By John Lynskey
People have been listening to the music of singer/songwriter/guitarist Tom Johnston for over five decades now; the founding member of The Doobie Brothers has penned some of the group’s most popular and iconic songs, including “China Grove,” “Long Train Runnin’” and, of course, “Listen to the Music.” Due to the pandemic, Johnston and the group started celebrating their 50th anniversary a year late, but they certainly are making up for lost time. They continue their celebratory tour in May, have recorded a new album that dropped in October, and the band are still reveling in their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Johnston was gracious, well-spoken and insightful, as we covered myriad topics about all things Doobie.
“Yeah, (we began) celebrating our 50th anniversary in year 51, but that’s typical of most things since COVID hit,” observed Johnston. “We have a lot to be grateful for right now, starting with our induction in the Hall of Fame. We were all pretty well stoked about it, man. It was not something that we knew was coming right away or anything like that, but it’s something that we’ve chatted about on occasion. But not all that much, because if it was going to happen, it was going to happen. I think a lot of things came into play — changing management really helped, because it just gave us a better window. But as far as the amount of time that we’ve been eligible — since ’95, I guess — every once in a while it would pop up and we’d talk about it, then we’d go back to work. So, when we finally got the word that we’d been nominated, it was a big deal. To me, the biggest thing about it was when you think about it, there are hundreds of thousands of people playing music, and some people have been doing it for a very long time — so to be in the Hall of Fame with a lot of the people that I grew up listening to, that were my heroes, means the world to me. There’s only about 200-something people in the Hall of Fame, and it’s a real honor. I feel humbled by that — we all do. We’re in good company.”
One would be hard-pressed to find another band that has had so much success with two radically different sounds than The Doobie Brothers. From the Johnston and Pat Simmons original, guitar-driven lineup to the Michael McDonald era of R&B and soul, and then returning to the Johnston/Simmons configuration in the late ’80s, the Doobies were uniquely and widely successful in both settings. It is only fitting that the band decided to celebrate their 50th anniversary by combining the best of both worlds and having Michael McDonald join the current Doobie Brothers lineup for a celebratory tour. This marks the first time that McDonald has joined the group on the road since 1995, and it’s a true win/win for all fans of the Doobies. As Johnston said, “I think this is the right way to do this. I mean, if you’re going to celebrate 50 years — which is a weird thing to wrap your head around in the first place — where did the time go? Anyway, if you’re going to represent the band, you should represent all facets of it. In order to cover all the material, we’re doing a two-and-a-half-hour show, which runs the gamut of The Doobie Brothers. It includes ‘Nobody,’ which was the first song we put out, to the latest stuff from Liberté, and all bases in between. It is great having Mike out; he is such a talented singer and player — it’s just amazing. It makes for a totally different set, and a very long set, much longer than what we normally play, and the crowd is fine with it. They are truly digging it, and I think there are two reasons for that. The first one is that they are just glad to be out of the house after all this time! The second one is that they are fans, and they like all the music that is represented in the set, and I think we are doing an incredible job of giving them what they came for.”
When asked about putting the musical jigsaw puzzle together of McDonald figuring out his place in songs like “Without You” and “Rockin’ Down the Highway” and Johnston finding his spot in “It Keeps You Runnin’” or “Minute by Minute,” Johnston pointed out that, “We spent over two weeks solid, about seven hours a day rehearsing to get all this together. The music, vocal rehearsals for the harmonies — all that kind of stuff. We really put a lot of work into this; I mean a lot of work, man. I had never played some of these songs before, so for me it was a very big challenge. Pat and (guitarist) John McFee had played them, and the thing is, Michael’s songs are really great tunes, and they are kind of complex. You have to get the chords straight, the harmonies straight, so that was a big undertaking for me. I enjoyed it, and it was cool, because I really like Mike’s music, and I love his voice; he is an incredible talent. You mix his stuff together with our earlier stuff, and it just works. It’s a cool thing, and the crowd likes it.”
