Don’t Ya Mess With Me

Spotify playlist:

I was listening to the Top 100 of the 1964 “Billboard” chart on shuffle.

And I heard “Baby, I Need Your Loving.”

Now the truth is 1964 was absolutely dripping with hits. Go back and you’ll be astounded. To the point where you were not starving for great new music, it was constantly being heaped upon your table. And not only was 1964 the year the Beatles broke in America, it was the year Motown truly crossed over to white Top 40 outlets. It started with the Supremes, with three number ones that year, “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me.” I always associated “Where Did Our Love Go” with the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” they were hits at the same time. I thought they both hearkened back to the pre-Beatle era, I thought neither act would last. The Supremes certainly did, the Shangri-Las not so much. Today the Shangri-Las focus is all on “Leader of the Pack” and “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” but “Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand)” was always my favorite, still is. Ditto on “Where Did Our Love Go,” it’s always had a special place in my heart, but during the nineties I started to cotton to “Come See About Me” which I now prefer, but when I hear “Where Did Our Love Go” I think of the summer of ’64 whereas “Come See About Me” is not rooted in time. And there’s always power in being the progenitor.

But through the door the Supremes opened came an outpouring of Motown acts. And I’d be lying if I told you I loved all that music in that era, it took away radio time from the Beatles and the British Invasion, it seemed to be looking back as opposed to forward, I needed years to go by to gain perspective. And over the years the greatness of Levi Stubbs has been extolled, and I always love hearing “Reach Out I’ll Be There” with him testing the upper limit of his range. And the track is so dramatic, urgent, it’s like it all matters SO MUCH! Nearly as good is “Standing in the Shadows of Love.” The rest of the hits I know by heart, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “It’s the Same Old Song,” “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)” and the positively exquisite “Bernadette”! But I never think of “Baby I Need Your Loving” and never listen to it, but in context, with its brethren from 1964, it reached me in a new way. “Baby I Need Your Loving” swings, it’s smooth in a way the latter hits were not, less urgent, more subtle, but equally meaningful.

And I’m sitting on the couch late at night grooving on the Four Tops. Luxuriating in not only the music, but my detachment from the news. It’s just me, I’m having a private experience, I’m loving it! I’m not scrolling on my phone, only searching to do Four Tops research, did you know that Levi Stubbs not only refused to put his name in the act’s moniker, he refused to go solo, he stayed with the act, he was so loyal. Unlike not only so many Motown acts, but Phillippé Wynne of Thom Bell’s Philadelphia soul factory. Phillippé Wynne was just a member of the Spinners, then went solo to little acclaim and then died on stage at 43, but there’s a huge cult of insiders who testify as to his greatness, check out this performance of “Rubberband Man” on “The Midnight Special”: You can’t believe this is totally live, you think about how much money the label spent, you’re wowed by the synchronized dancing, but what is most impressive, what is positively amazing, is Phillippé Wynne’s voice, his voice seems to transcend humanity, that tone, that delivery, singing but almost sounding like shouting, you just want MORE!

And I check out all the streaming services, I oftentimes listen to two or three at once. I was listening to the Four Tops on Amazon, and researching on Apple and Spotify. And then I saw this playlist, made just for me on Apple Music, entitled “New Music Mix.” Spotify was first, I didn’t even know Apple had this product, but Spotify’s personalized new release playlist is laden with reissues, it doesn’t deliver on the premise, which is new music. And I was excited about new music when I saw the first track was “Lifting You” by Jungle. I’m really into their work, was about to write about them. The second cut was from Jackson Browne’s new album “Downhill From Everywhere” which has gotten tons of press but is barely more than listenable. The playing is fantastic, Jackson’s voice? Not so much. But the third track was by…THE DOOBIE BROTHERS?

I hadn’t heard they had new music, Tom Johnston had told me he was eager to go into the studio, but I didn’t know there was finished product. So I clicked and I was stunned…IT SOUNDED LIKE THE DOOBIE BROTHERS! And I’d be lying if I listened and thought “Don’t Ya Mess With Me” sounded like a hit single, then again there’s no station that plays this music anymore. Certainly not Top 40. Not even Adult Alternative, the Doobies are not hip enough. And Active Rock is too hard. This music lives in a vacuum. But then nearly two-thirds of the way through the guitar started to WAIL! And after a repetition of the chorus, that lead axe went back on its roller coaster ride, dancing all over the fundamentals of the band, and this is certainly a band, unlike today’s lauded compositions created solo in the bedroom. And then when the track suddenly faded out, I had to hear it again, and then again, AND AGAIN! Usually I can’t get through even thirty seconds of the new work of ancient bands.

And it turns out “Don’t Ya Mess With Me” is one of four tracks released on August 6th from the album “Liberté,” coming out on October 1st.

