John Doe Makes It Easy to Root for the Underdog

L-R: Cindy Wasserman and John Doe tore it up at the Duck Thursday night.
L-R: Cindy Wasserman and John Doe tore it up at the Duck Thursday night.
Photos by David Ensminger

John Doe, Jesse Dayton McGonigel's Mucky Duck January 22, 2015

With his rich baritone quiver and chiseled American looks, John Doe has been an uber-indie songwriter who survived the swells of his bands X and Knitters while honing a singular style all his own. As co-helmsman and titanic presence in X, he became a gutsy, savvy working-class songster effortlessly channeling Bukowski and the Beats in the ragged glory years of L.A. nights at the Masque and Whisky a Go-Go, where plentiful sweat, scrawled manic graffiti, and mangled three-chord wonders held sway in 1978.

As a gripping poet at heart and fluid-fingered bass player, he remains an unparalleled force that made formerly 'unheard music,' lurid punk with doses of rockabilly and country twang, go viral in the days of watered down college-rock. In the middle of hardcore's buzz-cut scorn and Hollywood Boulevard's leotarded cock-rock, X held their ground as ductile anchors as both the bile and glam swirled.

Decades later, as beards and skinny pants reign, Doe's authentic underdog spirit keeps aglow in the digital landscape of fakery and fuss. He is the grain of salt in the knowledge economy.

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Doe's solo career has always been an interesting series of choices highlighting restlessness and choices not made. Though mid-late 1980s X delved deep into honky-tonk (listen to driftin' Doe sing "So Long" on the Live at the Whisky... album), Doe did not put on the sawdust-strewn mask of a bedraggled heartland troubadour.

When X re-united in the mid-1990s and attacked the military complex on hey Zeus!, his records became even more fiercely personal. And though he never really penned a -- hit" -- though "The Golden State" came close -- he has produced a riveting catalog rivaling contemporaries like Paul Westerberg, Peter Case and Bob Mould.

In mid-2014, Yep Roc released the "part scrapbook, part road map" known as The Best of John Doe: This Far, which underscores his intelligence, earnestness, and songcraft rather than the razory rancor of his youth. In Doe's eyes, the realpolitik of the Reagan era has been replaced, or perhaps internalized in a metaphoric tangle, with the interpersonal politics of relationships stretching over years, places and points of conflict. Men are not mere naked, hollow shells. They are lovers figuring out the terrain as the ground shifts underneath. Love, desire, and loyalty rub elbows with disarray, aloneness (rather than loneliness), and botched duties.

Live and loud, Doe's themes come boiling to the surface, though he often tempers them; his humor is never far afield. At the Mucky Duck, he was joined by local legend Jesse Dayton, former Road Kings front man, whose own jests and sarcasm were in ample supply during his short solo set that jump-started the night.

Partly a trailer-park "white trash" ambassador, as Rob Zombie might promulgate him, Dayton is a raucous roots-rock impresario, genial and gifted. Backing Doe did not mean being stuck in back-seat limbo. His guitar work helped launch the night into a kind of jukebox luster.

Doe's set offered something for everyone, covering the breadth of his work with solid-hearted ease. On one hand, quiet moments pervaded, like the sober and sweet "Twin Brothers," explained as an observation of neighboring four year-olds yelled at by an overwrought mother who worked in the control tower of a nearby airport. "Little Tiger" worked the same musical vibe too. The room swayed with domestic charm.

Story continues on the next page.

 

Before joining Doe and Wasserman, Jesse Dayton (left) opened the show with a set full of jukebox luster.
Before joining Doe and Wasserman, Jesse Dayton (left) opened the show with a set full of jukebox luster.

Other tunes increased the voltage and rhythmic riot, like "Walking out the Door," which depicts love's chaos (being dealt the "losing hand") without being knee-deep in bitterness. Doe's vocal infections, with a nod to Jerry Lee Lewis, never fail to impress. Equally unharnessed and propulsive, "Never Enough" attacked the world of junk celebrated at length from storage-war reality-TV programs to the endless box stores like Staples dotting almost every American highway. This song pays tribute to Doe's punk-at-heart anti-materialism. He's still angry, dammit.

Cindy Wasserman, from Dead Rock West, co-anchored the stage with Doe, joining him throughout but especially noted on beloved "The Golden State," and coming to the fore on the molasses-drip reinvention of "The Last Time," a Rolling Stones nugget from 1965. Doe often dips into other people's musical timelines, from the Replacements to Woody Guthrie, but tonight he offered up Bob Dylan's "Pressing On," a spiritual tune, though Doe quickly admitted religiosity was not typically in his own blood.

Still, what really drew the crowd's drink-imbued cheers was another step back into history: the iconic tunes of X. For a few ecstatic moments, the crowd re-lived anthems like full-throttle "Burning House of Love," the ode to long-lost dive bars "The Have Nots," and the final call to action for the night, "The New World," which Doe dedicated to "our dearly departed country...and your new governor."

He wove sonic references to John Lennon's "Revolution" into the tune, and despite the nostalgic wink, one could tell Doe's sentiments obviously still sync with the hard-bitten underdogs of the world.

And that's his way of sticking to a path less taken.

Personal Bias: Doe is featured in my new book Mavericks of Sound: Conversations with the Artists Who Shaped Indie and Roots Music.

The Crowd: Hunkered down to escape the blitzkrieg sheets of rain, warmed by the timbre of Doe.

Overheard In the Crowd: "He played my favorite X song!" exclaimed a waiter brimming with a smile. Of course, the song evoked dive bars!

Random Notebook Dump: Doe was once quite tuned into TV shows about hoarders!

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McGonigel's Mucky Duck

2425 Norfolk
Houston, TX 77098

713-528-5999

www.mcgonigels.com


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