For Michael McDonald, the last fifteen years have been spent in a state of full-tilt vertigo, groping his way through a blur of unmemorable bands with names like Jerry Jay and the Sheratons, the Del-Rays and Blue. Not to mention session work with the likes of David Cassidy and Jack Jones. And then there was his shuddersome solo career in the early Seventies with RCA Records, which resulted in an insipid single called “God Knows I Love My Baby” and an album that the label deemed unfit for release.
Since graduating in 1975 from a Steely Dan sideman to a dramatic, revitalizing force for the Doobie Brothers, McDonald has become the toast of the L.A. music scene—a curious community where songwriters compete with die governor of California for clout and media coverage and often win. Hell, last night McDonald threw a big bash for elder statesman (and personal hero) Burt Bacharach, and two nights from now he’ll share the spotlight with Jerry Brown at a memorial concert in the L.A. Forum for the late Lowell George.
As the hit songwriter, keyboard player and sex symbol in the Doobie Brothers, the soft-spoken twenty-seven-year-old with the piercing eyes and coal-cellar singing voice is currently at the top of his game. A string of his compositions—”Takin’ It to the Streets,” “What a Fool Believes” (cowritten with Kenny Loggins) and “Minute by Minute” (cowritten with Lester Abrams)—has given the ten-year-old band a new lease on the pop life. And McDonald’s songs have also provided commercial boosts for such artists as Carly Simon, who scored hits in 1976 and 1978 with “It Keeps You Runnin'” and their infectious collaboration, “You Belong to Me.”
Heady stuff for the son of a St. Louis bus driver, but Michael carries himself with a calmness and a humility uncharacteristic of a front-runner. And he’s the first one to admit that, from the start, he had no idea what he was getting into.
“My first rock band was called Mike and the Majestics,” he remembers with a shy grin as he sits hunched over on a plush couch in an L.A. office, just down the road from his spacious brick home that overlooks the San Fernando Valley. “I was about twelve and my older sister Kathy was the manager. There were three of us, me and a friend on guitars and a drummer. We were young but we played for a lot of fraternity parties, plugging both guitars and a microphone into one little amplifier. The parties were really crazy — those college kids weren’t slouches — and I remember one night especially well. We must have been doing this repetitious nonsense song called ‘Hot Pastrami’ for at least an hour, and some guy on metal crutches came up, a little drunk, and he goes, ‘Let me sing, let me sing!’ We were loud more than talented, and I could barely make out what he was saying, so I said, ‘Sure, come on up . . . if you can.’ I mean there was beer everywhere, and chicks in their underwear were dancing in the food.
“So this kid came up, and he was singing the dirty words to ‘Hot Pastrami’ — stuff like ‘Hot 69! Yeah!’ — and then I heard this rumble, and I was afraid to look. This guy had shocked himself by standing in a pool of beer with metal crutches while holding onto the microphone, and now he was laying on the floor. Every time he tried to get back up, he got shocked and fell back down. It was a sick sight, but there was definitely some humor there.
Anyway, my father came down to pick us up, and when he saw the party he went nuts. The place was a riot. People were under the table humping, this girl was on top of the table dancing in her underwear. . . . My father helped us to pack up right away. By that time I had made up my mind that rock & roll was where it was at, but all my father kept saying was, ‘This isn’t what life’s like! Life isn’t like this!’“
You wouldn’t have believed the Doobie scene in the early days,” says lanky lead guitarist Patrick Simmons, who had met the original members of the group — guitarist Tom Johnston, drummer John Hartman and bassist Dave Shogren—while he was playing in a country-folk trio with future Doobies bass player Tiran Porter. Hartman and Johnston were coarse biker types who had been in a power-rock unit called Pud, while Simmons was a self-described “flower-power-type hippie” with a lot of time on his hands. Hitting it off immediately, the unlikely trio and their associates began jamming in a seedy house on Twelfth Street in San Jose.
“We had an image of ourselves as tough guys,” Simmons recalls fondly, and that notion was greatly enhanced by the frequent presence around the Twelfth Street house of Phil Cross, Gypsy Jack and various other members of the San Jose chapter of the Hells Angels.
