I n a spacious suite high above the Las Vegas Strip, Michael McDonald extends his left arm, wiggles his fingers, and glides his arm to his right side. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was getting ready for some air piano. But no — he’s actually recalling the day of the floating vomit.
The Seventies were winding down, but no one had told the Doobie Brothers. By 1978, they’d had enough big songs to fill one greatest-hits album already, from choogling rockers like “Long Train Runnin’” and “China Grove” to soul-rooted, McDonald-sung hits like “Takin’ It to the Streets.” Along with gold and platinum records, keys to a city, and the usual on-the-road indulgences, they were also rewarded with their own private plane.
The DoobieLiner wasn’t quite the type of luxurious jet used to fly around Led Zeppelin and Elton John to their shows, but the Martin 404, once used by Eastern Airlines, had coffee tables, reclining chairs, and random copies of Newsweek and Sixteen magazines strewn about; the Doobie logo was painted on its tail. (The Doobie stagehands flew on their own, separate plane, dubbed the CrewbieLiner.) Even better, no one bothered the band members when they were boarding or on board. “You could smoke weed on the plane,” says singer, guitarist, and co-founder Patrick Simmons. “Nobody cared. We had a full bar and drinks and chicks. It was a party in the air, pretty much continuously.” One day, one of the band members even got to fly the DoobieLiner while the pilot watched, and somehow everyone survived.
For their eighth studio album, Minute by Minute, someone had the idea of shooting the band aboard the DoobieLiner — in simulated zero-gravity conditions. Their regular pilot, Sam Stewart, took the plane to 12,000 feet, then nosedived straight down and pulled up again. Even though they’d practiced the process a bunch of times, the Doobies started getting nauseous as they began floating, and McDonald found himself staring at someone’s puke as it wafted by. “There’s nothing worse than someone hurling while there’s zero gravity,” he says. “You’re watching the vomit quiver in midair. Then the gravity goes back into play and it lands on someone.”
Dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt, his trademark beard white and his mane white and swept-back, McDonald recounts this tale with a bemused smile. The photo did wind up on the back of the album, but what about the upchuck? “That’s not in the picture,” he adds.
Roughly half a century after they began, the Doobie Brothers are the embodiment of classic-rock respectability. At the time of this conversation with McDonald — the pre-pandemic America of early 2020 — they are in the midst of their first-ever Vegas residency, at the glitzy Venetian Resort. Although McDonald has not been in the band since the early Eighties, he has flown into town to help them prepare for a planned 50th anniversary tour in which he’ll participate. The group is also enjoying the fact that they’ve been voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with a ceremony set to take place in Cleveland just before that summer tour.
The Doobies and McDonald were once something of a punchline in rock: Remember the classic SCTV skit in which “McDonald” races in and out of a studio while singing his part on Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind”? Now, though, the Doobies are having the final chuckle. They have been the subject of a tribute album featuring marquee country artists like Brad Paisley and Blake Shelton; hip-hop acts from the late J Dilla to Meek Mill and Drake have sampled them. Earlier this year, Bernie Sanders rallies would sometimes end with “Takin’ It to the Streets” roaring from speakers. For a band that feels it didn’t even get respect from its record company in the old days (“the rest of us were playing second fiddle to Captain Beefheart,” says founding drummer John Hartman), the recognition is long overdue. To paraphrase one of their album titles: What were once vices are now honors.
But the saga of the Doobies isn’t merely about fame and hit records. Over the course of the Seventies, the Doobies transformed from long-haired biker rockers to shag-cut pop stars — a makeover that doubles as a metaphor for the ways rock was tamed by the end of that decade. After McDonald took over as their most prominent voice, their new style — lightly syncopated rhythms and smooth, high-thread-count production and harmonies — became the definitive example of what’s now known as yacht rock, encompassing everyone from the Doobies and Steely Dan to suave crooners like Boz Scaggs and Kenny Loggins. Given the robust, guitar-driven hits that established them, the Doobies were never 100 percent yacht. But like it or not, they’re now semi-ironically appreciated as pioneers in a cottage industry that spans a YouTube parody series and a satellite-radio channel.
The mellow rock scene of the Seventies was rarely as tranquil as the tunes: James Taylor and Walter Becker grappled with heroin addiction, Loggins lost himself in a tequila bottle, and Dan Peek of America — those “Ventura Highway” and “Sister Golden Hair” guys — partied so hard that he was thrown out of the band.
