Jeremy D. Larson does the best Michael McDonald impersonation that I’ve ever seen. It’s low-toned, muffled, and sounds like a decade’s old Trans-Am chugging around San Francisco’s concrete slopes on a rainy day. The only person that comes even close is the McDonald himself in one of his Ã¼ber-ironic self parodies. Granted, anyone can channel McDonald’s funky baritone, and it’s an entertaining voice to dabble with, but Larson’s is a cut above the rest (ed. he’s being very kind). For some reason, I think about this every time I hear The Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music” – even if it’s in the shower, post-gym, and I’m singing along, too.
I know McDonald had nothing to do with “Listen to the Music”. The Man With the Silver Beard wouldn’t enlist as an honorary Doobie until about three years after the song was released and I’m hard pressed to even find a video of him singing the song. Still, that blue-eyed, teddy bear mug of his always pops up whenever the song struts by on the stereo. What’s weird about this is that I’m usually a bastard about facts and details, yet taped on the front of my mind’s proverbial manilla folder for The Doobie Brothers is a glossy headshot of Michael McDonald, who wasn’t even the band’s original singer and was only a member for a little over ten years. Sure, he was responsible for some of their biggest hits, specifically “What a Fool Believes” and “Takin It to the Streets”, but he’s not an original member. So, it’s erroneous to place so much precedence on the guy; it would be like thinking of George Lazenby or Timothy Dalton every time you heard Monty Norman’s theme for James Bond sort of.
There’s a lot of character to Michael McDonald. Even if you don’t listen to his music, you probably have a vague image of the guy, and he’s most likely pummeling the keys as if he’s this incredible silver-haired doppelgÃ¤nger of Rowlf from The Muppets. But it goes deeper than just mere appearance. McDonald also injected a lot of keys ‘n’ soul into The Doobie Brothers post-1975, shifting their sound and image from electric-guitar-based rock into what’s now considered traditional soft rock. Because of this, McDonald’s often hailed as the poster child (or better yet, captain) of “yacht rock.”
For awhile I didn’t really get the idea behind yacht rock. Maybe it’s because I grew up with this music and there just happened to be yachts everywhere. When you live in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, where alcoholics and professionals go hand-in-hand, life begins and ends at sea. Those with “old money” own yachts, those with “ten bucks and a lunchbox” work on yachts. If you’re bored, you go boating. If you’re bored on a boat, you go boating some more. If you don’t own a boat, a friend does. If a friend doesn’t, then your family’s friend does. That might seem like a blanket assessment, but it’s not. There’s a reason I hardly sunburn; after awhile, the sun just becomes…a part of you.
So, yeah, yacht rock works as this goofy, ironic label, but there’s little irony in it for me. Where some might imagine sunsoaked fortysomethings with wavy hair saluting one another on the open sea, I actually recall sunsoaked fortysomethings with wavy hair telling me I need to bring my bathing suit and only one friend for the boat ride. As a little kid, my parents or relatives or neighbors dragged me to countless parties held at sea. Whether we were snorkeling, fishing, celebrating a birthday soiree, or having a cookout over the waves, there was always some radio blasting the Top 40 or a handful of cassettes the ship’s captain handpicked. This was the ’80s, in South Florida, and at the time everyone wanted to be or be with Tom Selleck, Don Johnson, or (to a lesser extent) Burt Reynolds. It was the days of Miami Vice, when boating promised an adventure.
Okay, so I was maybe four or five at the oldest, but there are faint snapshots that circulate in my head every time I hear Bruce Hornsby sing “The Way It Is“, or the synths shine on Toto’s “Africa”, or when the harmonies float in Pilot’s “Magic“. I can remember the fireworks blasting away over the intracoastal, shimmering across the water, as Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years” incited an all-adult singalong. Whenever I spin Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is“, I swear it was playing on a rainy day, somewhere off the coast, when my cousin and I were waiting patiently for the sun to break through again. I can see these images, all of them, whenever I listen to a number of these tracks, all of which have retroactively been dubbed “yacht rock.”
I’m not sure I trust these memories anymore, though. I know these things happened, but a part of me feels like I’ve subconsciously associated these songs to these moments, as if the term “yacht rock” has ascribed this innate tagging in my head, and that although I know these songs were floating at sea around this time, I’m not 100% certain they were always there. Basically, the phrase has corrupted my memories, and forced me to think otherwise – although, being an obsessive compulsive opens the door to second, third, and fourth guessing. With me, I’m sure I’m up to seventh-guessing myself.
Actually, it’d probably be a good time now to digress on the actual term “yacht rock.” Just as its name implies, it has come to represent the ’70s and ’80s soft rock that unassuming yuppies with yachts might appreciate while sailing the open sea. It’s not an official label by any means, but recent critics have come to use the term, usually in jest. That’s because it’s pretty much a parody in itself, thanks to one JD Ryznar. As director of the online video series Yacht Rock, which over 12 episodes that ran from 2005-2010 fictionalized the lives of the genre’s myriad inductees, Ryznar is essentially be regarded as its inventor.
As the Seattle Times reported while profiling the series, Ryznar came to associate the artists together after realizing that “all of them seemed to share members and collaborate frequently,” “a lot of the music of the era featured albums with guys on boats on the cover and songs about sailing,” and that the “music sounds really good on boats because it’s good for relaxing, sitting back and drinking.” Crude connections, sure, but it didn’t stop him from creating a series that not only uses Michael McDonald’s “Sweet Freedom” as its theme, but has also been credited for Hall & Oates’ recent resurgence in popularity. Hell, even McDonald noticed the buzz (bummer fact: He’s never owned a yacht).
In hindsight, it’s easy to see how Ryznar came to string the details together and knock out the sensational series. They were there for the taking, and to be fair, they were hardly under the radar. Watch an old Miami Vice episode – some of which actually featured the rockers themselves (e.g. Glenn Frey, Phil Collins, to name a couple) on yachts – or revisit Grand Theft Auto’s Vice City, in which you dump bodies off a yacht to the sounds of Toto, Mister Mister, et al. Perhaps it’s always been there, this yacht rock.
Hesitations aside, I think there’s some truth to the whole business, but it all goes back to “Listen to the Music”. There’s one memory I’ll never forget: It’s a late afternoon day, the breeze is running through the backyard of my mother’s friend’s house, and the sun’s trickling in through the blinds. I’m playing with a new Lego set, some truck or car, and eating the string cheese equivalent of chocolate. I can hear the faint sounds of music outside – the Doobies, that’s for sure – and I peak through the sliding glass door to see my mother drinking alongside her friend Kelly (a guy, if you believe that). There’s almost a purple hue to everything, and they’re just sitting on a docked boat, enjoying the scene. That’s all I can remember, but I remember it vividly.
Like most random thoughts, I’m not really sure what this means. Does it validate the term “yacht rock”? No. Was that my intention? Not really. I think “Listen to the Music” just reminds me that there’s this unironic history to the South Florida lifestyle, and in recent times, this part of my childhood happens to be a involved in a sensationalized parody. What’s even more confounding is that I not only believe in the genre, but I get the joke, too. So, yeah, there’s this weird line between fact and fiction going on here, but I’m totally okay with that.
Especially if it keeps the world safe and sound with Michael McDonald impersonations.