One of the most revealing parts of the new Doobie Brothers autobiography Long train running (St. Martin’s Press, 352 pp., $29.99) is included in one of the appendices after the actual story. The “Former Members” section lists 23 musicians. That’s some serious turnover, putting the Doobies there with other classic rock revolving door bands like Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, and Blue Öyster Cult, all of whom have more than 20 alumni.
A band with a history of more than 50 years will generally experience a coming and going. But for a band to last that long, there are usually one or two members who have persevered, persevered, determined to somehow keep the band going. Such is the case with the Doobie Brothers and founders Tom Johnston (who sings “China Grove”) and Pat Simmons (who sings “Black Water”), who, along with co-writer Chris Epting, chronicled the group’s history in this new number.
The Doobies originated from a power trio called Pud (these guys were never good with band names), fronted by Johnston in San Jose, just south of San Francisco, circa 1969. Simmons joined soon after and the new band became the Doobie baptized. Brothers of a neighbor who couldn’t help but notice the members’ fondness for spices. The idea, Johnston and Simmons argue, was to come up with a better name later, but the dreaded amotivational syndrome must have set 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 took off quickly. Then it got interesting.
No one picks up a rock and roll biography or autobiography to read about sweetness and light. Readers want the dirt. That’s probably why Mötley Crüe named his book The earth† The Crüe guys may not be Rhodes scholars, but they do understand the value of truth in advertising and of giving people what they want.
The Doobsters seem like a lovely bunch of people, based on the memories of Johnston and Simmons. They speak well about just about everyone and generally gloss over the sex and drug part and focus on the rock and roll instead. This makes for an enjoyable enough read, but it seems like a lot isn’t said when phrases like “we were all enjoying it” and “we all had our moments” start popping up.
Details, damn it, we want details! Where is the infighting? Where’s the jealousy? Where are the orgies? Where is the pharmaceutical cocaine? Not here, that’s for sure. For more information on these topics, see: Hammer of the Gods by Stephen Davis, the grandfather of all-encompassing rock and roll biographies.
As for rock and roll literature, Long train running is closer to David Crosby’s Long time gone, an autobiography published in 1988, then one of the two lustful titles mentioned earlier. Crosby’s book provided a template for similar volumes written by aging rockers over the past 30 years. The story of messy beginnings, struggles, fame, prosperity, crisis and redemption is told in the form of an oral history, with numerous other voices joining in with the author’s.
In theory, this can be spectacular, such as when multiple individuals relate the same incident with multiple contradictions, based on their particular points of view. As the rule goes, “That’s not the” rashomon I remember!” This kind of thing happens in Edie: An American Biography, which told the cautionary tale of Edie Sedgwick (one of Andy Warhol’s “superstars”) and revolutionized biography/autobiography in the early 1980s. In Long train running, not so much. Johnston and Simmons don’t have particularly distinctive voices (as storytellers, that is), which sometimes makes their individual stories sound like the same man is telling the same anecdote, but on different occasions.
Reading Ozzy Osbourne’s book I’m OzzyIt’s like the Prince of Darkness himself sitting next to you on a long plane flight, muttering and rumbling through some really wild stories. And I don’t mean that like it’s a bad thing. That’s why you’re reading the book, to spend some time with the Oz Man. Cowriter Chris Ayres captures Ozzy in all his weird, squeaky, spread-out glory.
Now it should be noted that Johnston and Simmons are not Ozzy Osbourne, Keith Richards (To live), or Patti Smith (just kids), all artists with outrageous personalities and methods of expression. Based on Long train running, the two main Doobies seem, well, just guys. Guys you would like to have a beer with. Or, as they are, maybe some other flammable kind of refreshment.
Okay, so they’re not the hottest people in the world, but both musicians are remarkably self-aware and self-effacing, especially for rock stars. Examples of this: Johnston characterizes his early songwriting efforts as “hippie-dippy,” and Simmons says of a banjo part on “Listen to the Music,” “I just ripped it off my ass.”
And boy, are these guys relentlessly positive. The term “nice guy” is more common than I’m willing to count. Compliments are given generously. Rarely is a discouraging word heard, even in reference to players being fired from the band. Of the fired bassist Dave Shogren, Simmons only says, “He wasn’t the man we needed.”
But I come to praise the Doobies, not to bury them. It’s refreshing to hear that musicians (by name!) recognize the producers, session musicians, backing singers, arrangers, roadies, truck drivers, 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.
Towards the end of the book, Simmons says, “To this day, one of the things I’m most asked about is when we’re on the TV show ‘What’s Happening!!’ appeared. in January 1978.” (Yes, the show’s title featured not one, but two exclamation points.) This unlikely union was the brainchild of David Gest (who later married Liza Minnelli), a PR man who was busy positioning the Doobies as a more “mainstream.” ” to trade.
The episode (a two-part part) was called “Doobie or Not Doobie” and featured the brothers performing four songs live for a nationally televised audience. Despite a goofy premise and dialogue to match (“Which Doobie you be?”), the broadcasts proved to be a boon to the band, raising awareness and boosting record sales. The band members got on well with the young cast and even burned a few with Fred “Rerun” Berry during breaks in the recordings.
The Doobies may have been seen by some (mainly critics) 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, as Simmons explains, the Doobie Brothers were a “Northern California band,” not a bunch of slick LA dudes, although their late-day work might give a casual listener that impression. Their main influence was the band Moby Grape, an innovative San Francisco group whose phenomenal potential was sacrificed on the altar of breathtakingly stupid record label marketing of releasing five singles at once, and making sure none of them would become a hit.
In some ways the Doobies were a more commercial one – not that there’s anything wrong with that! – version of the Grateful Dead. They started playing at Chateau Liberté, a bar that used to be a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop in the woods near Santa Cruz. It was in this rural setting that the Doobies perfected their blend of rock, R&B, country, and bluegrass, a formula similar to Jerry and his kids.
Long train running takes the band through its initial disbandment in 1982, exploring the shift in musical direction when vocalist/keyboardist Michael McDonald joined in 1975, generating a shift towards a Steely-Danish sound, attracting new listeners but alienating some fans of the Doobies’ earlier , more rocking stuff. This dividing line serves the book well, as the Doobie history of the last days is good, kinda…meh.
Some members of the Doobies got back together for a tour in 1987, and the band has been out and about with a varying cast of characters (aside from Johnston and Simmons) ever since. But that era of the band’s existence was more about commerce than art. Still, a classic rock aficionado 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 most of the similar alternatives that will be heard this summer in pavilions, amphitheatres, and barns across the country. REO Speed Wagon? Loverboy? Styx? Puh-leez!