“They used to ride their bikes up the steps and in through the front door, bombed outta their minds and swinging whips,” says the darkly handsome Tom Johnston, 30. “They’d park in the living room; it was standard procedure.” The Doobies soon gained a reputation in the area as an “Angels band.” Johnston went so far as to ride with the motorcycle gang, and in 1969 he and Hartman had some colors (insignia jackets) made.
“There was a big fight among the Angels over our colors,” says Johnston gravely. “Most of them didn’t give a damn, but there were three guys who didn’t like it. A friend of mine had a slight argument with those other Angels and put ’em all in the hospital.”
The group further augmented its biker following when it became the house band in the Chateau Liberte, a rowdy saloon in the Santa Cruz mountains where the police rarely patrolled — for some reason.
“There would always be a contingent of Angels at the club,” Simmons recollects. “They’d bring their bikes up, sit outside and listen to the music, trying to pick up some chicks.” In time, the Angels ventured indoors, and the Chateau’s already turbulent atmosphere intensified.
“It was a general rule that a fight would break out,” says Simmons, 30, with a broad grin, adding that the most memorable nights featured “everything you can imagine. You name it—fucking in the middle of the floor, guys beating the shit out of each other in the corner, guys just laid out everywhere with these big he-mamas giving them head. It was outrageous, it was great!”
As far as the band’s own physical well-being was concerned, Johnston insists that the only real trouble at the Chateau occurred one evening when he accidentally bumped the wheel of an Angel pledge’s bike with his guitar case. “The fella pulled out his knife. Gypsy Jack saw it, came over with his whip and put the guy up against the wall, saying, ‘Don’t do that. He’s a friend of mine.’ So I just walked on in and that was it. A year and a half later, Gypsy Jack was dead after riding into the back of a semi going about ninety miles an hour.”
“The Angels really liked the band,” Simmons assures warily. “All the guys I ever knew were just A-one great guys. I’d met a few hardnosers—but, er, there’re those kinds of guys everywhere.”
The Doobie Brothers’ saga is truly one of the untold stories in rock. “We have been overlooked by the press,” says Tiran Porter, 31, with a bitter chuckle. “After the first LP [The Doobie Brothers, 1971], the only people who seemed to accept us were beer-crazed bikers. By the time our second album, Toulouse Street, was released [in 1972], we got a lot of attention because of the single [“Listen to the Music”], but we were dismissed as hippie hard rockers. Then we hit in 1973 with a couple of singles [“Long Train Runnin'” and “China Grove” off The Captain and Me] and critics called us Top Forty rock bubble-gum.”
To support the strong singles sales and counteract the standoffish press, the band toured incessantly. “We were the epitome of the hard-working, hard-livin’ rock & roll band,” says Pat Simmons. “We used to get plastered all the time, zonkered out of our brains and pull out all the stops. Every night we were up all night movin’, groovin’, saying, ‘Let’s get a beer.’ ‘Give me a toot!’ I used to drink a lot and do a lot of coke. It was real fast living. We were just walking around like zombies.”
While stories of drunken revelry, hotel horseplay and onstage food fights fueled the intense loyalty of the band’s young, rambunctious fans, the Doobies remained an insular alliance to the general public and the press. The members were always extremely guarded outside the warm circle of immediate friends and adoring fans.
“We were doing it for all it was worth,” says Simmons of the band’s private and professional lifestyle, “because we figured it’s gonna last a couple of years, and then we’re going back to where we started.” Which was the stormy bars and backstreets of San Jose. Founding member John Hartman was a big, tough customer who had come west from Virginia in 1969 with the hopes of re-forming a band he idolized, Moby Grape. At length, he met up with ex-Grape guitarist Skip Spence in San Francisco, but Spence wasn’t interested in the offer. Instead, Spence introduced the burly drummer to Tom Johnston, a savvy kid from the farmland of central California who had escaped his father’s aircraft-mechanics shop in Tulare to study graphic design at San Jose State. The footloose pair eventually fell in with Simmons, a local longhair with a BSA motorcycle who had played around the Santa Cruz roadhouses.
