There was a time when in my life when my whole world, the one that mattered to me, was a very small room with white walls and some kind of radio/cassette recorder, a jam box whose origins were either the display case at a Radio Shack or possibly something a relative got for me. I was 16 in 1985, and about a year removed from the death of my father. The nerve endings were still raw, and in a lot of ways I think the tumult of that time was such that I couldn’t even have stepped back to grasp what I’d just been through. My aunt and cousins didn’t understand – and my aunt’s advice for dealing with such a traumatic episode was to basically sit me down one day and say, ‘Get over it!’, or words to that effect. I’d walk along the highway, the roads leading out of our suburb on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, or I’d venture across that mighty body of bubbling, churning water via a quick trip on the ferry, and everywhere I went I saw people that just didn’t get it. If I’m honest with myself most days of my life still seemed filled with the blank faces of strangers who would neither care nor empathize with the darker corners of my memory. And, I’ll bet in most cases if I asked them to stop for a moment and consider what I’d been through they’d give me the same answer my aunt did all those years ago. Our deepest pains are always our cross to bear.
But, when I was 16 there was this one constant companion, something that never judged, that only provided inspiration and sustenance of a spiritual nature: that jam box, small and with its tiny speakers, and that spoke to me in the language of rock-n-roll. I learned a lot of things from that little machine. There was the magic of songs and how to write them. Stories in interviews or in the songs themselves that told me there was some sort of true artistic expression to be had in picking up a guitar or a harmonica, and just talking about how you felt. And, there were the bands themselves, the people who wrote and played the language that blasted with as much fury as the warbly speakers in that undersized plastic gizmo could muster energy for out into the air molecules of my most lonely of lonely rooms. There were the New York Dolls, something I picked up in earnest after listening to a few tracks of their stuff on WTUL, Tulane University’s radio station which, at the time, was the chief repository of ‘college rock’ in New Orleans. Motorhead’s ‘Another Perfect Day’ was an important piece of the puzzle, this new language I was trying to understand as a respite from my grief, as was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ ‘Pack Up the Plantation’ live cassette.
X was and remains my all-time favorite band. The one I’ve looked up to and hero-worshipped for the better part of 30 years. Of all the new syntax that I was absorbing in that tumultuous period theirs was the most direct, most poignant, that I felt I was listening to. Sure, it was punk rock and that in and of itself was not that far afield from the Ramones or Violent Femmes or (on the rare occasions I would listen to them) Black Flag. Stylistically a little different maybe, but good rock-n-roll is just good rock-n-roll, and when you get a feel for the good stuff, which takes a while, you know it when you hear it. What made X different I guess was that there was this, I don’t know, this controlled anger at the heart of it. Not the raw in-your-face bombast of, say, Henry Rollins of Black Flag but that was something I could kind of relate to. It’s easy to lash out in pain, or in frustration. To do so in such a way that touches people, that you can sing along with or dance to or in some other way interact with, that’s more of a delicate balancing act. That’s something special.
And, so in a way it’s funny that, given all the conversations I’ve had with guys who sport Platinum records on the walls of their palatial homes or various members of bands I’ve accosted or spent time in the company of in the crude ink sketches of the many-layered canvas that was my extended sojourn into the world of nightclubbing, the only member of my all-time favorite band I’ve ever actually talked to is its bass player, co-lead vocalist and conscience, a fella who calls himself John Doe. That’s not his given name, I don’t believe, and if memory serves the name itself comes from some old movie from the 40s or thereabouts, ‘Meet John Doe’. So, yes, I’ve met John Doe but the funny thing is, I’ve met him a bunch of times over the decades. I doubt that he remembers me when it happens, the glamorous world of entertainment being one where you surely must meet a lot of people, but he always has time to talk to me. That’s true of course for just about anybody who’s a fan, who comes up to speak with him in the afterglow of another live performance, in another town on the way to the next town. I’ve never known the guy to not be approachable no matter what the circumstances – sometimes your heroes are every bit as much as what you cracked them up to be.
