A year after the members of seminal Los Angeles punk band X went on indefinite hold to pursue outside projects, bassist-singer-songwriter John Doe is finding that the freedom he anticipated by working alone can be double-edged.
"It's much more frightening," Doe said by phone last week from Los Angeles, as his 13-month-old daughter, Veronica Jane, played noisily in the background. "You really have to decide everything all over again. There are no givens. While it's also exciting, what's frightening is you have to make all the decisions on your own because you're not working within a band so much as leading other musicians. And unlike X, which was together long before we made a record, I don't have the luxury of developing a sound over a 2- or 3-year period."
There will be a few X songs sprinkled into his show Wednesday at the Coach House, where Doe will perform both solo and accompanied by Blasters drummer Bill Bateman, Cruzados bassist Tony Marsico and guitarist Greg Leisz, who has worked with Dave Alvin, K.D. Lang and Highway 101. But chiefly, Doe will be introducing a set of new songs he hopes to have out by summer on a solo album on Geffen Records. The album will feature his present band and other musicians, with the likely participation of Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan and keyboardist Steve Nieve of Elvis Costello's Attractions.
X went on hiatus last year, allowing members to pursue solo projects--Exene Cervenka also has an album pending, with guitarist Tony Gilkyson producing--and to allow Cervenka and Doe time with their families, as both became parents last winter. X fans shouldn't hold their breath for a swift reunion, if indeed the band ever gets back together: "We all have irons in the fire now, so we're on hold at least until the fall," Doe said, "and after that we'll see."
As for the influences going into his new songs, Doe said, "They're just the old ones. . . . There's folk, country and rock 'n' roll. It turned out being a lot less country than I'd thought it would. The music has an emphasis on dynamics--it's not just one thing or another."
Since X's debut album titled "Los Angeles" in 1980, fans have considered the group and the city to be inextricably linked. Cervenka, though, recently moved to Idaho, and over a year ago, Doe claimed to be fed up with L.A.
"That hasn't changed, and I just bought a house," he said with a laugh. "At least it's about an hour-and-a-half away, in the high desert out near the Grapevine. . . .
"The things I enjoyed about L.A.--the personal landmarks and the music scene--have disappeared. Of the little restaurants and buildings that meant something to me, half or more have been torn down. There's a different feeling here now."
One thing tying Doe to the area is his acting. Following his appearance in the ill-received "Slamdance" movie in 1987, Doe will be seen soon in three more films--playing the father of Myra Brown (who at age 13 became Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis) in "Great Balls of Fire," a crooked bartender in "Roadhouse," where he's "just another one of the henchmen to get killed by John Patrick Swayze," and in "Matter of Degrees," a feature by Bill Morgan, director of "X, the Unheard Music."
As to that 1985 documentary about the group, Doe would prefer that that title had been unnecessary. "I would like to have had a hit record, so that we could have something to show for our sweat, blood and pain. But, I think sometimes that's the role of a band like ours: You don't get financial reward for it, but you can still be proud of what you did." Yet he's not ruling out the possibility that X's members may find that reward eventually. "I don't think the Replacements record would have done as well if they hadn't worked as hard for so long, or R.E.M. either. It's all cumulative."
Doe feels that for its part, X "opened doors and helped open people's minds," something most popular music doesn't aspire to. "It depends on what kind of music you concentrate on. I think some of the people doing acoustic music still carry that impact but the real big moneymakers, like Guns N' Roses, don't. A lot of artists are politically and socially aware and an equal number aren't. You can't discount John Cougar or Bruce Springsteen or Tracy Chapman or any of those people because I think they genuinely believe what they're saying and they back it up."
Though he wished X had found a similar commercial success, Doe says he's satisfied to have made music that had a profound impact on a small number of people, rather than only a superficial effect on a large audience.
"I would much rather do that. It can get a bit claustrophobic, though, when a person approaches you and tells you that you've changed their life. You're not really sure if that's good or bad, though you have to hope it was for the good. But they can be so fanatical about their support, you feel like taking a few steps back and saying, 'Look, I didn't really mean that, it was just a song,' Doe said, laughing, "But I'd rather deal with that than just to have sold out and rolled over for whoever was going to sign the checks."
\o7 The John Doe Band will play Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $13.50. Information: (714) 496-8930. \f7