“When I met Tom and Little John they were jive characters right out of Zap comics,” the wispy bearded Simmons confides with a laugh. “They had more fast-talking routines together than any two guys I have ever met. Humorous, ultrahip guys who were citified, you know? And hard, very hard. It came, basically, from Hartman, because he was such an East Coast-D.C. ghetto type, and he rubbed it off on all of us. Eventually we became the jive trio.”
And the three formed the nucleus of the Sunday afternoon jam sessions in the basement of the Twelfth Street house. Meanwhile, Johnston and Hartman had also been hanging around the nearby Pacific Recording Studios, where they became friendly with engineer Marty Cohn and his brother Bruce (who’s been the group’s manager since 1971). When the Cohns expressed interest in their efforts, Tom and John hastily enlisted Pat and pal Dave Shogren to cut six demo sides as . . . the Doobie Brothers.
“Some of us were sitting around the breakfast table of the Twelfth Street house one morning, sprinkling pot on our cornflakes, smokin’ joints and bein’ crazy,” Simmons recalls. “At that time, whenever anybody said, ‘I wanna smoke a joint,’ they always said, ‘Let’s smoke a doobie.’ And Keith Rosen, another guy who lived in the house — we called him Dino ’cause he looked like a dinosaur — said something like, ‘Hey, you guys smoke so many joints, why don’t you just call yourselves the Doobie Brothers?'”
We said, ‘What a dopey name.’ And that was it.”
Studio owner Paul Curcio passed the tapes on to Warner Bros. producer Lenny Waronker.
“He came to see us play and was very interested,” Simmons explains. “The next time we saw Lenny, he had this guy with him from Harpers Bizarre, Teddy Templeman, who we kinda joked about a bit. Here was this young guy with blond hair, real soft-spoken, and we thought we were rough, tough biker types. I mean, Harpers Bizarre?! But when we got to working on the album, it turned out that he and Lenny were the heavies and we were the lightweights.”
Nonetheless, the Doobies had a formidable sound, Simmons’ deft country-blues picking meshing with Johnston’s penchant for thick chord riffing with an R&B bent. Underscored by drummer Hartman and bassist Shogren, it was a powerful rock-pop sound that was buoyant but blistering, mighty and yet melodic. When the first album stiffed despite a splashy Warner Bros.-sponsored Mother Brothers Tour with Mother Earth, the bewildered band found themselves back among the brawlers at the Chateau Liberte.
Undaunted, Tom Johnston, then the titular leader of the group, rolled up his sleeves and resolved to create some salable music for his band.
“‘Listen to the Music’ was the only song I’ve ever called as a hit,” the gruff but affable guitarist tells me one afternoon. “I wrote it in my bedroom in the house in San Jose in about a half-hour, words ‘n’ all, during the good old days of living off brown rice and food stamps. I called Teddy up and said, ‘I got a hit single here.’ He disagreed and suggested some changes. But I didn’t change it at all, and finally Teddy had to admit he liked it as it was.”
The song shot into the Top Ten. A dogged Doobies took to the road again, their solid, practiced attack fleshed out by the addition of second drummer Michael Hossack, who had played on the second album. In concert, the awesome backbeat packed a thrilling wallop and became a signature of the Doobies phenomenon. For the next five years, the group remained on the road, hammering their sound into shape and bending themselves out of it in the process. Johnston and Simmons kept the ensemble supplied with material whose taut, travelogue qualities reflected their dedication to the touring grind.
In the studio, the timorous Teddy Templeman emerged as an able final arbiter. “Ultimately Teddy will decide what tunes fit on the records,” explains bassist Porter, who replaced Dave Shogren as work began on Toulouse Street. “He really knows how to pace an album. He’s a diplomat. He lets us make our own mistakes, and sometimes communication breaks down because he doesn’t use what we want and vice versa. Like man and wife — that’s the relationship between this band and our producer.”
The relationship remained a prosperous one through the highly commercial The Captain and Me. But by the time they were faced with recording their fourth LP, the honeymoon was over for all concerned.