But in the air or on the ground, little in the world of yacht-rock matches the turbulence of the Doobie Brothers’ story. As unlikely as it may seem for a band that’s given us the smooth white-guy R&B of “What a Fool Believes” and the lazy-day folk-blues singalong “Black Water,” their saga encompasses Hells Angels, explosive devices, and a degree of debauchery more often associated with louder and heavier bands of the time. Their emphasis on note-perfect record-making, a yacht-rock prerequisite, drove each other to the edge of madness. “It’s so funny to get super-high on cocaine and make music like the Doobie Brothers,” says Nicholas Niespodziani, lead singer of the Yacht Rock Revue, a touring genre tribute band that includes more than a few Doobie songs in their repertoire. “It doesn’t quite compute for me. It’s the chillest music to the least chill drug. They were innocuous on the surface, but pretty rock & roll in real life.”
Anyone who comes upon a vinyl copy of the Doobies’ 1972 album Toulouse Street, home to their breakthrough hit “Listen to the Music,” may be surprised to see what’s on the inside spread: a group photo recreating a New Orleans bordello, complete with naked band members (one covering up his own personal doobie with a hat) and at least one topless woman. “I think the photographer lit up a couple of joints and we had some booze,” Simmons says with a fond and only slightly embarrassed smile when he’s shown the photo. “I couldn’t see that the girl had her top off. By then we were so stoned and at half-mast that we thought the photo was funny or whatever.”
Told that the photo is still somewhat shocking all these decades later, co-founder and guitarist Tom Johnston is surprised. “Really?” he says with a chuckle. “Of all the other stuff we were doing, that was tame.”
In his own hotel suite in Vegas, Simmons is thinking back to his pre-Doobies band. “We were actually called the Pigfuckers,” he says. “But we couldn’t say that, so we were called Scratch.”
At 71, Simmons looks like a well-preserved version of his younger self: Long, stringy hair still glides down past his shoulders, and three silver earrings dangle off each ear. He’s always had the reputation as the most laid-back, easy-going Doobie, but his colorful history is never far away. Simmons remains a motorcycle fanatic — his laptop contains photos of the restored models at his home in Hawaii, which he happily shows off — and draped over a chair in his suite is a Harley Davidson jacket.
Since at least the time the Doobies formed in San Jose circa 1970, the city has been home to a chapter of the Hells Angels. Simmons, who did and still does exude a hippie-troubadour vibe, had enrolled in San Jose State to escape the draft. There, he met Johnston, a self-described “redneck from Central Valley” in California. Simmons and future Doobies bassist Tiran Porter played in a folkish trio in the San Jose area; Johnston was sharing a house in town with Hartman, who had moved there from the East Coast. Everyone remembers the volume on Johnston’s guitar. “When Johnston turned on, it was loud,” Hartman says. “Pretty soon the cops came and said, ‘You gotta stop.’ So we toned it down.” At least until the second jam: “Still too loud. The cops were called. They came back a second time: ‘Oh, crap.’”
In search of players who could fulfill their version of a band honoring their heroes Moby Grape — known for both bristling guitars and vocal harmonies — Johnston and Hartman, who looked a bit like hardened bikers themselves, began cajoling Simmons. Hartman recalls Simmons as being unsure of joining their tough-looking band. “Simmons was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think so,’” he recalls. But after jamming with them at their house, Simmons realized that Johnston wanted more than just a typical heavy rock band, and he was in.
Johnston and Hartman had called their band Pud (“a lot of people think it has the other [sexual] connotation, but it was after a cartoon character,” clarifies Johnston), but they needed a new name for an upcoming gig with Simmons in tow. As they were tossing around other options, one of their housemates wandered in, saw them toking up, and suggested that they should call themselves the Doobie Brothers, since they smoked so much pot. “We said, ‘That’s a stupid name, but we’ll use it because we don’t have one,’” recalls Johnston. “It was probably the only time we were gonna use it.” Adds Simmons: “It was dumb, but it was cool in a way. We did smoke a lot of pot.”
