August , 2011
By David Huff
Michael McDonald: Takin' It To The Streets At The Crossroads of His Life
JAM Magazine Speaks With Singer Songwriter Michael McDonald
It was a moment Pat Simmons, a founding member of the Doobie Brothers, would never forget. The year was 1976, and the band was facing a career-ending crisis. Contractually obligated by their label to release a new record, the band's principle songwriter, Tom Johnston, had informed his partner, the band's other main songwriter, that he wouldn't be contributing any new material to the upcoming project. Simmons, who had already given the Doobie's all the material he had written, was stunned by the news. He then recalled a casual conversation with the band's touring keyboard player, Michael McDonald. The musician mentioned he had written some songs, but no one had heard them. Caught literally between a rock and a hard place, Simmons reached out to McDonald. A reluctant Ted Templeman, the Doobie's producer, agreed to listen, all the while hoping to somehow lure Johnston back. As the disinterested producer looked on, Simmons told Michael to play. As the young keyboardist played the opening chords to his song, an angelic voice sang the words "You don't know me, but I'm your brother." Simmons could barely believe what he was hearing. Templeman looked over at his friend in disbelief, and silently mouthed the words, "Oh My God!"
Michael McDonald's tune, "Takin' It to the Streets", and another song he'd written, "It Keeps You Running", would totally overhaul the sound of the Doobie Brothers. Hs voice would become the signature sound, and his songs would help anchor the music through four albums in a remarkable five-year span. As the group's fortunes would soar to multi-platinum heights, McDonald established himself as a songwriting tour de force. Although the sun would finally set on the Doobie Brothers with a 1982 farewell tour, McDonald's career would continue to soar as a solo artist.
During his some 40 years in the music business, this St. Louis native has become an old hand at facing down his own career crossroads. Schooled in the art of songwriting by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen during Steely Dan's glory years, McDonald's musical education, coupled with undeniable talent, has sold millions of records in his lifetime. His foray into the Motown catalogue produced yet another string of platinum career successes. When the Grammy Award winning artist plays the Motown classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in concert, his angelic voice is literally singing the story of his own life. He is currently on tour with Boz Scaggs.
JAM: Is going solo everything it's cracked up to be after being an integral part of a super group for as many years as you were?
Michael McDonald: I think it depend upon what you are looking for. I don't think that I automatically assumed that I would leap into some hugely successful career. You always hope for as much success as you can get on radio. Let's face it; if you are human you are going to want it all. I don't think I ever really kidded myself what the reality of leaving the Doobies would be. I had to think really hard to what I was giving up verse the reality of what I might be walking into. In retrospect, I'm as happy today as I've ever been just doing what I'm doing. I think to a lot of people's surprise, being in a mega group really isn't all that it's cracked up to be. I have a lot of great memories being with the Doobies, and it was always a lot of fun, but I also kind of like the ability to work at my own pace as a solo artist. I have a somewhat normal life, and a career. In the Doobies, that choice was never mine to have. You were either in it all the way, or you were forced to quit. I think for a lot of the guys, that's what happened along the way. When the band finally broke up, that was the story of the band, finally enough had jumped ship and there was no one original left in the band.
JAM: Had band members grown disillusioned, or disinterested?
No, not really. Success, fame and fortune is only worth so much. It's not worth giving everything of a spiritual nature up for it. I think people find that along the way. It's not worth giving your whole self to, because then you don't have anything, whatever that is, the big pie in the sky with the brass ring. It's just a brass ring and you are sitting there holding it and you really don't have anything to show for it except the ring. I think the whole key to any real success if it kind of completes you as a human being, or if it gratifies in a deep sense. I think the biggest problem with success, as most people see it, from the outside, it doesn't really do that. Whether we know it or not, most of us are looking for things that are really an inside job, they are not external and they are not completed by external things.
JAM: Are you still looking for that something?
Yeah, I think so. It's a day to day thing. To me, the more I think about what I want out of life, the more I realize it's a kind of one day at a time, day-to-day odyssey that the only things that exist are right now. The past doesn't exist and the future isn't real or doesn't exist yet. I can pretty much find everything I need just inside of today. The only problem I ever have from time to time I think in any real sense is when I start projecting out from today, or back into the past. I find that what exists today is the thing that's real – my family, myself and the most of what I can do is what I accomplish today. Whether it's being a parent, a musician or a husband, I only have today to work with.
JAM: Michael, that thinking is flawed, and I'll tell you why. You wouldn't have a today and a tomorrow, if it hadn't been for what you accomplished yesterday, if you get my drift. As a musician, your past absolutely does exist and your future is real because of it.