“We had been getting a little burned out on the idea of our band as AM pop rock,” says Simmons. “We started thinking, ‘Hey, we see ourselves as an Allman Brothers or a Cream, something with some longevity.’ And we also thought of ourselves—it sounds like a cliché—as serious musicians, really trying to master our instruments. And so when we went in to record What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits [in 1974], we got the Memphis Horns — we’d never used horns on our albums — and Bill Payne of Little Feat came in to play.” Also present were fabled New Orleans pianoman James Booker; percussionist Milt Holland on tabla, marimba and pandeiro; Eddie Guzman on conga and timbals; Arlo Guthrie on autoharp; and, most important of all, Steely Dan guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on pedal steel, who had first appeared as a sideman on The Captain and Me. When the Doobies again hit the concert trail, the walrus-mustachioed Baxter, who describes himself as “a madman who cannot turn down a good guitar gig,” signed on at various intervals.
Vices was named for a large painting that hung in the student-union building at San Jose State. It was intended for use as the artwork on the album jacket, but too much was lost visually when it was reduced to fit the front cover. This minor difficulty proved to be an omen, for fans reacted somewhat coolly to the diversity and relative mellowness of the final product. Two singles were floated (“Another Park, Another Sunday” and “Pursuit on 53rd Street”), but both quickly went under. The band was thoroughly disheartened — until a burst of regional airplay sparked the release of “Black Water,” a long, rambling composition by Pat Simmons that traded the Doobies’ hard-rockin’ hit formula for a lazy clap-along tempo, propelled by a dreamy viola. Astonishment reigned when, a full year after Vices first appeared, “Black Water” became the group’s first Number One single. But things were too chaotic for the band to enjoy the breakthrough. Drummer Michael Hossack had abruptly split after an argument during the Vices sessions. He was replaced by Keith Knudsen, who had been playing with keyboardist Lee Michaels.
“At the same time,” says Simmons, “other bands that we were really close to were having their problems. Little Feat, which had been working longer than us, wasn’t getting any success, and Steely Dan was busting up. Jeff [Baxter] was looking for some gigs with us, and he didn’t even want to get paid. ‘I just wanna get out and play for an audience,’ he said. ‘Let me jam with you; I just wanna turn my guitar up and blast . . . .’ We were all getting disillusioned at the time; we thought it was going to be all fun and games, and it turned out to be hard work and tight schedules. We’d go from the road to the studio and try to keep our home life together with our old ladies.
“Jeff kicked us all in the ass. We had always admired Moby Grape as being the greatest of all rock bands out of the Bay Area, with their harmonies and three-guitar lineup. We finally had three guitars and we looked at Jeff as our Skip Spence. He was the Fender Stratocaster player — Skip was always into Strats — and Jeff was really wired and crazy like Skip. I was the Peter Lewis and Tommy was the Jerry Miller. We had our idea of the Moby Grape together, and we did an album [in 1975] called Stampede, with our first Motown tune”—a cover of the Holland-Dozier-Holland “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)” — that became a sizable hit.”
But then the Moby Grape-derived dream began to sour.
“About that time, Tommy started to get ill on the road,” Simmons reflects somberly. “He was developing stomach ulcers and was generally zinging out and couldn’t handle the whole thing. We were doing between 150 and 200 dates a year at that point; a heavy-duty schedule, working all the time. We thought, ‘Well, here goes the lead singer, and we’re going to have to pick up the pieces.’ We actually performed some shows without him. We figured he’d get well. But as it turned out, Tommy wasn’t okay, and his doctor told him that his touring days were over for at least the next year.”
Rumors have persisted to this day that Johnston was the victim of a drug binge, but he hotly denies this.
“I did dope at one time or another, but there was no drug problem,” he barks wryly. “I wasn’t burned out; it was just a bad ulcer. I had been going through misery for about a year with these horrible stomach attacks that would last about twelve hours each. I’d be in terrible pain and not know what the fuck it was. I guess it was brought on by anxiety, not being able to sleep and tension from the day-to-day work on tour. I was never a very good sleeper on the road; I could never relax enough and became a total insomniac.