When asked if there was any particular McDonald song that Johnston enjoys singing and playing on, his response was instant. “Oh yeah — ‘You Belong to Me’ is one, and ‘Real Love’ is another. I hadn’t played on either one of those songs before, and frankly, whenever Michael sat in with us in the past, and we did ‘Minute by Minute’ or ‘What a Fool Believes,’ I just played tambourine and sang. I know that sounds goofy, but that’s what I did. He would come in and we’d just have a soundcheck, and there was no way in hell I was gonna pick up all those chord changes in one day! So it was nice to learn those songs, and then there’s my favorites. Towards the end of the set, he plays ‘Takin’ It to the Streets,’ a song I’ve always loved. Mike has put this gospel front end on it with the piano, and it’s like going to church, man. It’s just amazing, and Marc Russo plays some gorgeous sax along with it, and I truly enjoy that — it’s such a cool moment in the show.”
The Doobies already have one great keyboard player in the band with Billy Payne, and the addition of McDonald certainly adds another, and Johnston addressed the challenge those two faced in working out their parts without stepping on each other’s toes. “To their credit, man, they did their homework over the phone, and then when we got together, they talked about things and worked it all out. Another interesting thing is that Michael brought along a squeezebox, sort of a zydeco-sounding thing — like an accordion — and he’s also playing some mandolin on a couple of songs. We are doing ‘World Gone Crazy’ — the title song from our last album — and I wish to God that I had thought of this when we were cutting that tune, because Mike plays squeezebox on it, and it’s killer — just awesome. It’s a great addition, and the crowd loves it — they are up and rockin’ every night to that song. Mike is a team player, man; he’s been really great.”
Liberté, the band’s 15th studio album, was released on October 1st, and Johnston was clearly excited to talk about the recording process, working with new producer John Shanks, and, of course, the finished product. “We had already started working on Liberté before the lockdown; John and I had got together back in 2019, and we did three songs right out the box. Working with John was a new experience; this whole album was a new experience, man. It wasn’t like what we typically do, where we would go into the studio, sit there with a producer, have the songs picked out and then start building them inside the studio with the core members of the players — bass, drums, guitars — that kind of thing. This was not like that at all; John was involved in the writing of every single song. We would put down like a basic track, and then we would immediately start with the lyrics. So we’d have the basic flow of the music, then we would start writing the words. We’d do all this in the first two or three hours, and then that would get taken downstairs to a studio, where we would start laying it out for real.”
Johnston noted that “Pat did all his writing the same way I did my writing; he went down there by himself, sat with John, came up with a song — he did it exactly the way I just described it. It was a really cool way to do it; I’d never done that before. I have written with other people before, but not in that fashion. For one thing, it was really efficient; John has great ideas, man. Like with chord changes; you might come in with an idea to start with, and sometimes he’d have some chord ideas to start with, so we would work from there. It was different, and it turned out to be a great experience.”
Liberté takes its title from the Chateau Liberté, an old, rough-and-tumble biker bar, located in the hills above Santa Cruz, California. The Chateau is where the band cut their teeth in the early ’70s, and it still holds a special place in the history of The Doobie Brothers. “I give credit to Pat; he’s the one who came up with the title,” stated Johnston. “We had a couple of other names bouncing around that were from tracks on the album, but Liberté turned out to be the best choice. And yes, we do have a strong connection to the Chateau, even though it’s not a venue anymore. Fifty years ago, that was a wild and crazy place. We played there a lot back then, and it was full of leftover hippies, mountain people, college students, and bikers for sure, but everybody got along. It was just a small club up there in the Santa Cruz mountains that had been a stagecoach stop at one time, and it was loose, man. The cops didn’t come up there — and they didn’t need to come up there. The Chateau is where we started to develop a following, so it’s only fitting that we would go back there for the title of this album.”
Containing 12 tracks, Liberté has a great vibe to it from beginning to end. Johnston and Simmons both deliver songs written in their inimitable styles, but nothing on the album sounds stale or tired. When listening to Liberté, it is clear how much and effort went into this project. “For me, the point of Liberté was not to do a rubberstamp of everything we’ve done in the past,” said Johnston. “That was one of the best parts about working with John, because he works in a lot of different genres than we do. I mean, John plays with Bon Jovi all the time, and he’s worked with Melissa Etheridge, Barbra Streisand, Sheryl Crow and Keith Urban, so he has a very wide and varied background. I think that helps him to come up with these various chord changes and great ideas, because he’s done so many things. He took us out of our comfort zone, and that’s what I wanted. I really wanted to see if we could do something new and different, and we did.”