Okay, you're right. As a musician, your past is very much tied to your future. My accomplishments as a member of the Doobie Brothers has certainly affected me today and allowed Michael McDonald to have a future. It's easier to be who I am because of those past experiences, there's no denying that. I think somewhere along the way, I surrendered to the fact that nothing in the past was going to fix me. When I was with the Doobies, yeah, I got up in front of 100,000 people and performed. The people clapped and cheered for us. Usually, at that time, you are just wondering why didn't the record sell more or why didn't the promoter do this. You know, it's always something that keeps the experience from being absolutely perfect. After awhile, you realize when you're looking to these outside things, there's really nothing perfect and these things are never going to make you happy. I think it is really, not because you've had these things, I but because you've had enough of them to realize there will never be enough of them to fix whatever it is you felt it would fix.
JAM: Before you started working on Take It to the Heart, did you feel you were missing something in the music? I noticed you used four different producers on the album?
Let's see, I used Ted Templeman, Don Was, Gardner Cole and David Gamps both produced one track. It was mainly Ted Templeman who did the lion's share of the record. The reason Ted didn't do the rest of it was at that point in time what happened is we had pretty much done the album and handed in a finished product to Warner. Because it was so late in the year, we decided to hold the album because we didn't want to compete with the Christmas releases that were coming out. From August to after December, I had written some other stuff, and we had time to add other songs. Ted had gone on to another project, I saw this as an opportunity to work with other producers and followed through on it. Don Was, for some reason, I caught him at the right moment between projects, and he worked with me. He had just finished the B-52's, and Bonnie Raitt's album. He has such a range as a producer, and can cover so much ground with his talent, I felt safe in asking him to come on board. Don had the ability to adapt to an artist instead of the other way around. That was attractive to me as a musician.
JAM: Not to sound rude Michael, but you seem to be too sweet of an artist to be dealing with a Ted Templeman, whose rock background doesn't seem to mesh with your writing style.
You know it's funny, but Ted and I have been friends for years. In a way, when he worked with the Doobies, we were such an odd group of people to be in one band, it was just the most unlikely crew in the world. But it worked for awhile, and when it stopped, then it's like nature took its course. Ted was always a type of guru for me and I feel he has such an incredible insight into the making of pop records. We've developed a friendship I can play him some demos and I trust his judgment. In things I believe in that he doesn't, I can tell if he hasn't listened to them or if I can pin him down and make him listen, he'll tell me he knows what I'm going for but he just doesn't hear it. I trust him enough I take his word for it. As long as he's listened to it, then maybe it's something I'm not hearing. He and Lenny Waronker are two people I put a lot of stock in.
JAM: The last few years of the music business has changed so much with rock out and grunge in. Has your ability to successfully work with a variety of artists insulated you from trends and allowed you to go about on as business as usual?
What I tend to notice with music changing, because I expect it too change, the whole nature of pop music is to capsulize what's going on at the moment, the business of music has changed so much. I tend to notice that and it's odd, because I'm not that interested in the business, but you can't help but notice what's going on. Every time you give an album to your record company, there seems to be a totally different philosophy taken hold at the label whether it's marketing. They are looking to take certain responsibilities away from the artist and put certain one's on. I remember when the Doobies put out Taking It to the Streets, that was the day and age of the label trusting the artist musically to be creative and they'd promote the album. It went from that to talking to all the A&R people and here is a list of songwriters to work with and producers to work with. We don't like that song, you should write something like this. They wanted to take all that control away from you, and if you have any extra money lying around, we want you to hire indies to go work the record. It was like we'll do your job, you do ours. That type of strategy, I think, sinks artist's right into the toilet. It's like watching a muddy diamond float down the river. No one has the sense to grab it. Danny o'Keefe's ability to capsulize thoughts lyrically, and what he can say in the first four lines of a song so far surpasses production value and hype that surrounds so much music that record companies are ready to go to the mat for. And they are equally ready to dump those people the minute they show signs of weakness in the market. That seems to be the sensibility of the record business right now and that causes them to overlook great records that will never see the light of day. It's like robbing the public of great stuff because they go with some preconception that there's no way the public would want to hear this because it's not the current thing. The music business has a very myopic view of what's going on at any specific time. If rap is hot, then rap is the only thing that will sell in the market. I miss the days of radio when you could hear Gail Garnett followed by the Rolling Stones then Andy Williams. That was the classic renaissance era of American radio. Nowadays if you turn on a station that plays rap, you'll hear nothing but that. That is such a shame that stations feel so restricted and confined by marketing and these firms that are hired to be told what the best demographics will be. Nobody's willing to listen to the people today, only consultants.
