X Factor

I'm happy and I'm singing and a 1, 2, 3, 4: John Doe

As he winds around Topanga Canyon Boulevard, John Doe notices that the mists are heavier than usual, especially for early evening. Still, he takes the curves faster than he should, slowing down only for a peacock crossing the road--a male missing a few tail feathers. He double-parks in front of a white stucco house, straightens his collar, and strides inside to exchange perfunctory greetings with some vaguely bohemian partygoers. David Lynch slouches on a gold suede sofa. Robert Redford waves from across the living room. A terminally tanned blonde in a white silk shirt offers Doe a joint. He declines politely, wondering if it's laced with Botox. Looking around the room, Doe finds his exit: a sliding glass door. He ducks through and slips back to his car unnoticed. An hour later, he's home, pulling a beer out of the fridge and picking up his guitar--the electric one.

Or maybe none of the above happens at all. Does it matter? If you can't hear every last detail of this fantasy--the star-studded glamour, the guitar-and-a-beer humility, the pure imagination--in John Doe's music, you're not paying attention.

Would that Doe's own career could be blessed with the kind of lofty dreams his music evokes. Easy Street doesn't exist on John Doe's map of the world. Certainly, Doe has enjoyed his share of success. X, the band he formed (and continues to co-front) with vocalist Exene Cervenka, still gets plenty of props for the heartfelt blend of punk and roots music it pioneered a quarter-century ago, presaging the alt-country movement by more than a decade. And Doe has made a name for himself as a solo artist as well. Still, Meet John Doe, the 1990 solo debut that peaked at a lowly 193 on the pop charts, remains his biggest seller to date. And the history of his acting career doesn't read all that differently: For his roles in Oliver Stone's Salvador and sci-fi TV's Roswell, he's garnered a fair measure of respect, a small measure of money, and a whole lotta hustle and scramble. It's no wonder that his music sounds a little exasperated. As he explained on the Sundance Channel in 1999, "Acting and music are just the same: 23 hours of bullshit and one hour that is hopefully good."

A little of that bitterness seeps into Doe's latest release, Dim Stars, Bright Sky (iMUSIC). But when it does, as on the delicate piano-driven opener, "7 Holes," it's tempered with a generous measure of sweetness. "I never did drink like you/But I held back your hair like a girlfriend would do," he begins tenderly, only to come down hard on the chorus: "Now lying and leaving and driving are leaking out all seven holes in our heads/We use every one to make everyone feel like their feelings are only pretend/A lazy, bitter end." But though he sounds resentful, Doe always takes his share of the blame for the failed relationships that litter Dim Stars like used condoms in an apartment-building courtyard. And he always shows more than a little regret: One gets the impression that Doe never left a woman he didn't like.

"7 Holes," like half the songs on Dim Stars, is primarily acoustic, which might surprise Doe's punk fans. Luckily, he's been doing live acoustic shows for years and knows how to avoid the clichés of the alt-country tradition he helped to create. In fact, the album's lovely untitled secret track features Doe accompanied by only a guitar. It's an exquisite miniature that includes just one verse and chorus. "I wrote that song 26 years ago," Doe reports by phone from the greater Los Angeles area, "and I've been looking for a place for it ever since."

Yet Dim Stars sports its share of rockers, too. All the years Doe spent hustling and rubbing elbows have made him the consummate insider: Aimee Mann, Jakob Dylan, Rhett Miller, Juliana Hatfield, and Jane Wiedlin provide background vocals for the album, which Doe co-produced with Joe Henry and Dave Way. Of the five, Mann gets the choicest spot, doing an Exene-style chorus on "This Far." It's the album's high point, and--thanks to Doe's evergreen voice and Smokey Hormel's fiery guitar--it's also the closest Dim Stars comes to approaching X's greatest recorded moments. Making lines like "Down by the freeway/ Shooting at cars" sound uplifting, Doe turns an epistle of lost love and urban decay into a goddamn ode to joy.

The one thing Dim Stars, Bright Sky lacks is a political statement. It's an odd omission for the relentless progressive who wrote the rage against bigotry "See How We Are" and called his last album Freedom Is. In fact, the normally outspoken performer has been strangely silent as of late: One wonders if he, like so many others trapped in the rise of the Republican Reich, fears a return to blacklisting. But in the meantime, Doe's certainly not going to buy into oversimplified Springsteen politics. His current fans probably don't mind either way: A good percentage of them weren't even old enough to cross the street unaccompanied when X started out--they're more likely to like him because he was in Boogie Nights. Yet somehow, it seems the best years of Doe's career lie ahead of him--as long as there is that one good hour to look forward to.

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