Everybody has to start somewhere. In Firsties, we talk to some of our favorite pop-culture figures about the many first steps along the way to their current careers.
John Doe is, at the very least, a triple threat. He’s an excellent singer-songwriter, as evidenced by his work in acts like X, The Knitters, and The Flesh Eaters, as well as by his reams of solo material. He’s also a great actor, having appeared in films like Great Balls Of Fire!, Road House, Boogie Nights, and on episodes of Carnivale, Law & Order, and Roswell. He’s also a poet, even teaching workshops to aspiring writers from time to time. Doe is a modern-day Renaissance man, one of those guys who exemplifies what it means to be talented and cool. And fans can hope to catch some of that cool this summer, when Doe will be touring in support of his latest release, The Best Of John Doe: This Far, out now on Yep Roc.
First solo LP
John Doe: My first solo LP was Meet John Doe , and Geffen offered me a shitload of money. And I had been playing solo shows for three or four years. X was pretty well established at that point, so I thought, what could happen? Little did I know that I would work with a producer that would keep saying, “Oh, I don’t hear a single.” And so did Geffen: “I don’t hear a single.” Then they finally got their “single,” and decided that they would release something else to soften up the market. The single that they had chosen was actually never released as a single.
The A.V. Club: Had you had good experiences with major labels prior?
JD: Mmmm, no. I mean, X was like a painting or like a piece of artwork to put on their wall as credibility. So. Yeah. I had artistic freedom, but they kept getting more businesslike and really boring.
AVC: Why did you decide to do a “greatest hits” now, even if it’s just “this far?”
JD: I think the first person to suggest it was my co-collaborator, Dave Way. He’s my co-producer, engineer, mixer, and he kept saying, “You’ve got to do this. Look at all these great songs.” So, Dave Way.
AVC: It’s his fault. How did you decide what went on the record? Did you have a list?
JD: Sort of, but not really. The only one I knew was going to be on there was “The Golden State.” It’s the only thing I have that could even be thought of possibly as a minor hit.
AVC: How did you sequence the record? It’s not chronological like most Best Of records.
JD: Yep Roc said double LP vinyl, so I had that to help the sequencing. I love the idea of starting off with something that’s kind of quick, something accessible. But then, as the record progresses, you can have something that’s not a first song to open one of the sides. And with the final song on each side, I like something that’s a little longer, a little more epic. I like that idea.
The first song he ever wrote
JD: It was a terrible song called “Stable Boy,” which has absolutely no rhythm or ring. It’s actually hard to pronounce.
AVC: And it was about a stable boy?
JD: Yes, yes. That was me. I probably had to rake leaves or something, and at 14 I thought I was being imprisoned or was being put upon.
I’d say the first good song I wrote was maybe “Adult Books.”
AVC: How did you know it was a good song?
JD: Because it was. [Laughs.] Because I could feel it.
First favorite album
JD: The first memory I have of a record that was mine that I loved was a record called Songs To Grow On. I was probably 8. [The album is Woody Guthrie’s Songs To Grow On For Mother And Child, which was first released in 1956. —ed.]
AVC: What was on that?
JD: Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and a bunch of folkies. Pete Seeger was maybe on it. It’s funny I picked that out.
This is a side note, but I did this thing called The 78 Project. These guys in New York, Alex and Lavinia, they go around the country recording people on a 78 machine. I picked up that record and showed it to them, and then did a song from that. Certain things stick with you.
The first show he ever played
JD: I was in fifth grade. A friend of mine, David Wolffe, and I, we played “House Of The Rising Sun” and went from classroom to classroom doing that. He could play chords, so he was real good—I could only play single notes, so I was the lead guitar player.
Actually, there was an earlier talent show that was not a band. It was me and a girl, Michelle, whose last name I can’t remember. I was in third grade, and we sang “(I Love You) A Bushel And A Peck.”
AVC: How old were you when you started playing guitar?
JD: I didn’t actually own a guitar. I played with my brothers. I was 11, or in fifth grade. The first instrument I really played was bass, and it was a Kent bass that I bought over time. It was $25 a month, and I think the total price was a 130 or 140 bucks. I was 15.
The first X show
JD: It was in our house, an old Victorian Craftsman-type—I don’t know if those are conflicting architectural styles; you’ll have to fact-check that. But it was in Hancock Park, [Los Angeles] on Sixth and Van Ness, where Billy Zoom used to live, and then Exene [Cervenka] and I moved in. The garage was our practice space, and we threw a party in the living room, which I think had no furniture anyway. K.K. Barrett played drums, who was in The Screamers. He was our first drummer. I think we played maybe five or six songs because that’s all we knew. And maybe somebody else played some. There were probably 40 people there. It was a big deal. No, really. It was.
The first time he met Exene Cervenka
JD: I went to the Venice Poetry Workshop; I don’t know when it was. Probably November of ’76. And you know, it’s full of typical Venice poet types. Exene was there. And I thought, “Huh. She’s not 40. She doesn’t look like a poet. Maybe I’ll go sit next to her.” And she had hennaed hair—so her hair was red and she had bangs and it was all was kind of sticking out. It was like Egyptian, almost, and she wore dark red lipstick. I thought, “Hm. Interesting. She looks bohemian.”
Then we had to fill out who our influences were. And she wanted to crib off of mine, because she didn’t really know many poets. She knew lyricists and rock ’n’ roll singers. She didn’t have any poetry education. So she cribbed off of mine, and then noticed that I had written John Ashbery twice. She said, “Um, did you mean to do that?” That was endearing, that feeling-like-an-idiot sort of thing.
AVC: Was it hard for you guys to get divorced and then continue working together?
JD: Well, we’d realized that we were friends first, and then we were romantically involved. And we thought maybe our creative partnership was worth more than our romantic partnership. Practically, I think we also wanted to keep making a living. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard. It was terribly hard. But we tried to be adult about it.
It’s funny. By the time you actually split up, it’s usually a lot better. All the screaming and the pain—that’s all eight months before you actually decide to split up.
His first acting role
JD: It was Allison Anders’ Border Radio. I was flabbergasted. “What? You want me to do what?” And being, quote, “on set,” was just going over to somebody’s house. And they had a 16-millimeter Bolex or something. It was very humble beginnings, but it’s actually not a bad movie. It looks beautiful.
AVC: What was your first big movie?
JD: The first big movie was Salvador, which was Oliver Stone’s first real movie. The first day of that was really interesting, because he was so over his head. It was just so much to manage in a foreign country, with a foreign crew, with a Cuban assistant director. I played a surfer expat, and it shot outside of Acapulco.
AVC: How did you get into acting?
JD: Allison convinced all these L.A. musicians that they should be in her movie just because she’s a music fan. And then there was an agent at the music agency that I worked with who had done film representation. She had represented David Essex and David Bowie, and had a lot to do with that movie Stardust, and some of the other English musicians who crossed over. And she represented me for a little while because I was like, “Sure, why not? Opportunity to hang out with cool people and get paid? Sure.”
The first time I realized that I was sucking in acting was with Harry Dean Stanton. I worked on a movie called Slam Dance and I did a couple scenes with him, and I thought, “Holy shit. He is just acting rings around me. I’m sucking here.”
AVC: Well, anyone would think that working with Harry Dean Stanton.
JD: Yeah. He’s pretty intimidating.
His first day as a dad
JD: The odd thing is that Exene and her husband at the time, Viggo Mortensen, also had a baby the same day in the same hospital. So Viggo and I were walking around the halls and pretending to be doctors. Stupid shit like that. We had the gowns and the booties and things like that.
[But] my eyes were as big as dinner plates. All day.