John Doe made his mark as a songwriter and musician with the seminal literary-punk band X, the pre-Americana, Americana combo the Knitters, and through a string of critically acclaimed and beloved solo records. He also built a successful part-time acting career, appearing in Border Radio, Great Balls of Fire!, Wyatt Earp, and many others.
One title he never expected was punk rock historian, but it’s exactly the role he found himself in after the 2016 publication of Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk. Written in collaboration with rock critic and historian Tom DeSavia and a patchwork of West Coast punk scene veterans, the book received critical acclaim and garnered a Grammy nomination in the spoken word category for the audio book version. Now, Doe, DeSavia, and a phalanx of contributors have created a sequel, More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk, that Doe will be discussing and signing on Monday, Sept.23 at Grimey’s New & Preloved Music.
According to Doe, the collaborative structure of both books wasn’t an artistic choice, at least not at first.
“Tom DeSavia and my partner Krissy Teegerstrom kept badgering me saying ‘you should write a book,’ Doe says. “It sounded like a lot of work and discipline, and then I would have to become an authority on punk rock in L.A. which sounded horrible. I figured if I could get other people to help me. it would be like Tom Sawyer painting the fence. I didn’t have to do all the work and we’d also get a lot of diversity in the way the stories were told.
“Everyone got a topic we felt like they were experts in — Jane Wiedlin lived at the Canterbury which was ground zero for people figuring out what they wanted to do and what punk rock was. Exene [Cervanka] was all about the cultural revolution. Dave Alvin wrote about roots music getting pulled into punk rock, and so on and so on. We also wanted to give Los Angeles a role. I think the city was intrinsic to why the music sounded like it did, same with New York, London, and San Francisco. When people write a full chapter they can give the full context.”
Under the Big Black Sun was successful enough to prompt the publisher to request a sequel. But while the first book chronicled the birth and development of a mostly underground scene in the years 1977-82, More Fun in the New World is the story of the scene fragmenting into multiple genres and its influence spreading worldwide through the ‘80s and beyond.
“By ‘82 a lot of things had changed,” Doe says. “The Go-Go’s had hit the top ten by then and X was transitioning from [indy label] Slash Records to Elektra. The scene did seem to explode at that moment because there were so many different types of music. There was hardcore punk, the Paisley Underground, cowpunk, a pretty big ska movement, Los Lobos became a nationwide act, and the audience was big enough to support all these groups [in L.A.]. In ‘77-‘78 there were 400 people that might go to a show in L.A. By 1983 there were 7,000. X played the Greek Theater in ‘82 which had 6,000 plus capacity and we sold it out. But it was a double-edged sword because it turned out none of those genres had the audience nationwide or the staying power.”
Although the multiple branches that grew from the L.A. punk scene seemed poised to conquer the world in the early 1980s, in the latter half of the decade, it was another type of L.A. music that ultimately won the fight for MTV and record sales — the poppy gloss and shine of hair metal, as exemplified by Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Ratt. Many of the punk scene veterans went on to long and successful careers in a variety of genres, others enjoyed brief moments in the sun before crashing, and even more never seemed to leave the ground at all.
“A lot of these stories have negative endings,” Doe says. “People got on drugs, got lied to by record companies, some died far too young, etc. etc. But we make the point in the book, bands like Rank & File, Lone Justice, Green on Red, Tex and the Horseheads, Blood on the Saddle — they paved the way for Americana. The same is true for hardcore. Bands like Flipper and the Circle Jerks are not on everyone’s playlist but Rancid and Green Day sure as shit are, the same applies to how Fishbone influenced the Red Hot Chili Peppers or No Doubt.”
That legacy of influence led to the book’s most inspirational chapters as Doe notes. “Tom and I started thinking about the legacy and we got non-musicians to write chapters — [actor] Tim Robbins, [poster artist] Shepard Fairey, [professional skateboarder] Tony Hawk, and [filmmakers] Alison Anders and Bill Morgan. They took the L.A. punk rock ethos and applied it to other arts.”
The transmission and transmutation punk-DIY culture is perhaps the L.A. punk scene’s greatest legacy. While “Do It Yourself” was a core tenant of first generation punks in both New York and the U.K., the L.A. scene took the principle to new heights — filtering it through a multitude of art forms and broadcasting it to the suburbs of Southern California and eventually the rest of the U.S.
“Success does matter because you either have a career or don’t have a career,” Doe says. “But if you have a local music scene and can light it on fire for say two years, and it turns out to be a bright flame that gets blown out, you still did that thing. Maybe that’s all the first wave of punk rock in L.A. was supposed to do — turn things upside down.
“A few years ago when I was living in Oakland, I met a guy who had a big tattoo shop. He said he started his business because of punk rock. He thought, ‘These people don’t know anything and they’re just making it up as they go along, why not I?’ It hit me like a ton of bricks. If I can inspire someone to start a band or start a business — that’s totally punk rock.”
John Doe will discuss and sign More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk at Grimey’s (1060 East Trinity Lane) on Monday, Sept 23, 6-7 p.m. For more info, visit the Facebook event page.