X's John Doe Must Not Think Bad Thoughts

John Doe, co-founder of seminal LA punk band X, talks interpretive transformations, Pearl Jam and more

In 2006, Pearl Jam were featured on an episode of VH1's "Storytellers," and I’ll never forget what Eddie Vedder said about the song “Alive.”

When he wrote the song -- especially the line "I’m still alive" -- it was a lamentation, a "curse," he called it. Now when he sings it, it’s a celebration, a "self-empowering anthem." The audience lifted the curse for him.

In 2008 and 2009, seminal Los Angeles punk band X went on two overseas tours with Pearl Jam. In the ensuing years, X’s John Doe would go on to record a song with Vedder.

“We definitely connected,” Doe said over the phone last week, “I keep up with Ed, but he's living a pretty fast and demanding life.”

In the early 2000s, Pearl Jam covered X’s “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” (1983), a song that has undergone an interpretive transformation similar in kind to “Alive” for Vedder but of a different degree.

“At the time, the chorus was more sarcastic or ironic. With all of the seemingly irreparable, terrible events going on ... and then the common attitude is you still have to be happy -- ‘Don’t worry, be happy, even though the world is catching on fire.’ But at this point, it's more of a mantra of trying to keep your head above water so we don't fall into a pit of despair,” Doe said.

"Your perspective on lyrics changes. With poetry, you don't really understand what you're writing until later," he added.

Doe, born John Nommensen Duchac, has had quite a bit of time for the meanings of his words to reveal themselves to him. He's been with X (through a couple of hiatuses and a divorce from vocalist Exene Cervenka) since 1977, and the band still tours non-stop. 

"Since we never really stopped doing it, for the last 15 years we've played probably 40 or 50 shows a year. Last year, we had our 40th anniversary. As time goes on, everybody becomes a little more grateful being able to keep doing this," Doe said.

At times, it's been hard. It took determination for the band to navigate the complexities of the creative and romantic relationship at the heart of X during the early '80s, especially after the latter had dissolved. But it was during Doe's and Cervenka's married years that X released their universally acclaimed albums, "Los Angeles" and "Wild Gift." 

"Exene and I are soulmates in a creative way, and we were friends before we were husband and wife. There's a lot of mutual respect, and she knows that I'd do anything for her and vice versa. That's not to say that it wasn't really difficult when we were splitting up, but we managed somehow. The band and what we did creatively was more important than just our feelings," he said.

"'Get over your feelings, you sissy,'" he had to tell himself. 

It worked. Doe remarried in 1987 and now has three kids with wife Gigi Blair. He's moved on from Los Angeles in a physical sense, but the city will always be X's creative homeland.

"I haven't lived in Los Angeles for about 30 years. For the last eight or nine years, I lived in the Bay Area, and a year and a half ago we moved to Austin, Texas," he said.

"Los Angeles was hugely important -- that's why we titled the record 'Los Angeles.' A couple of years ago, I collaborated with people to put out this book called 'Under the Big Black Sun.' I wanted to give the reader a sense of what being in Los Angeles between '77 and '82 was like," Doe added.

"There was another character within the way things developed -- the horizon and the fact that people had cars ... a lot of influence from east LA. For a bunch of reasons like that, LA punk rock had more of a direct connection to Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran rock & roll," he explained.

In June 2019, Doe will release another book about the Los Angeles music scene named after another X album, "More Fun in the New World."

Maybe it's his way of repurposing X's records, refashioning them, re-contextualizing them, reinterpreting them, making up for the faults he finds in them.

"The recordings are what they are. Whether you like it or not, you have to try to find something redeeming even if you don't like the production. You listen to them and you say, 'Well, that's the best we could do, and it has a certain charm,'" he said.

"People will say, 'Oh my gosh, that's the sound I'm looking for!' Well, it's real easy: Just get the sh------- equipment and do one take or two," Doe quipped.

"I don't really listen to the records," he told me.

That makes one of us.

X headline Observatory North Park on Sunday, Aug. 19. Get tickets here.

Rutger Ansley Rosenborg has been an Associate Editor at NBC SoundDiego since 2016. Find out more here, or contact him here.

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