John Doe On the Range
The co-founder of X, one of L.A.'s best bands has a ranch far outside of town. In between making movies and music, he gets back to good old country comforts.
Oh, the glory of Highway 5. Downshifting over and over again, my T-Bird and I climb through the sparsely dotted, dry-as-a-bone California countryside. I'm traveling miles and miles through tumbleweeds and sagebrush, squinting into the sun for the turnoff to John Doe's ranch. The martyred hills loom out at me like something out of a Stephen King book, while X blasts important music into my already stuffed-to-the-brim subconscious. I've always had a hard spot for X, Los Angeles' punk-roots, alternative rock band supreme. Ten years ago when safe pop-rock was raking in the dough, then-husband/ wife team John Doe and Exene Cervenka wrote songs about living life on the streets of L.A. And they always played for love, not cash flow. The X love-factor seemed wildly radical in those days. And you know what? Nothing's changed.
Except that now John lives on a ranch out in the wilds and is married to someone else and is a daddy. And he's acting in movies, which is why I'm visiting him. Actually, John's been acting in films for several years now--supporting roles in an eclectic mix of good, bad and underground flicks. He turned up first as an expatriate American surfer in Oliver Stone's Salvador. He was the unhappy daddy of Jerry Lee Lewis' child-bride in Great Balls of Fire! He appeared in the wild, low-budget Border Radio. And in his latest, Roadside Prophets, he has a featured role. It's a low-budget, anarchic, deeply goofy road movie. One of his co-stars is Adam Horovitz, from another disobedient band, the Beastie Boys.
Okay. Now I'm beginning to wonder where the hell I am. Why does the leader of a primo L.A. band live out here? It's not that incongruous, really--X's music was always full of country influences and John's solo record Meet John Doe is, too. Uh-oh. I was warned that John Doe's street doesn't have a name-tag on it and, sure enough, I've missed it. I suppose I could ask that picture-perfect cow, chewing what must be cud, where John Doe lives. I'm always surprised there is this much nothing so close to Los Angeles. We are talking Nowheresville out here. Vast and vacant spaces. It's kind of reassuring, really.
Up a winding, bumpy dirt road, I come to a handmade wooden sign: "Rancho Doe Acres." Hooray! I pull in behind a red barn type structure and check out the surroundings. In case there's any doubt I'm at the right place, there's a gargantuan "X" hanging on the side of this rustic building, along with some other farmy implements like bridles and feed pans. The ranch house, simple and unpretentious, looks handmade, as though it had been built by a lifelong, devoted carpenter/ranch dude.
A tall and tousled Mr. Doe answers the cedar wood door in a hurry and dashes back to the phone. He's complaining to somebody about the L.A. Times calling his recent gig with X "a reunion."
"It's probably because we never made the media statement: 'We're breaking up. That's it. Ba-da-bing,' " he tells me later, while brewing up a downhome pot of coffee. "People say we're back and call it a reunion, and that's false. We just said, 'Let's see what else we can do.' I didn't even know I was away."
I ask John where he got the giant "X" that hangs on the barn wall. "I was visiting my parents in Brooklyn," John smiles, "and I drove by the Ex-Lax building when they were tearing down the letters: 'Ex-Lax, The Home of the Chocolate Laxative.' I walked up to this guy and asked if I could have the X and he says, 'Sure, hey Tony, take the X down for the kid here, and be careful with it.' So Tony blowtorches the thing and the X falls 15 feet to the ground and the guy says, 'Tony, I told you to be careful with that thing.' And now it's out here in Lockwood Valley." The saga of the giant X. "I find it really interesting that it's brown enamel," he adds. "Don't you?"
After coffee in the small, cozy kitchen, we settle into the living room on the Does' very collectable vintage '40s cowboy furniture. Placid horse-heads adorn naugahyde seat backs, complete with wagon wheel arms. I tell John I just saw a similar set selling for a small fortune in a swank Montana Avenue store called Yippie-ei-o. "My wife GiGi owns a thrift store called 'God Help Us' on the east end of Melrose," he says. "She goes to auctions and estate sales." Then he grins, "What's really great is, after you don't like your stuff anymore, you can always sell the motherfucker."
Western memorabilia is a groovy thing right now, but the feeling that prevails here is authentic early Americana, not trendiness. A long oak table with antique chairs takes up most of the dining room, and there's an old Benjamin Franklin fireplace. It's a comforting, eclectic combination of Now and Then. From my snug spot on the cowpoke couch, I look out into the enclosed porch, which is bright, sunny and seemingly brand new, and wonder aloud if John had a hand in building it. "It was just a mud-porch," John explains. "It gets pretty muddy around here, and it's good to have a place to shed all your outdoor clothes. My time is kind of precious, but I did some of the work. The place was about two-thirds finished when we bought it and there was a lot of wasted space, so we knocked down a bunch of walls. We extended the roof and added a bathroom." He points to one of those incredible multicolored rag rugs, which covers a rich wooden floor. "There was a big piece of linoleum and a rug here in the living room, and it turns out the linoleum was just a square." He lapses into a thick countrified accent, "I got this rug here, and I got me some strips of lin-o-lee-yum, hah-hah, I think I can make 'er work."
