Parting Shots: John Oates on Songwriting and His New Memoir
April 19, 2017
John Oates' new memoir, Change of Seasons, explores a life in music, along with the the singer/guitarist’s varied pursuits of racecar driving, skiing and animal husbandry. Throughout the work Oates also reflects on his longtime relationship with Daryl Hall and details the record industry’s financial machinations that hid millions of dollars from the duo. The book also includes notable appearances by Hunter S. Thompson, Mick Jagger, Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia and many others.
Early in Change of Seasons, you describe playing with Doc and Merle Watson in their dressing room before a show. How did that come about?
I met this fellow named Jerry Ricks, who was a guitar teacher at the same place I was teaching guitar. He also worked at the Second Fret, which was a coffeehouse where all the players played, and I became friends with a guy named Dick Waterman, who had rediscovered a lot of people, like Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Pete Williams. Whenever they came to Philadelphia, Dick Waterman would host these guys at his house or they would stay across the street at my friend Jerry’s house because they didn’t have the money for hotels. So I would go over to Jerry’s, and there would be Doc Watson or Mississippi John Hurt sitting on the couch. I would hang out, talk to them and watch them play. I had this really unique opportunity to be right there in the epicenter of this traditional music revival.
You performed at MerleFest in 2016. Did that bring things full circle for you?
I’d been wanting to go to MerleFest for so long, and it just never came together with my schedule. Finally, this year, they invited me and, luckily, I jumped on Sam Bush’s band bus and we all rode down together. Going to a festival like MerleFest with Sam is like going to a coronation with the king. That paved the way pretty easily, and it was fun. I did my own set in the rain, which was crazy, and I played with The Waybacks, which was really cool. It was just a great experience, and as we drove toward MerleFest and came to town, there was a statue of Doc on the sidewalk, so we stopped.
You lived in Greenwich Village during the 1970s and really seemed to embrace the music scene. Can you describe that era in the city?
It was an incredibly exciting time. The ‘70s were not the sanitized, non-ethnic version of New York City that the tourists all wander around today. All the neighborhoods were distinctly ethnic and pure, in a way. There also was a lot of crime. It was dangerous to be out on the street, and it was exciting. There was this incredible energy in the music. There was the singer-songwriter thing, there was the rise of the punk movement and the new-wave movement was starting. Living in the Village and being a part of it, I just absorbed it all.
I saw Patti Smith at the Algonquin, when she made one of her first early performances. It was groundbreaking. It was really underground—this poetic, spoken, free-flowing approach, which was totally antithetical to the pop music that I grew up on but, at the same time, I really appreciated it, and I saw what she was trying to do. I saw the New York Dolls and Television during that period of time. Even though I didn’t really try to go there musically, it affected me—the way I started writing, the way I started thinking about music—and it broadened my perspective on what could be done. At the same time, I have a highly attuned pop sense from growing up listening to singles in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The song “Fall in Philadelphia” captures a moment in which you were attacked, yet Philly fans often request it because the tune name-checks their city. I imagine you’ve encountered similar issues involving interpretation throughout your career.
The beauty of songwriting is that if people care about a song, they absorb it and ascribe their own personal experiences to that song. A perfect example is a song like “Maneater,” which is not written about a girl— it was inspired by a woman, but it’s actually written about New York City. The thing that chews you up and spits you out is not a woman—it’s the city itself, the crazy ‘80s and the zeitgeist of the ‘80s in the city. The song “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” was written about the music business. It was about being pushed and pulled and being manipulated by the music business. But, of course, you know, one of the things that Daryl and I have always done is realized that if we could tackle a universal topic and somehow personalize it, then it always seems to connect better. It gives people the opportunity to reimagine the song through their own prism but, at the same time, it might not have anything to do with what we were intending.
Hunter S. Thompson was your neighbor for many years in Woody Creek, Colo. You eventually wrote an essay about him, and he had you read it aloud at his house during the Monday Night Football commercials. You mention that he poked you in the side with a bowie knife during all of this. Did he break the skin?
No, he was just poking me in the ribs lightly with his knife. He was doing it to get my attention and to make me perk up because I was intimidated. He wanted me to really own it and deliver it because I was mumbling and reading in a quiet way. Basically, I had printed out the story, and I was just going to hand it to him and leave, but he made me read it out loud, which kind of put me on the spot. I was going to read a piece that not only talks about this person, but also I was reading it to a writer who is pretty much a world-famous journalist, who also had a gun and a table full of coke and was drinking whiskey, all at the same time. The sheriff was in the room as well. It was pretty crazy.