Pioneers are unique, willing to take a chance, following what’s within, allowing the rest to realize… The start can be a bit frightening, the outcome – victorious… They do it because they can… X marks the start, continuing into the future… Beating to his own rhythm, pulling from the past, making it his own… If you can, you will. John Doe is all of the above.
John Doe, this is Steve Olson. How are you?
Hey, Steve, long time no talk. How are you doing?
I’m good. How are you?
I was down in your new city not long ago, in Austin.
What were you doing down here?
I was visiting a few people while I was working up in Houston. I was there seeing Tim Kerr from the Big Boys. He told me, “John Doe moved to Austin.” I didn’t know that. How’s it going down there?
It’s going good. Living here is easy. It’s a high quality of life. It’s easy and cheaper. I can buy a house and all of that. It’s good.
That’s great. So I want to go back to where you came from and go to where you are now. Your name is John Doe.
Well, my parents didn’t name me John Doe but, for all intents and purposes, my name is John Doe.
Where were you born and raised?
Well, my dad was a librarian, and he had some ambition and he got better and better jobs, so I was born in Decatur, Illinois and then moved to Tennessee and then to Wisconsin where they grew up and then ended up in Baltimore when I was in third grade. I started playing music when I was 15 and I played in some cover bands. I went to school there and I was friends with John Waters and some of his crew, but Baltimore was no place you could really do anything. In ’75 and ’76, I’d seen some bands up in New York like Talking Heads and the Heartbreakers, and everybody knew what Patti Smith was doing, but I could see that everything was kind of set in New York and I didn’t really want to live there. I was sick of the East Coast and the weather and the negativity. I lived in the Baltimore/Washington area until I was 23, which is when I moved out to L.A. When I got to L.A., I felt at home right away. I didn’t know anybody and there wasn’t really much of a scene, but I didn’t care. I was living in Venice and then I met Exene and Billy and we finally got DJ and the rest is history.
What instrument did you start playing when you first started playing music?
Bass. I thought it would be easier and, to a degree, it’s true. My usual line is that it’s why bass players have personalities and guitar players are too busy in their bedroom figuring out that lick. Most of the early X songs, I wrote on bass. When Exene and I were working on Alphabetland, the new record, I was purposely just writing on bass because Billy gets mad when I try to show him something on guitar. He says that it influences him and the way he plays the song. He gets a little more freedom when I show him the song on bass and he can decide how to voice it. Whether it’s major or minor, I always know, and I’ll argue for which is right, but bass is good. I still have the first real bass I ever bought. I sold it once to somebody when I needed money and he kept it and sold it back to me.
Nice. What was your first bass?
I had a Kent bass, which was Japanese and looked like a violin style bass. Then I bought a 1960 jazz bass for $150 from a guitar player I was in a band with.
What got you into music?
Well, my dad played music and my mom sang. They listened to classical music and opera and they gave me folk records when I was a kid. They had Broadway musicals like South Pacific, Bye Bye Birdie and West Side Story and I liked those too. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Animals first came out when I was in fourth or fifth grade and everybody was going crazy and there was all of this music. In my later teens, I started looking at the credits for the Rolling Stones songs. I was like, “Mona” is a cool song. Who wrote that? Elias McDaniel? Who is that? Then I discovered Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters and all those people.
You went back to Chess Records and all the blues music that heavily influenced them, so how did you get into punk rock or more new rock n’ roll back then?
You can call it punk rock. I could ask you the same question. What was your musical discovery? It’s like, “I’m sick of this other shit, so what do I do?”
Those are good musical influences with the blues. My influence came from the same things that you were taking influences from. I was into the NY Dolls too, but I’m a little younger. I used to go and see X at Club 88 and the Other Masque. I was a little young to get into the Masque, but I saw a lot of X gigs. Those were amazing bills back then with a bunch of bands. I would see X and The Cramps and Fear and the Dead Kennedys and it just kept going. You guys were great and we always had the best time. We were your surfer skater supporters.