The first time I crossed paths with this individual was in 1989 or 90, I think. X was on hiatus following the one-two punch of Billy Zoom quitting and John and Exene Cervenka’s marriage falling apart all around the same period, mid 80s. Later they would all get back together as one big happy family to tour, but this time out there was just the band’s former bassist, now sporting a record contract with one of David Geffen’s companies and out to prove he could stand on his own. The show was at Tipitina’s, uptown New Orleans on Tchoupitoulas St. Doe was playing on a weird off-night, I want to say a Monday. I’d read about his band in a puff piece in Tower Records’ magazine when I was perusing the magazine rack there one day a few weeks previous, marveling at the line-up that the former X frontman had assembled for his debut. Everyone from Dwight Yoakum’s drummer to Richard Lloyd, the guitarist opposite Tom Verlaine in the famed 70s New York band Television, was on the payroll (a funny aside here: more than a decade later, when I was living in Austin, I watched John Dee Graham play a set at the Continental Club and remarked to him after the show how much his band’s guitar sound reminded me of Television; as luck would have it, the other guitarist opposite Lloyd that night at Tipitina’s all those years back was, yes, John Dee Graham). Sounded like a super backing crew, and eclectic to boot, just the kind of outfit Doe would put together. I recall standing at the lip of the impossibly tall stage at Tipitina’s, staring up in wonder at Richard Lloyd’s feet as the blonde musician set up his well-worn collection of Boss or Digitech guitar pedals, set up atop a board with all of the separate units strung together like the lights on a Christmas tree. These were the legends of rock-n-roll, these sort of men. Furrowing their brows and downing the obligatory swigs off a long-neck beer bottle or from a small shot glass of brown-tinted whiskey, they would blast away on their selection of tunes in the sweltering New Orleans heat amidst the assembled throngs of the teeming crowd for our amusement. So, this was then the fulfillment of all that time taking in that magical new language I’d spent so much time ingesting as a 16 year-old, this kind of night. I was about 20, legal (the drinking age was only 18 in the city then) and now, after several years of hero worship and much contemplation of what was to come, I was about to See John Doe perform, if not exactly meet him.
Doe got up on stage in front of the band, resplendent in this brown-and-white cowboy shirt, not quite a Nudie suit but a more subdued affair. On the loudspeakers the news of the New Orleans Saints’ loss to the San Francisco 49ers was percolating around the atmosphere of the bar, Monday Night Football being as usual more than a little cruel to the followers of the Black-and Gold in those days. John Doe surveyed the crowd, a big grin stretched across his face, and he said, “Hey, sorry to hear about your team losing. That stuff is just a bunch of big guys beating each other up!”
Then, they kicked into it.
It was a heck of a show.
Afterwards, I hung around the side of the stage, and to be honest I don’t recall having a particular reason for doing so. So, I’m standing around looking off into space and who should emerge from the shadows but the singer himself, a kind of triumphant look on his face. It was him, and so I did the obvious thing and for the first time got to Meet John Doe. I introduced myself and Doe said, “Hi, Craig!” Obviously, he didn’t need to do the same given that we both knew who he was. That was the extent of the conversation, and I didn’t get but a brief chance to thank him for making Los Angeles, which was alright. Doe was off to the next conversation and I was left wondering if there was more to it than that to meet the people who made the voices that had animated my jam box just a few years before; apparently, that was pretty much all there was to it.
I wasn’t to meet John Doe again until almost a decade later, or about a decade actually. In the mid-90s I’d dropped out of circulation to take up a job in oil and gas services. That was a good gig from a payout standpoint (I’ve never had what you would call a traditional career and have been on the ‘gig economy’ profile in terms of how I earn a living long before it became fashionable), but after about two years I began to get a bit of a longing for the old life I’d had, the one I’d given up as I thought that was what you were supposed to do when you grew up. I was at this coffee shop when I saw it, this flyer for something called ‘The John Doe Thing’ at this French Quarter bar called the Shim Sham Club. The Shim Sham Club at the time was a pretty happening spot, and there were a number of great bands both locally and from out-of-town that were there on any given night (I’ll never forget the time I walked in off the street, asked who was playing, and found myself a few hours later catching a set by legendary psycho-billy pioneer Hasil Adkins). One other notable feature about the place was that it had its own burlesque troupe, the Shim-Shammettes, primarily a collection of comely veterans of that most infamous of Bourbon Street’s notoriously seedy strip clubs, Big Daddy’s, slumming as 50s-style dancers of the pasties-and-a-g-string variety. Around 2000 this place had a real buzz around it; there was always stuff going on.
