The Lefsetz Letter: The John Oates Book

"Rich Girl" got me through law school.

I didn't want to go, but I'd run out of options. I'd choked at the freestyle ingress, gotten the world's worst case of mononucleosis, part of me wanted to stay at Snowbird but I knew if I didn't leave Utah right then, I'd be there forever. That's the lure of skiing. Mostly the sensation of freedom. But there's the fresh air and the mountains and it turns out John Oates got hooked too. Went to Aspen on a ski trip in college and ended up buying a condo and moving there after the thrill was gone, after the band had had its hits, had broken up, and he was broke. There he skied every day, found new love and got remarried, even had a kid. He was living the life of normalcy. We think of them as stars, but the truth is they're just regular people, possibly with a prolonged adolescence, but either you have to O.D. or face the truth, we're all equal on this planet, we all have to get along.


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Now Hall & Oates were an FM band. Hip with little traction. You knew who they were but you didn't own any albums. Devoted followers of the scene knew that Tavares had had a huge hit with their cover of "She's Gone," but Hall & Oates was a struggling Philadelphia act that had worked with Arif Mardin and then taken a left turn with Todd Rundgren and had now switched labels to the worst in the business, RCA, which mean it was only a matter of time before they fell off the edge and ended up in the dustbin.

But then came "Rich Girl."

Okay, okay, purists would say it started with "Sara Smile." And it did. But that was mostly an AM hit in an FM world, "Rich Girl" was played on FM, and no community had more FM stations than Los Angeles, you could twist the dial and hear your favorite song multiple times, almost like owning it. And that's what I did with "Rich Girl."

There was no long intro. No overbearing instrumentation. Just Daryl Hall and a keyboard immediately getting into your brain, jerking you by the arm, taking you on a roller coaster ride that was oh-so-brief in an era when everything was oh-so-long. I distinctly remember the first time I heard it, driving out of the law school parking lot, it brightened my day, made me feel like life was worth living, like I could endure the boredom and inanity of law school if I could just hear music like this.

That's why I had to be in Los Angeles. It was the epicenter, with billboards on Sunset and gigs every night of the week. I could lead an alternative lifestyle. Inhabiting the record stores and reading the rags while my school brethren read the books. Actually, I gave up the books completely the second semester, other than Criminal Procedure, because I liked the teacher and he liked me, and was scared I was gonna flunk out and then my father would excoriate me but the truth is they've got these things they call outlines that the professors pooh-pooh but will carry you through, I found that out and got scores better than 85% of my class and all this is true but the competition wasn't that great. And part of the reason I'd given up studying, although I did go to class, if you stop going to class it's like you're not in school at all, was because I'd fallen in love, and that was more important than anything transpiring in a classroom. Maybe if I had better teachers I'd have been more into it, but I didn't care about the law anyway, just music, and John Oates cared about music and sought out the best teachers and slowly moved ahead.

We have the belief it's an overnight success. John played in bands, went to college, cut records, heard them on the radio and was still nowhere. That's how it was back then. A deal with a major label was a dream that rarely came true. To be a hero in your own hometown was oftentimes good enough.

Now I loved "Rich Girl" so much, even though it sounded not a whit like Zeppelin or so many of my other favorites, that I went out and bought the album, "Bigger Than Both of Us," which was so good I had to buy it on CD when that format burgeoned, even though it didn't sound a whole hell of a lot better than the vinyl. And not only does "Bigger Than Both of Us" get no respect, it's not even considered in a discussion of the best albums of the seventies, but it should be, it's playable throughout and it's peaks are oh-so-high. Not only "Rich Girl," but "Crazy Eyes" and "Do What You Want, Be What You Are."

"Payin' dues, Earth Shoes, Chicago blues Is that how you feel"

I'd owned Earth Shoes! With their negative heel. But no one under the age of fifty is familiar with them and no one under that age knows Hall & Oates's follow-up, "Beauty on a Back Street," with the irresistible opening cut "Don't Change" and the mysterious, sensual "Winged Bull," but I do. I bought each and every Hall & Oates album subsequently, because when you can reach these heights, you may again.

Not that "X-Static" didn't have me questioning this concept, but "Voices" emerged with "You Make My Dreams" and "Kiss On My List" and they were different from what had come before but just as infectious. And suddenly Hall & Oates were on a tear, one hit single after another, the darlings of MTV before being derided and experiencing a renaissance, before being inducted into he Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and going on an arena tour with Tears For Fears this summer.

