A conversation with John Doe
The X frontman discusses his latest book, ‘More Fun In the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk’
In June, John Doe, the singer, bass player and frontman of Los Angeles’ classic punk outfit X released a second collection of essays chronicling the history of West Coast punk, titled More Fun In the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk (Da Capo Press). Co-authored by Tom DeSavia, the book features anecdotes, ruminations, and personal recollections from an era in which L.A.’s original punk influence worked its way into various other creative disciplines, and hardcore became the city’s dominant music scene. Tony Hawk, Shepard Fairey, Allison Anders, Peter Case, Maria McKee, Dave Alvin, Mike Ness, Jane Weidlin, and more offer their perspectives on punk's undying and ever-changing spirit.
On Sunday, September 22, I will be moderating a book signing and Q&A with Doe at the Highland Inn Ballroom Lounge from 2-4 p.m. Later that evening X shares the stage with Squeeze at the Tabernacle. In the meantime, Doe sat down for a conversation about the origins of the book and the unmaking of a cultural legacy.
Chad Radford: Can we talk about the word “Unmaking” in the title of the new book?
John Doe: Unmaking was the original explanation that I gave to my partner, Krissy Teegerstrom. She came up with the legacy part. The publishers exercised their option: The first book did well enough that they said, “Okay, we have an option. We're exercising that now. You guys have to write a second book. And we thought “Yay ... oh shit! ‘You have to write a second book! What’s it going to be?’” So I say it will be about how the community kind of falls apart. Hardcore takes over. And even though all of these other genres splinter off, none of them set the world on fire. People get on drugs, people die. People get lied to by record companies. People go on tour and sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. She said, that sounds horrible. I wouldn't want to read that book. So I ask “what would you want to read?” She said the legacy of those splinter groups, of the DIY ethos. How did they affect other people? So I thought about Tim Robbins. Allison Anders was there. Tony Hawk was there. So was Shepard Fairey, to a degree. Let's get them to talk about stuff. That's what gives this book more depth and breadth. It’s about the legacy, and how it carries on. Shepard Fairey is influencing people nowadays. So is Tony Hawk, and now, you can do it yourself. You can start your own business.
What are the fundamental differences between the two eras that are talked about in the books?
Hardcore is more rigid; more Fuck the man. If a major record company wants to sign me, I don't even want to talk to them. They have proven themselves unreliable. Even though they say they want to help you, they just want to make money. They don't care about the fans. Part of that came from SST Records.
With the “Corporate Rock Still Sucks” bumper sticker.
Well, yeah. That and there were some people within that scene who were straightedge. I think the original New York, London, and L.A. scenes all happened within a year and a half, because everyone was ready for it. But all those people in the next generation of bands wanted to be the next wave of a continuum. It’s our turn, and we want to do it our way. I remember Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat telling a great story about telling some soundman to pack up his PA and get it the fuck off of his stage when they came on. Soundmen in those days could be real assholes. They were kind of angry that they weren't doing a Johnny Winter concert. They were pissed off that they had this punk rock band in their recording studio and that wasn't a real band, just some bullshit punk rock. I'm really digressing here, but they didn't even have the perspective that maybe this is like the Sir Douglas Quintet, or a garage rock band, like the Sonics — bands who aren’t virtuosos. So hardcore is like, Okay assholes, no one tells us what's right and what's wrong.
That's where people get confused about punk being so militant. Some of it is, but what gets missed is its sense of humor. The Ramones, Blondie, Stiff Little Fingers, and to a degree Exene had some humor in the lyrics. It was funny, it was meant to be camp in a way that Andy Warhol or John Waters would appreciate.
There were no rules, and that's the whole thing. What became kind of a bummer about some of the hardcore bands is that they were very strict and militant. That's not my thing. I do want to have a career. I would like to make money. That's not a horrible thing. If I have to put up with some asshole businessman on occasion, fine. Whatever.
Your two books offer a much different picture of what those years were like as opposed to what we get from Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization, which is the lens through which a lot of people perceive that era.
But I don't think that The Decline was false. When The Decline came out it made us all angry because it was too focused. But she had to make a movie, and it’s what was going on at that time. That was the transition between the first wave of punk rock in L.A. and the second. That’s kind of where More Fun in the New World starts and where Under the Big Black Sun ends. Hardcore is taking over. L.A. punk rock is going away, getting signed, getting on drugs, going on tour or whatever. But that original beautiful, eclectic community is going away. I love Jack Grisham's point of view in the first book: You started this, we finished it. What's your problem? We went faster and harder. That's what you told us we should do. Don't be a wanker and cry about it, sissy!
With mass media, things have to be dumbed down, and have a narrower image to capture people's imaginations, and to make a story. The crazy nihilistic kids in The Decline were pretty easy to understand. But the whole thing with punk rock is that it was eclectic. There were a lot of different people and a lot of different things going on.
Putting the book together was surprising because I didn't know all of these stories! I knew generally what happened, but I didn't know Tim Robbins’ story. I didn't know Annette Zilinskas’ story or Charlotte Caffey's story. It was all shocking. I had no idea all those other things were happening.
