'Under the Big Black Sun': John Doe Dives Back Into the Punk Scene

John Doe and Exene Cervenka in the 1970s
John Doe and Exene Cervenka in the 1970s
Courtesy of Da Capo Books

Not that he’s one to say "I told you so," but as X co-founder John Doe says about his new book chronicling the Los Angeles punk scene, "people seem to be responding, forty years later, with 'Oh yeah, that [scene] was great.' " But the book is not a memoir; Doe is its editor, not its author. Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk features 24 essay-chapters from key players in the late-Seventies L.A. punk scene, including Minutemen bassist Mike Watt and Black Flag’s Henry Rollins, plus Doe and his X partner, Exene Cervenka. Ahead of his book launch at Rough Trade tonight, Doe spoke by phone with the Voice about why he put the book together and what he learned from his friends.

Village Voice: What spawned the idea for Under the Big Black Sun?

John Doe: Tom DeSavia [music publisher and friend] and my sweetheart harangued the hell out of me about writing a book, then I finally gave in. I didn’t want to put in the work, because it’s hard and I’m not that disciplined and I didn’t want to be the authority. I didn’t keep diaries and I don’t have an ironclad memory, so in a stroke of inspiration, I thought, "You know what? I can get other people to do this, then I don’t have to be the historian, and I don’t have to bear the brunt of the criticism, either." Also, I can get all these different perspectives. For example, I hadn’t lived at the Canterbury [Hollywood punk building], so I didn’t have the expertise that Jane Wiedlin [of the Go-Go’s] had about what happened there.

How did you determine who wrote about what?

Every chapter’s author was given a subject. [The Blasters’] Dave Alvin’s chapter is about the influence of roots music on punk rock. Chris D [of the Flesh Eaters] — his perspective was the publication of Slash [the fanzine]. I figured I could be the narrator, tie it together, and make my observations. The things I learned confirmed what I sort of already knew: Everyone had a terrible time in high school, everybody loved David Bowie, and everybody felt like a misfit, so they found each other. Getting other people to write the chapters is the kernel of why people should the read the book, or why the L.A. scene was important, because it was all about this collaborative community of bohemians who just kind of said, "Fuck it, let’s go, let’s do this thing."

A couple of people talk about wanting the scene to be successful, which seems like an anti-punk thing to desire.

I don’t think that is anti–punk rock, I think that attitude came later with Fugazi and Ian MacKaye. It’s a hardcore thing. Because early on, in '76 and '77, we all thought, "Cool, we’re going get our shot and call the shots, no one is going to tell us what to do." Blondie and the Ramones, the Talking Heads — they all wanted to be successful, and they were. We were too, to a degree.

Mike Watt’s piece is so strongly “his voice,” and the relationship with late Minutemen bandmate D. Boon is so touching and powerful. Watt writes about Vietnam as well. What was his assignment?

His subject was being aware and being influenced by the early scene in Hollywood and then seeing it evolve into hardcore, as [the Minutemen] were more associated with the SST Records bands, which were pretty eclectic — if you think of Black Flag and China White, there’s a lot of diversity there. Their goals were different, too: They were the ones willing to tour the country, make $200 a night, and sleep on the floor. We didn’t want to do that. Fuck that. [Laughs]

Why did you ask Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong — a guy from a latter-day Bay Area punk band — to write the foreword?

I live in Oakland [where Green Day are based] and we got to be friends. Some people really dislike Green Day, but I’m not one of those people. I think that if there wasn’t a Joe Strummer, there wouldn’t be a Green Day, but [Armstrong] writes some pretty catchy songs, and they definitely are punk rock. I feel like them and Blink 182 are totally different animals; but that’s my spiel. I don’t care for Blink 182 or Sum 41 or some of the bands that are lumped in with Green Day.

There are other books and movies that chronicle the L.A. punk scene — Masque booker Brendan Mullen’s We Got the Neutron Bomb, or the Germs movie, What We Do Is Secret. Do you have any favorites, or least favorites?

This book was in response to that. I didn’t want to do the oral history, I wanted people to have to write it down. Neutron Bomb is full of mistakes, no fact-checking. With this book, people had to give it more context, so you got a chance to see what the scene was like, feel what it was like to be there.

So if there’s that “better late than never” feeling you have about the recognition of the L.A. punk scene, what part of the process made you feel that way?

I’m a big believer that the process is the reward; basing my reaction on record sales would make me miserable. I’m really gratified and surprised that the book is doing as well as it is. 


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