And through it all, John Oates has been seen as the sidekick, the junior member. After all, Daryl Hall has one of the greatest voices in rock and roll history.

But the truth is neither of them could break through without the other. I purchased Daryl Hall's solo LP "Three Hearts in the Happy Ending Machine," and although "Foolish Pride" is a killer, the rest pales.

And Oates has never broken through alone.

But Oates came up with "Maneater," he details the inspiration in this book. And he wrote the opener "How Does It Feel To Be Back" from "Bigger Than Both of Us" and the truth is, they need each other, there's a special alchemy that happens when they're both involved.

And they became involved back at Temple, after they'd been in rival bands.

All this forgoing college because you're gonna make it.

Er, no, you're probably not gonna make it. And Hall & Oates stayed in school. To get out of the war if nothing else. John details singing at his wrestling co-captain's funeral, after he was blown to bits in Vietnam, and you recall how it was.

It was oh-so-different.

They say it's the same today, but it's not.

First and foremost, music ruled the world. Radio was the internet. And nobody was paying attention. Nobody had a smartphone, cameras used film, your everyday moves were not charted, which was especially freeing. I know, I know, it was even freer prior to my birth but I will tell you it's inhibiting having everybody in your business, knowing there's a camera on every corner to detail your faux pas.

And the two signed bad publishing contracts but ultimately hooked up with Tommy Mottola who whacked the money three ways, equally, and they went on the ride of a lifetime, and when it was all over, after Mottola had moved to CBS/Sony, John's accountant called him in for a meeting where he told him he was broke.

Now this wasn't the fifties, or the sixties, not even the seventies. But Hall & Oates were nine mil in the hole and Oates had to sell almost all of his assets to get ahead. One of the best part of the book is his detailing of his therapy appointments after learning the money was gone. It was the same shrink he saw with his ex-wife, who he'd screwed around on and hadn't been honest with in couples therapy. The shrink busted him. Said he was not special. And to get with the program.

We've all got to get with the program, or find out options are limited. The world sees you as a rock star, and if you believe this it's only a matter of time before you wake up and find out you're a punk.

And this book is not the definitive Hall & Oates biography. I wanted more on each individual album, more introspection about the career, the ups and downs. Hell, Oates doesn't display any anxiety, anything other than raw positivity and belief until he runs out of cash.

But the truth is this is not the usual rock memoir. It's half Hall & Oates and half John's introspective stories. The first third is all before stardom. Being the golden child in an Italian family. Bumming through Europe. And you read this and you realize, he's not that much different from you. I was not the golden child, but I did go to Europe, I do remember picking up mail at American Express and that's one of the highlights of the book, detailing the way it used to be.

And there are stories of buying cars and auto racing, but few tales of debauchery and it's like your best friend from high school catching you up on the last forty years, with the comeuppance at the end, the running out of money and fame, that equalizes the equation. You didn't go down this road, but you had your adventure too. You thought you wanted to be him, now you're not so sure.

But it is good to be the king, for a while anyway, no one stays on top forever. Flying private and hanging with the household names. But it gets old and empty and all you're left with is your memories, you've still got to get up every day and pull on your pants and wonder what you're gonna do next. The joke is on those who get plastic surgery to be stuck in the past while the audience moves on. If you don't grow up, if you don't realize you're just a troubadour, here for a short while, you're gonna end up frustrated and unhappy.

And the tales of Hunter Thompson in Woody Creek are the best I've ever read, you get a feeling for the writer and his lifestyle.

But this is not the best book ever written, nor is it the most engrossing, and I'm not sure I'm recommending it, but I had to read it.

Because of those records.

"Change of Seasons: A Memoir": amzn.to/2mEJKJ6


John Oates Responds:

Bob,

Tonight, just as I stepped off the plane at La Guardia to kick off my book promotion tour, your take on my memoir "Change of Seasons" appeared at the top of my smartphone's email list.

First off, thank you for taking the time to read it and taking even more time to write about it. My gut tells me that the western heat wave and your apprehension over the orthopedic perils of spring skiing snow snakes might have given you a bit more time to ruminate. Bonus for me…to paraphrase one of your recent editorials…its all about "attention" in this vapid ADD society that we all must navigate whether we like it or not.

So I'll take my fleeting moment of attention with gratitude and with the knowledge that because you've briefly shined the light in my direction there might be others who may discover and appreciate my humble story of personal transformation and musical dedication.

Thank you…and I agree the Hunter Thompson stuff is pretty good, even he said so when I read it to him in his kitchen command center.

J.O.