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By The Book
John Doe has More Fun with Punk Rock History

By Lee Valentine Smith

Though many are qualified for the title, John Doe is an undisputed grandfather of punk rock. Along with some like-minded pals - including his future wife Exene Cervenka - he helped establish the punk scene in gritty late '70s Los Angeles.

He told the first part of the scene's rich history in Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk. Co-written with Tom DeSavia, the 2016 book recounted the origins of the scene in the oral history tradition. A number of veterans from that world contributed their own voices to the story including Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go's, Mike Watt of The Minutemen and Henry Rollins. The resulting audiobook was nominated for a Grammy.

Now the prolific musician/writer/actor is back with a sequel called More Fun In The New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk. For the new volume, Doe and DeSavia again curated contributors to narrate their own important events from 1982 to 1987. The result is an incredibly rich retelling of a pivotal period of rock music.

Doe has enjoyed a flurry of recent activity with a blistering reunion of the L.A. punk supergroup The Flesh Eaters, lengthy tours with X and a number of quirky roles in edgy independent films. A few days before a recent run with Squeeze, Doe spoke with INsite about his new book and the possibility of new music from X in progress - tentatively scheduled for release on Black Friday's Record Store Day next month.

Under The Big Black Sun needed a sequel. After 1980, everything was in flux and it's great that you've captured a valuable snapshot of the times.

Yeah, after 1980, things were really changing. Not just in Los Angeles but all over the country. People were starting to go on tour more and more and things got stretched a little thin as far as any sort of real community. Everything has a life and everything has a definite shelf-life. And for us, the audience had gotten so much bigger, it allowed people to stretch out and try different types of music and really dig into different genres.

As the '80s began, the potential audience - even for bands in L.A. - grew many times over, right?

Oh yeah, it went from 500 to, I don't know, maybe 5000. You could have 15 shows going on just in L.A., and they'd all have a decent attendance.

Like with any scene, people were drawn to it and obviously wanted to participate.

Yeah, that's why you had the whole cowpunk scene and the Paisley Underground and the Ska movement and hardcore. That's when hardcore really took off. It was just all over the place and there was an audience for all of it, to support it.

By 1982, for example, the scene you'd helped ignite had grown into something almost unrecognizable.

Yeah if you look at the longevity of most music scenes, they're surprisingly short. Usually two to four years and then it has pretty much run its natural course. But what was the real turning point in putting this particular book together was when I described it to my partner. She said it sounded horrible. It was so depressing. The first scene falls apart, people go on tour, people get on drugs, people die. All these sorts of things. But then she pointed out that the legacy of what we stood for, the DIY ethos and things like that, had filtered into other art forms by then.

It expanded so far beyond the original Hollywood scene in a very short time.

That's exactly right and that's when I looked in my phonebook and said, 'Oh I can call Shepard Fairey, I know him, he likes punk rock. I can talk to Tim Robbins, the same thing goes for him.' But I still really didn't have a clear idea whether it would actually work or not.

Ultimately it did and their voices help tell the story.

Well I knew that they could probably write something. I knew that they were influenced by punk rock but I didn't know all the details. It was pretty cool to find out that Tim started the Actors Gang at that time because he didn't want to do the same old-same-old in theater. And that Shepard was out in South Carolina feeling just very unsatisfied. Then he started hearing punk rock and it turned him around. And he's probably the most influential living [visual] artist. So then it went from them to [pro skateboarder] Tony Hawk to [film director] Allison Anders and [writer/archivist] Bill Morgan, they all took that DIY thing and just ran with it. So we included their stories.

It's very much in the spirit of community that you continue to let the participants and the consumers tell the story in their own voices. If you'd done it from solely your perspective there'd be the naysayers who complain about your singular vision.

Well even going back to the first book, I didn't want to be 'the authority.' And this way I didn't have to do it all myself. I could be like Tom Sawyer and get other people to help me paint the fence. But I didn't realize how much true variety we'd get. I mean sure, I liked the fact that there were all these kids from East L.A. coming to our shows. But I couldn't tell that story. I could tell my side of the story, but I couldn't tell the story from their perspective.

The city and general locations are a big part of the story and the influences.

Right, I personally couldn't tell the story that Jane Wiedlin told about living in the [then-dilapidated punk dive] Canterbury because I didn't live there. Just like I couldn't tell the story of being a woman in the scene. She could because she'd lived it.

As with any good oral history, the actual voices are key and their literal voices are telling the story again on the new audiobook.

In twenty years, if anybody even gives a shit about punk rock - and I think they will - they can refer to these people, in their own voice, telling their story.

People are doing their damnedest to document their own lives with cellphones and social media but in the process we're losing the bigger picture.

That was a plus in writing the book, actually. If you're in a grocery store and you see somebody with a cool jacket on, you might say, 'Hey that's a cool jacket, where'd ya get that?' They'll probably want to talk to you because people just sorta want to tell their story.

The X story is continuing. There was an Instagram post from early this year teasing a return to the studio.

We are working on some new songs, yeah.

That's big news because the most recent X studio record was Hey Zeus, back in '93. This music is a long time in the making, to say the least.

(Laughs) It's been a minute. We found a guy we trusted who has done a bunch of recording and we went in this last January or February. Then we had to go on tour, then we came back and mixed some of it. Now we're working on more of it and we'll be back in the studio soon. I think we're gonna put a single out pretty soon.

That's really bringing it around full circle.

Yeah it is because for this one, it'll be a couple of older songs - "Delta 88" and "Cyrano De Berger's Back" - which were on an anthology in '98, I think. But they were just kinda demos and terrible recordings, so it's been fun. And now Fat Possum has reissued our first four albums.

Now that you're documenting the past of the scene and of X with these new releases, how does it feel to be recording new music at this point in your timeline?

You know, it was really rewarding that we went in the studio and it sounded just like X.

You've played together in the studio and especially live for so long, it must be just instinctive at this point.

Well it wasn't like riding a bicycle. There was one new song we worked on and it was a process. There was a bit of poking around. But that's good. If you go in there and you're kinda afraid and it's something you aren't quite accustomed to, but you still go forward, then that's good. I'm not one to constantly turn things upside down. I don't agree with Brian Eno on that one. I don't really go for that. I think you can experiment and find things without having to go, 'Ok, everybody switch instruments!' But that's not how we work anyway. For me, it was just rewarding - at this late in the game - to go in there and challenge yourself and come out with something you're proud for people to hear.

More Fun In The New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk is available at most major retail and independent booksellers.

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