The name stuck, and the unseasoned but hungry band took whatever gigs they could find, including pizza parlors. Little, however, matched the Chateau Liberté, a former stagecoach stop in the Santa Cruz mountains that was home to a raucous bar that attracted hippies and bikers alike. As the early version of the Doobies worked out their songs and sound, Angels prowled and the customers partied and hooked up. “It was a meat market for sure,” says Simmons. “There was no attempt to disguise love connections, if you know what I mean. There was a lot of hugging and grabbing and making out. A lot of screwing too, but out in the parking lot in the cars.” Recalls Hartman, “It was one of those places where you over-drink and step outside and throw up. It was beautiful, man!”
Before long, the Angels became part of the Doobies’ world. Johnston remembers the day a couple of them drove through the front door of his rented house with Hartman, parked in the living room, and asked the sleeping Doobies if they wanted to go play baseball — right then and there. “I don’t know how I talked my way out of that,” Johnston says.
Image aside, the Doobies had a surprisingly accessible sound. The combination of Johnston’s power chords and Simmons’ fingerpicking made for an unusual blend, as did their sandpaper-and-honey vocal amalgam. On the basis of a demo tape and aided by a friendship with Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape member Skip Spence, Warner Brothers signed them. “Tommy had a song called ‘Nobody,’ and I kept listening to it,” says producer Ted Templeman. “I thought, “Damn, I like this.’ And they had the most beautiful background vocals in the world.”
While working on the first Doobies album, Templeman, then a new producer working alongside the more experienced Lenny Waronker, was introduced to the other, rowdier side of the band. He recalls Johnston showing up with a biker chain hanging off his pants, and Hells Angels swigging Jack Daniels in the control room. One day, Hartman pulled out a gun, unnerving the producers. “It was a gag — a starter pistol,” says Hartman, who claims he was put up to the joke by their manager. “It scared the shit out of them so bad. I had no idea they were so sensitive or fragile. I can’t tell you how many times I apologized.” Templeman laughs it off now, but adds, “It didn’t make it any easier. There were lots of guns on that scene.”
The Doobie Brothers, their 1971 debut, was not a success; Hartman feels the label practically sabotaged its chances by choosing a cover photo that placed the drummer, who looked the most like an Angel at the time, front and center. Yet the record laid the foundation for their sound, which they cemented on the following year’s Toulouse Street. Johnston had written “Listen to the Music,” his response to the turmoil of the time. “It was influenced by the idea that music could be a language unto itself and for the leaders of the world, if you will,” he says. “From the Vietnam War to the Soviet Union to girlfriends or people in the hills, I thought if they used music instead of talking, they’d be a hell of a lot better off.”
With its mountain-stream-clear sound, the song cracked the Top 20, and with it, the Doobies suddenly roared out of the gate. With Johnston’s burly, Hungry-Man meal voice and songwriting very much at the helm, their streak continued with “Long Train Runnin’” and “China Grove” — indefatigable arena-rock singles that prompted the generally critical Pete Townshend to remark, “Their songs seem to just pop out of the radio speakers and grab at you.” The Doobies also began expanding their sonic palette, using synths on the joyful “Natural Thing” and bringing in a horn section and Arlo Guthrie for 1974’s expansive What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits. Simmons, who played James Taylor songs during his pre-Doobies club days, explored his own balladeer side on tracks like “I Cheat the Hangman.”
In 1974, they were almost derailed when DJs reportedly turned a cold shoulder to one line (“and the radio just seems to bring me down”) in their single “Another Park, Another Sunday,” which stalled on the charts. Johnston is still irked: “I thought that was really lame. I thought, ‘You’re gonna jerk it for that?’ It was about a guy who heard a song that was bringing him down when he lost the love of his life.” Luckily for the band, a DJ in Virginia, home to the Blackwater tributary, liked the flip side — Simmons’ New Orleans-inspired acoustic stomper, “Black Water” — and the song became their first Number One. Along with the Eagles, the Doobies were arguably the biggest rock band in America by then; their Best of the Doobies album would go on to sell 10 million copies.
To maintain that momentum, the band was kept on the road ceaselessly, and they let off steam in every Seventies rock & roll way imaginable. Johnston recalls driving a go-kart into a pool. A crew member who handled their pyro would construct home-made hand grenades out of flash powder and toss them out the windows of rental cars, blowing hubcaps off any vehicle near them. Templeman recalls watching as band members would crush up and snort what he calls “diet pills.”