So, enough about the floor. This is John Doe I'm talking to. X took up nearly 11 years of his life. I want to ask him about that. "We made a lot of records that sold fairly well," he recalls, his cat, Pans, purring against his leg (Pots, the predecessor of Pans, met a dismal coyote fate). "And like all people that are first, your effect on music is a lot greater than your bank book would reflect, so then you do a few movies and buy a house." He has a good, long laugh about this before continuing, "I suppose we were originally called a punk band because it separated us from the morass of what was called rock and roll at that point. It was anybody from Linda Ronstadt to Ted Nugent. It didn't mean anything anymore. It became apparent that X had more influences and experiences to draw from. X always made stories, gave you a place and time. We might do another record. We've all stayed friends." John Doe and Exene Cervenka were a madly famous rock husband and wife team, but what was it really like, working in a band called X with a wife, Exene, who became an ex? "We knew there was a friendship before love and marriage, and things just change, so you try to be an adult and work it out. It's like cutting off a part of yourself, and it's important to be a human. We were still recording and actively working when we broke up, so it made for some interesting shows."
Suddenly there's a clattering commotion on the roof, and John says sort of sheepishly, "We're getting a satellite dish today. We haven't had TV since we moved in two and a half years ago." I'm amazed. No visual input at all? "Yeah," he nods, "we've had videos." He seems to get that I regard his situation as unbelievably primitive. "And guess what?" he says. "We don't have to rub two sticks together to make a fire!" I think he's a little offended that I imagine we're sitting smack dab in the toolies (well we are, aren't we?). "We even have a health food store," he says proudly. "And we have a chiropractor if you throw your back out, and an acupuncturist if you want to stop smoking. It's like Big Bear without the slopes.
They have cross-country skiing, but none of the big, exciting shit. I have my horses to keep me busy." And his three-year-old daughter Veronica, I might add, who has the hippest old round-'em-up rodeo bedspread I've ever seen. As we walk around the house through little hallways, nooks and crannys, John points out tidbits. I especially like a couple of colorful, antique Jesus and Mary statues, one of which keeps serene vigil over the old-fashioned claw-foot bathtub.
Outside, on yet another long, glorious cedar-wood porch, we gaze silently at a big patch of picture postcard scenery. "This is all National Park," John says finally. "We bought five acres right down there. To have the land and let it be is the best thing." As we head out toward the horses, John tells me more about Roadside Prophets. "It was a perfect introduction to a lead role because there wasn't a lot of pressure apart from my own pressure. The basic plot is: Two regular guys, Joe and Dave, go out for a drink, and Dave gets electrocuted by a video game. Joe believes Dave has no family, so he has him cremated, then finds out he does, takes the ashes to the family and they wind up in a garbage can. He rescues the ashes to take them off to a place called Eldorado. On the way he meets Sam [Adam Horovitz] and the two of them meet all these crackpots and hermits as they go." Crackpots such as? "Timothy Leary has a small part, so does Arlo Guthrie... we won't talk about what a freak David Carradine is... John Cusack plays a guy who dines and dashes in the most extreme way. It's very grand. Easy Rider without a crash helmet." A chubby hound dog appears at my feet with a dirty yellow ball, shivering with expectation as we approach the stables. "Lulu is a pure-bred blue tick coon hound," John says wryly as I toss the ball for the first of many, many times. "She's great for hunting all kinds of endangered species.
"This is Blitz," John says, stroking his horse. "He's an Appaloosa. He's a sweetie, my main guy." I also meet Quantah in the next stall, who belongs to his friend Michael Blake, the author of Dances With Wolves. "Quantah's not feeling too good. I've got to get the vet back out here. He's in treatment, but he's not getting much better, so he's not too happy." The big, old guy doesn't look thrilled, to tell you the truth, and it's such a beautiful day.
Before I climb into my dusty T-Bird for that trek back to big buildings and acres of cement, I ask if John has a special philosophy of life. Corny, but I can't help myself. It's this country air. He rolls his eyes, but gives me an answer, because he's a decent guy. "More than a philosophy, it would be advice. Unfortunately, danger and adventure go hand in hand, but be brave and try shit. Experience as much as you can, and stay safe at the same time."
Pamela Des Barres interviewed Sandra Bernhard for our June issue.