I recently read a book called Under the Big Black Sun: a personal history of L.A. Punk by John Doe with Tom DeSavia and Friends. (You can read my Bookforum review of it here.) From the moment I heard of this project, I was intrigued.
John Doe: handsome bassist and great songwriter and strong singer for the band X.
X: a band I saw in concert at least ten times between 1980 and 1982.
THOUGH John Doe is now mostly a singer/songwriter guy with a guitar and a killer voice, and also a familiar veteran of screen and television, he does know a lot about poetry and he’s got great taste in literature, so I figured if he really tackled this history assignment and gave it his full focus, if he delivered his memoirs with the brutal rhythmic honesty of his songs, what a book that would be! I couldn’t wait—! and it’s been a long time since I felt that about a book, or a movie, or a concert, or anything. Fortunately, the editor at Bookforum sent me an advance copy as soon as it became available.
WHAT did I expect? I think a key area of fascination with John Doe would have to be his stormy relationship with Exene Cervenka. They met in LA, he wooed her, he succeeded, they married, they divorced—all this happened while the band took shape around them, as they played to larger and larger groups of people, as they toured the country and became famous and recorded several albums produced (in a lovely passing of the torch) by ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek.
ADD to this the plain fact that John is as warm as Exene is cold, and the additional fact that when they sing, they harmonize most unusually, and together deliver the best-sounding vocals in punk…
WHELP, this isn’t that book. THIS book has many polite things to say about their relationship. It’s also NOT John Doe’s memoir, though it gives that outward impression. It’s a fragmented oral history of the LA punk scene from 1976 to 1981—well, maybe it’s not an oral history but it reads that way—and it simply includes more from John Doe than anyone else. As I read it, of course, I couldn’t help thinking about how the book’s many contributors would’ve disdained this very idea of waning nostalgic when they were younger. But–for this kind of oral (not oral but still) history, executed probably within a very limited budget–Under the Big Black Sun is fine. It does an admirable job of including East LA, and its contributors comprise a dream team of underground celebrities from then. John Doe talks about songwriting, Chris D. talks about the death of Exene’s sister, Mike Watt gets emotional about d. boon, Henry Rollins provides an unusually low-key but typically candid assessment of what happened to Black Flag. There are a lot of nice moments peppered about but it’s a book in search of a shape, or a moral, or some objectivity, or a framing device, or a narrative through-line, because after listening briefly to each contributor you kinda want to move on, because everyone is shouting the story of LA punk but nobody is able to bring it alive on the written page, because nobody except Los Angeles Times correspondent Kristine McKenna seems to remember that it’s a book, after all, it’s not a few of us huddled together in a booth at a bar near here, where drunken remembrances go uninterrupted and word choice doesn’t matter.
BESIDES which, I question the validity of everybody’s memories after almost forty years. We now know eyewitness testimony is almost always flawed, we remember many things wrong, and scientists can even implant memories of things that never happened.
AND, well, I have a memory of my own to question.
IT was a school night. I was a junior in high school. I borrowed my parent’s car, told them I’d be studying late at a friend’s—and instead, I steered myself 75 miles south to the Sunset Strip.
AT this time, I didn’t do sports or drugs, I didn’t go to parties or dances. I was a pretty normal, insecure teenager with three passions: good grades, girls, and punk rock. Why punk rock? Small articles by Charlie Haas in New West magazine had me convinced that something out of the ordinary was happening, that it had to do with being young and feeling out of place and not worrying about how you look, that it was about making music matter. Plus I liked songs with smart words. I couldn’t stand what I always heard on the car radio—Abba, Anne Murray, The Eagles—because (to steal from The Smiths) the music that they constantly played said nothing to me about my life. I had read 1984 and it wasn’t hard to hear these broadcast blandishments as products of some totalitarian happiness machine. I suppose because my brothers, at the time basic California hedonists, were older and already out of the house, because my father was often ill and couldn’t figure out how to relate to me, I sought out fierce male imaginations, and found many of them in books, and many more fronting rock bands. Ironically it’s often observed that the scene quickly began to deteriorate after kids like me discovered it. By 1982 there were “too many” suburban high schoolers pouring in from the Inland Empire, from Orange County, from the San Fernando Valley. I was raised north of the Valley, on the outskirts of the suburbs. I attended school in an ugly overcrowded building and felt somehow threatened by the preaching of good vibes and mellow acceptance. It felt like we weren’t acknowledging the broken state of the world. I looked to the future and everything felt planned out to me: attend a UC school, get a good job, settle into peaceably consuming, perpetuate the species, count down to death. I had read T.S. Eliot. I wanted more than J. Alfred Prufrock measuring out a life with coffee spoons. I looked at our communities and neighborhoods and saw only well-engineered regularity. I hated the housing developments we all inhabited, their emphasis on convenience and comfort, the television and any other appliance that encouraged passivity, surrender. I was convinced I wanted something else, something more, if only to time travel to Spain 1937 and join the Lincoln Battalion. So that, in brief, is why punk rock.