In their hotel rooms, they’d remove the stuffing from mattresses, or cut lamps in half and put them back together. “I remember putting a TV on the longest extension cord and watching Johnny Carson’s face as it plunged down toward the swimming pool,” says Porter, who was out of work after Simmons joined the band but finally became a Doobie before Toulouse Street.
Taking advantage of their clout, they issued one backstage rider that demanded “six kinds of cheese, six kind of nuts, a carved turkey, German beer [and] German pastries.” One promoter noted that the Doobies were “the only group to take food and booze back to their hotel.” When the first DoobieLiner caught fire during a fuel pit stop in 1974, their fellow yacht rockers Seals & Crofts lent them their plane before the second DoobieLiner — the one that wound up as the setting for the Minute by Minute cover —was leased.
Yet starting about a year after “Listen to the Music” made them rock stars, the Doobies were in peril of unraveling. Johnston says he had ulcer issues since he was a teenager, and never-ending touring, crappy road food, and what he calls “a bad combination of no sleep and crazy, wild times” began to hobble him. His stomach a wreck, Johnston began to force himself to get through shows: At one gig in Arizona, he recalls, “You’d be playing and turn around and puke into a bucket and then turn around and keep playing.” Johnston’s condition forced the band to bail on a bunch of shows, with the band attributing the cancelations to “ill health” or, in one case, a pancreas infection.
Rumors began circulating that drugs played a major role in Johnston’s issues, which were only exacerbated when he and a friend were busted for heroin and weed near his hometown of Visalia, California, in late 1973. Asked if hard drugs were an issue, Johnston pauses. “A lot of drugs were a problem,” he says. “Booze too. All of it … Everybody partied to an extent. So whatever your weapon of choice was, it almost didn’t matter.” Templeman recalls visiting a very sick Johnston at home, but insists the frontman was never strung out. Whatever the issue was — and Hartman, for one, says he never received a straight answer — Johnston’s deteriorating condition was rattling. “There’s your career and life going down the drain,” says Hartman. “You got a front guy who’s faltering.”
In Shreveport, Louisiana, in the spring of 1975 — five shows into a tour to promote their fifth album, Stampede — the tumult caught up with them. Before their gig, Johnston again fell ill and was rushed to a hospital, leaving the band in the lurch. “He was in no shape to play… Ulcer is the main excuse,” says Porter. “I’m sure it had something to do with some of it.”
Johnston ended up in a hospital in Los Angeles, where he nearly died — his heart stopped temporarily — and was then forced to sit out the entire tour. “It was getting bad out there, but I didn’t know how bad,” Johnston says. “I didn’t have any control over it. I was major-league bummed that I had to come off the tour. I felt like I was screwing the band over.” Meanwhile, Simmons, now the de facto band leader, freaked. “When he didn’t come back, it was like, ‘Oh, shit, now what?’” Simmons says, still sounding dazed and confused 45 years later. “I was panicked.”
Fearing lawsuits over a cancelled tour, the Doobies scrambled. By then, they had expanded to include several new members, including drummer Keith Knudsen and guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, the walrus-mustached player who had logged time with Steely Dan. Baxter had an idea: A singer and keyboard player he knew from those days was out of work now that Steely Dan had abruptly ceased touring, and he could probably fill in, at least temporarily.
All these years later, McDonald still looks like the last thing from a Doobie Brother. Simmons and the swarthy, mustached Johnston still exude an aura of reformed sinners, but in his hotel room, McDonald looks more like a distinguished professor on vacation.
Even in 1975, he stood apart from them: a kid from Missouri who had played in bands there before moving to L.A. in 1970, where his keyboard chops quickly made him part of the studio musician scene. One of his clients was David Cassidy, then the TV heartthrob of The Partridge Family, and pretty much the Doobies’ polar opposite.
In at least one way, McDonald was a born Doobie. In the druggy L.A. studios of the time, he realized, “If you were the guy who had a gram in your pocket, you were golden.” Using leftover per-diem money from road work, he’d buy coke and sell it to his friends. “Pretty penny-ante stuff,” he recalls. “Anything to pay the bills. That never worked out. I only wound up snorting it all.” In 1971, when he was 19, he was busted for dealing and, miraculously, says he had his sentence reduced to a misdemeanor. As he says now, “I wasn’t making the best choices in my life at that time.”