There were three main areas to the Shim-Sham Club. One was the traditional French Quarter bar in the front, behind the oaken edifice rows upon rows of just about every spirit known to humanity short of Absinthe (which, sadly, made a big comeback after like a century’s long absence a few short years after I left town) situated around an imposing bar mirror that looked as though it had seen a thousand fights, ten thousand inebriated make-out sessions, and just about every smoke, drink, and the smokers and drinkers who consume them as had ever lived on God’s Green Earth. Upstairs was a lounge area that was a study in crimson: red bulbs in the fixtures, red covers on the table lamps, and to the best of my recollection over the dim rim of a shot glass of memory red vinyl couches. The name of this spot was something Devil-themed, and the best story I ever overheard while hanging out downstairs was from some burly-armed barmaid and Gulf War vet recollecting the use of that upstairs couch by a member of the Irish band the Pogues and one easily impressionable female fan of the band who’d shown up the night they’d played the Shim Sham and had made the mistake of pouring out her woes to said member of the ensemble, who in turn managed to get her on said couch after the show for some, oh, cheering up or something.
In the back was where they had the shows. And, this was kind of the weird part. The stage itself was large and of a professional quality, large enough to house anything from Irish tin-whistle ensembles to a dozen or so scantily-clad women festooned in fishnet stockings, feather boas and matching giant torso-obscuring feather fans, with an old-school Vegas Strip style backing band alongside that! It was certainly big enough to host whatever John Doe from X, now bereft of his bigshot deal with David Geffen but still I was sure had the fire in the belly to put on one of his profoundly moving live performances, was bringing with him that evening. But, the odd part of the Shim Sham’s concert area was the scenery that was stapled to the walls. There were these white picket-fence props, like something from a production of Our Town that had been left up in haste by the previous tenants of the building, perhaps a dinner theater that would’ve been better served taking up residence out in Harahan or Little Farms or some other subset of neighboring Jefferson Parish. There might’ve also been some trees and I want to say like a farm-house thing along one wall; seeing as how most of the times I was back there I, too, had often had a few tee many martoonis, with additives, and all of this happened over 15 years ago as of this writing I could be a little sketchy on some of the gritty details. Regardless, it was an odd choice for a bar that catered to a clientele that dressed like extras from either a Nick Cave or Tom Waits video, depending on the night of course.
There were two acts playing that night, John Doe and his crew, and one Cindy Lee Berryhill. I found this personally amusing given that, many years previous, I had actually gotten a copy of Cindy Lee Berryhill’s first record on cassette (I gave up on LPs when I was about 13, I think, and got most of my music in cassette format), Naked Movie Star, again off a conveniently placed recommendation in Tower Records’ puff piece freebee. And, you know, it was actually pretty good. So, this was kind of a pleasant surprise, then. About a decade after she trotted out such never-heard-of-‘em classics as ‘Gary Handeman’ (still my favorite Berryhill number, for what that’s worth), Cindy Lee appeared by herself onstage in front of a good 200 or so people, dressed head-to-toe in black, like 50s counter-culture Beatnik black, holding a red semi-hollow body electric guitar. And, she just got up there, cracked a few jokes and played songs off her new record at the time; sadly, I don’t recall her doing ‘Gary Handeman’, even though I requested it out loud.
After her set, but before John Doe and co. took the stage, I went over to Ms. Berryhill and regaled her of my high opinion of the one record of hers I had owned in my Quarter Rat days and her eyes kind of lit up, you know, like the look of a woman who’d been wandering without provisions in the desert for a few days, and I’d just dangled a mustard-splashed corn dog in front of her. “And, I really liked the new stuff’” I said, “I just wished you could’ve played ‘Gary Handeman’.”
Then I asked her, “So, how did you end up opening for John Doe on this tour?”