Yeah. I remember when you guys were first coming up. I remember playing Tony Alva’s birthday party when he was 18 or something like that. It was out on the beach and all of his friends didn’t like us and we didn’t necessarily like them either because they were giving us a bunch of shit. A year later, they were coming to the gigs. [Laughs] I would say the way that we got influenced and encouraged to play punk rock is because it’s what was happening. In all of the songs that I wrote in the bands that I was in when I lived in Baltimore, I didn’t fit in. It wasn’t that I was a complete misfit, it’s just that I wanted a little something more. I wanted something a little different. That wasn’t really encouraged in Baltimore. When I moved out to L.A., being weird was a good thing. By that point, the New York scene was starting to get some notice. At the end of 1976 and the beginning of 1977, you had bands like The Damned coming out here to L.A. I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to pursue something mainstream and I wanted something that was more aligned with the Velvet Underground. I didn’t really know the New York Dolls that well, but I knew Patti Smith, David Bowie and T. Rex. I wanted to do something that was a little gender-bending and not part of the mainstream and that’s what was happening.
The energy behind the movement that you were helping to build was incredible.
Yeah. It was in the air or in the water or whatever. That’s why I believe it went from New York to London to L.A. in such a short period of time. After the Ramones played in London, suddenly, there were all of these bands. It’s not like nobody was ready for it. They were obviously ready for it because, as soon as they saw it, they were like, “Yeah! That’s it! That’s what I need!”
At the beginning, there was not a lot of clubs available to play punk rock music in, so how was it for X to go play out?
It was a lot of trial and error. If it wasn’t for Brendan Mullen, we would have had a harder time. If it wasn’t for Steve Samiof and Claude Bessy, we would have had a much harder time. Brendan was fearless because he would find a hall and pay some sort of deposit and get some bands and promote it, mostly by word of mouth. He would try to keep Black Randy from trying to pull the toilet off the wall, usually unsuccessfully, and then whoever owned the hall, whether it was Baces Hall or Larchmont Hall, would say, “Okay, great. No more punk rock.” Then the Masque was available. By ’78, the Starwood and the Whisky started realizing that they were having terrible nights with no one there and there was some basement on Hollywood Boulevard with 150 people in it. They realized, “We have to do something.” They were late to the party, but, eventually, the Starwood and the Whisky had great shows. Pretty early on, I saw Blondie and Tom Petty at the Whisky and there weren’t that many people there. Tom Petty opened for Blondie and then asked the audience to stay for the second show because they had planned on turning the house, but there weren’t enough people. We would try to get gigs at places south of here and there was an awful place in Redondo Beach called Kahuna’s Bearded Clam. It probably had punk rock shows twice. I met Keith Morris there the first time we went down there. That was a horrible gig. It was pouring rain and it was the Alley Cats and us and there were maybe 20 people that had road tripped down to Redondo Beach. Then there was a place called the Rock Corporation in the valley. A bunch of bikers ran the place and they didn’t really get us or like us, but we had to go wherever we might be able to play.
“If it wasn’t for Brendan Mullen, we would have had a harder time. If it wasn’t for Steve Samiof and Claude Bessy, we would have had a much harder time. Brendan was fearless because he would find a hall and pay some sort of deposit and get some bands and promote it, mostly by word of mouth. He would try to keep Black Randy from trying to pull the toilet off the wall, usually unsuccessfully, and then whoever owned the hall, whether it was Baces Hall or Larchmont Hall, would say, “Okay, great. No more punk rock.” Then the Masque was available. By ’78, the Starwood and the Whisky started realizing that they were having terrible nights with no one there and there was some basement on Hollywood Boulevard with 150 people in it.”
X’s first single came out on Dangerhouse Records, right?
Yes. It was “Adult Books” and “We’re Desperate”.
How was it to hear your music on vinyl?
