John Doe: The 'X' Man Returns Doe just released A Year in the Wilderness, and recently sat down in the studio to play a few of his new songs. In between performances, he talks about the mythic qualities of the American West, as well as the differences between song lyrics and poetry.
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John Doe: The 'X' Man Returns

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John Doe: The 'X' Man Returns

John Doe: The 'X' Man Returns

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Hardcore John Doe fans celebrate.

(Soundbite of song, "Hotel Ghost")

Mr. JOHN DOE (Singer): There's a ghost in my hotel room. I dreamed I gave her the key. I might be mistaken, but it's awful dark to see. She lets herself in at 3 a.m. To crawl in bed with me.

WERTHEIMER: That's "Hotel Ghost" from John Doe's newly released album "A Year in the Wilderness." It's a prime example of the way he combines poetic lyrics with punk, folk and rock licks.

But longtime devotees know to expect the unexpected with this ever-evolving performer. John Doe first showed up with the punk band X and then with the Knitters, a kind of latter-day hillbilly band. And then there's his solo career launched in the 1990s with "Meet John Doe."

We'd like you to meet John Doe. If you don't him, he's on tour with "A Year in the Wilderness" and joins us from Boise State Radio in Idaho. John Doe, welcome to our program.

Mr. DOE: Well, thanks. It's good to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Now you brought your guitar.

Mr. DOE: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: I wonder if we could hear a sort of unplugged version of "Golden State."

Mr. DOE: Sure. Let me.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. DOE: Here we go.

(Soundbite of song, "Golden State")

Mr. DOE: (Singing) You are the hole in my head. I am the pain in your neck. You are the lump in my throat. I am the aching in your heart. We are tangled. We are stolen. We are living with things that are hidden. You are something in my eye. I am the shiver down your spine. And you are the lick of my lips. I am on the tip of your tongue.

We are tangled. We are stolen. We are buried up to our necks in sand. We are luck. We are fate. We are the feeling you get in the Golden State. We are love. We are hate. We are the feeling I get when you walk away. Walk away. You are the hole in my head. I am the pain in your neck. You are the lump in my throat. I am the aching in your heart.

WERTHEIMER: The feeling you get in the Golden State. What is that?

Mr. DOE: For me, it's freedom and openness and anything can happen and a sort of mythic quality that California has. It's the West.

WERTHEIMER: I read someplace that you thought recording this album in the winter made it darker. Is there sort of a seasonal aspect to the music that you write, do you think?

Mr. DOE: Oh, if I was a better poet like, you know, William Carlos Williams, I'd be able to write about anything but I'm just a minor poet so I just write about things that are, you know, moments of crisis and tend to be on the sadder, darker side but I'm not in general.

WERTHEIMER: So it comes out in the music more than in your life?

Mr. DOE: It's both, you know? You can spend 10 minutes in a really dark place and then you write a song about it and it lasts forever, you know, but the other hour is pretty much okay, you know?

WERTHEIMER: You are a poet. In fact, you edit the poetry section of a magazine called Bluerailroad. You write poetry. I gather you studied poetry in college.

Mr. DOE: Mm-hmm.

WERTHEIMER: Do you distinguish between lyrics and poetry?

Mr. DOE: I think you have to. I think it has to do with the rhythm and meter of it whether it's a lyric. You know, poetry can be a lot more open-ended and not as complete - you can have just a little tiny piece and that's a poem.

WERTHEIMER: I guess what I'm wondering is do you think that lyrics are bad poetry or good poetry?

Mr. DOE: No, I don't think so. I'm part of the school of thought that lyrics should be really specific. You should be able to get a place and time. And the more general they are, I think usually the worse they are. The more specific, I think, it actually allows people to relate to them better.

WERTHEIMER: There's a track on the Wilderness CD that seems to me to be good sort of poetic image as well as a lyric, "Grain of Salt."

(Soundbite of song "Grain of Salt")

Mr. DOE: (Singing) My only hope is that someday soon you'll press your palm to my chest and the warmth of your hand will draw out the stone that wakes me every night. I give you this pearl to show my love - grown it for over a year.

WERTHEIMER: That song is very romantic, and a lot of your music is.

Mr. DOE: Well, I have a tattoo on my back that says prisoner of love and I didn't realize when I had it done that it was - how true it was. I'm confessional enough to sort of lay it out there and I hope people don't see it as being unbecoming. I hope they see it as being sort of brave.

WERTHEIMER: "A Little More Time" is another song that I think is a poetical sort of a lyric. I wonder if you could play a little bit of that for us.

Mr. DOE: Sure. I mean, this is directly influenced by where I live in California, which is up in the mountains just below the San Joaquin Valley, very similar to Northern New Mexico. And it's a song that was inspired by my daughter.

(Soundbite of song, "A Little More Time")

Mr. DOE: (Singing) There was a time when the sunshine played in your soft blonde hair, reflected in your golden eyes. You lean back your head and you laugh about tomorrow. And then it came like a new day, the sun in the sky beamed, water sparkled down the stream. We knew this would all go away but not today. And when it did, you were better, better than the day you were born. Not quite so perfectly formed. The only wish I had that day that it would stay just a little more time with you, with me, with you. Just a little more time with you and me.

And then it goes on to.

WERTHEIMER: But now you've made me curious about your daughter. Do you feel -are you separated from your children?

Mr. DOE: Oh, at times, yeah. Not right now, no. But, you know, touring and just, you know, I think what it is, is the little more time that you wish you could spend with someone is just the time moves on and you wish you could, you know, revisit those moments that were particularly memorable.

WERTHEIMER: And stop it somehow...

Mr. DOE: Yeah, you know.

WERTHEIMER: ...right there.

Mr. DOE: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: The chorus of that song is loose ends, strings, you get back into tangled there as an image.

Mr. DOE: Yeah. I didn't even realize that. I think in that verse where it's talking about being on the road and driving for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles. It's just - that's one of the times you feel the most separated from people.

WERTHEIMER: And that part of the country is a very empty sort of place, for sure.

Mr. DOE: Yeah, beautifully empty and it's like things unwinding. I think that's where the strings came from. It's just sort of, you know, guitar strings or just, you know, a ball of twine unwinding because it's so flat and so endless, which is kind of liberating in a way but it's also very lonely.

WERTHEIMER: John Doe is in the big country at Boise State Radio in Idaho talking about his new album, which is called "A Year in the Wilderness." John Doe, thank you very much.

Mr. DOE: Linda Wertheimer, you're welcome and thanks for asking me.

(Soundbite of song, "The Meanest Man in the World")

Mr. DOE: (Singing) The wide, wide, open sky above the sage and the thorns. The rocks and pines were humming an old familiar tune.

WERTHEIMER: That was "The Meanest Man in the World" from John Doe's new album. For more cuts, visit

This is WEEKEND EDITION. Scott Simon returns next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

(Soundbite of song, "The Meanest Man in the World")

Mr. DOE: (Singing) He saw the house a mile away. The moon was just setting. The nights were darker then, lights in the living room. He could recall that the TV was on.

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