Back in the mid-90s, when I was working as a nightlife columnist in Los Angeles, I had a little pre-evening-out ritual: I’d get my young daughter settled at her father’s house or a sleepover, and then, perform my ablutions while listening to Meet John Doe, or more precisely, the song “Knockin’ Around,” which I’d set to replay as many times as it took for me to pick an outfit and blow-dry my hair.
I can go out to every club in town, not get what I need
Sit right there and drown. Sit right there and bleed
I have been drunk amongst you all, and you know me for some time
Sometimes I slip so far down, I don’t even realize
I did not make more of than necessary the overlaps with the lyrics and my life, and anyway, I liked slipping down; it was the place, paradoxically, where I thought you find transcendence. Isn’t that why people went to bars? And if most of the time you just got drunk and had the same conversations with the same people, there were also the nights when you made out with your friend Jason by the bathrooms at the Lava Lounge and laughed and laughed and laughed, or sang Frankie Valli’s “You’re Just Too Good to Be True” at the top of your lungs with everyone else still at The Room at closing time, which got your head about as far into the ether as it could go without actually having sex.
I’d also liked Doe since college, when a friend called me my freshman year and said, “You have to get down to New York; I got us tickets for X.” I didn’t know who X was, but they’d just released "Under the Big Black Sun," and I knew, as I watched and listened to Doe and Exene Cervenka mesh those harmonies that should not have worked but did that they were ripping up old ground and making something new, and letting us walk around on it. Cool.
Four years later, I was living in Los Angeles. Eight years after that, Exene was eating dinner at my house, our kids in my daughter’s room building a fort made of blankets, onto which they beamed Mickey Mouse flashlights. Two years after that, Doe was singing me on my way out the door.
Sometime around 2001, I was at Frank ‘n Hank’s on Western Avenue, with the man who would become my husband. Frank ‘n Hank’s is a great dive bar, and at the end of the bar was a couple, maybe 15 years older than we were, maybe 30, it was hard to tell. They were having a little party with a man they’d just met, talking over each other, their laughter punctuated by coughing jags. I looked at how the gal’s lipstick had stained the bottom half of her face coral, how her eyes unmoored when she stopped talking, as though, without the tether of speech, she just drifted away. She and her husband began fussing about whether they could keep the trailer parked where it was for two nights or three, and I thought it might be a good idea to not get too cozy on this barstool, and realized this, too, was the point of Doe’s song.
Last night, I went to see a friend play a small club here in Portland, Oregon, where I’ve been living since 2004. Also on the bill was John Doe, who I’d not seen play since New York. As I listened to the other bands, I saw Doe in a little archway near the stage. He was looking at me, the way a friend looks across a room, just pleased to see you, and before logic told me, this could not be (he and I have never met), I thought, of course he knows me, all those years of us both in LA, our lives running parallel, and him having the heart and guts to write songs about it.
Doe took the stage, dark jeans; jean jacket, hair that maybe hadn’t washed in a few days. I’ve known a lot of people in touring bands; it’s a young man’s game, driving from city to city, trying to get some sleep in the van. Doe didn’t look unnerved by any of this; he looked like the last man standing. Alone on stage, no fancy lights, he started to play. His acoustic guitar and voice filled the room more than any of the preceding five-piece bands. Yeah, he was loud, but that’s not why he was rocking harder than anyone else; he was rocking harder because he had authority. The other acts had been arty, testosteronic; enamored of their own sensitivity, and they’d all (with the exception of the sensitive guys) been interesting to watch. But was that why we were here?
Doe changed over to electric guitar. “That’s all the stage craft you’re going to get, folks,” he told the room. Then he played songs from the new CD, A Year in the Wilderness, including one I’d heard him talk about on NPR, “Little More Time,” about his oldest daughter, who I know is about eighteen, the same age as my daughter. The title of the song tells you what it’s about, and as I watched and listened to Doe sing it, I stood there and cried. It’s the song I hear every day these days, if not exactly that song.
“Go ahead and talk and let your cell phones ring, I don’t give a shit,” Doe told the crowd. There was nothing to prove; we were going to get what he was talking about or we weren’t. Then he asked for requests. Someone shouted “Fourth of July!” but Doe said, “It’s just after New Year’s; too early for that.” I thought about asking him to play “Knockin’ Around”; I thought about it for a few minutes. But why should he? Hadn’t I dipped in that well hundreds of time? Hadn’t I sucked what I could from it? And, was there part of me that imagined I’d shout the title and Doe would say, “That song’s always meant a lot to me, and I’m going to play it right now for you, little lady”? Yeah, there was, and screw that. Better to let him play what he wanted, to hear what he’d learned lately. Which was: We’re already raged at the sun, and what good did that do? Nose down, keep working; look how much we’ve got.
A few months ago, I heard an X song, in repeat, coming from my daughter’s room. It was Nausea, one of the world’s great odes to hangovers, which goes, in part, Today you're gonna be so sick so sick you'll prop your forehead on the sink, and I thought, oh Christ, what was my child up to last night? But she bright and chipper, sober as the day she was born. “I just like the song,” she said. I say, preemptive learning.
Image: Acrylic by Heidi Barack, GalaxyGloo.com