JAM: Did your work with the Doobies immunize you from falling into the cracks once you decided to go solo because of the proven track record you had with the band?
It certainly gave me an image of validity in a lot of people's eyes. But that comes and goes. I made the rounds as a solo artist long before I joined up with the Doobie Brothers, and definitely fell through the cracks. I came to California in 1970, made some records that never saw the light of day. Some were never released. I did the demos and beat the streets for a long time. Going back to 1965, I was in bands trying to make things happen. So I definitely know what it's like to beat the streets. I wasn't born into the Doobies, I was drafted. Working with Steely Dan and the Doobies was quite an education for me. In many ways, I don't doubt the music I played in my earlier years was pretty mediocre. I learned a lot from Steely Dan about writing songs by playing their music as a side man.
JAM: Do you understand Fagan and Becker's reluctance to tour?
There's a lot about touring that if you don't have the appetite for it, it can be very draining. It's not a fun thing in many ways. You have to overlook the boredom and tedious aspects of it. You live out that one day to play two hours before people that night. Those days are often filled with grueling schedules. The thing that makes it worth it is those two hours on stage in front of a live audience. The one thing that keeps your perspective on the whole thing is each night you are playing for more and more people. That tells the story of the album; that tells the story about you as an artist. I find for most people, you can listen to a record and in America, it's heard from all different angles – pop music over TV commercials, on elevators, in your car, it's coming at you from so many ways, you almost get numb to it in a way. When you hear a band live, they are either going to love the stuff in a different way, or they won't. We can give people a whole new perspective on stuff they were kind of on the fence about. I have to hear a record five or six times before I'm even sure I like it. If I hear them live, then I'll listen to the album with a whole new perspective.
JAM: You've done a lot of work with other artists, particularly Joni Mitchell that I thought was brilliant but fell through the cracks at Geffen, does that hurt you when you've done some really great work with an artist and the product just seems to languish?
I'd be a liar if I said no. I've been a fan of Joni Mitchell's for like, she's on a pedestal for me. The fact I got called to do it, even my wife went with me for the session she's such a fan and had to meet her. It was one of those surreal experiences where we both couldn't believe it. The album sounded so great in the studio, and the tape from Warner's I got, and it seemed a great thing that just didn't get recognized. As with all recorded artists, you have to understand that not every record is going to sell, but at the same time, it doesn't mean it's not an important album for that artist. As time goes on, I think people when people look back on her career people will see Dog Eat Dog as a very timely and important album in her career. I was really surprised that the radio reception to the duet we did was so cool.
JAM: Where you skeptical about the original Doobies getting back together again?
Not really. I thought, quite honestly, had evolved into, nothing personal about this and we talk about twice a year, I don't think it is any secret that the band had evolved into something they didn't really understand or want in the final analysis. They were happy to do Taking it to the Streets and Minute by Minute, but after awhile, it seemed to be too confusing and all the elements that were so diverse and working so well, in the end, they were just diverse and not working so well. I know in my discussions with Pat, they had just become an L.A. based band when they were a Bay Area band. Everything had gotten away from them. I thought Tommy and Patrick starting things up again was a good thing. To me, that always was the Doobie Brothers even in Tommy's absence. "Long Train Running" and "China Grove" were big crowd pleasers.
JAM: You know Michael, your work with Doobies was just as integral as Tom Johnston's. Without you there, a major element was missing as well.
The only answer to that is this. When Patrick left the Doobies it was because he felt the band, and rightfully so, the band was at a very low creative level. We didn't want to turn the Doobie Brothers into a big dinosaur that had no business making records anymore. It's like the best laid plans, they never quite turn out the way you think they will. At the time, the realities were the band was struggling creatively and had no real direction. The label had no faith in the band's decisions, and we were trapped by several elements. We were very lost at the time. When Pat left the band, the rest of us thought how can we get up and do "Long Train Running" and "Black Water" without any of the original members and not feel kind of ridiculous. All those things tumbled into the band breaking up. I don't think it was any one person's decision as much as it was a bunch of individual decisions that resulted in us breaking up. I think Pat did a brilliant solo record and he was a victim of circumstance. He was signed to Elektra on the West Coast, and in the middle of him making another record, they dissolve the entire West Coast office. There was no one left that had signed him. People on the East Coast had no idea who he was really and why he had been signed. That is a very dangerous position for an artist to be in. There had always been a competition between the California and New York offices, so any artist who was signed to the West Coast was scorned by the new management. In fact, someone in the New York office was quoted as saying "I'm tired of Elektra / Asylum of being this rock graveyard." That's a shitty thing to say when you have Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, who built that label. This guy wouldn't have a job if it weren't for them. So you can imagine the attitude that prevailed at the label at that point. He put out a great record that just go dumped because of it.