When Baxter left a message for him, McDonald was singing Top 40 covers (including Doobies songs) at the Trojan Room lounge in Glendale, California, living in in a garage apartment with a hot plate. With zero hesitation, McDonald flew to Louisiana, where he met the other Doobies for the first time and rehearsed with them for all of two days. He was so new to the big-time rock world that when he and his father drove together to the arena for that first show, McDonald didn’t realize there was special backstage access. They tried to enter by way of the main entrance, and it took them 20 minutes to find the right VIP door.
Singing a few of Johnston’s songs onstage — and adding the first-ever piano parts to the band’s live sound — McDonald helped the band get through the remainder of their tour. (Simmons taped a pick to his thumb so he could slam chords as hard as Johnston had.) He assumed the gig was temporary, but with Johnston not fully recovered, the Doobies were desperate for songs when they began making their next album. McDonald had already written a few, including “Takin’ It to the Streets,” inspired by his sister’s high-school thesis on inner-city social strata in America. “I was talking to her about it,” he recalls, “and remember saying at one point, people are going to take to the streets, and that’s how change will come about.”
Simmons had considered folding the band when Johnston was sidelined. The other members insisted on keeping going, and Simmons suggested that Templeman listen to a few songs by their keyboard player. The producer was worried about injecting a new voice into their established sound. But then Simmons told McDonald to play some of his songs for Templeman. “I was standing behind Mike, and Pat remembers me mouthing, ‘Oh my God,’” Templeman recalls.
Johnston did end up contributing a bit to the finished album, but starting with its title cut, 1976’s Takin’ It to the Streets was a showcase for McDonald, his husky voice, and the keyboard-based R&B melodies he was writing. No one knew if it would work, but as with Fleetwood Mac around the same time, the infusion of a brand-new lead singer into an established band clicked: “Takin’ It to the Streets” was a hit, and the Doobies’ unlikely second coming began.
Despite their smoother sound, more rooted in R&B and pop than Johnston’s blues and boogie, the Doobies’ road life hardly calmed down. As part of an onstage stunt, they invited along a gaggle of little people, who turned out to be even bigger partiers than the band. “We thought we were party fools,” says McDonald. “Those guys, we couldn’t hardly keep up with them. They were trouble.”
One night, McDonald, Porter, Knudsen, and writer Cameron Crowe accepted an invite to party at a fan’s house after a show. “I don’t remember the end of that evening,” McDonald confesses. “I remember we drank quite a bit.” If that scene sounds like something out of Almost Famous, it is: Crowe admits it was the inspiration behind a similar sequence in the movie. (The “I am a golden god” segment is pure Led Zep, though.) When they would invariably stumble back aboard the DoobleLiner, Donna, their regular flight attendant and wife of pilot Sam, would hand out packets of vitamins to bolster their energy. Sighs McDonald, “It was probably the one healthy thing I was doing out there on the road.”
During this time, Johnston was a fleeting presence in the band, and when it came time to making their next album, 1977’s Livin’ on the Fault Line, his disillusionment with their artistic makeover was emerging. “I decided I didn’t fit with what was going on,” says Johnston, who pulled a few songs he had submitted for the album and quit the band. “Tom didn’t feel like it was something he wanted to be part of,” says Simmons. “It could have been if he had given it an opportunity. But he was feeling outside of it. I don’t know if he was resentful. I can only imagine there was some kind of rub there.” Johnston retreated to northern California, where he laid low and regained his health (“I just went home and started playing softball and gaining weight”) until a few years later, when he returned with a solo album tellingly titled Everything You’ve Heard Is True.
In search of new songwriting partners, McDonald hooked up with Kenny Loggins. While Loggins didn’t know Johnston well, he sensed the feeling around the band at the time: “Tommy felt the Doobies was his band,” he says. “It was his sound, which was different from Michael’s. It would be Lennon resenting McCartney or vice versa — two radically different personalities.”
