"Kissingsohard" is John Doe's second solo album. This time he didn't strain so hard to sound different from X, the acclaimed and long-running Los Angeles band with which he helped launch the American punk-rock movement.
The first album Doe released away from X, "Meet John Doe," came out in 1990 and relied heavily on country influences. With the new one, Doe says, he didn't worry if a song fell into X's careening rock style or emulated X's other side as a roots-oriented band with an anthem-rock reach.
"At that point [in 1990], I think I wanted to set myself apart from X," the singer-songwriter said earlier this week over the phone from Portland, Ore., where his solo band, the John Doe Thing, was on tour as opening act for Juliana Hatfield. "At this point, I see that what I've done with X is closest to who I am and what I do best."
The John Doe Thing headlines Sunday night at the Galaxy Concert Theatre; accompanying him are Smokey Hormel, the onetime Blasters guitarist, drummer D.J. Bonebrake of X and bassist Brad Hauser, a former member of Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians.
X, which started in 1977, had temporarily disbanded when Doe made his solo debut. Now it is once again a going concern, and Doe's solo recording and touring parallel his work in X.
After spending the '80s striving with limited success for the sort of alternative-rock commercial breakthrough that is now commonplace, X seems to have settled into a niche far from the most heated precincts of pop's commercial bazaar.
The band put out its recent live-acoustic album, "Unclogged," on its own fledgling label, Infidelity Records. Doe's "Kissingsohard" is on a small, independent company, the Rhino subsidiary Forward Records.
Is a life of downsized commercial expectations somehow more comfortable than one of ambitious striving? Could that be why such concerns as putting up stylistic barriers between a solo project and an X album no longer seem important?
"I don't know," demurred Doe, 42. "Comfort is just totally overrated. Comfort has nothing to do with anything I decide I'm doing. That's why we're touring with Juliana Hatfield and going around the country in a van. But it's more confident, the relationship between all the members of X. That was reflected in this solo record.
"I could have Exene [Cervenka, Doe's singing partner in X] sing on a couple of songs and have D.J. on vibes," he said, "and make it sound more like X without [fearing] I was rehashing something."
The ideas and feelings Doe explores on "Kissingsohard" have little to do with either comfort or confidence. As usual, love and social decline are his primary themes.
With this batch of songs, love is seen at its most fragile and precarious, and the social landscape is depicted in the ever-tightening grip of conservative forces that Doe has always detested.
One song title holds that love is "Tragedy by Definition." But in conversation, Doe emphasizes that he isn't being defeatist in his songs and points to the more hopeful possibilities that can be found in them (if one is deliberately looking for silver linings).
"Tragedy by Definition," he said, "is what the title is, but I don't really believe that. I think the tragedy is [that because of what] people have been taught by their parents and society, [love] will end. I believe, absolutely believe, in true love. But that doesn't mean infatuation or romance. Love by definition includes [paying] attention to that relationship, attention to the partner."
Doe seems to have fared better in real life than the characters on "Kissingsohard," who appear to be near the shattering point as they try to cope with romantic crises.
He and Cervenka were married and divorced during the 1980s, but their creative partnership survived. Doe remarried, and he and his wife, Gigi, who is training for a career as a bilingual teacher, have three young daughters.
Besides his musical career, Doe continues to take occasional acting roles, including a part as a rock musician in "Georgia," a film starring Jennifer Jason Leigh that opens in December and has garnered advance critical acclaim.
Doe says that the unraveling of his marriage to Cervenka wasn't altogether different from the stormy scenarios played out in such X songs as "Burning House of Love" and "My Goodness," the latter of which has been redone on "Kissingsohard."
"But I think we respected each other as writers before the band [began], and that creative bond was worth saving," he said. "There's a kind of sixth sense that goes between Exene and I when we sing and write, and it's something you don't find very often.
"The characters in each song [on 'Kissingsohard'] have some redemption, some hope, even though the situations are at a crisis point," Doe said. "That's certainly true of our personal lives. [There is hope] if you work at it and try to understand it and don't act like a child."
There isn't much hope in Doe's new political songs, just the tenacity to keep on mocking and railing, in "T.V. Set" and "Liar's Market," against money lust wedded to callous power.
In both songs, the speakers seem helpless in the face of social trends that Doe admits make it "hard to be funny these days . . . too many grim facts to deal with in life and the political world."
The speaker of "Liar's Market" has nothing with which to confront perceived abusers of power except dreams of revenge and the invective born of righteous anger.
"In a lot of ways, that's all we have, to know that at the end of the day you've done the right thing, or at least have tried to," Doe said. "Anger will keep you working. That emotion will see you through a lot."
Again, though, Doe looks, at least in conversation, for a more hopeful plank to stand on: "I would encourage people to seek out a political party called the New Party, a grass-roots liberal party working on local levels, trying to get people elected to school boards, city councils. It's somewhat of a reaction to the religious right. They're not in any federal or statewide elections yet. They're smart enough to wait until they get a base."
As a songwriter, Doe has expanded his creative base by showing a new flair for narrative on "Kissingsohard." With "Hits the Ground," "Going Down Fast," "Field of Dirt" and "Willamette," his lyrics weave a strong sense of character, action and setting with vivid, resonant results.
"Willamette" is a close-in character study that does a persuasive job of entering the thoughts and dreams of a homeless, jobless man who is resilient but growing more desperate. Doe says it coalesced around a scene he saw in Portland while touring with X in 1993.
"I saw these three homeless guys on a little plot of grass. It looked like one of those paintings by Manet, where people were out having a picnic in a bucolic countryside. One guy was fixing his shoe [a task that Doe has his narrator futilely attempt in the song]. One guy was reading a newspaper. Everything fit perfectly. A set designer couldn't have designed it better."
Songwriters, Doe noted, are more apt to come upon such scenes if they aren't celebrities who live cushioned from the everyday world.
"I feel pretty lucky to be able to walk around and be somewhat anonymous," John Doe said. "If you get removed from reality, you have a lot less source material. But all the really good artists are able to connect with those basic needs and desires of people.
"It seems like a [very famous] person, to get some truth in the writing, has to get down to a ground zero where they no longer are themselves. 'Here I am, John Lennon. What would John Lennon do?' He has to be a nobody, the same nobody that wrote the first song he ever wrote because he wanted to be somebody or express something he felt so deeply.
"Joni Mitchell--sometimes her songs were [about] the pain of the rich and famous, and that's kind of boring," he said. "I haven't had to deal with that situation, so I don't know how difficult it would be."
* The John Doe Thing, Cisco Poison, Nine Days Wonder and Hellbound Hayride play Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. $12.50. (714) 957-0600.