JAM: Kenny Loggins became the soundtrack king in the early ‘80s. In many respects, I think that really hurt him and came back to haunt his solo career. You became the voice of the Doobie Brothers. In your solo career, did that come back to haunt you?
That's a tough question. In this business you have to love yourself when nobody else does. And you believe you can get off the mat and believe you can sbe a winner still. I think that's the thing about the music business I love. I believe it can happen. If it doesn't happen on the level I hope or expect, it will happen somewhere else. I still enjoy playing live. The real thrill remains the same. I still get the same kick out of this business as I did when I was 15, and my lasting memories of me doing things aren't the big arena dates or the Grammy's. The things I really remember are the days when I drove in a station wagon to a gig and laughing with guys in the band. Oddly enough, that's still the real pleasure in this I get. Going backstage to some summer venue, it's a beautiful night, you've gotten through the day and you're about to do the thing you love the most, and there is a bunch of people out there that hopefully will enjoy it with you, if it isn't happening on that label, then it isn't happening at all and all the record sales in the world isn't going to make it happen either. If I can just remember that, then I'll always do this whatever is going on around me at the time. Yesterdays heroes can just as easily be tomorrow's memories. That's absolutely true.
JAM: To me, because of your diversity, a successful band member and solo artist, what's left in the broad spectrum of things is there for you to accomplish?
I don't underestimate my position in life and as you know, when one door closes another one opens. That's the law of nature. For me, the biggest thing ahead of me, and you have to realize music is not my whole life, is being a parent. If I ever felt unprepared for something, that certainly was one of them. At the same time, I have found in life that things you are least prepared for will give you the most enjoyment because that's the adventure of living, putting one foot in front of another when you really don't know where in the hell you are going. That's what it's all about.
JAM: Do you remember Tina Turner from your days in St. Louis?
Oh yeah. We used to go and see her. One of the guys in my band, I've known since junior high school when we were in bands together. The Ike and Tina Review was a big thing back then. We'd see them at the Club Imperial in St. Louis. It was an incredible rock and roll spectacle back then. They slammed you with intensity. Tina, talk about a career. Without really changing that much, she's only really gotten better. She's certain grown with the times. I think she's more than grown, she has transcended time no matter what was going on. Fundamentally, she was something you couldn't deny. So many people imitated her, because people have become legends imitating her, like Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger. It's so obvious they were impressed by her stage presence, they imitated it.
JAM: Does it seem funny playing with her, or does it take you back in time.
I don't know if it takes me back in time. I think it's a great opportunity that gives me a certain validity we've been looking for. It gives a chance to play in front of a lot of people. I mean, we're doing stadium dates over here. Madonna and Prince cancel dates when she announces she's doing a tour over here. She is so huge in Europe, it doesn't make financial sense to play the U.S.
JAM: Are you happier today, or more content, than you have been in the past?
I'm more grateful today than I ever have been in the past.
JAM: Do you appreciate your position today?
Yeah, I think I so. I appreciate how lucky I am. That's a big ingredient in being happy having the sense, I don't have it all the time, which is the time expecting too much or want too much, or feeling less than, I have to stop and think how much I have to be grateful for and on another level I'm grateful my kid is healthy. I mean, I could be going to a hospital every day and there's people out there that do that. There's a lot of people out there that have to go to therapy with their kid every day, they have to sit there and watch their kids die before their time, there is a lot to be grateful for. All I have to do is remember that. The fact I'm talking to you today. I have the Doobies to be grateful for. I wouldn't be talking to you today with the Doobie Brothers. There's not a lot I perceive as negative about anything at all.
JAM: So it doesn't bother you talking about the Doobie Brothers?
No, not at all. I owe the Doobie Brothers a lot. I had something to offer the Doobie Brothers. The hard facts are if they hadn't of hired me I probably wouldn't be where I'm at today.
JAM: Jeff Porcaro got you into Steely Dan, is that right?
Jeff was going to go out on the road with Steely Dan, and he called telling me they were looking for people to sing and play background parts. I got the job. I toured for a year.