One day at McDonald’s house, McDonald and Loggins wrote “What a Fool Believes.” With its boppy keyboard and lyrics from two different viewpoints — a man who wants to believe in the future of a relationship and a woman who doesn’t — it was the pop crossover smash that had eluded the band. The song hit Number One, and the accompanying album, Minute by Minute went on to move 3 million copies (despite McDonald himself, in a sign of his shaky confidence at the time, agreeing with a friend back then that the LP was “the biggest piece of shit I ever heard”). Aretha Franklin covered “What a Fool Believes.” The song and album solidified their retooled sound and McDonald’s role as their new frontman and unexpected sex symbol. “I’ve always thought you were the cutest, foxiest and the most iresistable [sic] one!,” read one fan letter of the time. “If you get a haircut, could you give me a lock of it?” (“That was all publicist-managed stuff,” McDonald says now when told that their publicist shared those letters with Rolling Stone back in 1979.)
To Porter’s relief, the Doobies’ new sound led to something he’d never seen at Doobies shows before: more black fans in the seats. “They were going, ‘Hey, who’s this white guy who sounds black?’” he says. “A lot more of my people started showing up. I was like, ‘Yeah!”” Rod Stewart, who had barely socialized with the band when they opened for him and the Faces a few years before, was now spotted by the side of the stage, attentively watching McDonald sing.
Around this time, their new publicist — David Gest, later known as Liza Minnelli’s husband and manager — landed them speaking roles in an episode of What’s Happening!!, a hot sitcom centered around black teens living in Watts. In the episode, Rerun (played by Fred Berry) is coerced into bootlegging a Doobies show, and the band finds out and confronts him. Simmons and McDonald liked the idea; Porter, who is black, hated it. “I went on strike,” he says. “I didn’t want to go on a show about black people written by white people.” But the band wound up taping the show anyway, and to this day, people come up to them and ask, “Which Doobie you be?,” a line from the show. “David brought a lot of attention to the band from the strangest angles,” says McDonald. “And so much of the time, we’d sit and go, ‘You’re crazy — no one wants to do that.’”
Paradoxically, the Doobies saga grew more dramatic even as their music became silkier. McDonald was riddled with insecurities about his new role in the band and whether he could deliver. He drove the band crazy, making them cut “What a Fool Believes” in the studio more than 30 times before a final version was pieced together. “I was like, ‘I hate this fucking song,’” he recalls. “The band was completely disgusted by that point.” (Hartman agrees: “After 10 takes, you’re pretty much wiped out. There was an expectation that I don’t think was humanly possible.”) McDonald doesn’t deny his studio fastidiousness. “At times I became an asshole, because my basic fear was that I didn’t have what it took to do what people expected I could do for the band,” he says. “That was always my biggest fear, that what we were doing was not befitting a band like the Doobies.”
Meanwhile, McDonald and Baxter were proving to be combustible — in part because the guitarist tended toward flashier, more intricate solos and more conservative political views than the other band members — and after a tense Japanese tour, both Baxter and Hartman quit. “Everything was falling apart,” says Hartman. “I remember sitting in a rehearsal in California and hearing Michael say he didn’t want to get out his car because of some anxiety.”
To deal with a troubled marriage, Porter plunged into heavy cocaine use, which also helped him cope with what he felt was the band’s increasingly uninspiring music. “Simmons always used to accuse me of overplaying,” he says. “I’m playing like that because I’m bored!” Porter recalls the time when AC/DC opened for the Doobies in Florida. “Pat said, ‘They’re too loud,’” Porter recalls. “And I said, ‘I can remember when we were that loud, dude!’”
One can only imagine what was going through Johnston’s head at the time, especially when his solo career didn’t make the same impact as his work with the Doobies. In an interview in 1979, he said, “When I hear the name the Doobie Brothers and the music they’re playing, I shudder.” Asked about that quote now, Johnston demurs. “I don’t remember saying that,” he says. “I’m sure part of me was envious that they were having so much success.”
By the time the band made 1980’s One Step Closer, the Doobie personnel had reshuffled yet again. Three new members were aboard, including guitarist John McFee, who’d played on Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True. Decades later, the Yacht Rock Revue’s Niespodziani watched a performance from around this time and marveled at the changes. “I haven’t seen a band with so many people in and out so fast,” he says. “They’re slaying it. The band sounds incredible. But I’m looking around like, ‘How long has this guy or that guy been in the band?’”
Thrust into a wobbly but hugely popular band (“What a Fool Believes” won the Record of the Year Grammy), McFee found himself almost being choked onstage when an overzealous female fan grabbed his tie. Drummer Knudsen rushed over to untangle it and save him, but things weren’t any calmer in the studio. Drinking and partying had left McDonald a mess. “That was the album with ‘Real Love’?” he asks, sounding as if One Step Closer and its lone hit were indeed a blur. “I was not in very good shape during that whole album.”