It was okay. We felt a certain accomplishment but, it wasn’t that great. We didn’t have the perspective that we have now. You don’t really understand that you’re starting a body of work. It didn’t sound great and we didn’t have a great experience because, at the studio that we worked in, the engineer was kind of an asshole. He didn’t get it and he wished that he was doing something that was real. He didn’t think that what we were doing was real. He was like, “This isn’t real music. This is some bullshit you people are trying to pull off.” The thing is that, if you’re doing anything different, everyone is going to scoff at it and give you a hard time, and that’s really difficult. Hopefully, you have enough confidence or you have some support. That’s where the scene really had community. The scene really supported each other and you felt like, “I’m not alone and I’m not crazy. People like this and people get off on this. I’m relating to people and, if I’m relating to these people, we have shared values. If that’s the case, I can continue, even though there is this recording engineer who is being completely contrary to everything.” He was like, “That’s not the way you do it. What kind of singing is this? What kind of song is this? It’s too fast and there’s too much of this and too much of that.” This was someone who was in a position of authority, so we were faced with a lot of adversity.
You had a guy who wished he was doing Wishbone Ash or Black Oak Arkansas.
Yes. [Laughs] It was one of the cheapest studios ever. That’s not a regret of mine, but it’s one of the reasons that L.A. had an uphill battle establishing credibility for its punk rock scene. New York had Seymour Stein and people that were fairly well funded. In London, they had these great recording studios and they made all these great sounding records. A lot of the early L.A. records sound like shit because they were recorded in hotel rooms. I played on two or three Black Randy tracks and the Randoms and stuff like that and we literally recorded in a hotel room and put the control room where the engineer was, in the room next door. That was fun, but it still didn’t sound very good.
There was the No New York record in ’78 and then the Yes L.A. record in ’79. With Yes L.A., it seemed like the recording quality had gotten a little better at that point.
Well, maybe. I don’t think we used the Kitchen Sync, which is where we did the X single. I can’t remember where we recorded our version of Los Angeles, but maybe it had gotten a little better. [Laughs] It couldn’t have gotten much worse.
Was there anything against New York with No New York and Yes L.A.? It seemed like there was a rift between the two cities.
Well, I think it’s a healthy rivalry. There was some rivalry between San Francisco and L.A. and I think that it made us better. We saw the Avengers and thought, “They’re good. We have to be good too.” It wasn’t like Tupac and Biggie. Everyone that I hung out with really looked up to the first wave of New York bands because they were such pioneers. Everybody went to the Ramones show. Everybody went to the Blondie show. Everybody went and saw Television and Talking Heads and stuff like that. I think the Yes L.A. was more of a David Brown thing.
It was definitely more upbeat.
That’s true of the music. New York was coming out of art galleries. L.A. was coming out of driving around on California freeways. For them to call it Yes L.A., it was more because David Brown and Black Randy sang “Fuck you guys” to stir up shit.
It seemed like X’s popularity happened pretty quickly, no?
In Los Angeles, it did, but not so much in the rest of the country. By 1980, after two and half or three years of being a band, X could sell out two shows a night for two nights at the Whisky. That’s 1,400 people. I don’t know if that was quick or not.
From starting off playing wherever you could play to playing where the Doors played, that’s pretty cool.
Absolutely. I wrote about that in the first punk rock book we did where I talk about X playing at the Whisky. I was waiting on the rest of the band to join me and realized that I was standing where the Doors and Arthur Lee and Johnny Rivers played. Otis Redding played there and all kinds of people played there, so I felt that playing the Whisky. It’s the same way that you feel nowadays if you get to play a nice theater or a big festival. You don’t feel like you’ve wasted your life and it feels good. I don’t feel like it’s romantic or noble to be going into another 400-500 capacity black box. I’m okay with it because that’s what I do, but if X only played 1,000-2,000 seat theaters and there was some standing room and people could dance if they wanted, that would be fine with me. On the other hand, I don’t look down on it and I’m not mad about it. It’s part of the deal. It’s what we do and I’m grateful for that. That’s one thing you learn as you get older. You’re either grateful for what you get or you’re an angry bastard. I’m grateful. I see some angry bastards and think, “How’s that working for you? Do you like being an angry bastard?” I don’t walk around with flowers coming out of my ass, but I’m pretty happy in general. I’m comfortable with having a degree of satisfaction. Otherwise, you’re the guy standing on his lawn going, “You kids get off my lawn!” It’s bullshit. That is awful and it’s probably no fun. Maybe deep down the guy yelling, “Get off my lawn!” is laughing to himself and having a great time, but it seems like he’s on his way to a heart attack from being tense.
