Still fun to be a Doobie
September 3, 2009
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Tom Johnston sticks to the company line familiar to any member of a so-called “legacy act” – bands that tour around their decades-old hits: It’s more enjoyable now than it was back in the ’70s, when Johnston and the Doobie Brothers, the band he co-founded in San Jose, was scoring with the classic rock songs “Listen to the Music,” “China Grove” and “Black Water.”
Of course, what is Johnston – or Steve Miller or Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers or Steve Walsh of Kansas – going to say? That someone should have pulled the plug on this dinosaur before it descended into an endless run of northern California wineries and Indian casinos stretching from the Mohegan nation to the land of the Chumash?
Johnston, however, offers solid evidence to support his contention that being a Doobie is as much fun in 2009 – 30 years after “Minute By Minute,” their last enduring contribution to classic rock radio – as it was from 1972-’74, when the band watched three albums go gold.
On the one hand, the glory days weren’t all glory – and Johnston’s got the scars to prove it. All those records shooting up the charts and arenas filling to capacity kept them running – from the road to the studio, then back to the road, with scarcely a break.
“After a while – it’s not that it lost its magic, but it took its toll on me,” said the 61-year-old singer-guitarist from Salem, Ore., where the band was set to perform at the Pavilion at Oregon State Fairgrounds. “In 1975, I had an ulcer. A bleeding ulcer.”
Johnston’s health was bad enough that he left the road for awhile, and reduced his role in the band’s albums. By the end of the ’70s, he had retired from the Doobies and embarked on a moderately successful solo career.
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His second go-round in the brotherhood has been healthier. And without the distraction of recording a new album every year – the band’s last release of new material, “Sibling Rivalry,” is nine years old – he and his mates have been able to enjoy themselves more. They’ve even had time for activities like improving their musical chops.
“It’s actually more fun onstage,” said Johnston, who will be featured on vocals and guitar when the Doobie Brothers make their Jazz Aspen Snowmass debut Sunday, Sept. 6, on a Labor Day Festival bill with the Allman Brothers Band and Drive-By Truckers. “Everyone is clear-headed. And everyone practices – not just as a band, but as individuals. We didn’t ever practice; we’d rehearse once in a while. We take the crap a little more seriously.
“I enjoy playing more now. Not because it was bad, but because I’m more here. I’m more aware of what’s going on onstage, and interacting with the crowd.”
It comes as no surprise to hear that the relationship between the Doobie Brothers and their fans is far different now than it was during the Ford administration. Back then, the fan base was young and eager to hear “Long Train Running” and “Jesus Is Just Alright,” no matter how it might have sounded. Now, says Johnston, crowds can come with a show-me-something attitude: They may be wondering just how authentic the current version of the Doobie Brothers is. (Answer: reasonably authentic. The band includes Johnston and Patrick Simmons, the two founding singer-guitarists who were also the principal songwriters in the early version of the band; drummer Michael Hossack, whose tenure in the band dates back to 1971; and John McFee, a guitarist and violinist who joined up in 1979.) They may half-expect the members to be out of shape, in body and musical ability. They may come more for a nostalgic flashback to their own glory days than for a real-time experience. (I confess, I fall at least a little bit in that category: My first concert was the Doobie Brothers, November 1976, in Chicago. I loved the experience so thoroughly that I made a career of concertgoing.) Many will come hoping that they don’t bust out any new material. Johnston welcomes whatever challenges this presents.
“Nowadays you have to work the crowd up. That’s a challenge, and I enjoy that,” he said. “A lot of people, if they haven’t heard us in a long time, they may hear us do some things differently. We’ve rearranged some tunes. But it hasn’t changed dramatically. Essentially, the only change is, people put more time into their instruments, and staying on top of that.”
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Johnston says that one thing he prefers about the old days was the way the music business was run. He expresses particular displeasure with the lack of patience shown by music industry executives toward the artists. “I miss the fact that people aren’t willing to stick with the people making the music. If your first single isn’t good, you’re gone,” he said.
There’s a good chance that, had the Doobie Brothers come along in 2001, rather than 1971, they wouldn’t have lasted a year, never mind nearly 40. After building a following, largely in northern California biker bars, the band’s released a self-titled, 1971 debut built largely around Johnston’s songs, and a countryish style that departed from their live sound and image. It went nowhere, but they at least had a second bite at the apple.
The Doobie Brothers showed their own measure of patience in recording their sophomore album, “Toulouse Street,” working again with Ted Templeman, who was behind their first record. This time, with a slightly reshuffled lineup, and the backing of a horn section and Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne, they hit it right. Songs like Johnston’s “Listen to the Music” and a cover of “Jesus Is Just Alright” went down easy, with high harmonies, strummed guitars and distinctive breaks. “Toulouse Street,” released in 1972, went platinum; the next two albums, “The Captain and Me” (1973) and “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits” (1974) both went double platinum.
Improbably, when Johnston stepped aside in 1975, the band didn’t miss a step. The Doobie Brothers had become too big to let a little thing like a prominent member’s absence slow them down. Johnston was replaced just as a tour was beginning. Strangely, the replacement was a keyboardist, Michael McDonald, with a blue-eyed soul voice that was a major step away from the band’s established sound. (McDonald, a quasi-member of Steely Dan, was brought in by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter,” a guitarist who had made the leap from Steely Dan to the Doobies when the former quit touring.) With McDonald in the forefront, the Doobie Brothers scored their biggest album, 1978’s “Minute by Minute,” which featured the hit title track as well as “What a Fool Believes.”
Johnston, who was largely absent during the McDonald era, helped put the disbanded group back together in 1987 for a benefit concert for Vietnam veterans at the Hollywood Bowl. That concert included numerous Brothers from all of the band’s lineups – such a production, in fact, that a short tour was scheduled to help pay for the benefit gig. Two years later, at the request of Ted Templeman, the “Toulouse Street” lineup of the Doobies regrouped to record “Cycles,” which yielded the hit single, “The Doctor.” The band, with a steady rotation of side players (including singer-bassist John Cowan, formerly of New Grass Revival), hit the road in 1993 and has been at it since.
Johnston says there were things to love about his first lap with the Doobies. Not the least was the band’s own plane, the Doobie Liner, and even one for the crew, the Crewbie Liner.
“We played with a lot of different people, were exposed to a lot of things. I always got a kick out of that, hanging out with [other bands]. These days there’s a little of that, not a lot,” said Johnston, noting the Doobies have shared bills recently with Steve Miller, the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. “The whole landscape has changed – the type of music, the way the record companies imploded because they didn’t embrace the Internet the way they should have.”
But Johnston isn’t living in the past. He embraces technology – “God bless iTunes,” he says earnestly – and he has new music in him. The Doobie Brothers’ next album, which they have been working on for several years, is 99 percent done. It features eight songs by Johnston, many of them which he says stray from the Doobies formula. There’s a blues song, written around slide licks on an acoustic guitar; a song about cougars – presumably not the four-legged variety – that crosses Hendrix with funk; and one about the Mexican city of Juarez.
“Old Juarez. Not the current mess,” said Johnston. “It’s basically a Latin tune. It’s not ‘Long Train Running’ or ‘Listen to the Music.’ It’s really a departure. It’s places we’ve never gone.”