“In 1975, I had to come off the road. Luckily I quit when I did, ’cause when I got home, I started throwing up blood. I went, ‘Aaaaaa! Oh my lord!!’ I made it to the hospital posthaste, whereupon I actually died — I was bleeding internally and they lost my heartbeat temporarily, but they brought me back.”
Johnston returned to the group in 1976, but in the interim, the Doobies had had to find another man to sing background harmonies and strengthen the overall sound. Steely Dan pianist-vocalist Mike McDonald was summoned to New Orleans for an audition (after Bill Payne had declined the invitation) and fit in so well he was given Tom Johnston’s former slot in concert, singing lead vocals on “Long Train Runnin’.”
With the next album looming before them, the Doobies realized they were a little short on material, and they asked McDonald if he had anything in the hopper.
“He never even volunteered,” says Simmons. “He’s that kind of guy. He’d never go, ‘Hey! I’ve got tunes too!’ He just laid back and mentioned he had a couple of tunes he’d been working on. He said, ‘The only tunes I ever did anything with, well, Jack Jones recorded one. I’m not sure whether they’re gonna fit your style or not.’
“We ran them down,” Pat beams, “and they were great.”
Indeed. The band had enough confidence in McDonald to make one of his songs the title track of the Takin’ It to the Streets LP. But this writer vividly recalls sitting in a room in Manhattan’s Essex House in the summer of 1975, the band clustered around me nervously while Simmons balanced a cassette deck on his bony knees and played the rough tracks of “Takin’ It to the Streets,” “It Keeps You Runnin’,” Porter’s “For Someone Special” and the Simmons-Baxter-Hartman song, “Wheels of Fortune.”
“What do you think?” Simmons asked anxiously. “It’s a new direction, I know,” he asserted before I could reply. “More laid-back, with a little jazz feel. People won’t expect it from us.” I nodded in agreement. Mike McDonald sat in the corner, drinking ice water and saying not a word.
The album wasn’t completed for another six months, and took more than a year to go platinum.
Back home in California, Tom Johnston was charting a new course for himself.
“I wasn’t feeling so comfortable musically with the things that were happening,” he recalls. “It had nothing to do with personalities. The music was good, definitely respectable, but it was more of a subdued sound. I was used to Little Richard-style R&B and good hard rockin’. I like to be very energetic onstage, and the music didn’t lend itself to that. It was incredible writing by Michael, but not right for me.
“I put a song on the Streets LP [“Turn It Loose”] but afterward, when we were working in. 1977 on Livin’ on the Fault Line [preceded by a Best of the Doobies package], I made a decision to pull out.”
“We tried to encourage him to hang around,” says Simmons glumly, “but he felt bum-kicked. He basically saw a band that was starting to happen again, a band that he hadn’t really been a part of because of his health. He sang some background harmonies on Fault Line, played some parts on all our tunes, but his heart wasn’t in it. We finished the album and put it out, and Tommy said, ‘I’m going to Rio; I’ll see you guys later; you go do your thing. Rock & roll means a lot to me, and I feel terrible being around you guys, because I see you cookin’ and I ain’t doing shit.'”
Since that time, Johnston, 31, has kept a profoundly low profile, living in Mill Valley, riding on occasion with a transplanted motorcycle club called the Sons of Hawaii and, for the last year and a half, working on a solo album that will be released by Warner Bros. in September. Tom says he is enormously pleased with the LP, which he describes, not surprisingly, as “solid R&B and hard rock & roll.” And he says he intends to tour with a band he’s now assembling.
“But now there’ll be no touring six months at a time like the old days,” he rules. “It’ll be two weeks on, two weeks off.”
Healthy and happy, Johnston is prepared to dispel the old rumors and find a new place for himself in rock. “I used to have a reputation as being unsavory—or maybe just nutty,” he concedes. “But that is all over now.”
By the way, I ask, what’s the title of his new record?
“Well,” he mumbles sheepishly, “it’s called Everything You’ve Heard Is True.”