What about Robert Hilburn and Kristine McKenna, from the L.A. Times? As a kid, I would look in the Sunday calendar and see those writers.
Kristine McKenna was our first champion and Robert Hilburn came around a few months later. Kristine really got it and wrote some great reviews that were not just praising us. They seemed to have insight that we were doing something worthwhile. It was a big deal, but if Slash Magazine and all the fanzines weren’t happening, I don’t know if the L.A. Times or the L.A. Weekly would have picked up on us. The bigger media works slower and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The upstarts were what the community was all about. The community was about everybody doing something, whether you made flyers or you were a performance artist or whatever you did. They were all kind of equal in adding to the whole deal.
What about the musicianship of X? Billy Zoom was a pretty accomplished guitar player before starting with X?
I know a little about his rockabilly stuff, and you could play your bass well. How did it come about that you and Exene would share vocals? I was always curious about that. Was it a conscious decision where you’d decide to sing one part and she would decide to sing another part and you’d sing together on the chorus?
You could say that it was destiny or you could say it was fate and I don’t think you’d be wrong. I think certain things are meant to happen and they do. Exene and I moved here and I met Billy and then I saw the Eyes at the Masque and we’d been looking for a drummer and DJ was perfect. He also didn’t want to play what every other drummer played. DJ’s greatest music influence is Captain Beefheart. He’s ‘outside’, as the jazz guys like to say. The way that Exene and I developed our method of singing was that she doesn’t want to stand there while I’m singing a whole song, so we tried to figure out, if it’s a song that I’m going to sing, where she could sing. We tried it out and it was organic. When it worked, we remembered it and tried to do it more. The way that Exene sings isn’t schooled or calculated like a lot of other singers that had been in bands and knew what back up signing was supposed to sound like. She just sang what she heard. She didn’t shy away from something that sounded weird.
She was singing from feeling, yeah?
Yeah. We weren’t afraid to sing in unison or an octave apart, which a lot of people think is not right. When I was younger, I was very influenced by The Band. I loved the way that they would sing all these weird harmonies. Even though they were a little more traditional, they were odd and they would come in and sing for a line or two and stop. They wouldn’t sing an entire verse with someone or even the entire chorus. They would sing a line here or there for emphasis. I still do that in solo recordings. When X recorded the new record, Alphabetland, we still used that because it works. It’s interesting and not totally expected. There’s no rule that says, when a second singer comes in, you have to stay in. You can come in and sing a few things and then let someone else sing. Maybe it has more emphasis if there is only one person singing it. Maybe there is a line that sounds better because, with the story you’re telling, the narrator is the lead singer. Maybe you want that line to be more personal, so you just have one person sing it. It was a lot of trial and error for us.
It also seems like there is trust from two vocalists willing to let the other one come in and not step all over them.
Absolutely. I think that’s a good way of putting it. There is a lot of trust and space where they’re not in it just for themselves. You’re not singing your part just to have people look at you. You’re singing your part because it’s going to add something. That’s a cool idea and I hadn’t thought of that.
Well, it seems like you and Exene have an open-mindedness from saying, “You might make this better than I could singing it by myself.” It was different than what else was going on when you all started. The Weirdos were the Weirdos. Then there were the Cramps. I saw the Cramps so much. With X, you had two singers and it was different and diverse and it just worked, so thank you.
