Decked out in his 1950s-era slacks, shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, John Doe looked especially dapper recently as he prepared to take the stage with The Knitters, the country-edged side project he formed in 1982 with longtime X cohorts Exene Cervenka and D.J. Bonebrake.
"And I just got these shoes at a thrift store in New York," he bragged, showing of a pair of vintage oxfords. Footwear someone might’ve died in six decades ago? "I’m hopin’ so!" he deadpans.
That droll gallows wit has served Doe — who plays San Francisco next week — very well over the years. First with protopunkers X, then the Knitters, then in a solo career that began with 1990’s "Meet John Doe" and led to film and TV roles and his latest album "A Year in the Wilderness" on YepRoc.
"But all those people are not that different, and they’re all pretty close to the surface and pretty true, like variations on a theme," he said of the disparate personae he juggles.
"X is a more emotional, physical, immediate thing. The Knitters is more ruminative, thinking about the past and the slower, sadder moments. And then with my own stuff, I think it’s a combination of the two. But I don’t ever want to be a sad sack, so I think I’ve definitely done enough sad songs for awhile."
As Doe tells it, "Wilderness" drained every ounce of his humor, even though the 53-year-old had help this time around: old chum Dave Alvin on "Hotel Ghost;" Aimee Mann on "Unforgiven," Jill Sobule with "Darling Underdog" and alt-country queen Kathleen Edwards on three cuts, including the first single, "The Golden State."
It’s a lesson Doe learned singing counterpoint with Cervenka since 1977: "I just sound better with other people, like Kathleen."
What bad luck befell him? He won’t get into specifics, but the CD’s title is both real and metaphorical: "I was kind of wandering for awhile, not that I’ve necessarily arrived back. Life is hard, and keeping your relationships and marriages and things like that together is very difficult. And I’m enough like everybody else to have been through those tough times."
Two confessionals — "The Bridge" and "Grain of Salt" — were especially difficult to compose. Doe thought the material might serve as catharsis. He was wrong. "Wilderness" became "more of a document than any actual help," he says. "For better or worse, that’s the one lesson I learned from writers like John Lennon, Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski — you have to be brave, you have to use your life, and you have to write about the struggle. And people should be able to relate to it, even if it’s very specific."
Where: 12 Galaxies, 2565 Mission St., San Francisco
When: 9 p.m. June 27
Contact: (415) 970-9777 or www.12galaxies.com