Pat Simmons, co-founder in 1970 of classic rock legends The Doobie Brothers, is a very familiar face, as is his wife Cris Sommer, in all major motorcycle rallies around the country. A true biker since the late 60’s, he is extremely knowledgeable about motorcycles, especially the pre WWII brands and models on which he works when not touring, and is an avid collector of all memorabilia from this era. Over the years, the Doobies have sold well over 30 million CDs and continue to sell their catalog to new, young fans who have only recently discovered the band. At the same time, during 4 decades, bikers have never stopped digging into their music and their songs are probably the most played in any motorcycle event you attend here in the US and abroad.
Pat and his bandmates, musicians Tom Johnston, John Hartman, and Dave Shogren, just released “World Gone Crazy” which is their first studio album in 10 years. To the surprise of many skeptics who don’t believe that an aging band can produce any fresh music, the “buzz” in the industry is that this album is one of the major releases of the year (watch the video of the first song “Nobody” after the jump)
The group just returned from a very successful promotional tour in Europe, is now touring the US and got the good idea to give a concert on my turf in West Palm Beach, FL. After the traditional soundcheck and before walking on stage, Pat sat down with me to talk motorcycles…and of course music. (all photography Pat Simmons copyright Cris Sommer)
Cyril. Since your first songs in the 70’s, and although quantitatively a small percentage of your fans, bikers have always had a special affinity for your music. Why do you think that happened, and why do you think it’s still true? Pat. Well, at the time we got together, we were all hanging out with various biker types, some in clubs, many unaffiliated. We all had our sights set on buying bikes. I ended up with a BSA, after attempting to purchase a Matchless 500 (a G 80?, can’t remember now). A few of the clubs that we played, around the San Francisco Bay Area, attracted a lot of bikers, and they kind of adopted us as the local biker band, I guess. I know after we got bikes, and rode more and more, we dressed in leather all the time, and lived the biker lifestyle pretty much. I’m still, more than ever probably, in love with motorcycling on so many different levels. Our music is full of road references, and stories that mirror motorcycling. Our affiliation with Harley and motorcycle events has continued to this day.
Cyril. What was your first experience with motorcycles. When and how? Pat. Well, in the 60’s I had friends with bikes that I was able to borrow from time to time. That started it all. Then around 1970, as I said, I got hold of an old BSA that I had to put some work into to make run, and that really convinced me that I was made for the sport. I got a crash course in metrics at the time. Luckily I had friends who were willing to mentor me through the process a little, but I was the one who had to do all the adjustments, and twist all the nuts and bolts. Fortunately, I was able to get it on the road, and I still have great memories of those early days.
Cyril. What are your preferred brands, motorcycle era, models? Pat. I like ’em all. I ride a ’90 FLHS Harley that I’ve done a little work on. S & S carb, Performance front brake, new sheet metal and paint, reworked front end, upgraded tires, that kind of thing. I’m nuts about the old bikes ’65 and earlier for the Harleys, and just about anything pre ’16. But I love all the old stuff, Indians, Excelsiors, Thors, Popes, Hendersons, Merkels, Daytons, Sears, Reading Standard, and on and on… I love the custom bike scene these days, and one of these days I’d love to build a chopper, or bobber of some kind.
Cyril. Do you work on your bikes? How did you learn? Pat. Yeah, I do some things, chains, tires, carburetors, brakes, some electrics, linkage, that kind of thing. I have torn down a few engines, trannys, etc. These days I have been putting in so many miles on the road, that I haven’t had time to devote to the total rebuilds. I just wouldn’t want to walk away and leave something torn apart for that long. Most of my experience has come from just going for it. I read a lot of motorcycle literature. Of course I’m always asking all my mechanic friends about this or that. My wife is a good source of advice as well. She’s pretty knowledgeable.
Cyril. How much did the biker culture influence The Doobie Brothers’ music? How many songs or song themes were inspired by the motorcycle lifestyle? Pat. I don’t know if biker culture actually influenced the music. Like I said there are a lot of road themes in our music, and for me personally I usually visualize bikes somewhere in those stories. I think we are musicians who ride bikes, but our songs are about all kinds of things, so we’re more than just a biker band.
Cyril. You met the love of your life (Cris Sommer Simmons) in Sturgis. Because of motorcycles, of your music, of both? Tell me the story. Pat. I met Cris in 1989 when we were playing a benefit for the Muscular Dystrophy Association sponsored by Harley. She was at the press conference we took part in, representing her magazine, Harley Women. Clyde Fessler, head of marketing at Harley at the time introduced us. We found out we had so much in common, and we spent the next two days getting to know each other. We’ve been together ever since. We’re so lucky we both love motorcycles, and each other!
Cyril. Your wife Cris did the Cannonball Endurace Run, was the only American woman doing it, and successfully completed it. How difficult was it to see your wife “suffering” on the road, how much technical assistance did you provide, and how frustrating was it not to be riding with her? Pat. I was proud of her. She ain’t no cream puff. I think she enjoyed every minute of it. It certainly was a tough run, fatiguing, and challenging, but she’s done a lot of rides across the country, and she knew what she was getting into. We had a great crew Athena “Chicki’ Ransome doing the wrenching, Laura Clock helping with all kinds of stuff, and I was there to help in any way I could. We had a check list that we went over every night. Adjustments that had to be made, fluids to be topped off, inspections to make, nuts and bolts to be tightened. We ended up as a chase vehicle for all the riders because of our modest sized van, so we were actually out on the course a lot.
Cyril. If there is a second edition of the Cannonball, do you intend on participating? Pat. I don’t know. It was a lot of stress to put on such a rare and expensive 1915 Harley. We did major preparation for the event, so the bike did well. But, it was tough to watch the abuse these old bikes had to endure. I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but we’ll see…
Cyril. Heard that you are in negotiation with Harley-Davidson for a cross promotion. Can you talk about it? Pat. We’ve had a great relationship with Harley through the years. We’ve done some in-store appearances and they are featuring the new music in a few shops. I know our record company is working on some other promotional ideas.
Cyril. “World Gone Crazy” is the title of your new album. Please explain why? Pat. Well, Tom wrote that tune, and we felt like it was a good title for the album, since I’m sure we’d all agree that life is certainly a little crazy these days. It’s a great song, and we thought it was a pretty bold statement. The new album has been receiving very positive response, both from fans, and the media. We are feeling really good about the songs on this album, and it’s been fun to play some of them live. The audiences have been responding well to the new music. We’ve even got Willie Nelson singing on a track that he and I wrote called “I Know We Won”. Go to Amazon, or iTunes, and check it out.
Cyril. You just came back from a very successful European tour. Is there a difference you can perceive between your public there and in the US when you are on stage or when you meet with your fans? Pat. I felt it was very much the same. When I talked to fans after the shows, they were perhaps a little more excited. We don’t tour in Europe as often as we do here, and they were very enthusiastic about meeting us. The audiences are a little more reserved, but they love the music, and gave us a great reception. We had a great time, and we’re talking about going back next summer to play some outdoor festivals.