Well, thank you. I appreciate the compliment and I think you’re right in that we kind of stumbled upon it. We found something, regardless of whether we worked towards it. It was out there and then we realized that it was something that was unique. Billy, with his incredible ability and versatility and style, was the first guy that was playing rockabilly in punk rock. You can give him credit for that.
Absolutely. He was deeply into the tone of his Gretsch. It was obvious to someone that wasn’t really aware of it, at that moment, then realizing that the guy in the leather jacket with the silver sparkling Gretsch is really a masterful guitar player. Your playing accompanied Billy’s playing and DJ’s playing. It seemed like it all came from a different place and morphed into this unique sound. The uniqueness was really cool. Then you also had the influences from all of these different types of music, played at a faster tempo.
Yes. The fast tempo was what was happening. The thing with Billy is a point that Henry Rollins makes in this latest book. I’m not plugging my books, but it’s relevant if somebody wants to dig deeper into L.A. punk rock history. Henry’s point was that the drummers in the Bad Brains and Minor Threat and Black Flag and the musicianship in those bands, even though they are all pretty hard and fast, they listened to and knew 200 records very well. They understood swing and the roll part of rock n’ roll and then they ended up getting to what they played. If you fast forward about five years and there’s some band in the Midwest who has a Bad Brains record and a Minor Threat record and a Black Flag record and they’ve got three records they listened to, then that swing and musicianship and vocabulary and experience is smaller. They don’t have the range that the first wave had. Henry is a huge musicologist and, when he hears something, he goes, “Oh, that’s cool. Where does that come from?” Then you listen to the people that influenced the band you just heard. I know that’s where Billy got a lot of his stuff. His dad was a jazz musician and Billy played R&B music. He played with Art Wheeler & the Brothers Love and he backed up Etta James and he played with Gene Vincent. He played with real deal national players because he was that good. He wasn’t interested in playing some bullshit Foreigner or these other terrible bands that were around at the time. He wanted to play something that was good.
Let’s talk about Modi Frank and your acting and the film Bad Day. I remember Modi showing it to me and saying, “Olson, look, I made a film.” It was you and Kevin Costner and people from your scene. I remember Modi saying, “I made a Western.” I thought, “That’s amazing.” How did that all come about?
Well, I had become friends with Michael Blake who is a writer. Michael knew Kevin Costner and this guy, Jim Wilson, because they all hung out at Raleigh Studios on Melrose Ave. Raleigh Studios is a big deal now, but then they just had an office there. Kevin worked as a carpenter, and then Jim Wilson cast him in a movie. Anyway, we all got to be friends. Gil T. from Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, and my ex-wife, Gigi Blair, and Pete Haskell, who eventually became Exene’s boyfriend, were in the movie. Exene was the DP and Modi was the director. We had a friend of a friend who had access to a Western town, so we thought, “Let’s do a Western. That will be fun. I’ve got some cowboy boots. Do you have cowboy boots? Yeah. Cool. Let’s go.”
[Laughs] That’s so good. It still fit in with the punk rock thing – making a DIY movie. It was also not being afraid and going for it. Again, trust comes in and it’s like, “Let’s do this film with Modi.”
You’re right. People weren’t afraid, but we should have been more afraid, but not so afraid that we didn’t do it. I haven’t seen that movie in years and years, but it was pretty fun as I remember.
Was that your introduction to acting?
Well, my real introduction to acting was working with Allison Anders on Border Radio. That was the first real thing that I did, even though it wasn’t all that real. It was more like a student movie, but it turned out good and looked beautiful. Allison went on to do many things and she’s still working as a director. As we speak, she is working on Mayans M.C., the spinoff of the Sons of Anarchy. I always give Allison credit or blame for getting me into acting. It was fun and rewarding and it was very similar to music. It was hanging out with people that you liked and doing something creative and then it was like, “Look! We’ve got something.”
