John Doe – Border X-ing
X was the American Clash.
During a brief window between 1976 and 1981, when the definitions of punk rock were still up for grabs, X and the Clash took the broadest possible approach. They didn’t accept the narrow view that only the new, the angry, the fast and the hard qualified. For John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X and Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the Clash, there was room in the adrenaline rush of punk for the full range of human experience — including politics, romance, melody and even older musics.
Geography made a difference, however. For the Clash in London, the older musics were the Brit-rock of the Who and the reggae of Lee Perry. For X in Los Angeles, it was the rockabilly of Jerry Lee Lewis and the folk-rock of Bob Dylan. As a result, the Clash and X may have had similar sensibilities, but they had very different sounds. And if you’re searching for the origins of alternative country in the early punk years, X is the first place to look.
“The positive side of roots music is it gives your lyrics a simplicity, an honesty and a humor they need,” John Doe argues. “It also acknowledges the past, and it’s hard to completely deny your past.
“The negative side of roots music comes when you start pretending you’re someone you’re not or you start believing someone else’s culture is more valid than your own. I went through that phase where I thought country was more valid than punk rock, which is ridiculous. I finally realized country music wasn’t really me; it was a concept that I was overlaying what I was already doing.
“When I’m making up songs, I’m trying to find the truth, and the truth is I’m not Merle Haggard and I’m not Angus Young; I’m somewhere in-between. I live in the city and I listen to everything from James Brown to Hank Williams, but I listen to more rock ‘n’ roll than anything else. So my new album is less rootsy and more rock ‘n’ roll.”
That disc is Freedom Is…, Doe’s third solo record (or fourth if you count his 1998 EP For The Rest Of Us). Due July 18 on SpinArt, Freedom Is… finds Doe still struggling with tradition, invention and how best to combine the two.
Typical of the album is “Beat Up World”, which begins with Doe strumming his acoustic guitar and warbling a folkish meditation on his life while two musicians from Beck’s band — guitarist Smokey Hormel and drummer Joey Waronker — provide an ambling beat. In the second verse, Doe describes his hair: “Tried to tie it back, tried to dye it black, but it keeps turning back.” He could be talking about a whole generation of middle-class kids who tried to reinvent themselves and their world, only to find reality was more stubborn than anticipated.
And on that note, the song climbs into a rock ‘n’ roll chorus aboard Hormel’s crunching power chords and Waronker’s now-galloping drums as Doe hollers, “We’ve got to live in this beat-up world, because we screwed up the last one.” In the best country tradition, Doe refuses to deny the downtrodden condition of his world, but in the best rock ‘n’ roll tradition, he refuses to accept it either. The tension between those two impulses gives his new album all the drama it needs.
Many of the tracks on Freedom Is… follow 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 ‘n’ roll choruses are fueled by the undiminished hunger for those connections and a furious frustration at how elusive they remain.
“Yeah,” Doe agrees, “the songs go quiet-to-loud in sort of the same way as Nirvana and the Pixies, though not as radically. That way the songs can grow. 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.”