I headed to Sunset and San Vicente, parked on the hill behind Tower Records, walked west to the Whisky a Go Go. My sister and I had already been there many times to watch X perform, but always on a weekend night.
I arrived very early for the show. They let me in anyway. It must have been an all ages show. If I wanted to drink alcohol I’d have to show proof that I was over 21 and get my hand stamped, but I was fine without all that. The Whisky was fairly empty. Wandering around downstairs I recognized Chris D., the leader of The Flesheaters, so I went up and introduced myself. I was familiar with all Chris D.’s songs, knew all the words, even to the album that’d just come out, called A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die. I also knew him as one of the best reviewers in Slash Magazine. I probably talked to him too earnestly about something that was inappropriately heavy, as was my wont. The next thing I know he’s leading me upstairs to the dressing rooms. And there I find a collection of my heroes, standing around as if waiting for me. Everybody from X was there except Billy Zoom. A few of The Blasters were there, as were a few Circle Jerks. With aplomb that atonishes me now, I plopped down next to John Doe and began nervously to talk about the works of W.D. Snodgrass and Terence Winch. We talked quietly, seriously, for over an hour. Why was he so kind to me? I think this was a remnant of the old LA scene. I think it had been friendlier once. I think I came across like a runaway, which in a sense I was, and I’ve since learned that John and Exene were punk elders who took a certain responsibility for the young ones. Anyway, John Doe drank beer, smoked Marlboros, and disappeared with Exene a few times, undoubtedly for drugs. Keith Morris (formerly of Black Flag, now Circle Jerks lead singer) ran (literally) in and out, in and out. Much of the discussion around the room was whether or not the Starwood had been closed down that night. If so, that meant the hardcore kids would come instead to the Whisky and turn the show into a much more violent affair. This had The Flesheaters concerned. A few of them worried if I’d be okay. Chris D. came over. He began to copy over the set list for John Doe. I piped up, argued against their set list, insisting he order the songs differently and include some of those great songs from No Questions Asked, their first album. I remember this and I wonder: did this happen? Could this be true? Did I actually say these things? Well, I think so. I remember Exene finally spoke up, chastising me a bit, explaining that they only knew the songs they’d rehearsed, it’s not like they could take requests. Oh. Of course this was true; this Flesheaters band featured an all-star lineup, unlike the first album. Getting busy musicians together to rehearse would have been difficult. What I didn’t know then but have just learned from Under the Big Black Sun was that the songs on A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die owed much to John Doe and Dave Alvin. Chris D. had “written” the songs by singing them unaccompanied into a cassette recorder while driving around LA. He then passed the tape to John Doe and Dave Alvin, who developed each of these ideas into an actual song with chords, rhythm, and a melody. They created the arrangements over which Chris D. howled his brilliant lyrics. So in a way, this Flesheaters set included a lot of John Doe material too.
I remember the show was very good. I don’t recall it as being unusually violent. I drove home elated. I smelled like Marlboros. It was very late. I crawled into bed and woke up just a few hours later to catch the school bus. I never told my parents what happened.
BUT before I left the Whisky dressing room that night, I did something strange. I asked for their autographs. I guess I needed some proof that this wasn’t a dream. Obligingly they (Exene, Dave Alvin, Chris D.) all signed a cocktail napkin for me. For reasons I can’t remember, John Doe wrote, “4Tom This is my autograph & here’s to hoping your sister [sic] not hating my guts.” Upon reading this, Keith Morris insisted he wanted to sleep with my sister sight unseen and then wrote, “I love your sister, give this to her, love and kisses.”
AND here it is: