John Doe has the best name in rock, a term used to describe the identity of an unknown person. What we do know about this eclectic artist is that he was part of the original West Coast punk movement, along with his ex-wife Exene Cervenka in the seminal and mega influential band X, best known for their classic Ray Manzarek-produced debut album aptly titled Los Angeles. Los Angeles is the quintessential punk rock album, and because of the title track and the cover of “Soul Kitchen,” put the City of Angels and John Doe on the map as innovators within a punk movement that was largely known for its origins in New York and London.
Aside from being a fan of his work in X and his stellar film and TV career (having appeared in Roswell, and guilty pleasure classic Road House), I am pretty much a novice of the music output of the man we know as John Doe. But I just got back into his music while on vacation after picking up a copy of the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ Dylan biopic I’m Not There. Mi novia and I listened to it on a daytrip to Austin, Texas, and as I was driving, at the beginning of every track I attempted to guess the artist singing each song. One of the few I got right was John’s trademark raspy Western Country drawl.
As we drove into Austin, I remembered hearing about John’s album, A Year in the Wilderness that was released earlier this year, which included duets with three of the past two decades’ greatest female sirens—Aimee Mann, Kathleen Edwards and Jill Sobule. Because of Doe’s trademark performances on I’m Not There, I couldn’t help but dig into Wilderness.
For some reason, I expected Wilderness to be a Western Blues album in the realm of Mark Lanegan, but unfortunately Doe’s not that kind of singer. While Lanegan’s vocal is more in the traditional old country style of Johnny Cash with a gothic vibe, Doe has a rough and tough voice, which is coarser and not as elegant. Not that it’s bad thing. In fact, Doe’s rock-country roots come through clearly as he sings “You are the hole in my head” in seminal cut “The Golden State,” the first of three collaborations with Canadian singer Kathleen Edwards.
I actually prefer the acoustic-tinged harsh beauty of “Darling Underdog” written with his ex-wife and bandmate Exene. You hear Doe’s exquisite lyrics as he achingly sings “When I thought I could fly/ you became my sky.” Listen to Doe sing with Edwards, “Just a little more time with you and me” on “A Little More Time.” Edwards returns this time, singing perfect harmonies and dual vocal duties throughout this song about a longing love that lingers but will never return.
The song that I was pining to hear was “Unforgiven,” Doe’s duet with Aimee Mann. This is where Doe’s rock roots come through loud and clear in this upbeat heavy, riff-layered number that sounds like a love song with slight punk overtones. I love the lyrics: “If I had one wish/that one wish would be/ some day I could raise my face to eyes that loved me.”
A full-fledged rocker follows in the very addictive “There’s a Hole.” Doe sings without bitterness, “Oh baby there’s a hole in the neighborhood since you are gone.” With lyrics like this, you will hear John Doe’s message resonate throughout. The theme of Wilderness is heartache and loneliness. You hear it and it’s not as painful as, say, listening to a Ryan Adams or Bright Eyes album. I love them both, you see, but there’s something about Doe’s voice, a hint of faith and hope, kind of like being lost on the road of life but seeing a sign or star in the sky that keeps you going. John Doe is not country, not rock, not folkie and far from his punk incarnation of his past. If you’re looking for the young punk from X, you have come to the wrong album. He still rocks but Wilderness is, more importantly, the sound of man on a journey of identity.
(Note: with purchase of A Year in the Wilderness you get two free downloads from the Yep Roc website. John Doe’s killer cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and an awesome acoustic version of “The Golden State.”)