Johnston’s composition “Don’t Ya Mess With Me” has a lot of energy to it; it’s a tune that one could easily hear The Black Crowes doing, and it truly is a statement song for the album. “I was very pleased with that one, and there are quite a few songs on Liberté that I’m stoked about,” Johnston noted. “Another one would be ‘Oh Mexico,’ which I think is a positive, up-tempo song to make people feel good. I like to do that; I like to write songs that make people get up and dance, have a good time and forget about their troubles for a little while — that’s what ‘Oh Mexico’ is all about.”
A very personal and insightful track is “Shine Your Light,” and Johnston credits John Shanks quite a bit for this lovely ballad. “That’s a John-inspired song; he got that one rolling. I have to say, ‘Shine’ is a place I’ve never gone vocally, and I had a lot of fun singing that one; it’s just a beautiful song. I’m truly happy with how ‘Shine’ came out, because it sounds a bit more up to date; I’ll put it that way. It really doesn’t sound like something out of the old-days Doobies at all, and I like that.
“Pat has some great songs on there as well, including ‘Better Days,’ which is one of the two new tunes we’re playing live, along with ‘Don’t Ya Mess with Me.’ I really like ‘Better Days,’ because it’s a different direction for Pat. It reminds of something between country and Springsteen; it’s a very interesting combination and was perfect for what we were trying to accomplish on Liberté.”
When speaking about the old days of the Doobies, it came up in the conversation that the house Johnston lived in from 1970-73 was recently designated as a historic landmark by the city of San Jose, California. Johnston wrote many of the songs from the group’s first three albums while living there, including such classics as “Long Train Runnin,’” “China Grove” and “Listen to the Music.” When asked what that acknowledgement meant, Johnston recounted his last visit to the three-bedroom home in the Naglee Park neighborhood of San Jose. “It actually cracked me up when I first heard about it,” Johnston said. “If they only knew what that house was like back then, they might be calling it ‘a hysterical landmark,’ not a historic one! It’s a very old house, for one thing; I think it was built in the early 1900s. It wasn’t in great shape when I lived there, in the ‘student ghetto,’ as it was called. It was a completely different San Jose back then, no doubt. I’ve been back in that house, and they’ve fixed the thing all up; I mean, they really tricked it out. About 10 years ago, we played up at Mountain Winery, which isn’t too far from San Jose. I had my wife and daughter with me, so on the way home, I decided to drive by and show them the old house, just so they could know where all those things took place. I was standing out in front of the house with them, and the lady that owned it at the time came out and said, ‘I just saw you guys last night at Mountain Winery; would you like to come in and see the place?’ I told her I would love to see it, of course. They put a lot of money into it, no doubt; it’s really nice now, man. It does look the same on the outside, but there’s not a bunch of long-haired guys sitting around, there is no pottery wheel in the backyard, and there is no garage leaning on a tree anymore — it was a funky place back then, and perfect for what we were doing.”
In closing, when asked what still motivates him to continue to hone and practice his craft after 50 years when he could be resting on his laurels, Johnston had a simple reply. “I still love what I do, and I really love playing music in front of a crowd. I still love writing songs, and I love the outcome of the process. Again, being in front of a crowd and getting them to respond, to sing along and sing back to you — that’s such a cool thing. It’s great to cycle the energy coming off the stage to the crowd, and then the crowd gives it back to you, and that takes everything up even higher. To me, that’s what it’s all about. Rest on my laurels? I can’t think of anything more boring that that! Who the hell wants to sit around the house? I got to do that enough during the lockdown. I want to keep doing this for as long as I can, man.”
The above Doobie Brothers feature originally ran in the December 2021 edition of Goldmine, which can be purchased in our store by clicking on the image below.