L.A. Weekly has covered X too many times to count. I personally have covered X too many times to count (a couple examples here and here). But before they were Los Angeles icons, they were an up and coming phenomena of the local punk scene with several connections to this publication than ran deep (L.A. Weekly “LA Dee Da” columnist Pleasant Gehman hung out in the same circles at the time, for one). X were too good to stay buried by the underground for long and their trajectory has been as unique and arresting as the band itself. If John Doe’s first book with co-writer Tom DeSavia, Under The Big Black Sun chronicled the band’s early days and offered an unvarnished look at the environments in which they evolved and emerged (Disgraceland, The Masque), then his latest, More Fun In The New World, is a proper sequel, unraveling the rest of the story about what happened after they “made it,” and exploring how the music they created had lasting impact on others. Both books enlist in people who were there to tell their tales — Gehman, Jane Wiedlin and Henry Rollins are in both volumes, and the likes of Dave Alvin, Keith Morris and Allison Anders are in the latest. Here, in a later chapter from More Fun, Doe shares what it was like to work with Ray Manzarek and how the band pushed themselves musically while keeping their punk cred in tact.
CHAPTER 26- AIN’T LOVE GRAND
By John Doe
Never believe your own hype. How did we miss this valuable lesson? I suppose we felt outside the rules. We broke rules. We wrote new rules. It’s not as if some rock ‘n’ roll musicians’ guidebook existed and we could turn to page 127 to find out how to proceed after four critically acclaimed but financially underachieving LPs. How did an anti-establishment band like X fall into the most cliché trap?
In only five years, from 1978 to 1983, we had released four records that got so much praise, it almost embarrassed us, a humbling experience that can really spin your head around. We ranked with so many taste-makers like New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Village Voice, L.A. Weekly in their “Year End Top Ten Best List” for 1980 (Los Angeles), ’81 (Wild Gift), ’82 (Under the Big Black Sun), and ’83 (More Fun in the New World). My mother, Gretchen, filled three or four loose-leaf binders per year with our press clippings. They came from all over the US and also several from overseas. As a dutiful son, I would clip them out of news- papers as we grinded out tour after tour from 1980 to 1986. We played two or three times on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, Late Night with David Letterman, Jerry Lewis’s Telethon for MS, Solid Gold, History of Rock ‘n’ Roll (with James Brown, Chuck Berry, The Temptations, etc.). We suffered through each one of these appearances with a mixture of anxiety, fear, and hubris. Personally I never felt like I belonged there. I felt like a fraud. Never felt like “This is going to make a mark” or “I deserve this.” I felt a deep self-consciousness. I don’t remember feeling connected like a band of outlaws the way we did on hundreds of live shows. On those we always pulled together, especially in a foreign territory such as the first tours in the Midwest or the South. On television appearances I never remember a feeling of joy or exuberance, just nerves. Never felt “FUCK YEAH!! THIS IS GONNA FUCKIN’ SHOW THEM WHAT WE GOT!” Somehow we managed to get through the three and a half minutes and not embarrass ourselves too badly.
As producer, Ray Manzarek guided us through our first four LPs. He became a mentor to the band and a kind of father figure to both Exene and me. Ray was fucking rock ‘n’ roll royalty. He had hit songs, gold and platinum records, and, more importantly, records that changed popular culture forever. He was a member of the mutherfuckin DOORS! Dark, mysterious, dangerous, noir, L.A., murderous—not some bullshit hippie band. He believed and told us that X truly added to that legacy in Los Angeles rock music. He said, “You’re not The Beach Boys or The fucking Association!” He gave us a deeper confidence that we could step into The Doors’ shoes. We could set the record straight that Los Angeles—or “El Lay,” as the East Coast snobs referred to it—had every bit as much dark, wild abandon that any leather-jacketed punks from those other scenes. He praised Billy & DJ’s musicianship that, to be honest, compared to the other punk rock bands of the era, were several steps ahead of most players. Ray got it and gave them ideas when they needed it, and they shined be- cause of it. He exalted Exene & my lyrics and compared them to Jim Morrison’s. He saw the connection we had to our audience & the wild, bohemian life we lived. Four of us—Exene, Billy, Ray & I—were born in the Midwest and in February. He told us we could do it, and most of the time he was right.
During our recordings Ray kept us focused on honest, real performances. The whole band recorded together and used many of the “scratch vocals” (vocals sung as the band tracked the song) on the final recordings. Until the third record we never seemed to have time to experiment. But we knew the songs backward and forward. We raced to the finish line, which was dictated by our budget. But Ray always kept his cool because he was cool. He wore his steely gray hair cut short but still kept his signature wire-rimmed glasses. His clothes didn’t show off that he had money, but you could tell that he did. His “Ray suit” consisted of a light, draped sports coat, T-shirt, and jeans. The coat got tossed on a chair shortly after he walked in. His confidence and ease made you think that in another fifteen years maybe you could be where he was. His directness spilled over into every piece of the production. From the beginning he asked us to make the performances as real as the songs. Our lyrics talked about real people, actual events, true landscapes of Los Angeles, heartbreak, death, and, later, influences of our lives on tour. The music was tight, short, sweet, and hard. It blended and high bred all manner of American roots music that DJ, Billy, Exene & I had soaked up in our twenty-plus years of listening and playing in good or shitty bands.
In 1982, with Ray’s encouragement, we included decidedly un- punk rock elements after we signed to Elektra Records. Billy played saxophone, so we put sax on a song, “Come Back to Me,” about Exene’s departed sister, Mirielle. This tragic event—she was killed instantly when the VW bug she was riding in was struck by a hit & run driver—forever changed our lives. Maybe because of the tradition of tragic-death songs in the fifties, I wrote music inspired by fifties doo-wop for “Come Back to Me.” But that writing came after the moment when I distinctly remember standing outside X’s tiny office space, a rehearsal studio on Hollywood Blvd., when I heard the melody and words for the chorus of the song. To make things even more unpunk, DJ played marimba, so with Ray’s encouragement, we put that on the same song. Exene wrote a song about the hard times of working-class people & drinking, “The Have Nots.” The music inspired by seventies rock ‘n’ roll echoed the sound of bar bands we had played in before X. We were inspired by Bo Diddley, the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, and American Indians and made a song about Exene’s and my relationship with all of those elements called “The Hungry Wolf.” We finally had a better studio and time to play around. Pulling in a few more breakneck speed songs and romance in others, somehow it still remained punk rock.
Copyright DeCapo Press/Hachette Books