When John Doe looks back at the early days of punk in Los Angeles, the thing that strikes him first is a sense of community. It was fun scene, and that's an adjective he says can't be immediately pinned to the genre's other major punk hubs in the late Seventies. "New York wasn't going to be fun," he says. "It was going to be cool and edgy, diverse and filled with heroin. And England wasn't going to be fun. But you could live here in L.A. cheap and you'd have room to breathe. ... And we had cars. Cool shit happens in cars." Doe laughs.
Four decades ago, Doe moved from the East Coast to the City of Angels and cofounded the trailblazing punk group X. In 1980, they put out their debut LP, the urgent, raucous Los Angeles, which found them fusing Ramones-style propulsion with swinging, rockabilly rhythms ("Johnny Hit and Run Paulene"), classic-rock riffing ("Soul Kitchen") and hearty doses of sarcasm ("Los Angeles"). No other band sounded like X, especially in Los Angeles where the Germs recorded two-minute bursts of emetic vitriol, the Weirdos played explosive-yet-melodic screeds, the Go-Go's pioneered catchy, rough-hewn punk-pop and the Screamers performed chunky, synth-studded slices of nihilism. It was a scene with no one flavor.
Doe, now age 63, has since moved to the Bay Area and continues to tour with X and release solo albums. His latest record, The Westerner, showcases rootsy tableaus of Americana, and it features appearances by Cat Power's Chan Marshall and Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry. He has also co-authored an unusual document on his punk past.
Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, co-written with music-industry vet Tom DeSavia, is a welcome diversion from the typical punk history books, which are often narratives or oral histories. Instead, the co-authors enlisted some of the artists who were there to pen mini-memoirs about their experiences. In addition to Doe and DeSavia, contributors include X's Exene Cervenka, the Go-Go's' Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey, and the Blasters' Dave Alvin, among others, as well as reps from neighboring locales including former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins, onetime Minutemen bassist Mike Watt and T.S.O.L. frontman Jack Grisham. Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong wrote the foreword.
"We made a list of people that are still alive and could probably put some words together and gave them topics," Doe tells Rolling Stone. "We asked Henry Rollins to write about the impact of moving from a smaller scene, D.C., to a bigger, fully hardcore scene in L.A. We asked Mike Watt to write about his friendship with [Minutemen frontman] D. Boon, as well as being part of the first wave of Hollywood punk. Exene wrote about the cultural revolution she felt so strongly. Jane wrote about where people hung out – our version of the salon. I wrote about looking for the bohemian lifestyle. Everyone was an expert in a different area."
Did you gain any new perspectives on L.A. punk from reading what the other artists in your book turned in?
I just learned the details of how people felt. I knew that a lot of people loved David Bowie. I knew that everyone hated high school [laughs]. It was reassuring, to hear it from their own voices. It was rewarding to see that everyone wrote in their own voice. "Oh, Jane Wiedlin is going to sound like Jane Wiedlin." And Mike Watt is going to have four periods in 6,000 words, and half of those are going to be because it's "D-period-Boon" [laughs]. It feels good to get the story told. You get a lot of different truths; everybody has their truth.
Many people have attempted to tell the story of L.A. punk. What did you hope to add with your book?
I wanted to give people a chance to paint a picture. You don't really get that from the oral history. I would love to have had this this kind of a treatment in addition to Please Kill Me. I'd love to see 15 pages of what Joey Ramone's impressions of punk were. I like Please Kill Me.
We Got the Neutron Bomb was pretty good except they didn't do any fact-checking. So people would just say shit and it's like, "OK, that's not true, but all right, it's there in print." It was all off the top of everyone's head. In this, people had to write stuff down and they had to look at it and say, "Is this the story I want to tell? Am I going to get sued?" [Laughs]
You spent time in New York during the Seventies, when punk was starting. Why didn't you stay there?
It just seemed like it was sewed up. I could have maybe fit in there, but it was really developed. It was big.
In one chapter, you describe the apartment where you lived from 1979 to 1982, and you talk about a chair that your roadie set fire to accidentally and that you threw on the curb at 3 a.m. What strikes you about yourself at that age?
[Laughs] Reckless abandonment. But somehow I felt that everything was going to be OK if we all didn't turn out to be homeless bums. Which we didn't! [Laughs]. We can say at least that was a success: Nobody that I know is a homeless bum.
Well, that's an accomplishment.
They may be dead, but they're not a homeless bum.
X has had the same lineup since Los Angeles. What keeps you together?
Oh, I guess we like each other [laughs]. We haven't made a million dollars apiece, so we have to keep working. And I think we hold X in high esteem. We think that we're good and it's a good sound, and Exene's a great role model. Billy still plays his ass off. It's all those things. And maybe we just are blessed with short memories and have more forgiveness now than we did.
You have chapters from a couple of the Go-Go's, a band that started out as punk before pop. Were you surprised by their success?
I think everyone was surprised that it took them so long to get signed. Like, "Do they really hate punk rock so much that they won't sign something that is so obviously popular, accessible and good?" That's what shocked us. Everyone in the Go-Go's always had edge. So that's why they kind of whitewashed a little bit of the "Oh, they kind of came from punk rock, but not really" way. They were America's sweethearts, even though they had come from the dirty streets of Hollywood.
You also have a chapter from Henry Rollins. What was your first impression of him when he made it to L.A.?
I think the first impression I had of Henry was the same as everyone's, just how incredibly intense and powerful he was as a person and especially onstage. We both came from Baltimore, Washington area, so there was a certain sarcasm and humor that I saw in him right away. We bonded over the fact that we were glad we were we weren't there.
How did Black Flag change when he joined? It seems like maybe some of the turbulence was behind them by then.