McFee still sighs about that era when it comes up backstage at the Doobies’ Vegas show. “We just did the best we could,” says the guitarist, who says he refrained from illicit substances during the making of One Step Closer. “In retrospect, knowing what some of the guys were up to in terms of drug intake and stuff like that, there were things that probably hampered the process somewhat.”
Suddenly, the Doobie yacht was rudderless. Simmons, the lone original member left, lopped off his hair for a new-wavy look after his long hair kept getting tangled up in his motorcycle spokes, and he easily made the shift to more R&B-oriented material on later-period tracks like “Dependin’ on You” and “Echoes of Love.” But now that the band had relocated to Los Angeles, Simmons felt more distanced than ever from the other Doobies. “It was starting to feel like I’m not as much a part of this thing anymore,” he recalls, “and it’s turning into another kind of entity.” McDonald says Simmons called him to say he was leaving; Simmons feels it was McDonald who rang him. Whatever the case, the decision was made — to the shock of some of the other members — to fold the Doobies, not long after their long-sought Grammy moment. McDonald had already begun plotting a solo career. Plans for a new album, possibly with Robert John “Mutt” Lange producing, were tossed overboard.
The Doobies embarked on a farewell tour in the summer of 1982, but before it took place, the band went along with another of David Gest’s schemes. “Night of 100 Stars,” a $1000-a-seat benefit at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, found them on the same stage as actors and entertainers of the previous generation: George Burns, Bette Davis, William Shatner, Ginger Rogers, Gregory Peck, Gene Kelly. Again, the band gamely went along with the idea, but Simmons didn’t participate, and McDonald sensed an era had ended. “I knew this was no longer the Doobie Brothers,” McDonald recalls. “And I said, ‘Guys, we all kind of know what I’m about to say — we’re not the Doobies anymore. We’re the guys who are left.’”
Backstage, someone told McDonald that Elizabeth Taylor and Lauren Bacall would like to speak with him. McDonald was thrilled: Could these legendary actress know who the Doobies were? When McDonald was brought over to them, Taylor motioned to him. “They both giggled and Elizabeth Taylor said, ‘Do you know where we could get some alcohol?’” McDonald recalls. “They weren’t allowing any alcohol backstage. I said, ‘Gosh, I don’t have any but I’ll ask around.’ They figured we must have something in our dressing room.”
The bashed-up rental cars and motel pools of their Seventies heyday are gone, along with the DoobieLiner, which was long ago sold for parts. The Venetian Resort, which looms like a fluorescent monolith over part of the Vegas strip, features a gold-plated entrance with cathedral-high ceilings and a man-made canal with gondola rides. It’s a long way from the funky wood cabins of the Chateau Liberté, and McDonald, for one, is fine with that. “Thank God for casinos,” he says, settling into a plush chair in his room. “Our demographic started going to casinos. Back then it was, ‘No way — I’m not gonna play on some fucking cruise ship!’ But here we are.”
In the late Eighties, after some of their solo careers petered out, the pre-McDonald lineup reunited and returned to their louder, amps-cranked roots. Simmons even grew out his hair again. “It’s a pain in the ass when you have short hair, because I pretty much have to cut it every couple of weeks in order to look halfway decent,” he says. “You gotta comb it and stuff. This is so much easier, not having to think about it.” They’ve since made a few new albums: The most recent LP of originals, 2010’s World Gone Crazy, tried to update their sound with drum loops and other effects. They’ve also toured pretty much nonstop, despite both Hartman and Porter once again bailing after a few years. (“Same shit, different decade,” Porter says of the road grind.) Along the way, a number of founding or later members — bassist David Shogren, drummers Knudsen and Michael Hossack, keyboardist Cornelius Bumpus, and percussionist Bobby LaKind — have died; in the Nineties, Bumpus, Shogren, and drummer Chet McCracken went on the road as “the Original Doobie Brothers” (and other variations) before the actual band shut them down.