“If you’re doing anything different, everyone is going to scoff at it and give you a hard time, and that’s really difficult. Hopefully, you have enough confidence or you have some support. That’s where the scene really had community. The scene really supported each other and you felt like, “I’m not alone and I’m not crazy. People like this and people get off on this. I’m relating to people and, if I’m relating to these people, we have shared values. If that’s the case, I can continue, even though there is this recording engineer who is being completely contrary to everything.”
Then you did a lot more films and people enjoy your acting, which is a cool thing.
I guess the people that hired me liked it well enough. [Laughs] It can be very rewarding and somewhat frustrating. I’m a little more mercenary usually. I look at the script and figure out if I can do it and be convincing. Then I ask for as much money as I can possibly get away with.
That’s very important.
[Laughs] Yeah. I’m definitely in an enviable situation because I get to do different things and it’s a good time and it’s also creative. I take it very seriously and I never talk about ‘the work’, which I think is pretentious. On the other hand, I recently filmed a thing, which is a remake of a film noir movie called D.O.A. It was shot in St. Augustine, Florida, and I was the lead guy and it was terrifying because I didn’t want to screw it up.
You felt pressure having to carry it?
Yeah. That kind of went away once we got into doing it and it was a great experience. You have to challenge yourself and find things that are frightening and try to do it anyway. That’s how you grow.
When you have to memorize lines, do you find it easy to remember lines?
Sometimes. Sometimes it’s harder because the language is more confusing. Some writing is more natural and fluid and other writing is not. I find, if I read through it from beginning to end three or four times, by the fifth time, I’m pretty much there. The real trick is not worrying about it and having that in your pocket ready to go and just being there and not acting. If you’re acting, you’re blowing it. If you’re just being there, you’re in good shape. The hardest thing in recording records is to be present at all times. You have to be in tune with your intuition, and not fuck it up by thinking too much. If you’re thinking too much, you’re probably going to ruin it. That sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s 100 percent true. If it’s the Beach Boys or Elliott Smith or one of those orchestral type productions, then maybe you have to have a lot of brain power. For me, it’s more intuition and what seems right. My advice to young musicians is, if you’re listening to something and it doesn’t feel right, trust in that. If someone gives you a bunch of reasons why it makes sense, even though you feel like it’s wrong, I guarantee you, you’re going to listen to it again later and say, “Oh, no. Why did I say yes to that?”
How is it to speak other people’s words, since obviously you write and also deliver other people’s lyrics? Do you find it difficult to deliver someone else’s words?
No. You really have to make it your own. You have to believe it and be it. It’s like when you learn somebody else’s song. Even if you play or sing exactly what has gone before, you have to make it your own so it’s believable. If you don’t put some heart and soul into it, then it’s bullshit. People will be like, “I don’t need to listen to that. Somebody else did that and they believed it. Why do I want to listen to your version?”
Valid point. Once X came to a certain plateau, there was X and Los Lobos and the Plugz and the Blasters and they all seemed to have a different step up of musicianship. There was also a common thread that ran through a lot of those bands and that was Americana. There was also the Latin influence in L.A. Hollywood was there in your backyard too. It seemed like, here is punk rock in Hollywood and these kids are crazy.
That’s a two part question because I’m just going with my train of thought. Let’s go to the Americana within those bands. I’d see really good bills with X and the Blasters and Los Lobos and Top Jimmy and so forth.
