Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Tom Johnston-This Week’s Podcast | Lefsetz Letter

Tom Johnston/Doobies Playlist


Just when you think you got a good thing
It seems to slip away

I was not a fan of the Doobie Brothers.

“Listen To The Music” exploded on to the airwaves when I was in college, far from reality, in Middlebury, Vermont. All we had for radio was the college station, and I gave up listening to that the first week I was there. But suddenly the Doobies were featured in “Rolling Stone,” which I read cover to cover every two weeks, I did all my homework from Sunday to Tuesday, or Sunday to Wednesday, however long it took, and then I spent the rest of the week reading what I wanted to. Now you’ve got to know, Middlebury College is not for slackers. If you’re not gonna study on Saturday, don’t even think about studying on Sunday. It wasn’t long before I was considered an outlaw, a pariah. Funny how I made it and nobody else did.

You might think that’s bragging, but I’m just trying to prop up my self-image. And, in fact, one other person from my year left a mark, Eve Ensler, who wrote “The Vagina Monologues,” and also Jeanne Meserve, who you used to see on CNN. And, there was Avital Ronell, who you couldn’t miss on campus, you know the woman who’s been recently involved in the harassment case at NYU. And, of course, there was Michael Tolkin, but he transferred from Bard, to be with his girlfriend, now wife, Wendy Mogel. Actually, Tolkin and I were friends at Middlebury, but we never see each other now. You see I escaped from the cult, crawled from the wreckage to…

Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, home of the world’s best snow. I can ski on anything, but you need some snow, and my last year at Middlebury the Bowl was closed many days and I wanted to ski more… That’s right, this was a different era, there were recruiters on campus, but none of my friends met with any of them. We wanted to graduate and explore the world, find ourselves.

And I lined up the best gig in the canyon, waiter at the Goldminer’s Daughter, the closest lodge to the lifts at Alta, it’s the only time my Middlebury pedigree paid off, but I had to give up the gig after breaking my leg in an early-season freak accident at Snow Summit in Southern California. My rental skis came off ten feet in the air and I ended up breaking my leg.

But two months later I still went to Utah.

And got myself a gig at the BirdFeeder, on the Plaza, next to the tram at Snowbird.

Little did I know Snowbird was the epicenter of freestyle skiing, they even held the World Championships there that year. And I curried favor with the freestylers by scooping them giant ice cream cones, and when I heard through the grapevine they were going to Mammoth for the month of May…

I wanted in.

And I asked.

And I drove on a snowy night at the end of April to a fraternity house on the University of Utah campus where over the din of the just-released “Physical Graffiti” I coughed up my fifty bucks for rent and said I would meet the assembled multitude at the stop sign in Mammoth, a place I’d never been, on May 1st.

Actually, I stayed up all night on April 29th listening to “Physical Graffiti” with our across the street neighbors in Sandy, and then the next morning I took off for Reno, for the Hart ski warehouse, where I was to pick up a new pair of skis. En route I got a speeding ticket. I had little cash, so I had to sleep in my car. I ate Baskin-Robbins for dinner, my sister Wendy had sent me a five dollar coupon for my birthday.

And after picking up the skis the next morning, I drove to Mammoth.

Now almost no Americans other than Californians have driven 395, from Reno to Mammoth. It’s on the wrong side of the Sierras. But when you do… It’s uninhabited and the mountains are spectacular and you feel so good about yourself and then I got to Mammoth and stunningly everybody was at the stop sign and I found out…

They were going back home. That’s right, we were short a couple of hundred bucks.

But then a guy who moved to Utah from Stowe made up the difference and I called home and found out I’d gotten a $35 tax rebate and we all decided to stay. Bought end of seasons passes for fifty bucks and were promptly…

The hottest guys on the mountain.

That’s right, the best skiers in the country were from the aforementioned Little Cottonwood Canyon, still might be, and we skied what others would not, like Phillipe’s, where if if you don’t make the turn…you crash into the rocks. Now you’ve got to picture this, it’s ultra-steep, and narrow, less than twenty feet, and you’re heading for the rocks and halfway down you have to shift to your left. And if you don’t…

Most people don’t even go there.

But our tracks were there for everybody to see. We’d be sitting on the deck and people would point them out and…

You’re only young once.

And we only went to Mammoth once.

And it was in Mammoth that I fell in love with the Doobie Brothers.


You see Jimmy, the occupant of that U of U frat room, brought his stereo, an 8-track, to Mammoth, and his tapes only featured two groups, Led Zeppelin and the Doobie Brothers. I’d burned out on Zeppelin long before, after all, I’d been there at the beginning. And when Jimmy played “Led Zeppelin II,” I winced, I’d played that out in high school. But when he played “Physical Graffiti”…

First it was “Kashmir.” I found myself singing the riff on the chairlift.

And then it was “Ten Years Gone.” And “In The Light.” And “The Rover.” And “Boogie With Stu.” I was falling in love with Zeppelin all over again.

And when Jimmy was not playing Led Zeppelin…

He was playing the Doobie Brothers.

Now if I heard “Long Train Runnin'” one more time…

This was the era of late night television music programs. And seemingly every one featured the Doobie Brothers. “Long Train Runnin'” and “China Grove,” you couldn’t escape them.

