Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Past a certain age in life, the number of obligations begin to shrink in number, creating, or I should say, recreating moments of spontaneity. Such a thing happened Sunday when, quite by accident, we discovered that Chicago and the Doobie Brothers, two rock bands who had largely shaped my adolescence, were in Phoenix for a one-night show. It was so spontaneous that I bought the tickets on my phone standing in the parking lot.
For teenagers and young adults, music, as much as any other thing, provides not only entertainment, but a soundtrack through which our lives are expressed. I turned twelve in 1967, which meant that my brain was filled with the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, and yes, Elvis. As the decade turned over into the 70’s, the music took a much harder edge. The Beatles were now four separate acts. The Stones, Zeppelin, Deep Purple and the Grateful Dead. Pop now achieved its divorce from rock n’ roll with the Jacksons, Elton John, Neil Diamond, and the Supremes. Folk emerged from the Village coffee houses and we heard Gordon Lightfoot, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Simon & Garfunkle, and Joni Mitchell. Motown surged with muscular authority with James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Gladys and the Pips, and Wilson Pickett. American radio stations blasted listeners with all those formats, a kind of electronic cross-culturalism.
I had several favorite acts, and a ton of favorite songs. But around 1970, two bands emerged for me.
In 1969 San Jose, California, survivors of a band called Moby Grape formed a new group that would eventually evolve into the Doobie Brothers. By 1972, they were charting nationally. Their unique sound pushed through the background noise and captured my attention. I remember when Cheryl was pregnant with our son, I would put a Doobies record on and place the headphones on her belly, hoping to entertain that developing fetus. Oddly, after he was born, he never liked either band.
About that same time, another band came out of Chicago, originally called “The Big Thing” and “Chicago Transit Authority” until threatened legal action by that city’s mass transit bureaucracy force a shortening of the name to simply “Chicago.” They were a rock band with horns, a trombone, sax, and trumpet, that brought a bright, brassy sound to the radio. I was a brass player, so naturally they appealed to me. Those two bands were at the top of my charts from adolescence through almost early middle age. I had gone to see Chicago when they were touring with the Beach Boys round 1975, but hadn’t been back since. I had never seen the Doobies on stage. So it was with great anticipation that we entered Ak Chin Pavilion that evening.
It’s Arizona, and it’s summer, but when the sun goes down, the air cools to a far more comfortable level. A fresh breeze kept things pleasant. We paid $24 each for a spot on the grass towards the back of the Pavilion. I couldn’t help but think that back in 1975, that same amount would have gotten us within sweat-slingin’ distance of the stage. For this show, those seats were in the $700 range. How things have changed….
The Doobies opened and gave a great performance, playing all of the hits from their great career. Their slow, southern ballad “Black Water” got the entire audience singing along. Chicago came on about 9 pm, and again, played the memories from my youth. It was a great show, one that peeled back the years for both of us.
While we were quite a ways back from the stage, the multi-story HD video screens gave us the close-ups we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. In my mind, I remember them in their relative youth. Now, I could see how the years had piled up. It was a stark reminder that these musicians, my social muse of youth, were now between 68 and 73 years old. And yet, instead of putting around a golf course somewhere, here they were energetically playing rock and roll for the masses.
It’s quite a statement actually. We left the show around 11 pm, because we were very sleepy and for Cheryl, Monday was a work day. Plus, our temporary home for this gig was over an hour away. The guys were still up there, wailing away. This is not something they have to do. Chicago has sold over 100 million records over the 50 years of their career, the Doobies a hit less at over 40 million, so they’re not exactly hurting for cash. They do this tour, which can only be described as “grinding,” because they want to do this. Their dream as youngsters was to be rock stars. And despite their geriatricism, they are living that dream.
Age is catching up. Several original members have died, others have taken time off for treatment of conditions endemic to old age. But despite the innate challenges, it’s clear they absolutely love what they do, so why stop?
I’m a relative youngster at 10 years their junior, but believe me, when talking about a life-long passion driving them their life long, I get it. For them, the best way to handle retirement was…not to retire.
It’s a beautiful thing.