Right. I think everybody learned songs and listened to the radio and those were our first and probably most important influences. I think that whatever you hear first, when you’re a kid, you eventually come back to that. The Blasters and the Plugz, to a degree, and certainly Los Lobos, all heard somewhat of the same stuff, so that was just part of it. The common thread was that we wanted to make a hybrid of that. We didn’t want to just be an oldies band or a cover band. We wanted to do our thing. The fact is that we were all hanging out and exchanging ideas. “What do you think is cool? What do you listen to?” I remember Phil and Dave Alvin making mix tapes of Sun Records musicians that we’d never heard. We’d heard Jerry Lee and Elvis and Johnny Cash, but we didn’t know Billy Lee Riley or Sonny Burgess. I give the Blasters a lot of credit for people like Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp honoring American music more. Before the Blasters, they did Americana music, but they didn’t go back as far. Then there is your other question that is about Hollywood punk rock. The first wave was all rules are off and you can do anything you want and, if you don’t like what we’re doing, you can lump it. If you don’t like what we’re doing, that’s fine, because a lot of people don’t like what we’re doing, so go listen to something else. That was brave and that’s what you get when you’re young and you can do whatever you want. There wasn’t much riding on our success or failure. We didn’t think it was going to last. All we were doing was hoping that maybe we could be in a band for three or four years and somehow, by a fluke, we could have some kind of career, but we didn’t really believe it was going to happen. I think we were all surprised and grateful that anything happened. On the other hand, we thought, “Why in the world doesn’t somebody sign the Go-Go’s? It’s such a slam dunk. Are they crazy?” Eventually, it took Miles Copeland and IRS Records to make them superstars.
When did you start thinking that making a career out of it was a possibility?
It was maybe about four years ago. [Laughs] Actually, it was around the time that we started playing the Whisky and the Starwood with the reinforcement that there were 300 people there and we didn’t know everybody there, which was around early or mid ’78 or ’79. Really you don’t believe it because you’ve seen how people go up and down so fast.
That’s why I asked that question.
Well, that’s why I first said about four years ago. That’s when I figured I’m not going to end up living on the streets. No one knows that their retirement is going to happen and be secure. I know that as long as X is able to keep playing, and continue to be good, we can make money, and that’s a good thing. I think we are all very grateful for that.
How instrumental do you think that Rodney Bigenheimer was?
Within the early Hollywood scene, he had a lot of influence. Beyond L.A., he had no influence. By ’79, we were beginning to do national tours, even though they were small. By ’79 and ’80, we were starting to go to Texas and New Orleans and Arizona. By ’80 and ’81, we were going to the Midwest and all over the East Coast. Rodney definitely helped the initial L.A. punk rock scene because then you found out about things, and not just for the bands, but also for the audience. He had a forum that was bigger than Slash Magazine. Maybe they were equal. I don’t know.
At the time, with Slash Magazine, and the aesthetics of what was going on in fashion and graphics, it seemed like everything fell into place. It seemed to all go hand in hand.
Everything influenced everything else. If you’re a graphic artist or a fine artist and you’re listening to the music that is going on, you’re probably going to make art that is similar to that. If you are friends with a band and they ask you to make a flyer or a poster, then you’re going to do something that fits in with that. I’d give Richard Duardo and a lot of the Latino East L.A. artists credit for bringing Day of the Dead imagery into our world. We were going to bodegas and seeing voodoo powder and stuff like that, so we brought that into some of the gun club imagery. People would find skulls on candles and burn them and that would be part of their imagery. It’s the whole process of looking for something else and not just being status quo.
You guys did American Bandstand as well. If you got on American Bandstand, you made it, or it seemed that way.
Well, we loved it. Dick Clark was a huge music fan. At one point, we were pinching ourselves like, “Really? Are we going to be able to do this?” We did it and I don’t know what kind of doors it opened up for us, but we felt great doing it. One of the first or second times that we were on there, Exene was getting her make up professionally done and she was thinking, “Oh, my god, this is so weird and crazy. What am I doing here?” Everyone has that fraud reaction to feeling like you don’t belong in certain places. Dick Clark came into the make up room and said, “Hey, explain something to me. We’ve got all these bands that are really great, but the radio isn’t playing them. What’s the deal?” Exene turned to Dick Clark and said, “I don’t know. You’re the professional. You’re the guy that’s been in the music business for 30 years. You tell me.” Dick Clark was kind of mystified. It’s like I was saying, “Why aren’t the Go-Go’s signed to a big record contract and why are we having so much resistance?” I think it was because the record companies only understood the status quo. Major label record companies and even independent record companies rarely have foresight. It’s the exception to the rule that they see something ahead of time, like Sub Pop or Bloodshot or Epitaph did. That’s the exception, not the rule.
