“In this case, ‘amazing’ actually fits,” says X singer/bassist John Doe of his first Grammy nomination. “People use ‘amazing’ a lot, but this actually amazes me.”
Doe’s Grammy nod this year comes not for his music, per se, but for the audiobook version of Under the Big Black Sun, which he put together with former A&R and publishing executive Tom DeSavia and various musicians and writers. On the album, they share their own stories about their personal experiences during the late-’70s/early-’80s heyday of the Los Angeles punk scene.
The audiobook — which takes its title from X’s 1982 third album and major label debut — has some stiff competition in the category officially known as Best Spoken Word Album. It’s up against entries by a current comedy sensation (Amy Schumer’s The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo), a bona fide comic legend (In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox by Carol Burnett), and titles by fellow iconic musicians (Patti Smith’s M Train and Elvis Costello’s Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink).
“The other nominees are pretty legit,” Doe says, “so we’ll see.” He hasn’t heard the other nominees’ albums, but is well aware of their status. “I’d actually would count myself more of a fan of Amy Schumer and Carol Burnett,” he says. “But I love Elvis. He’s a friend of mine, or an acquaintance. We’ve run into each other a few times and we kind of wrote a song together [“Why Don’t We Try Anymore,” which was re-titled “Try Anymore (Why Don’t We Even)” and recorded by the X side-project the Knitters]. He’s a good guy, but I don’t read a lot of biographies. I can’t say I’m familiar with any of them.”
While Doe is thrilled with the nomination, he also has a bit of regret. His latest solo album, which was released last April simultaneously with the book version of Under the Big Black Sun, failed get a nod. “The Westerner was on the first ballot, and I wish it would have gone through, but no matter.” What’s more important to Doe is that the movement that rose to prominence along with X’s career is getting its due respect with the nomination of Under the Big Black Sun. “I’m glad that the L.A. punk rock scene is having a proper seat at the table along with London and New York. It makes me happy that Jane Wiedlin, Jack Grisham, Mike Watt, and Henry Rollins all had a chance to tell their story within an area of expertise.”
Along with the former Go-Go’s guitarist, TSOL singer, ex-Minutemen bassist, and onetime Black Flag frontman, the book features a forward by Green Day singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, as well as entries by X frontwoman Exene Cervenka, Go-Go’s guitarist Charlotte Caffey, former Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin, Teresa Cavarrubias of the Brat, Robert Lopez of the Zeroes, and journalists/writers Pleasant Gehman, Kristine McKenna, and Chris Morris.
Under the Big Black Sun became a reality only after DeSavia repeatedly nagged Doe over a period of years. “It was about 20 years of nagging that finally paid off,” DeSavia quips.
The pair met when DeSavia came to work at Elektra Records as an A&R executive. His first project for the label was 1997 compilation Beyond and Back: The X Anthology. While putting the album together, which led to an X reunion, DeSavia became fast friends with Doe.
Whenever the two got together, DeSavia would pump Doe for information about the L.A. punk scene. “I pretty quickly found out that the majority of the stories I had heard were wrong and the real stories were way better,” he says. “So I started bugging John, ‘You need to write a book. You need to write a book. You need to write a book.’ But he kept saying no.”
“It sounded like too much work for me to do it on my own,” Doe says. “But I got up one morning and thought, ‘I know how I can do this. I’ll get everyone else to help.’ And that also is right in line with a core element of the L.A. punk scene, which is collaboration and community.”
Doe challenged DeSavia to go out and get a book deal. He was able to land the book at Da Capo Press, buts there was still a little pushback on the concept. “The publisher kept trying to make it my memoir, but it really wasn’t,” Doe says. “Eventually, they were satisfied that I was the narrator and they could kind of hang their hat on that.”
The audiobook came after and wasn’t included in the original book deal. “Actually, [Da Capo parent company] Perseus didn’t care if we did an audiobook,” Doe says. “So we thought, ‘Great,” and we contacted a bunch of people and Penguin/Random House, which is kind of a big deal, said, ‘Great, we’d love to do this.'”
In what DeSavia says was “an incredibly daunting task,” producer Scott Sherratt (who co-produced the audiobook with Doe, DeSavia, and Dan Zitt, and also produced Costello’s Grammy-nominated title) was able to line up all the contributors in the book for voice-tracking sessions. “During Grammy week [in 2016], he pulled every writer together over three days at the Village [recording studio],” DeSavia says. “The only two missing, because they lived outside of L.A., were Jane Wiedlin, who was in San Francisco, so we arranged for her to be recorded there, and Billie Joe, who was also in the Bay Area. But everyone else was pulled together in the most incredibly structured way. It was a remarkable feat.”
Giving the audiobook more flavor are live snippets of a number of X songs placed between the spoken entries, which Doe says was Sherratt’s idea.
For those who haven’t read or heard the book yet, what’s the best method to consume the stories about L.A.’s punk past? “Oh, I don’t know,” Doe says. “I guess it depends on what you like. Depends on how much you drive.”
DeSavia has mixed feelings about the audiobook. “Like most people, I can’t stand the sound of my own voice anyway, much less hearing it on headphones,” he says. “But to be there [at the recording sessions] and listen to those other voices, the inner 15-year-old in me was freaking out.”
Given the success of the book and audiobook, there’s talk of a number of related projects in the future. Doe says that he might just sit down and write his memoir now, and there’s also the possibility of a documentary film based on the book, “depending if we can get permission to use clips, because I don’t want to have a bunch of talking heads, because I think that’s boring.”
In addition, DeSavia says there are also discussions of doing a sequel to the book. “Eventually, we’d love to do part two,” he says. “This one sort of loosely goes from ’77 to ’82, so there’s sort of an ’82-to-’86 story to be told, but that’s sort of far down the line. But we’ve definitely tossed that around as well.”
In the meantime, Doe is still busy with his own music as a solo artist, and X — who also include singer Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer/percussionist DJ Bonebrake — are still performing live and celebrate Doe 40th anniversary this year. “It’s great,” he says of playing with the band these days. “You don’t sweat the small things. You forgive people and you’re more grateful.”
With the addition of sideman Craig Packham, the band has expanded its repertoire live. “He plays drums while DJ plays vibes, so we can play ‘I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts’ live, and Billy plays sax on ‘Come Back to Me,’ which we never played live before.” With the broader-based show, X are now playing venues like performing arts centers — “places where a full-on punk rock show would be odd,” Doe says.
As co-writer of the ’80s anthem “Los Angeles” and the album of the same name, we wondered if Doe had seen the film La La Land and what he thought of it. “I have,” he says. “I loved the fantasy part of it. One of my secrets is that I loved musicals when I was a kid. I loved Bye Bye Birdie, The Music Man, South Pacific, and Annie Get Your Gun, all those kinds of musicals,” he adds. “It was like that and Lead Belly. I thought, ‘That guy’s cool, I want to be like him,’ as an 8-year-old, not realizing that he’d been in jail for murder.”