One of the most revealing parts of the new Doobie Brothers autobiography long train running (St. Martin’s Press, 352 pp., $29.99) is contained in one of the appendices following the narrative proper. In the section titled “Former Members”, 23 musicians are listed. That’s quite a rotation, putting the Doobies right up there with other classic rock revolving door bands like Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull and Blue Öyster Cult, all of whom have over 20 alumni.
A band with a history of over 50 years will generally experience some ups and downs. But for a band to last this long, there are usually one or two members who have persevered, stuck it out, determined to keep the band going in some way, shape or form. Such is the case of the Doobie Brothers and founding members Tom Johnston (the one who sings “China Grove”) and Pat Simmons (the one who sings “Black Water”), who, together with co-writer Chris Epting, have narrated the history of the group . in this new volume.
The Doobies grew out of a power trio called Pud (these guys were never good with band names), headed up by Johnston in San Jose, just south of San Francisco, around 1969. Simmons joined soon after and the new band she was christened Doobie. Brothers by a neighbor who couldn’t help but notice the members’ fondness for weed. The idea, say Johnston and Simmons, was to come up with a better name later, but the dreaded amotivational syndrome must have kicked in and the status quo has prevailed for more than five decades.
The combination of Johnston’s R&B sensibilities and Simmons’ folk and country leanings produced a radio-ready sound, and the Doobies quickly took off. That’s when things got interesting.
No one chooses a rock and roll biography or autobiography to read about sweetness and light. Readers want dirt. That’s probably why Mötley Crüe called his book The dirt. The Crüe guys may not be Rhodes scholars, but they understand the value of truth in advertising and giving people what they want.
The Doobsters seem like a friendly bunch of people, based on Johnston and Simmons’ recollections. They speak highly of just about everyone and generally skip over the sex and drugs part, concentrating instead on rock and roll. This makes for quite an enjoyable read, but there seems to be a lot left unsaid when phrases like “we all indulged each other” and “we all had our moments” start to creep in.
Details, damn it, we want details! Where is the internal struggle? Where is the jealousy? Where are the orgies? Where is the pharmaceutical cocaine? Not here, that’s for sure. To read more about these topics, please see hammer of the gods by Stephen Davis, the grandfather of rock and roll biographies.
In terms of rock and roll literature, long train running is closer to David Crosby long time gone, an autobiography published in 1988, than either of the two salacious titles mentioned above. Crosby’s book provided a template for similar volumes written over the past 30 years by aging rockers. The story of rocky beginnings, struggle, stardom, prosperity, crisis, and redemption is told in the form of oral history, with many other voices joining the author’s.
In theory, this can be spectacular, as when several individuals recount the same incident with multiple contradictions, depending on their particular points of view. As the line says, “That’s not the Rashomon I remember!” This kind of thing happens in Edie: An American Biographywhich told the cautionary tale of Edie Sedgwick (one of Andy Warhol’s “superstars”) and revolutionized biographical/autobiographical work in the early 1980s. long train running, not so much. Johnston and Simmons don’t have particularly distinctive voices (as narrators, that is), which sometimes makes their individual accounts sound like the same guy telling the same story, but on different occasions.
When reading Ozzy Osbourne’s book i am ozzyIt’s like the Prince of Darkness himself is sitting next to you on a long plane flight, muttering and singing some truly crazy stories. And I don’t say that like it’s a bad thing. That’s why you read the book, to spend some time with the man from Oz. Co-writer Chris Ayres captures Ozzy in all of his weird, hissy, distracted glory.
Now, it should be noted that Johnston and Simmons are not Ozzy Osbourne, Keith Richards (Life), or Patti Smith (Just kids), all artists with enormous personalities and forms of expression. based on long train running, the two Chief Doobies look like, well, just guys. Guys you’d like to have a beer with. Or, since it’s them, maybe another kind of combustible soda.
Granted, they’re not the most exciting people in the world, but both musicians are remarkably self-aware and modest, particularly for rock stars. Case in point: Johnston characterizes his early songwriting efforts as “hippie-dippy,” and Simmons says, of a banjo part on “Listen to the Music,” “I got it out of my ass.”
And boy, are these guys relentlessly positive. The term “nice guy” comes up more times than I care to count. Praise is given generously. Rarely is a word of discouragement heard, even regarding the players who were fired from the band. Of fired bassist Dave Shogren, Simmons only says, “He wasn’t the guy we needed.”
But I’m here to praise the Doobies, not bury them. It’s refreshing to hear musicians acknowledge (by name!) the producers, session musicians, backing vocalists, arrangers, roadies, truckers, pilots, photographers and caterers who helped make it all happen. Johnston and Simmons make it clear that the phenomenal success of the Doobie Brothers was nothing short of a team effort.
Toward the end of the book, Simmons says, “To this day, one of the things I get asked the most is when we appeared on the television show ‘What’s Going On?’ in January 1978.” (Yes, the show’s title included not one, but two exclamation points.) This unlikely union was the brainchild of David Gest (he would later marry Liza Minnelli), a public relations man who was in the process of positioning the Doobies as “mainstream”. Act.
The (two-part) episode was dubbed “Doobie or Not Doobie” and featured the brothers performing four songs live for a national television audience. Despite a silly premise and matching dialogue (“Which Doobie are you?”), the broadcasts proved to be a boon for the band, raising awareness and increasing record sales. The band members got along well with the young cast, even burning a couple with Fred “Rerun” Berry during breaks in filming.
The Doobies may have been seen by some (critics, mainly) as a pop band, not hip enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the Doors, the Byrds, or Buffalo Springfield. But long train running does an admirable job of setting the record straight. First of all, as Simmons states, the Doobie Brothers were a “Northern California gang,” not a bunch of shrewd Los Angeles guys, though their work of the last few days might give that impression to a casual listener. His main influence was the band Moby Grape, an innovative group from San Francisco whose phenomenal potential was sacrificed at the altar of the record companies’ stupid marketing, that is, releasing five singles at the same time, thus ensuring that none were a hit.
Somehow the Doobies were more commercial, not that there’s anything wrong with that! – Grateful Dead version. They began playing at the Chateau Liberté, a bar that was formerly a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop located in the woods near Santa Cruz. It was in this rural setting that the Doobies perfected their mix of rock, R&B, country and bluegrass, a formula similar to that used by Jerry and his children.
long train running takes the band through its initial breakup in 1982, exploring the change in musical direction when vocalist/keyboardist Michael McDonald joined in 1975 and sparked a slide into a Steely Dan-ish sound, drawing in new listeners but alienating old ones. some Doobies fans. before, more oscillating material. This line of demarcation serves the book well, as Doobie’s story of the last days is a good one, sort of… meh.
Some members of the Doobies reunited for a tour in 1987, and the band, with a rotating cast of characters (apart from Johnston and Simmons), has toured ever since. But that era of the band’s existence has had more to do with commerce than art. Still, a classic rock devotee could do worse than spend an evening with the Doobies du jour, singing along to “Listen to the Music” and all their other hit singles. After all, it beats out most of the similar alternatives that will be heard this summer in arenas, amphitheaters and boathouses across the country. Reo Speedwagon? Lover? Stygian? Pooh-leez!