Saturday, August 22, 2020

What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits | Lefsetz Letter


And they say the quality of the sound no longer makes a difference.

If you had told me in 1972 or 3 that the Doobie Brothers would be one of my favorite rock bands, one of the artists who I listen to the most, I would have laughed in your face. Wasn’t this the band with the obvious monster hits on FM radio? I mean I liked “Listen to the Music,” but although I also liked “China Grove,” I never cottoned to “Long Train Runnin’,” which was ubiquitous not only on the radio but late night TV. I saw the Doobie Brothers as meat and potatoes rock. By ’73 FM rock radio reached everywhere, they finally had album rock stations in the hinterlands. And it took the advent of corporate rock to make the whole paradigm implode, kicked in the ass by disco and then fading until MTV revived rock, ultimately via the English new wave, which wiped away the bloated detritus of the seventies.

But then…

Music used to be limited. You knew what was on the radio and what you owned, and people didn’t own that much, and if they did, it tended to be the same albums. And I had a larger record collection than anybody I knew, but there were still things I hadn’t heard, like “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits.”

Who knows if there will even be a ski season this coming winter. But in ’74, after I’d graduated from college, I immediately broke my leg in a freak accident and therefore missed the first few months of the season in Utah and when Snowbird ultimately closed near the end of April I was not satisfied, I needed more. On a tip I hooked up with the freestylers, the bumpers who dominated the ‘Bird, and joined them in a condo for the month of May in Mammoth California. They needed my money.

And this was pre-internet, pre-webcam, pre people really knowing what happened outside their burg. Mammoth in May was a wonderland. No bare spots, the ski area was ultimately open until July 4th that year, sun and ski bums, that was all there was, it was the greatest month of my life.

I was the outsider. But what hooked me up was the music. It was the first weekend and everybody was lamenting the passage of the evening. I said “It’s ten o’clock and I want to rock!,” which they thought was the funniest thing they’d ever heard, it immediately ingratiated me (as well as being willing to drop into Hangman’s and ski Philippe’s), little did they know it was just a paraphrase of a lyric from Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)”.

Now I had twenty four cassettes. Which I’d recorded before I’d left Connecticut the previous fall. But this was rare, most people still listened to 8-tracks in the car, and Jimmy had an 8-track recorder, as part of his all-in-one record player, and he’d made tapes for Mammoth. Including “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits” and “Physical Graffiti.” But recording on 8-track…there were essentially four stereo tracks of equal length, and albums could not be broken up this way, so Jimmy recorded songs out of order and filled them with cuts from other albums and…I could not distinguish what was on “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits” and “The Captain And Me.” And one of my absolute favorite Doobie Brothers songs opens the latter LP, “Natural Thing,” what puts it over the top are the contributions of Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff who were responsible for the programming on Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book,” one of the best LPs ever, but it was not on the 8-track tape, I had to wait until I purchased the LP to learn it. But all of “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits” was on there, albeit in a whacked order.

“What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits” was heavily anticipated, after all it was the follow-up to the big smash “The Captain And Me,” with the aforementioned FM radio and late night TV albums were selling more copies than ever before. But it did not live up to expectations. The initial single “Another Park, Another Sunday” failed and it wasn’t until nine months after release that “Black Water” was a hit, after a renegade radio station began playing it. Then it was everywhere.

I’ve got these Genelec speakers. They’re my computer system. The satellites have got a woofer and a tweeter. They’re ten or eleven inches tall, about four inches square, and there’s a connected subwoofer. You can replicate this system for about $1500, but today no one spends that much for a stereo, never mind their computer speakers. I got e-mail from a reader saying he wanted to get his kids into vinyl for $300, I said you couldn’t, not to bother, you had to spend probably at least that much on a turntable and cartridge, never mind an amp and speakers.

And I’ve got Amazon Music HD. And I’d be lying if I told you it sounded light years better than anything else. Actually, Apple sounds better than Spotify, Spotify’s codec is inferior to its competitors’, but Amazon Music HD will play at UltraHD level on my computer, that’s 24 bits, with sampling ranging from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz. And for the uninitiated, that’s better than CD quality.


I was listening to Led Zeppelin. “Thank You.” A hangover from yesterday’s “Ramble On” session. But then I was interrupted. My mood changed. And music is all about mood. So I decided to shift to “Physical Graffiti,” to “Ten Years Gone,” my favorite Zeppelin track, but I still wasn’t reached, so I decided to go to the Doobie Brothers.

Yes, can you believe they’re my go-to band? I can’t either!

So I started off with “Toulouse Street,” because it’s warm. But then I realized it was the title track which was warm, and it was a bit too low-key for my mood, so I decided to play…

“What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits.”