While it slowly but surely achieved platinum status, Livin’ on the Fault Line was an unheralded minor masterwork. Crisp, confident and brimming with haunting gems like “There’s a Light,” “You’re Made That Way,” “Nothin’ but a Heartache” and the seamless, shimmering “Echoes of Love” (originally written for Al Green), the album fulfilled all the promise of the transitory Streets, but was nonetheless overlooked by AM radio and accorded spotty play even on FM AOR stations. It was not until Carly Simon scored her success with “You Belong to Me” that the Doobies’ version came to the attention of most listeners.
“That’s a more interesting story than you might think,” McDonald tells me. “I met Carly through Teddy Templeman and worked on her Another Passenger album. She mentioned maybe getting together and writing, and I said I’d love to. I really wanted to follow up on that. I wrote a melody but I didn’t have an address for her, so I just gave the tape to Teddy and said, ‘Would you give this to Carly for me and ask her if she’d write some lyrics?’ He mailed it to her, and she sent it back with lyrics.
“I recorded the song with the band and she recorded the song for her Boys in the Trees LP, and I never talked to her through the whole thing, never spoke to her, never said anything to her. She had a Top Ten hit with it almost a year later, and I felt so bad by then that I finally called her and said, ‘I feel ridiculous. I just wanted to call and congratulate you. I think the lyrics are real good.’ We laughed about it, and she said that at most of the concerts she’d done, she would say to the audience, ‘If anybody sees Mike McDonald, tell him hello for me!'”
By the time the much-anticipated Minute by Minute album was released in December 1978, the public was on the lookout for McDonald and swiftly made his “What a Fool Believes” the Doobies’ biggest-selling single. That buying spree was followed by another for “Minute by Minute,” and “Dependin’ on You” is now meeting with a similar response. Their past difficulties notwithstanding, the Doobies had reached a new, multiplatinum pinnacle. But fresh troubles were brewing for the long-beleaguered band.
Ironically, the mood prior to the release of Minute by Minute was typified by the freakish photo session documented on the back cover of the record, which shows the band members floating around the cabin of their rented Doobie-liner in a weightless state.
Sam Stewart, the Doobies’ pilot since 1973, explains how they got the picture: “We were doing a zero-gravity trick for a photo session. It took several days to practice for it; every loose object was removed, and David Alexander, the photographer, was strapped down. I would climb to 12,000 feet, roll the nose over and then head straight back down. When you suddenly pull up again, you have a zero-gravity state that lasts for about thirty to thirty-five seconds. We did it ten or fifteen times—until Pat, David and a few other people started feeling sick.”
McDonald feels the picture describes the band’s predicament:
“Suddenly everybody realized that, with things as they were, it wasn’t fulfilling. People felt like they were just floating, and it was just a matter of realizing what was best for whom.
“Was it best for me to quit and have a solo career? [McDonald and Simmons are slated to do solo LPs this winter.] I wanted to do a solo record, but I didn’t want to quit the Doobies; I never wanted to perform on my own. Or was it best for Jeff to quit and produce other acts the way he wanted to? He always worked as a studio player and he still keeps a pretty hectic pace.
“The band wanted to be more structured, hard-hitting and direct,” Michael continues, “and Jeff really wanted to do a more jazzy, avant-garde kind of free format — more of a soloist band, which is his forte. So basically we were faced with a decision and we had to be honest with each other: was it better for thirty guys to be out of work if I quit and tried to re-form the band from a writer’s standpoint, or was it better for Jeff to pursue the things he wanted to do?”
The question was answered in February while the band was doing some dates in Japan, and when the falling-out came, Baxter was not the only casualty. Hartman announced: “I can’t be a part of the rock business anymore” and quit.
“We had a meeting in the hotel,” recalls Keith Knudsen, 31.”Everybody had a good cry, we all cried. It was hard to let go. After the tour, Pat and Mike went to Hawaii. I followed, and while Pat went on to Tahiti, Mike and I relaxed in Maui and watched the whales for about ten days. We didn’t talk about the breakup too much, but when we got back to L.A., Tiran, Pat, Mike and I decided to stay together—but there was never a point where we wanted to go on as a four-piece band.”
While the group spent the early spring auditioning new players, Hartman, 31, returned to his horse ranch in California’s Sonoma County, and then decided to do some traveling. Baxter embarked on a full schedule of session work and contracted to produce albums by Livingston Taylor and Carla Thomas.
