Doobie Brothers Spill the Tea

One of the most revealing portions of the new Doobie Brothers autobiography Long Train Runnin’ (St. Martin’s Press, 352 pp., $29.99) is contained in one of the appendices following the narrative proper. In the section headed “Former Members,” 23 musicians are listed. That is some serious turnover, putting the Doobies 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 comings and goings. But for a band to last that long, there are usually one or two members who have persevered, hung in, determined to keep the band going in some form or fashion. Such is the case with the Doobie Brothers and founding members Tom Johnston (the one who sings “China Grove”) and Pat Simmons (the one who sings “Black Water”), who have, along with cowriter Chris Epting, chronicled the group’s history in this new volume.

The Doobies grew out of a power trio called Pud (these guys were never good with band names), fronted by Johnston in San Jose, just south of San Francisco, around 1969. Simmons joined shortly thereafter, and the new band was christened the Doobie Brothers by a neighbor who couldn’t help but notice the members’ fondness for herb. The idea, Johnston and Simmons claim, 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 over 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 picks up a rock and roll biography or autobiography to read about sweetness and light. Readers want the dirt. Which is probably why Mötley Crüe called its book The Dirt. The Crüe dudes may not be Rhodes scholars, but they do understand the value of truth in advertising, and of giving the people what they want.

The Doobsters seem like an amiable bunch of folks, based on the recollections of Johnston and Simmons. They speak well of just about everyone and, by and large, gloss over the sex and drugs part, concentrating instead on the rock and roll. This makes for a pleasant enough read, but it seems like there is a lot not being said when phrases like “we were all indulging” and “we all had our moments” start to crop up.

Details, dammit, we want details! Where is the infighting? Where is the jealousy? Where are the orgies? Where is the pharmaceutical cocaine? Not here, that’s for sure. For further reading on these topics, please consult Hammer of the Gods by Stephen Davis, the granddaddy of tell-all rock and roll biographies.

In terms of rock and roll literature, Long Train Runnin’ is closer to David Crosby’s Long Time Gone, an autobiography published in 1988, than either of the two salacious titles previously mentioned. Crosby’s book provided a template for similar volumes written over the past 30-odd years by aging rockers. The story of scrappy beginnings, struggle, stardom, prosperity, crisis, and redemption is told in the form of an oral history, with numerous other voices joining that of the author.

Guitarist Pat Simmons gave the Doobie Brothers a surprise hit in 1974 with "Black Water." - PHOTO BY MARK WEISS

Guitarist Pat Simmons gave the Doobie Brothers a surprise hit in 1974 with “Black Water.”

Photo by Mark Weiss

In theory, this can be spectacular, as when several individuals recount the same incident with multiple contradictions, based on their particular points of view. As the line goes, “That’s not the Rashomon I remember!” This type of thing occurs in Edie: An American Biography, which told the cautionary tale of Edie Sedgwick (one of Andy Warhol’s “superstars”) and revolutionized the biography / autobiography oeuvre in the early ‘80s. In Long Train Runnin’, not so much. Johnston and Simmons don’t have particularly distinctive voices (as storytellers, that is), which sometimes makes their individual accounts sound like the same guy telling the same anecdote, but on different occasions.

When reading Ozzy Osbourne’s book I Am Ozzy, it’s like the Prince of Darkness himself is sitting next to you on a long plane flight, mumbling and harrumphing through some truly wild-ass stories. And I don’t mean that like it’s a bad thing. That’s why you read the book, to spend some time hanging out with the Oz man. Cowriter Chris Ayres captures Ozzy in all of his weird, wheezy, spaced-out 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 outsized personalities and methods of expression. Based on Long Train Runnin’, the two chief Doobies seem like, well, just guys. Guys that you would like to have a beer with.  Or, given that it’s them, maybe another, combustible sort of refreshment.

OK, so they’re not the most exciting people in the world, but both musicians are remarkably self-aware and self-effacing, particularly for rock stars. Cases in point: Johnston characterizes his early songwriting efforts as “hippie-dippy,” and Simmons says, of a banjo part on “Listen to the Music,” “I just pulled it out of my ass.”

And boy, are these dudes relentlessly positive. The term “nice guy” occurs more times than I care to count. Compliments are generously given. Seldom is heard a discouraging word, even with regard to players who were fired from the band. Of dismissed bassist Dave Shogren, Simmons only says, “He was not the guy we needed.”

But I come to praise the Doobies, not to bury them. It is refreshing to hear musicians recognize (by name!) the producers, session musicians, backup singers, arrangers, roadies, truck drivers, pilots, photographers, and caterers who helped make it all happen. Johnston and Simmons make it clear that the Doobie Brothers’ phenomenal success was nothing less than a team effort.

Toward the end of the book, Simmons says, “To this day, one of the things I get asked most about is when we appeared on the television show ‘What’s Happening!!’ in January 1978.” (Yes, the show’s title included not one but two exclamation points.) This unlikely union was the brainchild of David Gest (later to marry Liza Minnelli), a PR man who was in the process of positioning the Doobies as a more “mainstream” act.

Doobie Brothers founding member Tom Johnston onstage in 1975 at London's Rainbow. - PHOTO BY IAN DICKSON

Doobie Brothers founding member Tom Johnston onstage in 1975 at London’s Rainbow.

Photo by Ian Dickson

The episode (a two-parter) was christened “Doobie or Not Doobie” and featured the Brothers performing four songs live for a national television audience. Despite a goofy premise and dialogue to match (“Which Doobie you be?”), the broadcasts proved to be a boon to the band, increasing awareness and goosing record sales. The band members got along well with the young cast, even burning a couple with Fred “Rerun” Berry during breaks in shooting.

The Doobies may have been viewed by some (critics, primarily) 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 Runnin’ does an admirable job of setting the record straight. First off, as Simmons declares, the Doobie Brothers were a “northern California band,” not a bunch of slick LA dudes, though their latter-day work might give a casual listener that impression. Their primary influence was the band Moby Grape, an innovative San Francisco group whose phenomenal potential was sacrificed on the altar of breathtakingly stupid record company marketing, i.e. releasing five singles at the same time, thereby ensuring that none would be a hit.

In some ways, the Doobies were a more commercial – not that there’s anything wrong with that! — version of the Grateful Dead. They got their start 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 kids.

Long Train Runnin’ takes the band through its initial dissolution in 1982, exploring the shift in musical direction when vocalist / keyboard player Michael McDonald joined in 1975 and generated a slide toward a Steely Dan-ish sound, drawing in new listeners but alienating some fans of the Doobies’ earlier, more rocking material. This line of demarcation serves the book well, as the latter-day Doobie history is well, kind of…meh.

Some members of the Doobies reunited for a tour in 1987, and the band has, with a rotating cast of characters (aside from Johnston and Simmons), been on the road since then. But that era of the band’s existence has been more about commerce than art. Still, a devotee of classic rock could do worse than spending an evening with the Doobies du jour, singing along with “Listen to the Music” and all of their other hit singles. After all, it does beat most of the similar alternatives that will be heard this summer in pavilions, amphitheaters, and sheds around the country. REO Speedwagon?  Loverboy?  Styx?  Puh-leez!

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