A talk with founding X member John Doe about his new acoustic album
John Doe’s new album, Dim Stars, Bright Skies, is a collection of songs that are more like character sketches. If they were paintings, they wouldn’t be hard-edged or framed with gilt, but more like smudged miniatures. This is a more acoustic (though not quite unplugged) John Doe surrounded by a constellation of such friends as Jakob Dylan, Juliana Hatfield, Aimee Mann, Rhett Miller and Jane Wiedlin. They provide soft, muted accompaniment to the reflective bittersweets embedding in Doe’s lyrics.
John Doe recently described himself in a press release like this: “Los Angeles, Cal. John Doe-1976, Beverly Hills bookstore, Gloria Swanson, misfits, outside the public eye, Venice Poetry Workshop, Hollywood, punk rock, X.”
When asked about this stream-of-consciousness mini-history, he joked, “I’ve read enough beatnik literature to fake it.”
If you don’t know, X marked the spot and ruled the ‘80s. As a founding member of the Los Angeles punk band, Doe is regarded as a person of some influence in the annals of American alternative rock. As he branched into a solo career in the ‘90s, his music became rootsier, like alt.country-rock.
That could be a good description of Dim Stars, Bright Skies, where his lyrics are as tart as a new wine. The people described in these songs are living lives held in dangerous balance, suspended by a fraying thread, a twisting filament that threatens only to unravel more the longer you look at it. Reacting to a world that is stark and disappointing when not scary, the songs are not hopeless in outlook, merely a reflection of moving through a portion of the world where love is eroding and relationships become obsessive. It’s as if, when enough difficult events combine to create an emotional calendar and every day seems to last nearly a year, this album has the feel of the morning after that longest day. But that’s Doe, exposer of the false promises of a one-size-fits-all fabrication that just doesn’t fit right no matter how much tugging at the corners goes on.
Why acoustic? In a recent interview, Doe deflected the obvious question with unassuming humor, “Because I wear jeans?” He continued, “And look like I should make an acoustic record. I can’t figure it out myself. I think it is partly because X played roots music towards the end, and there was a hint of acoustic and alt.country on the John Doe record, and then the last three John Doe things were pretty eclectic.”
Doe explained, “I’ve played acoustic music shows since probably 1983-84 on a regular basis, so people, at least in my circle of friends, when I was making a record would ask: ‘Is this gonna be acoustic?’
“I tried the first two songs, ‘7 Holes’ and ‘Closet of Dreams,’ doing ‘the John Doe thing’ of me playing bass, drums, and guitar, and it just didn’t work.” The subtle attitudes of the songs he’d been writing demanded a different approach.
Lyrically, Doe can go low when writing about disintegrating relationships. In “Faraway (From the North County)” he admits he can feel used up and worthless when cast off, “a plastic grocery bag blown against a highway fence faraway.” There’s a sense of loss and having been wounded, but there’s no bitterness involved. Living inevitably adds years to a life, but that doesn’t equate exactly with growing old or soft. So it might pay to lend attention to the some of the things a famous angry young man has to say when he’s matured.
There’s still scratch and grit, however irregular the landscape. On “Forever for You,” a trickle of chimes from an electric guitar set the scene for the first words, “one red drop of California wine on a white table cloth.” Thin-sounding snare drums chatter the beat, while Jane Wiedlin’s little-girl voice rides in angular, almost atonal harmony for the chorus:
“We’re not united / but we stand for each other / when the whole world let us down / no red, white & blue / no more underground / standing up for you / forever for you.”
Doe outlined the meaning: “It’s about an obsessive relationship, and also how there’s no left-wing underground. Talking about how there’s no real underground … if you’re reasonable and questioning a few things, then you’re regarded as radical and unpatriotic.”
He continued, "It’s hard to say what you can do. But you’ve got to do more than writing songs and singing about it."