As we received people's essays, it was gratifying to see how they reinforced our original idea for the book. Punk did influence these other artists, and there was a huge variation and lots of variety. Our hypothesis was correct.
Henry Rollins talks about it in the book: There was a lot of variety, even in SST. It became narrower, but Henry talks about how the guys in Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks all had bought 150 records before they started their bands. Some kid in Ohio gets Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Bad Brains, and Minor Threat records and makes a band out of those four records. Well, you're going to get something that's distilled, but you're not going to get the variety that allowed those bands to come up with their unique sound. He puts it in terms of swing. Do the drummers swing? Sometimes they don't.
This also contributes to the idea of the “Unmaking” of the “Legacy.”
We saw Black Flag maybe once or twice with Henry, but I remember them with Keith Morris and I remember them with Ron Reyes and maybe once with Dez Cadena. But by the time Henry was doing it they were out on the road. We couldn't go to those shows and it was a bummer. We liked going to see Fear, the Circle Jerks. We even liked the Middle Class and some other bands like that. But if we went there people wanted to give us grief and say that we’re rock stars and bullshit like that. They’d want to get in a fight with me or push Exene around. That was no fun.
You don’t hear the sellout complaint these days. If a young band in 2019 gets a Red Bull or a White Claw sponsorship, that's seen as success.
Yeah. Fucking bullshit. Maybe it's more like the acting world now. One thing that was nice about doing some acting roles is that you didn't get judged. People were doing indie movies, or they’re doing Jaws 3-D.
Did the chapters in the book come together in an as-told-to style? Did you sit down with Keith Morris for an interview or did he write his chapter on his own and submit it?
No, Keith has a guy he writes with, Jim Ruland. Keith wrote his book, My Damage with Jim, but I looked at it once it was done. Henry didn't have the time or interest to write a chapter, but I wanted to get his voice in there. So I said, “What if I call you up?”
We talked for an hour and a half. I did some editing, then when we did the audio book, which hopefully will be up for another Grammy nomination, we had a different conversation. So the content is different with the audio book — we weren't going to sit and read the thing that I had edited. That would be the dumbest thing ever. So with Angelo Moore from Fishbone and with Henry we just had different conversations. When Annette Zilinskas turned in her chapter, and Bill Morgan — who did The Unheard Music — turned in his, they both had these 12,000-word things when we asked for, like, 5,000. So I asked, do you want us to edit these down, or do you want to do it? Some didn’t care. I did my thing, and some people said, “If you need to cut it down, cut it down, just let me look at it.” Peter Case also allowed us to edit his, and sort of looked at it and said, “good.”
I give Tom DeSavia a lot of credit for the sequence. I weighed in a little bit. Finding the photographs in this book was really wonderful, and being able to have Alejandro Escovedo and Top Jimmy, Lone Justice and Peter Case — that studio picture of Black Flag where Dez has the rose is the most un-punk rock fucking picture of Black Flag you will ever see.
There is a great amount of diversity in the voices contributing to both of these books?
Yeah, there was diversity in the first book. There was some diversity in the second book. But was it mostly white kids? Yeah.
That's kind of the nature of that scene, but I would not criticize the scene for not being diverse. Diversity has always been a big part of punk rock, and that comes through in both books.
There are plenty of women represented in this because they were there. They were the ones that were doing the stuff. When we were working on the first book, somebody said, “Oh, there's so many women that are writing chapters.” And it's like, uh, yeah ....
I almost take this for granted, but when you're immersed in punk rock, it's just a fact: Regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, a lot of different kinds of people are drawn to this energy and to this music and culture. Everyone lives in their bubble, but when you're immersed in that world, it’s easy to forget that punk unites a lot of marginalized people, and emboldens them to deal with mainstream life.
You can’t take that for granted. We made sure that Louis Pérez was included, and we made sure that Robert Lopez — El Vez — was included in the last book. We made sure that Angelo Moore was included because Fishbone was such an integral part of the scene, and kind of a leader for that early Ska scene. That has a place within the legacy. And now they're touring with George Clinton.
Do you have plans to write another book?
I’ll probably write a memoir. It won't be: “On February 25th I was born in Decatur, Illinois.” It will be more chapters on what I consider interesting parts of my life.
When you were growing up, your mother was a teacher and your father was a musician and a librarian, correct?
My mom was a high school teacher and my dad played piano. She sang, and my dad played piano — classical music. It just wasn't cool new music. It was music that I thought, “Oh God, what is this?”
These activities have been instilled in you since an early age.
Yes. I can't say that they really encouraged me, especially at the beginning. I wish I could.
Well, they were parents.
They were part of the generation that says, “Oh, it's just too hard. You can't do that.” But luckily they weren't total dream killers. That’s a phrase that my partner uses. But once we got reviewed in The New York Times they were like, okay. Which is kind of bullshit (laughs). You should support your kid before they get reviewed in The New York Times.