But then, the following year, when I was at working at Star Sporting Goods on Highland before breaking my leg, “Black Water” started to percolate. There’d been a lot of hype on “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits,” but the initial track, “Another Park, Another Sunday,” from which the quote above was taken, stiffed. The album was not living up to expectations. But suddenly…

And the thing about “Black Water” was you could sing along. My newfound buddies and I would do so in the car.

But still.

But now, I was hearing the Doobie Brothers every damn day.

And they revealed themselves to me. They were not a pop band trolling for hits, they were three-dimensional, it was the non-hits that grabbed me.


Now I knew “Jesus Is Just Alright” from the Byrds.

But I did not know “Rockin’ Down The Highway.” Which sounds exactly like the title, from back when we used to have driving music. You’ve only got to hear “Rockin’ Down The Highway” a few times before it’s ingrained in your soul, back when we all wanted to be set free.

But “Disciple” was just a little less obvious, but just a tad more engrossing. This was not made for the hit parade, but for the fan, who bought the album.

But my two favorite cuts on the second album are much slower and quiet. It’s “White Sun” that makes you fall in love with Tom Johnston’s voice. Whew!

And I slip away down by the water

Our music used to be personal, you heard it and you were in a bubble, where you felt protected and your best self.

But my absolute favorite is the title track of the LP, “Toulouse Street.”

It’s dark, but not pitch black.

Now “Toulouse Street” was written by Pat Simmons. The Doobies were not one note, they had multiple sounds, as a result of having multiple writers, and then…

The big album with “Long Train Runnin'” and “China Grove” was 1973’s “The Captain And Me,” and once again it’s now the title track that’s my favorite, couldn’t be farther from a single, not even an album cut for the radio, but if you know it… It’s hard to explain to those who were not there. How the deep cuts mattered so much.

But until recently, my favorite track on the LP was the opener, “Natural Thing.” Just listen to it. It’s the opening lick, the sound, it’s in your face, but subtle, and it’s addictive.

And “The Captain And Me” has “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman,” a counterpart to the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman.”

And “South City Midnight Lady”…

The album I thought was junk, in your face stuff, was not at all, I became enamored of “The Captain And Me.”

But not as much as “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits,” the apotheosis, the Doobie’s masterpiece.

Sittin’ in my room, starin’ out my window
And I wonder where you’ve gone

We’ve all been there, with the radio on, reflecting.

“Another Park, Another Sunday” is a jewel, maybe too good for that era’s hit radio. And when it ends, you know another good thing has slipped away.

And this is the LP with “Black Water.” But it’s also got “Eyes Of Silver,” a companion piece to “Rockin’ Down The Highway,” once again, a couple of listens and it’s like you’ve known it your whole life.

And “Spirit.” It was acoustic, and so meaningful, and the picking was so exquisite.

Every track on “What Were Once Vices” delivers.

But the one I quote all the time is “Tell Me What You Want (And I’ll Give You What You Need).” It sounds nothing like the similarly titled Stones song, but it too delivers.

And then Tom started suffering from stomach problems and “Stampede” was flawed, not up to the standard of what came before, but still wholly listenable.

Tom argued for a cover of “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While),” and it became a hit.

But the most memorable cut on “Stampede” was the Patrick Simmons number “I Cheat The Hangman.”

And my favorite is the second song on the first side, also written by Simmons, “Neal’s Fandango.”

Goin’ back, I’m too tired to roam, Loma Prieta my mountain home
On the hills above Santa Cruz, to the place where I spent my youth.

It was not only tech that was fomenting up north, even at this late date most people have never experienced the magic of Santa Cruz and the mountains towering over the town.

(Note: Making the playlist I realize I excluded Tom’s “Texas Lullaby,” which sounds like you’re riding a horse on the Texas prairie, it’s an understated great.)


And I immediately purchased all those Doobie albums upon returning home after that month in Mammoth, I had to relive the magic.

And the following spring, when I had to drive cross-country, I went to Music Odyssey on State Street in Salt Lake and purchased six cassettes for the drive, including the Doobies’ “Takin’ It To The Street.” Simmons was still there, but Johnston was just barely. It was a different sound.

And on the follow-up, Tom was totally gone, now Michael McDonald was truly the frontman.

And then this new incarnation of the band recorded “Minute By Minute” and achieved one of the greatest comebacks in rock history, they were as big as they ever were, albeit with a different sound.

And then the band imploded, and then regrouped with Tom at the turn of the decade, from the eighties into the nineties, and recorded two albums on Capitol and got some MTV action and then…

They went on the endless road.

You can see them in your town.

And now that Irving Azoff is the manager, they’re getting the recognition they deserve, they’re no longer being neglected, expect the Doobies to get into the Rock Hall soon…


So, what have we learned?

Sometimes you’ve got to be exposed to music to get it. When you can’t escape it, when you marinate in it.

I still ski. It was tough there for a while, after going every day, it’s hard to do it occasionally. Now I do it more than occasionally and wish I could have those years in the wilderness back.

Everyone there agrees that month in Mammoth was the peak of their life. Just when you think you’ve got a good thing, it seems to slip away, and never comes back.

But I’ve still got the Doobies.

I still listen to the music.

Maybe more than any other band.



Tom on how they named the Doobie Brothers:

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