In Conversation With X’s John Doe
Down in Los Angeles back in 1976, fate intervened in the lives of two young musicians. John Duchac and Tyson Kindell found each other via want ads they placed on the same day in the newspaper. With Duchac, now John Doe, on bass and Kindell, a.k.a. Billy Zoom, on guitar, the pair formed the nucleus of X, the most important band to come out of L.A.'s '70s punk scene.
With singer Exene Cervenka and drummer D.J. Bonebrake, X churned out five albums between 1980 and '85, but the last of the bunch, Ain't Love Grand, marked the last with founding guitarist Zoom.The band released two more studio albums before deciding to call it quits in '97.
Things don't always work out as expected, though. The original members reunited for an in-store appearance in support of the Beyond and Back anthology, which led to a couple of shows, which led to a full-blown reunion. They've toured regularly ever since, and they haven't missed a step. Doe's and Cervenka's off-kilter harmonies remain as infectious as the first time you heard them, and Bonebrake still lives up to his name, pounding the skins like they owe him money. And just like in '77, Billy Zoom stands smiling on the side of the stage, feet apart, his Gretsch Silver Jet sparkling in the stage lights, catching the fans' eyes and making them feel like part of the show.
Until now. Right as they were kicking off a run of shows at Santa Ana's Observatory where the band played their essential first four albums in their entirety, X announced that Zoom was ill:
Legendary guitarist, punk legend, and all-around nice guy, Billy Zoom, has been diagnosed with cancer. Yesterday, Zoom was given the news that he has an aggressive form of bladder cancer and immediate treatment is necessary to fight the disease. The 67-year-old musician/producer/electronics wiz will begin chemo treatment next week.
Zoom made it through the shows, and then the band set up a Go Fund Me campaign to help the guitarist out with his medical bills. They still have a lot of dates on their current tour, so guitarist Jesse Dayton (Waylon Jennings, Supersuckers) is sitting in.
We caught up with John Doe and got the lowdown on Zoom, X and his upcoming projects. Check out our exclusive conversation below:
How’s Billy doing?
The prognosis is good and Billy is a fighter. I have pretty good intuition and it says it is going to be okay.
When did they catch it?
He was feeling crappy about a month ago, and then before we played those Orange County [Observatory] dates he went in and got diagnosed and they did a treatment, then they realized it is a little more advanced and it is at stage 2.
All of his treatment is going to be localized -- it is going to be chemo just within the bladder. They are not injecting his circulatory system as much with f---ing murderous chemicals.
It is going to be alright. We probably won't know totally until February or April, but it's going to be okay. I have learned to trust my intuition and I've got pretty good senses about that stuff. I am going to say it's good until it's not.
It's a total waste of time to think, "Oh my god, what if," until the what if is a reality. Maybe that’s what you get when you get a little older -- the ability to just say, "All right, well, we’ll see."
Are you guys having the same kind of back and forth with Exene's health? She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago, wasn’t she?
No, no, that was all misdiagnosed, so who knows. She went to a bunch of specialists and they said, "We don't know what it is." She said, "Okay, fine, I’m cured. F--- you. I’ll come back if I get sick. I’m going to go live my life, have fun doctors."
She is doing well then?
So those Observatory shows, Billy managed those okay?
Oh yeah. He felt a little bad but he got it figured out. The reason he isn't doing this tour is because he started doing treatments.
Tell us a little about Jesse Dayton, who is filling in on the remainder of the tour.
I had been working with Jesse for a couple of years in my solo band, and he is great. He plays a lot like Billy and that is one of the reasons we use him. He comes from the same kind of musical background.
He is not a whole lot younger than we are, maybe 10 years. I think Billy is one of his heroes and he heard Billy playing Chuck Berry and punk rock and thought, "Oh, that can be punk rock too? I am good with that."
[Jesse’s style is] much more in line with Billy's playing than say Johnny Thunders or Richard Lloyd or some of the more punk rock styles.
You mentioned Chuck Berry. The Reverend Horton Heat told us that what punk rock did was bring rock and roll back to its roots -- back to the straight eights. I see a lot of that, or everyone sees a lot of that, in you guys, especially in Billy. That was what was so great about X.
