John Doe’s official bio says he was born in Los Angeles in 1977, but actually, he was born John Duchac in Decatur, Ill., in 1954.
And this Sunday, in 2013, he’s bringing the John Doe Band to Grass Valley for a rocking dance concert at the Center for the Arts.
Who is John Doe?
That sort of depends upon how old you are and what kind of music you like. Punk rock? Country? Folk? He and his band are bringing it all to the party.
As his stage name implies, John Doe started out as a nobody who rose to fame and success fast and early. From 1977 to 1981, Doe and his band X dominated the L.A. punk rock scene.
“We were the critics’ darlings, but we didn’t really sell many records,” Doe recalled ironically in a phone interview Tuesday. The band’s second album, “Wild Gift,” 1981 was a top choice of critics from L.A. to New York.
Why the name John Doe?
First off, “I had a last name that was kind of unpronounceable or everyone mispronounced it,” he explained.
And, “I love that Gary Cooper movie ‘Meet Joe Doe’” (a 1941 Frank Capra film with the moral message of “be a better neighbor”).
Doe added that avant-garde artist Andy Warhol and his friend John Waters, a cult-filmmaker, influenced his name change.
Finally, he just shrugged, “It was the days of punk rock, so I figured somebody should be John Doe.”
Making the scene
Doe attributes much of his early success to simply “being part of the scene … and the sum of X being greater than the parts.”
Making the scene was “just a matter of drive and tenacity. I think, even early on, the band X had a little more ambition, maybe a little more talent, maybe a little longer view than some of the other bands. A lot of it was simply being at the right place at the right time. Punk rock was in the air.”
Although she was just a teenager at the time, KVMR radio’s “punk diva” Meri St. Mary — a punk rock musician in her own right — was part of that scene. She never became close friends with Doe, but she fondly remembered seeing X perform many times and often encountering Doe socially.
“I have a lot of respect for him as a musician,” she said. “He supports other musicians.”
What’s more: “He’s very charming, a very down-to-earth-person,” she said.
The heyday of L.A.’s punk rock scene ran from about 1977 to 1981, then “the music scene fractured and factionalized into different styles,” Doe noted. “It’s pretty interesting, the way it comes and goes. Quick.”
Nevertheless, X hung on until 1993, putting out seven studio albums. They disbanded for a while but reunited early in this century and are still playing today.
Moving up country
As the punk scene faded, Doe moved, both literally and figuratively, up country.
First, he moved out of L.A. and into the Tehachapi Mountains east of the Big Avocado. Then he moved his family to their present home north of San Francisco.
“I’m an official citizen of Northern California,” he said proudly. “I have an old Mercedes that burns biodiesel fuel. They gave me my resident’s card and said, ‘Okay, you’re one of us now.’”
Likewise, he transitioned from mostly punk to mostly country. Besides his eight albums with X, he’s recorded 10 other original albums, including two well-received CDs with the country band The Knitters and a country-western cover album with The Sadies.
Moving from punk to country “was just a natural development. There’s a lot of similarity between punk rock and country. It’s straightforward. It’s for the people. And the lyrics are about real things,” Doe explained.
Dancing with the John Doe Band
Doe formed his new band by recruiting a few Bay Area punk rock veterans.
Lead guitarist Tom Heyman hails from the Avengers.
“He also plays pedal steel and is an all-around great player,” Doe said.
On bass is Atom Ellis from Chuck Prophet’s band, and Bill Shupp lays down the rhythm on drums.
Longtime musical partner Cindy Wasserman joins Doe on vocals.
“She and I have worked quite a bit together,” he said. “It’s fun to sing with somebody.”
Although he plays bass with X, in this new band, “I’m strictly a rhythm player,” Doe declared. “I do not play lead guitar. I’m very proud of that. I believe that’s why I have better social skills because I didn’t have to stay in the bedroom practicing when it was sunny out,” he joked.
Asked what kind of show the audience can expect Sunday night, Doe warned, “There will be some art involved in this.”
Then he laughed, “But you don’t have to be frightened away by the singer-songwriter label that some people try to put on this kind of a show.”
After all, it’s a dance concert, and, “People can come out and expect to have a good time,” he promised.
Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada City. He can be contacted at email@example.com.