By Greg Cahill
JOHN DOE doesn't mince words. Ask the seminal L.A. punker--one of the most influential figures in American alternative music--why he's quit writing gritty urban rock for the trailblazing L.A. punk band X after nearly 20 years, and the iconoclastic singer/ songwriter cuts right to the bone. "I guess that I'm just not into punk rock or at least what people's expectations of that would be," he says dryly, during a phone interview from his Southern California home. "What people would want to hear from a new X record would be like old X records, and I don't like that kind of stuff anymore."
After a two-year hiatus from the recording scene, Doe is back with a strong new solo disc, an upcoming tour that brings him this week to the Old Vic in Santa Rosa, and a decidedly mature outlook on life, love, and why he doesn't play country music anymore.
Married and raising three daughters in a home decorated with modern art, Beanie Babies, and religious icons, Doe, 46, balks at calling himself domesticated, though the sound of clattering dishes, children's laughter, and caged songbirds punctuate the phone call. "I think that when you get older you're able to live in the moment a little bit more successfully, so you're not always thinking about what you should be doing; you can just enjoy what you're doing at the time," he says philosophically, adding that he stayed home for the past couple of years to raise the kids while his wife, Gigi, finished college.
"You know, when you're older, you don't put as much pressure on yourself to be someplace else, although there are times when your career steals some precious time away from it. But you have to make those decisions."
Returning to the road for the first extended tour in several years, Doe plans to find out what role touring holds at this stage in his life.
The new CD, Freedom Is . . . (SpinArt), is his best work since 1990's solo debut Meet John Doe (Geffen), with its punk-driven C&W-tinged fatalism. It's also his first full-length solo album in five years. Co-produced by Doe and Dave Way (Macy Gray, Christina Aguilera), the disc features an all-star cast of players, including ex-wife and X singer Exene Cervenka (who collaborates on one song), guitarist Mike Ward of the Wallflowers, and guitarist Smokey Hormel and drummer Joey Waronker of the Beck band.
The material is alternately snarling and subdued, a far more introspective feel overall than past solo efforts. "Since I don't live in the city anymore, and haven't for several years, the subject matter [of my songs] has become more internal--more about romance and relationships and what it takes to hold those all together," Doe explains. "It's less cinematic, but just as poetic.
"You know, songs about love, longing, and death--not a whole lotta sex, but I guess that's implied."
CONSPICUOUSLY absent is Doe's past flirtation with country music--though there is one wryly titled track, "Ultimately Yrs. (Pretty Western, I'm Sorry)." While Doe slips easily into the resurgent singer/songwriter idiom, he doesn't relate to the current alt-country craze that X helped spawn in 1983 with their rootsy More Fun in the New World and the 1985 punked-up country spinoff project the Knitters, featuring guitarist Dave Alvin of the Blasters.
It's a side of Doe from which he's been steadily retreated in recent years. "X definitely influenced some people, but I think my new stuff has much more in common with the Beatles or the Replacements than Buck Owens or George Jones," he says. "I just grew really tired of country music. I mean, new country is just pop music. There's not much difference between Shania Twain and Whitney Houston--just the rhythm section is different. Old country I could only listen to for so long. I got what I could get out of it and moved on.
"Besides, it's not really me--it's really just a facade. I didn't grow up in the South. I think you have to be true to yourself."
He now views the trendy Americana movement as "an honest response to what was coming out of the Seattle grunge scene," and still admires Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, the Old 97s, and a handful of other alt-country bands. "But for the most part, it was just something new to write about--the press is always looking for a new angle," he adds. "There's nothing wrong with that. It happens. But I don't align myself with that."
DOE IS most passionate when talking about his film career. He portrays the sheriff on the WB network paranormal-teen series Roswell and is a veteran of 20 films, including Oliver Stone's Salvador, the Jerry Lee Lewis bio-pic Great Balls of Fire, Road House, and Georgia.
His three daughters--ages 8, 9, and 12--acted in Doe's most recent film, director Alison Anders' 1999 Sugar Town, having appeared in their father's first film, Border Radio.
"That was about two lifetimes ago," says Doe.
"Acting is a priority, unless I'm releasing a record, like now, in which case it becomes secondary," he continues. "But I can act longer than I can rock 'n' roll. There are so many records that come out every year that eventually you're replaced. So film is just another creative outlet and one that I find more personally satisfying.
"With records, it's more a part of your life--there's much more of a personal investment. I suppose that if the film was your own project, then you might not feel that way, but I haven't gotten to that point yet."
He recently completed another film role, in director Todd Stevens' still unreleased indie film Gypsy 83, that allowed him to combine all the aspects of his life--family man, musician, and actor. "I play the dad--the musician dad," he adds with a laugh. "It's about a girl who plays my daughter and wants to be Stevie Nicks, and she wants to be out of Sandusky, Ohio. Go figure!
"I did watch some Stevie Nicks videos to prepare for the role. God, was she high! Scary."
Despite his ongoing film career, music clearly still holds a special place in Doe's creative makeup. "It's how I deal with all my confusion about life," he says. "I think that you have to get to a point at which things are falling apart before you can invest enough in a song to make it worth listening to."
And he hopes fans will find it worth listening to.
"I had this realization from people who would approach me on the street and say, 'Oh, my God, your music with X meant so much to me.' We'd sort of talk for a while and then I'd say, 'You know, I have this new record.' And they'd say, 'Oh . . . yeah . . . I'll have to check that out.' Total lip service. It kind of amazes me that they would think, 'That was then, and there isn't anything he could do now that would even come close to that.'
"I just wish that people would give it a chance. You know: Wow, this guy was good before, maybe he's speaking to me as an adult now, in a different way and with more experience and a different slant. One of the down sides of rock music is that you tend to move on. But you should check back in once in a while to see where those people that you liked before have gone."
The John Doe Thing performs an acoustic set Saturday, July 22, at 10 p.m. Joneh Metrange and Gabe Meline open the show. The Old Vic, 731 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. $10. 571-7555.
From the July 20-26, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.