By the time he joined, they were just gone all the time. When we saw Black Flag was when Keith Morris was singing, or Dez Cadena or Ron Reyes. And it was turbulent, but it was kind of great because it was so … socialist. It didn't matter who the lead singer was. "Oh, just get another guy up there. Fucking run around and cause havoc." Around when Henry joined, they were gone a lot. And I give them and the other SST bands credit for developing the network across the country. They'd sleep on anybody's floor, or sleep in the van and fuck it. They'd play for $200. We didn't do that.
"A lot of people put down that version of punk rock, but I think that Green Day brought it to a whole other level."
Mike Watt wrote a chapter. What are your most vivid memories of seeing the Minutemen?
My best memory is Mike had a really cool upside-down Gibson Thunderbird bass, and they were incredibly tight. I couldn't see how it made such great sense. It all made sense, live or on record. But if you thought about the elements, you would think, "This is just chaos and madness." But it was amazing how it was just there. It seemed to pop out of nowhere, too.
Do you have fond memories of D. Boon?
Just the way that he was completely unhinged onstage and then really quiet and kind of sarcastic. In interviews, he would have all of these socialist leanings and was just not afraid to talk and be the most strident about his politics.
Billie Joe Armstrong wrote your book's preface, and he's from Oakland. What was it you wanted from his perspective?
A lot of people put down that version of punk rock, but I think that Green Day brought it to a whole other level of kids that could make up their own mind. I saw some of the influence of L.A. punk rock in Green Day.
It's not super-fast. It's not hardcore. It has a sense of humor about itself. He and the band don't really take themselves that seriously. They're just another fucking band and who cares.
Also, living in the Bay Area, I got to be pals with him and I thought, "Well, this is the next generation." And then an interesting thing happened, and I think it had something to do with punk rock in general and L.A. I met someone that's a friend of his who's a tattoo artist, and he said Green Day and punk rock – like, its second generation – gave him the courage and confidence to be a business owner. Like, "I can do this. Look at these people. They just made something out of nothing. I can do this." And I never in a million years thought of that.
Punk is about self-reliance in a way.
Exactly. And just saying, "Fuck it. I'm going to do this thing." Even in things that weren't music.
You said that a lot of people put down Green Day's generation, but you like it. Last year, John Lydon told me he looked at Green Day as a "tinny, two-bob version of something that was far deeper and carried more significance." There seems to be a schism among first-generation punks.
Well, did John Lydon like much of anything? I don't know. I don't want to be hateful and grumpy. That's a bummer. It's no fun.
I actually saw Green Day play at Gilman Street about a year ago. It was a benefit for a small press that they had worked with that got burned down. And they were tight, man. They made some questionable records because of the producers, but they're a good rock & roll band. They're not just pop. So whatever. People can have whatever opinion they want. I just think, "Yeah, they're cool!" Some of the other bands that are associated with them I don't like, but I think they stand out.
You open one of your chapters, excerpted from the audiobook above, by stating what does and does not constitute a punk song. You write, "Punk songs are not all screaming and yelling, three chords (most Ramones songs are not), two minutes long. … " And then you write, "Punk songs are provocative, immediate … fast, slow and in between."
[Laughs] Well, some of them do have stupid lyrics. And that's OK.
Why did you want to define that?
To try to open people's minds. Punk rock as songwriting gets put in a box pretty easily. There's a lot of variety. The New York scene had huge variety: the Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie. Just those three. That's not even talking about the Heartbreakers or Television. … That's great diversity. The same was true of L.A.
In one of your chapters, you talk about going to CBGB. Did you see Blondie there?
No, I saw them in L.A. opening for Tom Petty at the Whisky. There were maybe 110 people there, and they invited everyone to stay for the second show [laughs]. It is insane to think that Blondie and Tom Petty could only draw 150 people. But that was 1977. What can you say about Debbie Harry except she's the coolest ever? There's nobody cooler than Debbie Harry.
X and Blondie had toured together. And she and Exene really got along and hung out a lot. Debbie and I and Chris Stein kind of all go, "Oh, yeah, you were part of that punk lodge. I guess we can be friends."
She sounds great on The Westerner. What was it like working with her in the studio?
It's uncanny the way she can double her voice. Once she figured out her part, which took all of 45 minutes, she said, "How about I double that?" I said sure. That's kind of a signature of Blondie and her singing. She did it in one take. It was insane.
It's been decades since X has done an album. What is it that you get out of your solo recordings that you don't get out of X?
X has just got a little complicated in figuring out how and what sort of a record we would make at this point. And I still like writing songs, so I make solo records. There are fewer boundaries on making a solo record. It's a little more of an open landscape. Howe Gelb and I reconnected about 10 years ago, and always wanted to do some stuff. I realized that this [The Westerner] was the record that we were supposed to do together.
Lastly, Germs frontman Darby Crash pops up occasionally in the book. He was such a fascinating presence in L.A. punk, before his death in 1980. What was he like, from your perspective?
He was a very tender kid. I do say kid, because he was 22 when he died. He would never threaten anybody, but he would be kind of an imposing presence. He would be so annoying. He would point to a ring that your mother had given you and say, "Can I have that?" And you'd say, "No, you can't have this. My mother gave this to me when I was 15." He thought everything was kind of disposable and he was a latchkey kind of kid. He didn't give a shit. If he said that 100 times, maybe five times someone would say, "Sure," and just give him shit. He was always saying, "Can I have that?" To everybody. It was annoying and hilarious at the same time.
He seemed like an imposing presence onstage, at least in The Decline of Western Civilization.
That was his alter ego. Everyone's minds were blown when they read the lyrics, because his lyrics were unintelligible live. When you actually read them, you realized that he was a poet. Holy crap. Unbelievable.
Right, they subtitled him in The Decline of Western Civilization.
[Laughs] Of course. They had to.