When the harmonic convergence of Exene Cervenka and John Doe wound around the post-punk wasteland of the early '80s, the critical mass clairvoyantly estimated that X might just take over the world. Albums like "More Fun in the New World" and "Under the Big Black Sun" were cacophonous celebrations of the minor key, minirevolutions pressed up against the threshold of both politics and melody. It was fun, but with teeth.
Barring frequent reunion tours, the X wave subsided without ever realizing its true potential, and was followed by solo careers that were predictable in purpose, but not really in sound. John Doe remains a renaissance man for the modern age, tirelessly hopping labels and genres in pursuit of what can only be described as honesty. He's an actor, a songwriter and a country sage. On the phone from his current tour, in support of last year's brilliant "Dim Stars, Bright Sky" release, Doe isn't quite as impressed with himself as I am.
"I hear it some," he says. "I don't take it all too seriously."
A successful acting career, including an acclaimed small role in the film "Boogie Nights" and a recurring lead part on the television series "Roswell," have kept him visible, even while his music has veered into experimentation and cult acceptance. Currently, he's rather giddy about a recently completed and unexpectedly ironic character role on the series "Law and Order."
"I think they were just happy that I knew my lines, and I wasn't a disaster," he says. "They did the episode about The Station in Providence, R.I. I was kind of like Jack Russell of Great White. The nightclub burns down and the lead singer was the culprit."
A stretch then?
"I had hair extensions and black eye makeup. It was fun," he says. "Whenever you had to make a decision, it was like, 'What is the most arrogant, asshole-ish thing I could do?' And that's what you do. Like, 'The cops are coming to the door, should I put a shirt on?' Naaaah. 'The cops are accusing me of 23 counts of murder, should I be nice?' Naaaaah."
But despite the devil-may-care persona that characterizes both his careers, Doe isn't really all that simple. He's remained a low-key driving force in music as a solo artist for the past 15 years, beginning with his excellent Geffen release, "Meet John Doe." Decidedly twangy, but with textural variations on electronic amplification, his sound (and career) remains an anomaly in the industry. While he flirts with country music, he is most certainly not of the Nashville breed.
"Well, that would be huge criticism if someone said you were a country musician," he supposes. "You'd be, like, Bon Jovi. It would mean that you had more in common with Styx. It would have nothing at all to do with Tammy Wynette or George Jones or Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash."
But genre-jumping has its costs.
"Not being able to be identified is probably a bad thing," Doe says. "But then people say, 'What kind of music do you play?' and you're like, 'Blah, blah, blah, blah.' Then someone walks away from that conversation saying, 'Fuck it.'"
In typical Doe fashion, he dismisses the industry tail chase anyway.
"Yeah, that's been one of my main concerns," he jokes. "Selling big."
Regardless, "Dim Stars, Bright Sky" features an impressive lineup of (quite marketable) guest vocalists, as well as production by the great Joe Henry. Aimee Mann, Jakob Dylan, Juliana Hatfield and Jane Wiedlin all lend the big harmonic pull-down to Doe's signature howl. Which begs the question: Weren't they intimidated, working with one of their musical heroes?
"Maybe when we first met, but not afterwards. All of us are singers, and we've known each other for awhile now," he says. "Except for Aimee Mann, because she's such a hard case. She wouldn't be impressed with anybody ... except Arthur Rimbaud or somebody. Johnny Cash, maybe."
And as he readies yet another record, Doe remains driven by the same impulse that brought him here in the first place.
"There's a desire to communicate," he says. "And I think that hearing that your peers, like the people that sang on the record, appreciate it, I think that's the greatest achievement -- when your friends get it."
And they respect you.
"Yeah, basically by the virtue that I'm older than a lot of them."
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