No history of the L.A. punk scene would be complete without John Doe’s contributions. As half the songwriting team for the band X, Doe was right on the front lines at one of the most explosively creative periods in the city’s history. So many influential acts were born there, from the Go-Go’s to Black Flag, Fishbone and Los Lobos, Social Distortion, the Blasters, along with cult favorites like the Germs, Phranc, and the Screamers.
But when Doe got together with journalist Tom DeSavia to create a history of the early years, he says he knew he couldn’t do it alone. “I didn’t want to be the authority,” Doe says, “and I couldn’t tell all these truths,” especially with women, and East LA’s Latinx musicians playing such dominant roles.”
So Doe and DeSavia (a music publisher and journalist who fell hard and fast for punk) made an early decision to tell the story not through one voice, but many. The resulting collection of essays, 2017’s “Under the Big Black Sun,” became a New York Times bestseller, uniting the words of Doe’s bandmate and ex-wife Exene Cervenka, Robert Lopez (a.k.a. El Vez), journalist Kristine McKenna, the Blasters’ Dave Alvin, and many others.
Doe and DeSavia are back this year with the next chapter of the story — and arguably the part that offers the most instructive parables. “More Fun in the New World,” published this spring by Da Capo Press, traces the decline of the scene and how it continues to seed generations of music and art styles. As the late ‘70s melted into the ‘80s, many of the bands we heard from in the first volume were running aground.
Long days and nights of touring, bad deals in the music industry and an ungodly amount of drugs and alcohol took a toll — even on successful acts like the Go-Go’s. Rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, last seen in “Big Black Sun” spinning tales of life at the Canterbury apartments, kicks off the latest book with a dizzying tale of the Go-Go’s bouts with toxic fame and drugs, asking, “What the [expletive] just happened?”
Doe is unsparing on the subject of his own band’s difficulties. An electrifying live show, he talks about how X fell prey to fights, addiction and the music industry’s desire to mold the band into a different kind of product. “If everyone says, ‘You’re bound to be the next big thing’ and then it doesn’t come true because you’re a little bit too weird, you start believing what other people tell you.”
Doe and DeSavia’s sense of story and timing is only getting better, with narratives that build out our sense of punk’s influences. Creators like actor Tim Robbins broaden the story’s scope; explaining how nights watching favorite bands, like Fear, Black Flag and X led to days at UCLA’s theater department, trying to bring the ferocity and immediacy of punk to the stage. Director Allison Anders credits L.A. punk with shaping the indie film scene, too. And artist and activist Shepard Fairey makes an appearance, connecting the dots between the art of Ed Colver and Raymond Pettibon on the covers of his favorite hardcore albums, and the visual language he created for 21st century progressive movements.
As much as the music industry has become deeply fractured since the ‘80s, the book makes plain the way punk’s story goes on to this day. The scene paved the way for massive stars like Green Day and Gwen Stefani, for bands like Rage Against the Machine mixing rock and hip hop, for more visible Chicano art styles, plus a constellation of Americana bands thriving outside the Nashville machine, and the soundtrack for every skateboard video ever seen.
So did punk win? Doe says, “I think you could make a case for that. Free-thinking and playing for the sake of playing — you can’t keep that down.”
DeSavia adds that despite the relative success of a scant few, punk has been held apart from the global stardom that made it hard for some bands to stay creatively vital. “It’s not steeped in nostalgia,” he says, “because they weren’t really hits.” And the music is just as relevant to the 22-year-olds of today as it was to him in the late ‘70s. “Desperate times call for desperate music,” DeSavia says.
As hard as times were for the corps of musicians who created L.A.’s punk tapestry — many of whom would never be repaid for their contributions to the culture — their stories remind us of the swagger and inspiration that brought a bunch of kids together in velvet dinner jackets and trash bag dresses, at a small, filthy club beneath a porn theater in central Hollywood. They may not have intended to change the world. But it happened.
Both titles are available as cracking good audio books, with appearances by contributors like Henry Rollins, Los Lobos’ Louie Pérez, and Wiedlin, who gets our vote for the most charming, engaged and sly observer ever.
You can see John Doe in conversation with Richmond Fontaine’s Willy Vlautin at Music Millenium next Tuesday, June 11.