Berryhill’s reply was priceless, and it said a lot about the guy who was about to get on stage. “Well, John liked my new CD, and he sent me a fan letter telling me how good it was!”
This went on for a few minutes longer than most of my typically abbreviated conversations with sort-of famous people, and it was only after she walked away that I realized that, to her, I was probably hitting on her. I look upon the near-miss with Miss Berryhill as one of the bigger missed cues in my time spent nightclubbing; if I’d kept at it, I might’ve ended up playing bass on a couple of her records as Mr. Cindy Lee Berryhill, but hindsight is always 20-20.
It was time for the John Doe Thing to get on stage. The crowd was fervent with anticipation! Drunk X fans were shouting for ‘White Girl’ or ‘In This House That I Call Home’ to be played! I kept thinking it would be another all-star round-up like the early 90s show but, low and behold, the John Doe Thing in its turn-of-the-century incarnation was just John armed with an old Guild electric, X’s master musician drummer DJ Bonebreak, and a bass player with long hair named Drew.
I mean, that was it.
That was the whole Thing.
But, it was great. Here you had Doe, his face a little more lined than the time I’d seen him a decade before, looking otherwise tan and trim and leading his two partners in crime through a selection of the fresh stuff off his new album. There were no guitar solos (after hanging out with guys like Billy Zoom, Dave Alvin and Richard Lloyd I guess John figured there was no point in pushing the fish-out-of-water bit). There was a little bit of drama when the front man’s amp began to sizzle, and I can’t recall if the thing blew up outright or simply had to be given a swift kick to its midsection to continue to perform, but the technical glitch didn’t spoil the festivities. John did in fact play a couple of X numbers, including ‘White Girl’, but what really struck me about the vibe in that room that night was that, you know, here you had this world-famous rock star guy, someone who’d taken fake punches from Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse and been Julianne Moore’s porn star’s long-suffering ex-husband in Boogie Nights, somebody who’d been just an eyelash from mega-fame prior to the tanking of X’s disastrous Ain’t Love Grand record, and he’s in this room with a bunch of fans of his old band, and it was like almost this high school reunion sort of environment. One thing that truly separates X fans from the pack, in at least as has been my personal experience, is the genuine degree of affection that exists between the band’s members and those fans. You know, I’d like to think sometimes it was just me, but I’ve been to shows where the group did like three encores and the like, and I can testify that if there is one true, honest-to-goodness troubadour out there who actually cares what his fans think, and cares on some level about them, it’s John Doe. And, believe me, the fans feel the same way.
Afterwards I all but accidentally ran over Drew the bass player as we both made for the same door to the front of the house, and I told him how much I liked the group. Sensing where this was going, Drew helpfully suggested that “maybe you should talk to John”, and I thought to myself, ‘Gee, why didn’t I think of that?’ So, I made my way back into the Our Town dinner theater/concert hall, and off to the side, sitting in semi-darkness and a little sweaty, was Mr. Doe. Yes, I got to Meet John Doe for a second time (like that’s a surprise, right?). This was more of an actual conversation, with a guy who’d been through the opposite end of the celebrity wormhole and had come out the other end seemingly more sober if not less cheerful. When I told John that I was impressed with how the new band sounded and how, if I’d just walked in off the street and not been a fan, how impressed I would’ve been with the new material he did like this fist pump and blurted out a “Yes!’ to go with it. It was such a strange contrast though. The John Doe I’d briefly chatted with at Tipitina’s was the same guy I met that evening at the Shim Sham, only now he didn’t look as big and rock star-like as the time before. It was not that I was any less of a fan boy, but I think in maturity you realize that even your heroes, no matter how ginormous they may appear on a stage or the silver screen well, sometimes they don’t measure up to Brobdingnagian proportions because nobody in real life is ever that big to begin with. No, not even Andre the Giant.