Okay, so now what are you doing?
I’m going to go get a haircut.
Excellent. [Laughs] What are you doing now career-wise? You write books. You’re an actor. You’re a musician.
I’m trying to stay home as much as possible, but that’s not working out so well. X has a new record out and I’m also planning book events for More Fun In The New World, which is part two of two books about L.A. punk rock.
Break that down for me about your books.
I’ll give you the drive to the liquor store length explanation. I’m assuming that the drive to the liquor store takes about five minutes.
At the most. [Laughs]
Under The Big Black Sun was L.A. punk rock from ’77 to ’82. Instead of me being the authority, my co-writer, Tom DeSavia, and I decided that we would enlist other people to write stories. We called up Jane Wiedlin, Dave Alvin, Henry Rollins and a bunch of other people and said, “Why don’t you write a chapter?” We gave them subjects and said, “You’re an expert in this and we think this is worth writing about.” Pleasant Gehman was an expert in the way the social world worked. I was an expert on what X did and different subjects, so I tied it together. It’s a good picture of the initial punk rock scene and the photographers and artists who were part of it and the community that grew up around it. That book did well. It sold 20,000 copies and people liked it, so the publisher exercised their option to do a second book, so we did More Fun in The New World, which is ’82 to ’87. During that period, a lot of the original community broke down and hardcore took over and people started going on tour a lot. You can’t maintain a community like that, so a lot of people got on drugs and were lied to by record companies and a lot of bullshit went down. Also there were a lot of different genres that went down like Cow Punk, which was really the beginning of the Americana genre. Then there was the funk and ska scene with the Untouchables and Fishbone. There was also hardcore, so we got different people to write about those scenes. We also realized, because my partner is smarter than me, that there was a lot of legacy that happened then, so we got Shepard Fairey, Tim Robbins, Allison Anders and Tony Hawk to write chapters as well because they were influenced by the DIY ethos that was happening, which became bigger and more prevalent in the mid to late ‘80s. Beyond that, somebody else can write their book because, after that, I was kind of out of the L.A. music scene and it was more national. Hopefully, we’ve inspired some people to work on their own books. We definitely have a somewhat complete history of L.A. punk-influenced music and art in the two books, Under The Big Black Sun and More Fun in The New World, so I’m proud of that. Other than that, I’m trying to write songs for another solo record.
Oh, good. I will look forward to that. One last thing I wanted to touch on is the Knitters. Break down the Knitters.
The Knitters were born because Dave Alvin and Exene and I hung out a lot and we had a lot of respect and love for old time music. Phil Alvin and Billy Zoom didn’t really want to play benefits for Medical Aid for El Salvador and stuff like that because they felt like politics had no business being in music, and I respect that. We thought, “Why don’t the three of us go out and we can do some benefits?” Then we made a record and it was a good time. It was also influenced by all of the other bands that were dipping into Americana at that time, like Green on Red, Rank and File, Tex & the Horseheads, The Gun Club or Lone Justice. We go into that quite a bit in this second book. It’s like, “What do you love and what can you sing and play convincingly?” Punk rock and country music have certain things in common. They are both relatively simple and deal with some difficult subject matter
You switched to guitar with the Knitters. Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah. I wanted to sing and play and not have to work up all those bass lines. Our friend Johnny Ray Bartel is a great bass player so I thought, “I’ll get him to do all the hard work.” We also didn’t have a bass player. It was just the three of us – rhythm guitar, two vocals and a lead guitar.
I’m glad that you’ve gotten to make a career out of something that you love.
Yes. Me too. That’s the deal. The older you get the more grateful you should be that you’re still doing something that you love.
I totally understand and agree 100%. Thank you for sharing and thank you for doing what you’ve done and what you do.
Back at ya, Steve Olson.
Thanks. Now go do your thing and get a good haircut.
Have a great day and I will see you soon somewhere on the planet.
I hope so. It will be good to see you again.
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