“Song to See You Through.” That’s what it was. Mid-tempo. Warm. With that smooth yet slightly rough Tom Johnston vocal and then the horns and suddenly I was on the horse, galloping through the rolling golden hills of Northern California.

And the killer is “Another Park, Another Sunday.” It’s genius. Maybe too smart for radio back then, maybe it’s true that radio felt unjustifiably dissed by the lyrics, but I cannot burn out on it, never have, it’s more sophisticated than what came before in an era where radio was getting dumber and dumber.

But I decided to just let the album play…

The version of the album I was listening to was the 2016 remastered version. They do this to hoodwink people to buy again what they already own. It used to be extra tracks, now it’s improved sound, but who has the system that can hear the difference, almost nobody.

But I do.

I don’t want to get into an argument with the studio rats. All I’ll say is Genelec is basically studio audio, not home audio. And listening, with the right sound source is…about as close as you’re gonna get to the original sound.

Sun and the stars are a a travelin’ man’s companion

It used to be about the road. Come on, how many rock songs focus on that? But not the modern sound, not hip-hop, because times have changed, if you want to go anywhere you take a plane, hopefully a private jet, and what’s between here and there is…irrelevant.

And the truth is once you’re out west there’s oftentimes not much between here and there, but you’re rockin’ down the highway, with the tunes cranked and you meld with the scenery, it’s a unique experience.

Now it’s up to you
Do you know you’re pulling through
Man it’s not easy and you know it

It’s not. Easy that is. Used to be you could make it, pay your bills, but if you wanted more than that…you had to decide your destination and commit to it. It was hardest to be a successful musician or athlete, but the rest of us…sure, you could become a doctor or a lawyer, but otherwise there were no guarantees, you could not work at a monolith like Google and make close to six figures with no experience, if you wanted to lift yourself up…it was not easy.

Children in a happy place
They’re always smiling
Showin’ all their love with no deception
Treatin’ each other like brothers and sisters do, yeah, yeah
Children in a real good place, they’re always tryin’
Jumpin’ and playin’ in the middle of the afternoon
Just havin’ a ball don’t worry at all, yeah

We were children. That’s who we wanted to be. We wanted to play forever. I’m not talking Peter Pans, but desperados. We weren’t forestalling growing up, we knew the score, we could make ends meet, if not much more. and we knew life was about experience long before the millennials realized this.

And I’m only into the second song of “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits” and I get the inspiration to write, it’s this song “Spirit.” It’s rocking yet down home with a fiddle and exquisite picking and this is the sound of the west, the sound of freedom, there are no walls you need to break down like on the east coast, the landscape is open, what do you want to make of it, and when space is unlimited you look inside, you huddle up and make this music that looks inward yet is joyous.

And I don’t want the mood to change. But “Pursuit on 53rd St.” has got that chunky Doobie Brothers guitar sound and a sweet vocal and enough energy to make anyone in tech wish they were in music.

And the album is playing and “Road Angel” does the same thing.

I was ridin’ down that highway…

The Road Angel is not one of the Housewives, she’s not all about makeup, not all about plastic surgery and a look that takes hours to perfect, she’s got it naturally, it emanates from the inside, she’s cool and she knows it and she makes men’s hearts melt.

And I haven’t eaten lunch and it’s 3:30 in the afternoon and my mind is fried and I’ve already sent two missives already, but…

I’m in that space. Where it’s just me and the music and that’s all I need, that’s enough.

I’m in the soundstage, there’s no scrim, no fuzziness between me and the band, the instruments are defined, it’s a positively magical experience. The one we were in search of all that time ago. This is not what the tweaks want, they’re searching for perfection, but that was never what we were looking for, the music was never perfect, this was before all the studio trickery, comping vocals, we just wanted to get closer, we wanted to spend enough to get closer. We didn’t need a Ferrari, but a Chevy was insufficient. We had to lay down as much as we could for our stereo before we hit the point of little return. And even back in the seventies, that was way over a thousand dollars, but not five.

I’m sittin’ in my room, I’m starin’ out my window

Literally. I’m perched on the hill. It’s a smoggy day, but I’m in suspended animation, removed from the world.

I’m just tryin’ to find me

I was and still am. This life, it’s a strange thing. You can buy into the system and work for retirement but that was never my thing. Like I said, I’m a child, I don’t want to grow up, I want to eat life up, go everywhere and do everything, look for like-minded people, stay alive.

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

That’s how I felt. That’s how I feel. If I got up to eat, the mood would have evaporated. I just want to sit here all afternoon in this groove. Another park, another Friday.


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