Once the current Doobies wrapped up their Vegas residency this year, plans called for them and McDonald to begin rehearsals for the reunion tour, and in February, McDonald has made a quick pit stop into Vegas, on his way to a gig in Florida. He wants to meet up with the Doobies’ touring keyboardist, Bill Payne, to figure out which parts each man will play onstage. The thought of McDonald and Johnston sharing the stage for the first tour since 1976 has created some industry buzz, and fans like Niespodziani are psyched: “This incarnation will be the closest thing to a full-career show.” The tour also has the potential to be unusually profitable: With McDonald in tow, the group can look forward to commanding $300,000 a night, up from $100,000, according to one promoter working with them.
But no sooner has McDonald landed in Vegas than some of the old Doobie chaos returns. The current touring lineup of Johnston, Simmons, and McFee, backed by their latest supporting players, is one week into its Venetian residency when Johnston is suddenly taken ill. This time, instead of puking, he’s dogged by a dry cough, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Rolling Stone is the first to break the news to McDonald. “No, what happened?” he says, taken aback. “I didn’t know. I hope he’s okay.”
The illness is so serious that the band winds up canceling the rest of its Vegas run (and all of Johnston’s interview time), and returning to their homes in California and Hawaii. Johnston’s symptoms sounded similar to those for the coronavirus, and Johnston now says he may well have had Covid-19, although he wasn’t tested at the time. “Nobody was even talking out testing at that point in February,” he says, months later. “So it could have been [Covid]. We’ll never know.” He says a few Doobie crew members may have also contracted the virus in Vegas.
By the time we speak again, the Doobies’ 50th anniversary schedule has been shut down, along with nearly all other live music in 2020. Plans for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction had called for some of the band’s past members, including Porter, Hartman, and Baxter, to attend, and an onstage reunion performance wasn’t out of the question; now those plans are off, too, with the ceremony replaced by a virtual event in the fall (it ended up airing on HBO on November 7th). Even an EP of new songs the band had worked on with producer John Shanks — which included Johnston’s big-rock “American Dream” and Simmons’ folksier “Cyclone” — has been delayed from its planned release in time with the tour. On top of it all, the band filed what seemed like a partly humorous lawsuit against Bill Murray for allegedly not getting their okay to use “Listen to the Music” in ads for his golf apparel company.
As the lockdown dragged on, the band opted for filmed online performances from their separate homes, and in fact, they’ve just made the first one of those with McDonald, playing “Takin’ It to the Streets” and the Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway,” whose message (“March each and every day/Made up my mind and I won’t turn around”) could easily apply to the protests of today.
McDonald acknowledges that some older Doobie fans are probably much more conservative-leaning than the members of the band. “We’ve talked about that,” he says in October. “A lot of our fans are the older biker crowd, and some of them may be Trumpsters — even though it seems to be not be in their best interest whatsoever, in terms of the potential impact on their life. But the whole point of musicians using their platform is to tell the truth. If art isn’t about the truth, what good is it?”
One issue on which the Doobies themselves are more divided: the yacht rock question. Porter feels the term is “pretty dismissive.” Simmons, who rarely flashes even a semblance of annoyance, is noticeably irked when it comes up. “It’s a little bit of a lightweight perception,” he scoffs. “I don’t know anyone who has yachts. Mike doesn’t. I don’t think Donald Fagen has a yacht. It’s kind of embarrassing even to be included in that. It’s a demeaning concept.”
Informed of the term for the first time, Hartman — who has largely been out of the business since the Nineties — erupts with laughter when it’s explained to him. “Oh my God, that’s perfect!” he roars. “I’ll be laughing for the next three weeks!”
In his room, McDonald grins when the phrase is brought up and says he’s even seen the “Yacht Rock” YouTube parody series that helped launch the revival of interest in the genre. “It’s funny as hell,” he says. “It’s fun to make fun of yourself. My kids couldn’t wait to show me that Internet episodic thing, and we all got a chuckle out of it. It was very funny. But the fact that it became a genre of music was a surprise, even to me.”
Realizing it’s time to meet with Payne, McDonald jams a Billabong cap on his head, heads out, and weaves his way through the Venetian Resort. In the crowded pre-virus casino, no one — especially those plopped down groggily in front of the slot machines — recognizes him. During his entire walk, and even outside the hotel, he’s stalked by yacht rock on the PA: songs like Firefall’s “You Are the Woman” and Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life.”
McDonald flashes one of his what-can-you-do? grins. “There you go,” he says.