“What are the young people doing here?” a friendly Ithaca local asked me at The Haunt this past Friday night. The crowd, mostly 45-65 year-old Ithacans, was there to see John Doe, the now 63-year-old front-man of the 80’s LA punk band, X. My answer was that I was curious about what he’s gone on to produce as a solo artist.
John Doe has come out with six records in the past decade, each far different from those produced by X. His most recent album, The Westerner, was released just this year and features some Western-inspired, psychedelia-tinged, Americana rock. The older artists get, the bolder they get. They write for themselves. They have fun. They experiment far beyond the reaches of what began their musical careers. But for some concert-goers, this was evidently not the draw.
The performance was listed as one of the off-campus events surrounding Cornell’s Punk Fest. This seemed to be what lured a few of the younger crowd in attendance who answered Doe’s calls for requests with titles of old X singles. Doe finally responded to one persistent young’un telling him that “Johnny Hit And Run Paulene” and “Los Angeles” would be sure disappointments played on his acoustic guitar. While he looked like a countrified gent, tucked shirt and lassoed salt-and-pepper locks, I caught a glimpse of suppressed punk-rock rage threatening to boil over from beneath his leather jacket as he singled out the young X fan.
I can only imagine what it must be like to be a living, working artist like John Doe, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, only to have concert goers plead you to play songs you wrote forty years ago. I attended the concert to see 63-year-old John Doe, not 25-year-old John Doe, and it certainly was not my first time at the ageing star rodeo. I’ve seen extremes on the spectrum. There are those who play mainly greatest hits alongside one or two recent, unheard singles to appease sold-out NYC crowds (E.L.O.). There are those who play only songs from within the last half-decade over a chorus of shushes for insanely rude millennials who loudly complain: “This is the quietest concert I’ve ever been to!” and “When will he play ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’?” all while voraciously waiting to update their Snapchat Stories (Bob Dylan). And then there are those like John Doe, who urbanely explain why they won’t play songs produced 35 years ago by a band who isn’t on stage. “Now, these songs are punk-rock inspired which everybody knows is a state of mind rather than a style of music.” He’s no Paul McCartney. He’s the real deal.
I surely wasn’t disappointed. Doe started out with some slow ballads to show off his soft side and his finger-picking skills. Then he transitioned to some up-tempo rockabilly to get the crowd on their toes. Next came the real treat of the evening, when Exene (frontwoman of X) surprised everyone by getting up on stage and harmonizing with Doe as if it were still 1981. The pair finished out the set repeatedly nodding to Johnny Cash and June Carter, whom they played a tribute for at Roadshow Revival last June. It was sweet to see a couple of accomplished musicians share earnest admiration for their musical heroes. Their voices have only improved with age. They were brilliant, and the fans had a blast, cheering for every sustained belt, slick guitar riff and half-serious comparison to Cash and Carter.
As a final note, Exene raved about the Kroch Library exhibit, “Anarchy in the Archives.” The collection of original punk memorabilia surely inundated her with nostalgia; she and Doe were there. They loved it as much as the next guy, or rather, much more than the millennials who have only vague imaginings and wild misinterpretations of the time-period. But musicians are not circus performers, not zoo animals, not magicians. They can’t transport their listeners back in time while their lives keep trucking forward like the rest of ours. And why ask them to? It is unfair, greedy even, while we are so rich with current art to pave our own memory lanes with.
Ailis Clyne is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].