The last Meet John Doe story I have (and there are, of course, others, and I’m sure some of you reading this who may be X fans have your own to tell as well) to share here is from around 2007, in Austin at a club on 6th St. This was a Knitters show, and again that’s one of the things that’s great about being a fan of this particular artist – John Doe has been in so many bands, and more importantly so many good bands, that if you live in a place that’s along his touring circuit as Austin was you’re bound to have multiple chances to catch him live per year. For the uninitiated, the Knitters were John and Exene Cervenka of X’s mid-80s country project, basically X save with the Blasters’ Dave Alvin (who briefly handled guitar chores in X after Billy Zoom left) on guitar and an upright bass player handling the bottom chores. For this mid-2000s show Doe showed up in, if memory serves, like this rose-colored shirt, like a 70s-era crooner. Strumming along with his acoustic guitar, he absolutely ripped this version of Merle Haggard’s ‘Silver Wings’, and watching that I couldn’t help but wonder what this guy could’ve done in another era as a vocal stylist working the boards of Opryland in Nashville; one of the things that to me makes John Doe the presence that he is in American music is the way he can use the same outstanding voice in so many musical idioms, and with outlaw country he fares nearly as well as any of the Highwaymen. After he finished, the rest of the band took the stage and belted out Knitters tunes old and new. What was fun about the performance was that John and Exene, who’ve probably been through a fair amount of drama over the years, dropped any pretense of doing a serious show and basically did like this live, on-stage reenactment of an Opryland parody, I think there were even poster board cut-outs of corn stalks, maybe a cow or two, behind the band although almost a decade on the details are kind of sketchy. And of course the rest of the band was dressed like Ma and Pa Kettle – it was like an episode of ‘Hee-Haw!’ with punk rock credentials.
For my part, I stood on the side of the stage by this wooden post, near one of the PA speakers. Standing next to me was this attractive woman with long brown chestnut hair that kind of cascaded down her back, really nice-looking lady. Naturally I struck up a conversation and had a hard time placing her accent until she told me she was from upstate New York or someplace but had lived in New Zealand for like the previous four years. Her husband was still down there in Auckland or Wellington or one of those other towns, attending to selling their home there while they completed the transition to A-town. “I’m a huge Dave Alvin fan,” she told me into my ear between loud blasts of guitars and hokey, cornpone dialogue on the stage. “I’d really like to get his autograph after the show!” she continued, perhaps thinking that I had some pull with the band, which I obviously didn’t, due to the familiarity I had with the subject of my All-Time Fave musical outfit. Neither of us had a backstage pass but it occurred to me, being pretty savvy on the nature of those alleyways they put behind all the bars on 6th St., that there might be another option. “I got an idea,” I told her while the Knitters belted out the strangest version of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to Be Wild’ I think I’ve ever heard, towards the end of the performance. “Let’s hang out backstage after the show ends, and we’ll just ask Mr. Alvin to put his John Hancock on your t-shirt there.”
“Yes! Let’s do that!” she exclaimed, and before you could shake a lamb’s tail I found myself with this New Zealand transplant lady outside in the mid-summer Austin heat in this alley next to a foul dumpster, right within striking distance of the lonesome backstage door that I was sure was the one attached to the bar we were just in. We waited for Dave Alvin, his signature balding head and blonde goatee, to pop through that door. He didn’t show. A few other people not in the band came out into the night and disappeared off to the hotel or the tour bus or wherever they were staying, but still no Alvin. After the better part of 20 minutes someone walking through that exit way my new pal and I were watching with anticipation mentioned that the mighty Blasters man was already gone but, as luck would have it, mere seconds later a familiar, weather-lined face and rose-colored shirt appeared, looking all kinds of tired and with probably a beer and a shot or two swimming through his system, accompanied by a small entourage of a couple of people. Sometimes in the glamorous world of rock-n-roll you have to assess a situation, helping somebody get a prized moment with a sort-of famous person versus taking up said person’s time and need for very valuable sleep, and once you do the weighing of that, which in a case like this can only take a split-second of fevered concentration, you have to act. This was one of those times.
“Mr Doe!” I belted out at the bedraggled figure in front of me. “This lady traveled all the way from New Zealand, and she would really like your autograph!”
John Doe looked up at me for a second, shrugged his shoulders, and took the time to chat with us briefly and sign the woman’s shirt.
That’s just the kind of guy he is, Mr. John Doe, and if you meet him, I’ll bet he’ll treat you...
Exactly the same.