman returned to Maryland. He wanted to keep knocking on publisher's doors, while Duchac wanted to dive headfirst into L.A.'s beat-poetry and punk-rock scenes.
"I relied on the poetry world to make contacts," Doe said in 1983. "I met Exene at the Venice Poetry Workshop. We were filling out cards asking who our favorite writers were, and I wrote `Charles Bukowski' twice. She said, `You wrote that guy down twice,' and I said, `I must really like him.' She read a poem about Lois Lane, and we started going out."
Duchac was itching to get back to playing music live and he put an ad for musicians in the Recycler handout. In the same issue was an ad placed by an electronics repairman named Tyson Kindell, and the two joined forces at the beginning of 1977. Kindell could be as noisy as a metal guitarist, as choppy as a punk guitarist, and as rootsy as a rockabilly guitarist. He "was unusual for that scene," Doe says. "He's unusual for any scene."
With Kindell on guitar and Duchac on bass, the fledgling quartet was still trapped in history, concentrating on 1950s and '60s covers. Meanwhile, he and new girlfriend Cervenka were attending poetry readings and getting together to critique each other's poems.
"One day I was reading through her poetry," Doe recalls. "And when I saw `I'm Coming Over,' I said, `This is a song. What if I do this in the band I'm starting?' She said, `No way. If you're going to do it in a band, I'm going to sing it.' I thought she would just sing a song or two, but once she started, it was obvious she would be the focal point, because she's a natural lead singer--she has the fire and power."
Cervenka may be a natural lead singer, but she's hardly a conventional one. Her caterwauling, variable-pitch vocals would never have found a place in Duchac's Baltimore band, for example. "It became obvious that she didn't know traditional harmony," Doe concedes. "So we had to make up our own harmony and stumbled onto something new."
The twin examples of the poetry world and the punk scene allowed them to throw history out the window. Duchac's Baltimore bar-band background gave him enough craftsmanship to provide a sympathetic context for Cervenka's singing, and his Baltimore poetry background gave him the courage to commit to an unprecedented male/female vocal sound.
Soon the cover songs went out the window, too. And so did their old names. John Duchac became John Doe, Christine Cervenka became Exene Cervenka, and Tyson Kindell became Billy Zoom. New drummer Donald James Bonebrake already had a weird enough birth name, so he merely became D.J. Bonebrake. They gave their rehearsal-room group the ultimate punk name: X.
"We first played in public in the summer of '77," Doe recalls. "It wasn't till mid-'78 that real clubs started to book us, the L.A. Times got interested, and Slash Records began. All the support system fell into place, and that's when the music scene was established.
"The live scene in L.A. had been so weak that the Whiskey had disco and the Roxy just had specialty shows. You had this huge metropolis with no live-music scene, so when we came along, we were filling a void. That first phase was anything goes, no rules. Those early bands--the Germs, the Screamers, Fear, the Weirdos, the Plugz, and the Zeros--were very different from one another."
X got its big break when the Doors' keyboardist, Ray Manzarek, went to see the British rockabilly band Levi and the Rockats at the Whiskey. X was the opening act and it played a version of the Doors' "Soul Kitchen" that was so fast and hard that Manzarek didn't even recognize it until his wife pointed it out. That made him curious about X, and he arranged to come by a rehearsal. He not only became an instant fan but also offered to produce the band's debut album for Slash.
"We got shit for signing with Slash, because they were deemed part of `the business,'" Doe says. "But we wanted to get our message out there--we wanted to be popular in some way. There's a revisionist history about punk rock that no one cared about becoming famous or selling records, but that attitude came later. All those early bands in New York--Blondie, the Ramones, Television--wanted to be famous, to connect with an audience, and so did we. We wanted to get over on our own terms, but we wanted to get over."
The first two X albums, 1980's Los Angeles and '81's Wild Gift, both produced by Manzarek and released by Slash, captured the first flush of L.A. punk as nothing else did. The two discs made critics' heads spin and expanded a tiny scene into a large one. The third album, '82's Under the Big Black Sun, was released by a major label (Elektra) and featured cover art by Doe's old Baltimore pal Alfred Harris. It completed the initial trilogy that documented Doe and Cervenka's 1970s crop of early punk songs.
