John Doe appears with X at Stern Grove this weekend. (Courtesy Autumn De Wilde)

John Doe appears with X at Stern Grove this weekend. (Courtesy Autumn De Wilde)

X’s John Doe stays on point during COVID

Punk pioneer releases 2020 album, plays solo, maintains acting career

John Doe admits to being surprised by the first summer date his legendary Los Angeles punk quartet X booked this year, this weekend at San Francisco’s Stern Grove.

“I’d always heard that concerts there were very quiet and serene. I didn’t think Stern Grove was supposed to get really rocking,” says the bassist-vocalist. “So I think that we’re going to, uh, shake things up there a little!” Punk among the pines — a perfect pandemic panacea, especially since the group has been eager to celebrate 2020’s “Alphabetland,” its first studio album in 35 years and a rollicking return to classic 1980s form.

To prepare for the show, Doe — who moved from Fairfax in Marin to Austin, Texas in 2017 — got together with original members of X (co-vocalist Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom, drummer D.J. Bonebrake) for a Los Angeles rehearsal week at the end of June. Everyone was healthy, vaccinated and raring to go.

“It was strangely emotional to see each other,” he adds. “I thought, ‘Oh, everybody’s going to get together, and it’s going to be like, ‘Hi. How’s it going? OK, let’s get to work.’ But it was very sweet and quite touching to all be together in one place again.”

But the musician and actor has stayed busy during lockdown. Doing voiceovers for “Unplugged,” an upcoming animated film from director Paul McComas, was among his projects.

“It’s the story of a young rock and roller who tries to commit suicide, but then goes on a vision quest to find out who she is, and I’m one of the characters she meets on the road,” says Doe, who hit the silver screen in Allison Anders’ 1987 indie “Border Radio.”

Also slated for release this year: Geoff Marslett’s “Boardinghouse Reach” (playing John the Gunslinger) and Kurt St. Thomas’ “D.O.A. — the Movie,” in which he reprises Edmund O’Brien’s classic role as lethally-poisoned protagonist Frank Bigelow.

On his own, Doe has returned to San Francisco several times during the pandemic to perform live in KC Turner’s In Your Driveway (or Backyard) Concert Series.

He also mastered the lockdown art of live-streaming home performances, and became accustomed to the odd sensation of projecting energy while receiving zero applause. “Which made it very difficult to be in someone’s backyard and go, ‘Oh, my God, there’s people here, and they seem to be very happy, but now I don’t actually know how to speak in between songs because I haven’t had to do that in a while,’” he says.

But a few gigs in, he was back into raconteur rhythm, and on his next trip he was comfortable enough to bring merchandise along.

Back home in Austin, he spent his remaining time writing and recording “Fables in a Foreign Land,” a new solo concept album, set to be issued on Fat Possum in January. The storyline — rooted in coronavirus isolation — follows a pre-Industrial Revolution teen vagabond who’s forced to leave home after his parents are killed. Doe loved the idea of traversing America with no cellphone coverage, no automobiles, buses or trains: “Without all the stupid distractions around that we call progress,” he says, the kid’s prime directives are “just staying alive, sleeping on the ground, having enough to eat, while it’s just raining all the time.”

“Fables” also features a co-write with one of the Doe’s heroes, Terry Allen, and another with Los Lobos’ Louis Pérez, who contributed lyrics in Spanish.

Doe added vocals to “She’s Automatic,” the new comeback from former X peers The Cruzados, since he and its bandleader Tony Marsico have been friends since the group’s early punk days as The Plugz.

Additionally, Foo Fighters anchor and huge X fan Dave Grohl recently shot a video with his daughter Violet in a duet on the early X chestnut “Nausea.”

Doe won’t be relaxing any time soon — X’s traditional X-Mas Holiday is back on this year, with bookings at The City’s Independent, Dec. 9-11.

Now, Doe just wants to get the “Alphabetland” memo out to those who missed it during lockdown.

“X has been really good to us,” he says. “But you know what? Anybody who goes through this and doesn’t have an increased sense of gratitude for what they have — unless they’ve lost someone who is near and dear to them? They should really just stop and think about how heartless they are, because they’re really the f——- Grinch.”

X and The Avengers appear at 2 p.m. July 26 at the free Stern Grove Festival at 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard. Reservations, which are required, do not guarantee entry. To join the waitlist, visit sterngrove.org.

Pop MusicSan Francisco

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