At 63, Tom Johnston, the frontman of the veteran rock band the Doobie Brothers, would rather do vocal exercises and turn in early than trash the band’s hotel rooms. But the bad old days of rock-and-roll’s golden age are still fun to reminisce about — for most people, at least.
“Everybody did it,” said Johnston, referring to the custom of trashing hotel rooms. “Those war stories are still good for a chuckle, but maybe not for the hotel people. Now everyone has mellowed out considerably, but in the old days, it was a free-for-all. The way we used to party back then, no one that’s still doing that is still around at this point.”
Their days of Animal House-style bacchanalia may be behind them, but the Doobie Brothers are indeed still touring, some 40 years after the group’s formation. On Monday night, the band takes its act to the Filene Center at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, for the first time since 2009.
The Doobies formed when a small group of San Jose State students got together, united in their admiration for the psychedelic ’60s group Moby Grape. Johnston first partnered with drummer John Hartman, who was born in Falls Church, and the pair later teamed up with guitarist Patrick Simmons and drummer Michael Hossack, both of whom are still band members. The band’s name wasn’t the result of a late-night smoke session.
“One morning (before a gig), our housemate Keith Rosen said, ‘you ought to call yourselves the Doobie Brothers, man,’ for reasons that were pretty obvious, I guess,” said Johnston. “We said, ‘all right, it’s a stupid name, but we need a name for tonight, so we’ll use it,’ and then we just decided to stay with it.”
Few could argue that it was better than Pud, the band’s original name, but despite the association with the famous plant, and Johnston’s 1973 arrest for marijuana possession, the Doobies never championed the decriminalization cause. For Hartman, the band’s name and reputation for partying continued to haunt him, long after he left the band in 1979. In 1994, he filed an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against the city of Petaluma, Calif., after his attempt to become a police officer was thwarted by his admitted drug use during the band’s early years.
The band has, however, championed the cause of veterans, especially Vietnam Veterans, which is somewhat ironic, given the fact that Johnston’s penchant for playing the guitar helped keep him out of the war.
Johnston was drafted just after the band had started to take off in the early ’70s, but during his medical evaluation, the doctor noticed a concentration of bumps on his wrist.
“The doctor said, ‘You can’t handle a rifle with those things on your arm,’ and I wasn’t about to argue with him, so I got the deferment,” said Johnston, who added that the bumps came from playing the guitar too much. “A week later they went away and I never got them again.”
Deferment in hand, Johnston and the band cranked out hits like “China Grove,” “Takin’ it to the Streets,” and “Listen to the Music” in the early ’70s. In 1976, they released the first volume of a greatest hits album that ultimately sold more than 10 million copies. Shortly thereafter, Johnston had to leave the band to seek treatment for a bleeding ulcer. He later embarked on a solo career, and the Doobies broke up in 1982, before reforming again in 1987.
Since that date, the band has been on the road nearly every year.
“Every year is a busy touring year for us,” said Johnston, who noted that the band played 116 shows in 2010 in support of their new album, “World Gone Crazy,” and plans to engage in a full slate of shows next year, including a tour of New Zealand. The band used to tour on a turboprop plane, but due to soaring insurance costs and the fact that two of their planes burned — luckily not with them on board — they now have to travel by bus. At this stage of their careers, what’s the appeal of 13-hour, overnight bus rides?
“We still get a real kick out of playing live,” Johnston said. “What makes it worthwhile is the joy of playing and seeing the crowd get up and respond.”
Still, he admits that the band’s rigorous touring schedule has, on rare occasions, caused him to forget what city he’s in while on stage. But the occasional “Hello Cleveland!” when the band actually is in Detroit isn’t reason enough to diminish the joy of playing the songs they still love.
Much has changed over the years, but Patrick Simmons still hasn’t cut his hair, the band continues to record music, and their fans continue to buy their records. A critic from the BBC panned their latest album as a “time capsule from the Nixon/Ford era,” but the Doobies always have been more of a fan favorite than critical darlings. They’ve been inexplicably left out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and are, bizarrely, not included in Rolling Stone’s online artist database.
But none of that matters to their legions of fans, who gave “World Gone Crazy” rave reviews on Amazon.com and other sites, and have continued to show up for the band’s live performances. According to partial 2011 data from Pollstar, a trade publication that covers the concert industry, the band has played to 87 percent capacity on its tour, albeit in smaller venues with an average crowd size of around 1,800.
Johnston’s daughter, Lara, who was featured on “American Idol” and will open for the band Monday night, has helped turn her generation on to the Doobies with her own original voice.
Her father is content with the Doobies’ place in music history.
“We wrote great songs that stood the test of time,” he said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be out here still doing this.”