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‘It’s a Record of What Happened at That Time’: X’s John Doe on ‘Los Angeles’ at 40

Singer-bassist looks back at a punk classic, and explains why he changed the lyrics to one of the band’s signature songs, decades later

On the 40th anniversary of X's 'Los Angeles,' singer-bassist John Doe (far right) looks back at the landmark punk LP.

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John Doe doesn’t think often about Los Angeles, the landmark punk record his band X released 40 years ago this month. He estimates he hasn’t even played the LP — which ranks on several Rolling Stone lists, including the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and the 40 Greatest Punk Albums — in 35 years. “We play all those songs all the time live,” he says. “Recordings are great, but if you’re in the middle of it, playing songs live is better.”

But even though he hasn’t put on the vinyl in decades, Doe can appreciate Los Angeles as a recording, especially the touches that Ray Manzarek, the Doors keyboardist and the album’s producer, added to it. “I love what he added to it, even though it’s not exactly how we sounded at the time,” Doe says. “I kind of wish we’d done a version of ‘Nausea’ without the organ, even though I love that version.” “Nausea” is a plodding, doomy tune about “poverty and spit” and “bloody red eyes” and Manzarek played some shimmering, almost proggy licks over it. Live takes of the song, even at the time, felt a little heavier, a little more threatening, such as the version seen in 1981 punk doc The Decline of Western Civilization, recorded before Los Angeles’ release.

“Despite that, [Los Angeles] is interesting,” Doe says. “It’s a record — it’s a record of what happened at that time.”

X’s members first came together three years earlier in Los Angeles — only drummer D.J. Bonebrake is a California native — and drew inspiration from the burgeoning punk scene Doe had seen forming on the East Coast. As for why he moved to the City of Angels, Doe once joked in a Rolling Stone profile, “It’s the place of dreams, my friend,” and later added that he was intrigued by the city’s seedy underbelly, as chronicled in Kenneth Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon. He met singer Exene Cervenka at a Venice, California, bookshop and they bonded over poetry. They linked up with guitarist Billy Zoom through a classified ad and eventually brought Bonebrake into the band in ’78.

After a chance encounter with Manzarek, who came to the Whisky to check out another band but became enamored with X and their nearly unrecognizable cover of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen,” the keyboardist tried to get them a record deal, to no avail. With no one biting, they cut an album’s worth of songs, from about two LPs’ worth of material, and issued what became Los Angeles through indie label Slash. The record featured classics like the revved-up “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” the glitzy “Sex and Dying in High Society,” the insanely catchy “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss,” and, of course, “Soul Kitchen.” (Incidentally, X recently drew a line back to the Doors on their new comeback album Alphabetland, by inviting guitarist Robby Krieger to play on the LP’s final song, “All the Time in the World.”)

They titled Los Angeles after one of their most arresting songs, which described a woman who had grown to hate L.A. so much that she’d become a raving racist, homophobic anti-Semite and had to leave immediately. Doe wrote the lyrics about a friend of his who had a nervous breakdown while living in London. “She’d just gotten fed up with it,” he told Rolling Stone in 2017. “She had lived there for a couple of years and she became more and more racist and stereotyping people. And to be honest there was a lot of shock value intended in the lyrics. I wanted to show the dark side or underbelly of Los Angeles. People like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Nathanael West did — the Doors did it — so it was time for an update.”

In more recent years, though, he says the song’s racism has made him feel uneasy and the band cut the song from their set lists for a period of time. “It’s a character-driven song,” he says now. “It’s about this person, ‘she.’ It’s, like, a signature X song, but we’ve had to change some lyrics. We used the N-word in that, and even when it was written, that use was to hold a mirror up to people and say, ‘In desperate times, really ugly things can surface from your past.’ And it was a way of pointing out to people that words have power. And, holy shit, racism is real. This was in ’78, ’79 when I wrote it. So now we sing, ‘She had started to hate every Christian and Jew.’”

They stopped playing the song for two tours, and then their fans started asking them why they’d stopped performing what was essentially their signature tune. “It was like, ‘We just can’t figure out how to do this,’” Doe says. “We were really conflicted. Part of us was being egotistical and petulant and saying, ‘Well, I didn’t mean it that way,’ and that’s kind of bullshit because then you’re just defending yourself. So maybe we changed it a year and a half ago, in the beginning of 2019 or the middle of 2018.

“I’d rather have a few people say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t do that because that’s the way it was written, man, and we understand,’ than the alternative,” Doe continues. “It’s like, we didn’t care. It’s a different time now, and I still can talk about it and I feel like words are just words. You can’t say ‘Voldemort,’ but words are just words and that’s a particularly inflammatory word, and it means more than the reference I was trying to make.”

Other than the original version of “Los Angeles,” Doe considers the album to be practically perfect. “That’s actually the one record we play every song from,” Doe says. “I give Ray Manzarek a lot of credit for choosing the songs that we’ve concentrated on to make that record. We had a limit to the amount of time in the studio. We had maybe a week’s worth of basic tracks and maybe four days of overdubs and then four or five days of mixing. We had several songs written that ended up on [1981’s] Wild Gift that we could have recorded, but Ray chose the ones on Los Angeles.

“Over time you, become accustomed to saying, ‘Oh, yeah, those songs all fit together,’” he continues, “but they sort of do.”