“I’m glad I could be with the band,” Baxter says in retrospect. “It was fun going through the musical learning experience, and fun turning them on to different things. We all blossomed creatively. I’d rather see everybody in the band happy than have the uptightness that was going down. I love playing guitar; studio work gives me the opportunity to hone my chops and I like the incredible pressure. The guitar may not be a primary force in music these days but, hell, I’m gonna play mine.
“I just don’t think that people should judge the band now by who is or who isn’t in it. It sounded good in a certain way with Tommy, then Pat, and me, and then Mike. It’s only fair to give the new band some time to settle in and find their direction.”
Hey Chet!” Mike McDonald yells to the Doobies’ genial new drummer, Chet McCracken. “You got enough dope to roll me a quick joint?”
“Sure thing,” says the blond, spindly McCracken, stretched out in the lime-green driver’s seat of a space-age custom sports car. The green machine is parked in the lot below the offices of the Doobies’ PR firm, David Gest & Associates, the car’s hydraulic bubble-top suspended dramatically over Chet’s head. McDonald strolls over from his more sedate BMW for a quick chat while McCracken rolls a fat doobie. When Mike departs, the drummer gushes with enthusiasm for his new job. “I loved the group’s early hits,” he tells me. “It was the perfect kind of music for its time.” In fact, McCracken, 33, played “China Grove” and “Listen to the Music” in a glut of nameless bar bands and admired the Doobies from a distance during the years when he did sessions with America (that’s him drumming on “Muskrat Love”), Helen Reddy and Hank Williams Jr.
“I was doing well as a session percussionist,” he says. “I stopped worrying about making the house payments about three years ago. But playing with the Doobies is an honor—and it sure beats working on Radio Shack commercials. Emotionally, it was like stepping on a rocket ship and trying to hold on.”
McCracken was nominated for the group by McDonald, whom he met years earlier on the session circuit. John McFee, 28, the new rhythm guitarist, violinist, Dobro player—”practically anything with strings” — played with the now-defunct Clover, the underrated Bay Area band that backed Elvis Costello on his My Aim Is True LP. Of the new additions, hefty horn player Cornelius Bumpus, 34, a former member of a later reincarnation of Moby Grape, was the least familiar with the Doobies.
“Warners sent me the whole catalog of Doobie Brothers records when I got hired,” Bumpus explains. “But before that, the only album of theirs I had was Takin’ It to the Streets, and I took that to a secondhand record store awhile back to trade it for something else.”
Once again, it’s a new Doobie Brothers. Despite a summer of fairly steady touring, the new members are still getting comfortable with the time-honored material. But it’s taken them no time to assimilate the familiar Doobies traits: caution and reticence.
All three newcomers assert that they had no knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the departure of their predecessors. They admit that there is “some talk” about the next record being a live album containing original material, and then recoil from discussing any writing they may contribute to the effort.
It is easy to see where the tight-lipped newcomers get their inspiration. McDonald quickly dismisses the possibility of any writing tensions between himself and the more rock-oriented Simmons. “There’ve never been any problems; if anything, we’ve learned a lot from each other as writers. Me and Pat have had our arguments, but we’re not going to let it get to where we can’t speak with each other. It’s not worth it for us.” And when I casually mention the generally accepted fact that he is the band’s sex symbol and resident heartthrob, Michael professes ignorance.
“We all get our share of fan mail,” he states flatly. “Everybody in the band does. It’s just beyond me. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that that really happens any more than with the average rock & roll band. I don’t get any provocative fan mail.”
On my way out, I notice that the receptionist’s desk is covered with a heap of fan letters, and PR chief David Gest motions me over with a sly grin.
“Read this,” he says, handing one of the letters to me.
Dear Micheal (sic):
I’ve always thought you were the cutest, foxiest and the most iresistable (sic) one! Do people bug you who live near you? If you got married would you still sing? If you get a haircut, could you give me a lock of it?
Love always, Tracy
“Isn’t that great?!” says Gest with a booming laugh. “Michael gets a few hundred letters a week, most of ’em are either like that . . . or a little more provocative.”