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What a Fool Believes by Michael McDonald review – the nicest dude in soul takes centre stage

What a Fool Believes by Michael McDonald review – the nicest dude in soul takes centre stage

Michael McDonald is possibly the greatest R&B singer never to have made a great album of his own. You may know the voice from his work in the 1970s with the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, and from later hits such as I Keep Forgettin’, Yah Mo B There and On My Own. Even your kids may recognise him now from his guest spot on Thundercat’s 2017 single Show You the Way. McDonald also happens to be a brilliant pianist, a top bandleader and, on the evidence of this new memoir, a modest, easygoing, 24-carat Nice Guy. I only wish I could say, hand on heart, that he’s written a great book. Unfortunately its sluggish tempo and hackneyed style has you checking the number of pages to the end and reflecting, in echo of a famous line he once sang, “And I’ve got such a long way to go … ”

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Not that McDonald lacks for stories or a tough beginning to unpack. Born in 1952 to Irish Catholic stock in a white, working-class suburb of St Louis he inherited his musical chops from a restless war veteran father who once sang at a Democrats’ rally in support of a young JFK. The McDonald house resounded to young Mike’s trombone-playing (his first instrument) and the increasingly fractious rowing between his parents. When his father at last moved out it came as a relief to all, though another heartache wasn’t so easily resolved: McDonald got his girlfriend pregnant when they were both 14, and in accordance with brutal Catholic tradition she was “sent away” and the child given up for adoption. This haunting episode may have been the trigger for the chronic addictions that racked him later in life.

Smooth operator: McDonald in his heyday.View image in fullscreen

Driven to prove himself to his father and to take care of his mother, he began to get noticed around the music scene in St Louis, graduating from pickup bands to supporting Chuck Berry, who took advantage of a contractual clause and fired McDonald’s backing band one by one before the show ended – thus to excuse himself from paying them. (He was left on stage with just the drummer.) A move to Los Angeles opened doors for the 19-year-old, and instead of being drafted to serve in Vietnam (an abiding terror) he began writing jingles for an ad agency. An encounter with drummer Jeff Porcaro then got him an audition to tour the US and Europe with a band he revered, Steely Dan. Talk about living the dream. The best passages in the book concern his long relationship with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, not so much the rock gods of renown as a “comedy duo from the Catskills”. They were funny, but they were taskmasters. The hours he spent recording minute harmonic variations as backing vocalist on Peg (during the Aja sessions) perhaps seeded his own control-freak perfectionism when he joined the Doobies. Of the gorgeous Minute by Minute, he confesses to having “tortured everyone”, the irony being that the song’s expansive, laid-back groove should have caused such anguish in the making.

Actor-screenwriter Paul Reiser has been hired to help craft What a Fool Believes, and heaven knows what he went through just trying to get the author to remember. McDonald comes over like the soul twin of Jeff Bridges’ Dude from The Big Lebowski – cuddly, charming, oddly innocent, a friend to all and a menace to himself. He admits to losing vast swaths of time to booze and drugs, culminating in what he calls “grand mal seizures” – which I understand to mean blackouts. What began as a love of getting loaded, and a way of not dealing with his anxiety and low self-esteem, slipped by degrees into full-time abuse. It was only the decision of his wife, Amy Holland, to check herself into rehab (weed and cocaine were their mainstays) that eventually prompted McDonald himself to get clean. He recounts his struggle back from dead-eyed oblivion with gratitude and a notable lack of piety. He’s a good sport, too, about jokes at his expense, like the peerless Canadian TV skit of Rick Moranis playing MM as the most put-upon backing singer in town.

His decency and self-effacement inflect every page, which only makes it harder to call the book for what it is – a dud. For all the amazing times McDonald experienced, the unvarying pace flattens the mood and the language, albeit polished by a bestselling writer, doesn’t put up much of a fight against cliche. His fellow musicians are uniformly hailed as “iconic”, every half-famous place he visits is “legendary”, and life is never far from being an “emotional rollercoaster”. Of course there are moments that I was glad not to miss, like the occasion he sat down to write with Burt Bacharach, or when he was touring with lovable grump Randy Newman, or being bawled out by his hero Ray Charles for not stumping up cash at a charity gig (“I can’t be doing this shit for free,” snarled Charles, even though everybody else was). And I am gladder still to learn that McDonald is possessed of a nature as sweet as his voice. His genius is to be found in his many backing vocals; thrust centre stage here, he’s just not that compelling.

  • What a Fool Believes by Michael McDonald and Paul Reiser is published by HarperCollins (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com