It still is, but it was more than just that. It was putting some freedom and danger in the music as well.
How did you and Billy connect?
Through an ad in the Recycler. It was a want ad magazine that was published once a week. You could buy a refrigerator or find pets or musicians. We both put an ad in, worded very similarly, at the same time. I called him and he called me. It was fate. I have no doubt about that.
This was in '77?
What were you looking for at that time?
Just to play music that wasn't bulls---. A lot of it had just become ... it got out of a lot of people's grasps. We wanted to do something that was attainable rather than play stadiums, which I had no interest in doing. The whole punk rock phenomenon was in the air. That is why it went from New York to London and L.A. and elsewhere all within a year or year and a half. It was time -- people were ready and it was bound to happen.
That is an interesting point. People always want to cite London '76 or CBGBs or whatever. They want a flashpoint but it was really more of a zeitgeist, wasn't it? Things were happening all over, not quite so point of origin.
Yeah, it was. If musicians or an audience weren't hungry and ready for something like that then it wouldn't have gained any traction. It needed people to make it work. You could say it started as far back as David Bowie or the Velvet Underground or the Modern Lovers or Iggy. It came to critical mass [in ’76-‘77] so it happened in a lot of different places pretty close together.
You mentioned that you never wanted to play stadiums, but the story is that what broke up the band after Ain't Love Grand was a lack of mainstream success. Is that accurate -- that you guys were looking to move to that next level but it just didn't happen?
You would have to ask Billy. It was he who said, "I am just tired of releasing records and touring.” Even before Ain't Love Grand he was dissatisfied with putting out a record and touring and putting out another record. Touring, touring and putting out records -- same old, same old. He came back in '98 or'99 and he has been doing it since then. It is longer now than it was the first time.
Isn't that funny? You see that occasionally with a band, that their time together after reuniting is exponentially longer than the time they were together in the first place. Why do you think that is? Do you think that after you split you realize, “We really had something going here, something good”? Maybe when you come back together, you value it a little more.
That’s as good of an explanation as any. I think people want to make a living and people enjoy it enough that they would want to keep it going. You see new people that are turned on to it. If we didn't make money, if we played for fewer and fewer people I think we wouldn't do it.
You guys have this East Coast leg going through the middle of September. What is the plan after that?
We normally do a holiday run, Arizona to Seattle, November through December, and we plan to do that with Billy. Then I am releasing a solo record sometime next year and I have a punk rock book I am working on that is supposed to be released in the fall of 2015. I got a publisher and already missed my first deadline. There is something punk rock about that. That is the plan. I am not sure exactly what X is going to do next year but that's our plan. We are going to see how Billy feels.
Tell us about the book.
It is an L.A. punk rock book from '77 to '82 called Under the Big Black Sun. In the tradition of punk rock collaboration, I called up and wrote a bunch of different people -- Mike Watt and Exene and Henry Rollins and Jane Wiedlin and Jack Grisham and some of the other writers that were there -- and said, "Why don't you write a chapter?" I wrote a couple of chapters and a bunch in between pieces, kind of tying it all together.
It has 11 or 12 chapters -- I have lost count at this point. It is not just one person telling the story because I think that is kind of slanted and you don't really get a full picture. I read a lot of the punk rock books, and they are good but it is all really off the cuff. Somebody calls up somebody else and says, "Hey, what do you remember about so and so? Oh yeah, he was an a--hole." They just spout off a bunch of stuff and nobody fact checks anything.
What about the solo album? Is this a roots type album?
Actually it is psychedelic soul music from the Arizona desert. I am not sure who is putting it out yet, but it will be spring 2015.
And is Billy’s Go Fund Me campaign still happening? I see that you guys are well over the target.
They are actually taking anything over the 50 grand and putting it into a fund for Sweet Relief for other people who are diagnosed with cancer -- I think musicians diagnosed with cancer in the L.A. area, I am not sure. It is going to be Billy's own cancer fund.
The response was incredible and reading some of the comments was pretty touching. Billy is a good guy and a great player. He is going to be okay. I can feel it.