The band started touring back and forth across the country, and when they hit Baltimore or D.C., the former Duchac ran into his old friends who knew him too well to buy the myth that X had no ties but to Los Angeles and no history before 1976. Washington poet Terence Winch met Doe backstage at the 9:30 Club and turned the experience into a short story called "Turf" for his book That Special Place. Winch wrote:
John was dripping wet. His clothes were soaked through. I had never before seen anyone in such a sweat, and I was impressed. He was a nice Polish kid from Baltimore who used to hang out on the edges of the D.C. poetry scene in the '70s. Then he moved to L.A. to become a star, and did, changing his name to John Doe. He looked the same to me--powerful and good looking--except that he was thinner. He was dressed entirely in black, with about half a dozen necklaces adorning him.
I waved to him across the room and he motioned me over. The room was crowded with people popping beer cans, yelling at each other, lying on tables, smoking cigarettes. I felt conspicuous again, out of place. But to tell the truth, I have felt out of place all my life, no matter where, except maybe my own apartment. But . . . John always had a gracious and warm-hearted air about him, and I was relieved to sense immediately that his character was intact.
My own similar reunion with Doe was at the Ontario in 1983. By then the musicians' once-repressed past had climbed out of the basement and was lounging on the living-room furniture like embarrassing relatives who refuse to go home after the Christmas holidays. The new album, More Fun in the New World, included a cover of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Breathless," an update of Woody Guthrie's talking blues on "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts," and "True Love, Pt. #2," which referenced everyone from Tammy Wynette to Cannibal and the Headhunters.
"By the time we made Wild Gift, Jeffrey Lee Pierce [of the Gun Club], Exene, and I had a strong friendship and were starting to get into older music," Doe told me in 2000. "Traditional music with all that death and hard times was very attractive, because pop music didn't do that. We did catch some flak for incorporating these other elements from folks who said, `Oh, that X band is from Venice where all the hippies live.'
"But we didn't catch as much flak as you might think because the scene was more open. You had bands like X, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, the Gun Club, Los Lobos, and the Blasters all playing shows together. The whole idea was, `Do what you want to do--just make sure it's intense.'"
If X was a punk band with hints of blues and rockabilly, the Blasters were a blues and rockabilly band with hints of a punk attitude. Dave Alvin, the Blasters' chief songwriter, first met Doe when the two bands shared a bill in San Diego in 1980. He'd already noticed that X was more literate and more ambitious than most of the punk bands, and when they started talking backstage about their shared enthusiasm for Bob Dylan, Bukowski, and Muddy Waters, he understood why.
"We were both poets and we discussed that at that first gig," Alvin says in a phone interview. "And then the whole X thing started making sense to me. They presented themselves differently than the other punk groups--instead of a lot of obscenities and anger, you could sense an intelligence in the band."
"The first arc of the scene had already ended after Darby Crash died and Exene's sister died," Doe explains. "The audience was now big enough for a rockabilly crowd and an SST crowd. The second phase was split between the more Americana style and the more hardcore style."
By 1985, however, Doe and Cervenka's marriage was crumbling. For a moment, it seemed that would mean the end of the band as well. But there were both artistic and financial reasons to keep the band going, and after a few tense months Doe and Cervenka realized they were still friends, even if they no longer wanted to be spouses.
"We lived in sin from 1977 to 1980, and we were married from 1980 to 1984," Doe says. "So we were together for seven years. For six months to a year it was difficult, but we like each other--we've never had that adversarial relationship. Even when we were at our most sad, most separated, there was never this hatred, never this `I'm going to get you.'"
Another strain on the band was harder to overcome. By 1985, X had been touted as the "next big thing" for so long that the tag seemed more a taunt than a compliment. For all the rave reviews they got, no X album ever charted higher than No. 76 on the Billboard pop charts. When Doe sang, "This was supposed to be the new world," on "The New World," he was suggesting that the punk takeover of the rock 'n' roll world hadn't panned out as expected. The cycle of grueling tours, high-pressure recording sessions, and more grueling tours without a payoff began to wear, and Zoom was the first to bail out.
"Billy was disillusioned," Doe admits. "He felt he wasn't getting what he wanted, and you don't want someone in your group who's unhappy. He wasn't just fed up with X--he was fed up with music. He's an electronics genius, so he set up a studio and an amp repair shop."
Zoom was replaced by two guitarists, Dave Alvin and Tony Gilkyson. Alvin was already playing with Doe, Cervenka, and Bonebrake in the Knitters, and he had just left the Blasters, so it seemed natural to draft him into X. He contributed to 1987's See How We Are but soon left for a solo career. By the time the last X studio album, '93's Hey Zeus, was released, both Doe and Cervenka had already launched solo careers.
