John Nommensen Duchac has walked many miles in the shoes of his fabled rock ’n’ roll persona.
He is John Doe, who is not too unlike your everyday … well, John Doe. He is the neighbor at the end of the street, who makes an honest living, minds his own business, supports his family, and gets through life the best he knows how.
But to the world of alternative music, this John Doe is also a founding member of the legendary Los Angeles punk pioneers X and alt-country band The Knitters, as well as being a prolific solo artist and actor. Doe is on the verge of releasing not only his latest roots-rock opus, The Westerner, but a book titled Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk that chronicles the rough-and-tumble punk jungle of the LA underground scene that exploded between 1977 and 1982.
Pretty heady stuff for a guy named Doe.
“No matter how famous or infamous or a nobody you might be, you've gotta be a nobody to write a song,” he says, clarifying with, “You’ve gotta just be a person. You can’t write a song as a personality.”
Doe knows all too well that writing songs as an independent artist can be a double-edged sword. Financial success is often elusive to achieve, and despite having the freedom to be your own boss, the biz of being an artist can be tiresome and detract from the creative process.
“I am eternally grateful to be part of X, and maybe at one point was a little resentful of [the drags of the business of music]. But I’m just grateful, and I think we all are,” says Doe, now 63. “You realize it allows you that freedom and that every good song or good record is because you dug a little deeper.”
Recorded on Cool Rock Records/Thirsty Tigers with the support of fans, The Westerner hit the streets and internet April 29. And, on this, his ninth solo release, Doe produces a versatile and poetic homage to one of America’s last frontiers: the wide-open desert plains of Arizona. The end result is a grouping of what Doe calls “psychedelic soul” songs, many of which were inspired both directly and indirectly by his late friend, the award-winning author, screenwriter, and humanitarian Michael Blake.
The Westerner was recorded at Wave Lab recording studios in Tucson with production help from prolific singer-songwriter and producer Howe Gelb, the longtime singer-guitarist of the enduring alt-country rock group Giant Sand.
But it was the indomitable spirit of Blake, who lived in Tucson but passed away last May of Hodgkin's lymphoma, that led Doe, even though he didn't realize it at first.
“I just noticed a trend, and you realize even the songs about some of my experiences, they also could have been Michael’s,” he says of the man who won the 1991 Academy Award for a Best Adapted Screenplay of his original novel, Dances with Wolves.
Doe has walked many miles, passing up the pop pap of commercial highways, and opting instead for the alternative back roads of originality. His knack for storytelling is a perfect companion for his well-hewn vocal pipes, described by Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in song as “a voice of gold.”
The opening number, “Get On Board,” is all Doe. The song is like an electric roots version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” which beckons the listener to get on the heaven-bound train. Doe’s rail journey is left to interpretation, but it moves with a steady, up-tempo, bluesy twang.
“Go Baby Go” is a garage rock song in which Debbie Harry of Blondie fame provides more-than-adequate backing vocals. It is an interesting change for the vocal legend to be in the background.
“First of all, Debbie Harry is the coolest, without a doubt,” Doe says emphatically. “We just hit it off. I tried to find something on the record that would be more of a duet, but the song that she sang on reminded me of a '60s garage rock sound.”
“The thing that blew me away, is that it took her only about an hour to figure the part out and to get that recorded, and then she said, ‘Well, what if I double it?’ and she did it in one take. It was uncanny and kind of frightening, and then it's like, ‘Oh, that’s right, you’re Debbie Harry. You can do magical things.’”
Likewise, Harry knew Doe had a great track record, and Blondie had toured in 2013 with X.
“I knew it would be very easy to work with John after touring with him," she offers of the song. “He had a good idea of what I sounded like, what he needed for his track, and we worked easily together, finishing in a pretty short time. I'm not so used to harmonizing, but I think our voices sound compatible.”
On a pair of numbers, “Sunlight” and “Drink Of Water,” Doe shares vocals with Cindy Wasserman. Chan Marshall sings on the Dylan-seque “A Little Help.” Marshall was better known in her earlier days as Cat Powers.
The desert desolation dirge “Alone in Arizona” probably best exemplifies Doe’s ability to contrast the peaceful existence of the wide-open plain and the sense of being far away and desolate.
Under the Big Black Sun – A Personal History of L.A. Punk on Da Capo Press came out May 1. It is a 320-page recollection of the scene as seen through the eyes of Doe, Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Mike Watt (The Minutemen), Dave Alvin (The Blasters), Jane Weidlin and Charlotte Caffey (the Go-Gos), Chris D (The Flesheaters), and Jack Grisham (TSOL) among others.
Tom DeSavia, who formerly handled AOR at Elektra Records, co-wrote the book with Doe.
“He [DeSavia] and my sweetheart [wife Gigi] were on the verge of haranguing me to do something, and then at some point, I thought, I don’t want to do it all by myself. I’m happy to be one of the recurring voices, or the narrator, but I want other people’s stories and their perspective and their expertise on certain subjects.”
Doe and DeSavia describe the famous and infamous locations of the early LA punk scene in unapologetic and unabashed detail, from the original Whiskey A-Go-Go to makeshift dark playing rooms, eateries, and underground haunts such as The Masque, Club 88, and Hong Kong Café.
For Doe, those days are still fresh in his memories. But he's also facing the impending 40-year milestone of his beloved X, which released its first double-single "Adult Books/We’re Desperate" back in 1978 on the fledgling Dangerhouse label.
Overcoming the lack of radio play, the rise and fall and rise again of the original quartet, and band member illnesses, Doe’s perspective and appreciation for the longevity has changed with time.
“Ten years ago, I would have seen that as, ‘Oh my god, we’re getting so old.’ And now I feel like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’ We have succeeded, and we have triumphed against all odds. We have survived.”
Doe and the rest of X are preparing to mark the group’s 40th anniversary. The group will be doing a lot of touring and producing a compilation of live recorded shows.
“Flying under the radar is bad and good. I think we’d love to have a big fat bank account, but on the other hand, maybe we wouldn’t still work as much as we do,” Doe says. “I think we’re still kind of weird for most people. We’re still kind of weird for the radio.”
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.