X marks 40th anniversary with Roxy shows, while John Doe bids for a Grammy
Long an underdog, punk-rock hero John Doe has an opportunity to triumph come Grammy Awards day on Feb. 12.
If the statuette in the spoken-word album category goes to the nominated audiobook edition of “Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk,” co-author Doe has a quick two-word speech at his fingertips: “Thanks, Obama!”
Just as Paul Simon thanked Stevie Wonder in 1976 for not releasing an album the previous year, opening the door for Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” to take the album of the year prize, Doe is probably in the running, at least in part, because there was no eligible recording from the president or the first lady in 2016.
In fact, any of the other nominees — Carol Burnett, Elvis Costello, Amy Schumer and Patti Smith — could say the same given the history of the category, in which the award has previously gone to high-profile public figures including Franklin D. Roosevelt (1960), John F. Kennedy (1965), Martin Luther King Jr. (1970), the Rev. Jesse Jackson (1988), Hillary Clinton (1996), Bill Clinton (2004), Sen. Barack Obama (2005 and 2007) and Jimmy Carter (2006 and 2015).
“It’s a big, big category and the previous recipients are pretty impressive,” Doe, 63, told The Times last week. “People who didn’t make the cut were people like Chrissie Hynde — genuinely famous people. It’s kind of not surprising that we’re the dark horse one more time. But I think it’s nice that that L.A. gets to have a place at the table along with London and New York. There’s a little check mark, a little nod that’s really cool.”
The founding bassist, songwriter and co-lead singer, along with Exene Cervenka, of long-running L.A. punk quartet X, assembled the book and audiobook, named after X’s 1982 album by that title, with veteran music-scene maven Tom DeSavia. The work documents the explosive music community that erupted in the late 1970s and flowered in the early to mid-1980s.
Chapters were written by Doe, DeSavia, Cervenka, Black Flag’s Henry Rollins, the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey, the Screaming Sirens’ Pleasant Gehman, music journalists Kristine McKenna and Chris Morris, TSOL’s Jack Grisham, Robert Lopez (a.k.a. El Vez), the Blasters’ and X guitarist-songwriter Dave Alvin, the Minutemen’s Mike Watt and Divine Horseman’s Chris D.
Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong contributed the book’s foreword.
Asked whether the project was more inspiration or perspiration, Doe said, “In general, I try not to do a lot of heavy lifting. I think if you are much more Zen about it, if you steer things and then let things happen, they can happen.
“That’s probably very un-punk rock attitude but tough [luck],” he said with a laugh. “I’ve learned a few things along the way.
“The book coming together in the collaborative way that it did just mirrors the way the scene was,” Doe continued. “It was surprisingly easy, and such fun to just hang out with old pals and hear their voice in what the story they had to tell.”
A good portion of that community — musicians and fans — is coming together this week around X’s annual slate of holiday-season shows, which open Wednesday, Dec. 28, and continue through New Year’s Eve at the Roxy in West Hollywood.
The shows mark the 40th anniversary of the band’s formation in the underbelly of Hollywood, long before punk became codified as a spiky mohawk haircut and black-leather-and-safety-pin fashion statement now carried in Hot Topic retail stores in the malls of America.
As DeSavia put it in the book’s preface, “Punk was dangerous, a gateway drug to a dark, violent world. This wasn’t teenage rebellion — this was alarming, ugly and threatening.”
But it also became a cauldron for such genre-expanding works as X’s “Los Angeles,” “Wild Gift,” “Under the Big Black Sun” and “More Fun in the New World” albums.
X has invited a different opening act for each of the four nights: Mike Watt and the Secondmen for opening night, the Blasters on Thursday, Small Wigs on Friday and Foo Fighters’ lead guitarist Chris Shiflett on Saturday.
“Who woulda thunk it?” Doe asked rhetorically, reflecting on the band’s four-decade-and-counting lifespan.
The band — still touring with the original lineup, which also includes lead guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake — continues even in the wake of singer-songwriter Cervenka’s central-nervous-system illness, which she initially said was multiple sclerosis and later said she may have been misdiagnosed, as well as Zoom’s bladder cancer, for which he is continuing treatment with periodic chemotherapy sessions.
“We’ve been working on a different show for about two years, and now we’ve refined it so it actually holds together as a show,” Doe said. “It’s more of a concert show, and we have another player with us so we can do a lot of these songs we never played live [originally], like ‘Come Back to Me,’ ‘Bad Thoughts,’ ‘Dancing With Tears in My Eyes.’
Like the Beatles after that group quit touring in 1966 and focused on increasingly ambitious and complex work in the recording studio, Doe noted that “we had evolved where we were making songs we couldn’t play live on [our] third and fourth records. But we still have a base of punk rock, so we can still kick out the jams.”
As for reflecting on the group’s 40-year legacy, Doe said, “It all happened so fast. Where did the time go? … We’re kind of the last punk-rock band standing” with all its original members.
“The nice thing is as you get older, you’re much more conscious of being grateful,” he said. “I’m just glad Billy and Exene and D.J. and I still like each other.”
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