So I cautiously decided to play the other three released cuts. And the truth was none were as good as “Don’t Ya Mess With Me,” especially the two non-Johnston tracks, the man with the signature sound of the Doobies. But I liked “Don’t Ya Mess With Me” so much that the next afternoon I decided to listen it on the big rig, and then played the three other cuts again. And after a couple of plays through I had to admit the opener, “Oh Mexico,” was actually superior to “Don’t Ya Mess With Me,” I guess I was turned off by the title and subject matter, seemed redundant to me, but the picking, the vocal, the sound… It sounded like the band was having fun. Knowing how good they were and smiling while delivering what they knew their fans would appreciate.

And make no mistake, this new Doobies music is only for fans. Don’t even bother if you don’t like the Doobies, it’s not for you. As for hating on this uber-successful act of the seventies, don’t waste your time, that was forty years ago, they, and you, are in the rearview mirror, but it appears the Doobies want to go out in a blaze as opposed to fading away.

It’s a cliché, make an album of new music and play any of it live and the audience starts talking and goes to the loo, no matter how much they love you, no matter how big a fan they are.

Then again, old acts making new music oftentimes are too cerebral about it. Forget those putting out product for ink, to sell tickets, that’s all calculation with forgettable product. I’m talking about acts trying to match their classic work. They get self-conscious. Feel they must test limits to prove they’re not dated and even worse the power struggle often gets in the way. Yes, everybody in the act wants a song or two on the record, irrelevant of their quality, they want the attention, they want to get paid, even though there’s so little cash in these projects, you can net more in one night of live performance.

But some acts are so self-conscious or defeated or both that they don’t even bother recording new music. They know the eras have changed. It’s all too depressing, they’d rather just go on the road, play their hits, collect the money and pay their bills. Sad, but most of these acts are in their seventies, or close to it. And then there are those who made so much on recordings back when who bitch about streaming payouts when the truth is few are actually listening and you’re lucky people can hear your new music at all, if we were still in a physical world there’d be room for nothing more than your greatest hits in the record store.

So the Doobie Brothers started out as a bar band. The lineup changed. Michael McDonald became the lead singer and there was a second round of hits, as a matter of fact Johnston and McDonald are on tour together with the band this fall. Then again, at this point the band is only Johnston, Patrick Simmons and Clover refugee John McFee, brought aboard to play the parts others couldn’t and shine and he’s the secret sauce here, his picking goes straight to your heart, makes your body twist, just like this music did back in the seventies, and that’s a good thing.

But my point here is the Doobies started out in the bars, where you honed your chops, something no one does today, there aren’t even places to play, if there’s music at all it’s provided by a deejay. One can argue this entire paradigm is on life support, along with rock music itself. Turns out rock is too expensive to make and support, four or five people have to be fed and housed and hopefully paid. And it takes money to record this stuff and… Today rock is anything but mellow, today it’s in-your-face and hard edged, but if you close your eyes and let your mind drift you can see yourself nodding your head in the low-ceilinged bar listening to this new music, getting up and dancing, having a good time. Now the only way to have even a facsimile of this experience is to go to the overpriced gig, and at those prices you believe you DESERVE to hear each and every hit, you want to know every track by heart.

But the funny thing is if the Doobies played “Don’t Ya Mess With Me” and “Oh Mexico” live nobody would go to the bathroom, they’d be grooving just like they were to the hits, because these two cuts hit the sweet spot of the band, they may not be innovative, but they’re not repetitive, they contain the essence of the Doobies’ magic.

But they won’t be on “The Midnight Special,” never mind “In Concert.” So many members of this audience listen to podcasts and the news, they’re not driving down the highway in their Dodge Dart with the windows down banging their arm on the side of the car in unison to the beat. In other words, everything’s moved on but the music itself. Everybody’s gotten older, but there’s this shared sound from way back when that meant so much that the bands purveying it are still on the road playing to thousands. You can’t get this hit anywhere else. Kids aren’t looking for this sound, the Led Zeppelin renaissance is in the rearview mirror, the classic rock acts are fading away, at least in listening power, check the Spotify numbers, then again the oldsters are not spinning these nuggets ad infinitum on streaming services, if they’re even subscribing, Spotify is for youngsters, who wants beats more than melody, who see music as participatory, as background to not only videos, but partying. The music is evanescent, it’s just temporary grease enabling you to have a good time, then it’s discarded.

Not classic rock.

And I predict a renaissance at some point in the future, could be twenty years from now, maybe fifty, the music is just too good, like that of the bluesmeisters who inspired it, the tunes are hiding in plain sight, even more accessible, and when music becomes more about the essence than the trappings people will seek it out.

Are they gonna seek out the Doobie Brothers?

Well, I wouldn’t put them at the top of the list. But if younger generations find themselves still driving, still going into the hinterlands with no internet access they’ll discover how much this music resonates, how it rides shotgun and inspires.

And “Don’t Ya Mess With Me” and “Oh Mexico” continue the tradition. They’re in the pocket. And that’s where all the great music resides, right?

YouTube-“Don’t Ya Mess With Me”:

YouTube-“Oh Mexico”:

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