"Exene and I had a long talk, and we said, `Maybe we should just call it a day,'" Doe recalls. "Then a week later, sitting at home, I realized, `Fuck, I'm not in this band anymore. What am I going to do?' That was scary, but a month after that, it felt liberating. Suddenly I could do anything I wanted. I no longer had to write for a specific project, a specific beat, specific voices."
It took Doe three albums to get a handle on his solo persona, but it finally coalesced on 2000's Freedom Is . . . . Most of the tracks followed the same pattern: The leisurely, understated country-folk verses acknowledge missed connections and lost opportunities ("I tried to catch you," "We'll never be what used to be," "What it is is never what it seems," "No one knows what they want" ), but the loud, aggressive rock choruses are fueled by the undiminished hunger for those connections and a furious frustration at how elusive they remain.
"Yeah, the songs go quiet-to-loud in sort of the same way as Nirvana and the Pixies, though not as radically," Doe told me in 2000. "I like the diversity--once you've written a couple of quieter songs, you want to write something louder. I think both of those elements existed in X, but because the sound was so aggressive, that range was often obscured. But even at the beginning of X, some of the hardcore bands thought we weren't loud and fast enough."
After an underwhelming acoustic record, 2003's Dim Stars, Bright Sky, Doe made the terrific Forever Hasn't Happened Yet in 2005. It was as if the White Stripes' strange take on the blues had inspired Doe to get out his old Howlin' Wolf records and figure out what his take might be. The blues, it turned out, stiffened and buzzed Doe's country-folk sensibility in much the same way that punk once did, giving his pastoral melodies a tough urban rhythm and his literary narratives a bracing dose of realism.
Even better was last year's A Year in the Wilderness, which examined a troubled marriage through a series of paradoxical pop songs. Like the great country songs about marriage, these described the problems unflinchingly but held out hope that they might be resolved. That combination of bitter realism and resilient optimism is the mark of adult songwriting, and Doe struck that balance not only in the lyrics but also in the music's tug of war between melodic hooks and knotty rhythms. That was especially true of the standout track, "Golden State," a catchy, noisy rocker about a relationship as complicated as California and as hopeful as Doe's glorious chorus--harmonized with Kathleen Edwards.
When Doe came to the 8X10 last summer, he opened the show with "Golden State," singing it as a duet this time with Cindy Wasserman of Dead Rock West. Doe, not as skinny as he was in the '80s but still wearing a stark black-and-white outfit, played an anthemic guitar riff and sang, "You are the hole in my head/ I am the pain in your neck," and Wasserman answered in the next verse: "You are something in my eye/ and I am the shiver down your spine." It was the strangest sort of love song.
Wasserman also dueted with Doe on X's punk classic "White Girl." Doe introduced X's "The Fourth of July," written by Alvin, by saying, "This is the saddest song ever written. It sounds like a big anthem you flick your lighters for, but it's really sad," and proceeded to prove it. He sang Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," because, he said from the stage, "I used to listen to it all the time when I smoked hash in the woods" in nearby Simpsonville. He ended the set with a segue from X's "The New World" into the Beatles' "Revolution." It was such a seamless medley that one couldn't help but wonder what all the fuss about punk vs. the '60s had been all about.
One thing hasn't changed since X: Doe is still at his best when he's trading vocals with a female partner. He sang with Edwards, Aimee Mann, and Jill Sobule on A Year in the Wilderness, and with Neko Case, Kristin Hersh, and his daughter Veronica on Forever Hasn't Happened Yet. He still tours regularly with Cervenka in the Knitters and X reunion shows--and even co-wrote a song with her, "Darling Underground," for his latest solo album. Wasserman is joining Doe again on the current tour.
"Since a lot of the songs are concerned with relationships, it makes a lot of sense," he says. "I think I sound better with a woman singer. Some people have voices that are so unique that they need other stuff around them. I feel I've got a voice that is what it is, but it can use other stuff around it."
This year marks the 30th anniversary of X's first single, "Adult Books"/"We're Desperate," on Dangerhouse Records. With that much history behind him, it makes no sense to try and outrun it. To his credit, Doe welcomes the chance to put it all in perspective--not just X but also his life before and after X's 1978-'87 heyday. On his last two solo albums, he seems to have pulled it all together as never before.
"I'm asked a lot about what it was like in the day," Doe reflect. "And I realize I'm not an authority on it. I had my perspective on it, but I realize it wasn't everybody's perspective. But to me, the message of punk rock wasn't, `Life is shit.' It was, `Life is shit, so what are you going to do about it?'"
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