His first love may be music, but The Doobie Brothers’ Pat Simmons second love is motorcycling. He enjoys collecting and wrenching on vintage American motorcycles and loves to ride when he’s not picking a guitar or writing songs.
‘Can’t you hear it baby, like thunder I know.
It’s like the magic and the passion of rock and roll.
It’s a Harley motorcycle ragin’ out of control.
Danger up ahead of you, comin’ up behind you, too.
Turn it to the left, you turn it to the right.
Now you twist the throttle up with all your might.’
From the song Dangerous off the Doobie Brothers’ Brotherhood album, written by Pat Simmons
Most recognize Pat Simmons as the talented guitarist, singer and songwriter from the legendary rock band The Doobie Brothers. Not many bands stand the test of time, but The Doobie Brothers have been producing hits for almost 40 years now, selling over 30 million albums while reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts. The world-renowned band just released its 13th album titled World Gone Crazy and their fusion of musical styles, multi-part harmonies and creative songwriting gives their music the ability to transcend generations. They’ve also long been associated with the motorcycle lifestyle, from their early days playing in front of a crowded room of Hells Angels at the Chateau Liberte to rocking Sturgis for Harley-Davidson in support of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. But one band member embraces the motorcycle lifestyle more so than the others. Pat Simmons is a life-long gearhead. He’s been riding and wrenching on bikes almost as long as he’s been playing music. He not only has a fine collection of vintage American motorcycles, he enjoys getting his hands greasy dissecting old engines and riding is a passion. To find out just how deep that passion runs, we recently got an opportunity to talk bikes, music and the new album with Simmons.
How’d you get into motorcycling?
Probably started with friends who had bikes back in the ‘60s. I had one friend in particular who was always insisting that I ride his motorcycle. He had a little Honda, a couple of them. One was a Honda Dream, a 305, and he’d always say, ‘You gotta ride my bike, you gotta ride my bike, it’s so much fun’ so I’d ride his bike around. Later on he had a Scrambler, a 350 or something like that which I rode on and off.
What was your first bike?
The same guy called me one day and goes, ‘Simmons, I got a motorcycle up in Northern California in Crescent City. If you go get it, you can have it.’ So I asked what it was and he said it was a BSA and I thought that sounded pretty cool. He said ‘I’ll go with ya and we’ll go up, get it and bring it down. I loaned it to a friend of mine and you can have it to ride around.’ So I went up with him and I had this vision of pulling in, there would be the bike and I’d get on it and ride it back. We get there, pull in and go, ‘Well, where’s the bike?’ His friend goes ‘It’s over there.’ I look and there’s this frame, an engine over here, a bunch of boxes with parts over there. The guy who took me up goes ‘What the f*%?’ and his friend goes, ‘Well, me and my dad are fixing it.’
So we loaded up the bike, brought it down to San Jose and the first stop we made was to get a manual for the thing from the BSA dealer there. So we brought it home, started
The Doobie Brothers recently cut their first new album in ten years and their music still remains a favorite on classic rock radio stations. The band’s harmonies bridge generation gaps.
putting it together and I was like ‘My wrenches don’t work on this thing because it’s all metric.’ So I had to get the crescent wrench out and some pliers and ended up buying a few tools. So I started putting it together which took me a few weeks. It needed a few parts, but I learned a little about British electrics. It needed a senior diode or something like that which I had never even heard of before so I got a crash course in British metrics and electrics. So I got it all together and I kicked it over and the damn thing started up after just about throwing me over the handlebars because it had a compression release that was broken. So that was the tricky part of owning the bike, figuring out how to start it without killing yourself. I got it running and rode it for several years and that was kind of my introduction to motorcycling. The BSA ran well, as good as it could anyways and I rode it until I saved up enough money to get a real motorcycle (laughs).
What are you currently riding?
My bike of choice these days is an FLHS which is a ‘90 FLT-style bike. It’s pretty much the same as an FLT but the FLHS had, well, it’s not a full-on fairing up front but some kind of a sporty wind deflector and windshield. The speedometer and tachometer are up on the bars and it’s a great bike, it ran really good. I rode it pretty much stock for years and then a few years ago I pulled it all apart and redesigned it so the speedometer is now mounted in the middle of the tank and rebuilt the front end to look more like a stock FLH with the chrome panel and got rid of all the plastic stuff. I got new sheet metal which was easier than trying to strip the sheet metal that was on there. Repainted it and kind of upgraded it a little bit with better performance front brakes and an S&S carb. It’s styled pretty retro looking. I’m sort of an old school guy, I like the old FLH looks so it’s kind of like a Fat Boy with some vintage colors. It’s an ‘unlucky green’ bike with a cream panel on the tanks and it’s got a ‘30s-’40s look to it. Nice bike, runs really great. I’m a cruiser, so I don’t get onto it too heavily, but it gets up and goes.
I’ve got a Panhead I really like to ride which is probably going to be my main ride here pretty soon. I think I’m going to ship my FLT to the mainland so I’ll have something to ride over there (Simmons currently lives in Hawaii). It’s a ‘65 Pan that’s a great bike for Hawaii because it’s a three-speed. It’s comfortable to ride around here because we don’t have any freeways and cruises comfortably at 50-60. And it’s a nice bike to talk about, people love to check it out. They’re always kickin’ tires and asking ‘Hey, what is this thing?’ and ‘What year is it?’ It’s fun.
Do you own any other motorcycles?
I do own some other bikes, some early American bikes, some ‘teens stuff and some pre-16’s stuff. I’ve got an Indian Scout, a Chief, an Indian Four and other oddball stuff. I like them all. They’re all pretty much American stuff but I do have my BSA. It’s the only British bike I have now. I was just looking at a Triumph yesterday, and I love the bikes, I pretty much love all bikes but I’ve directed my attention more to the American stuff just because there’s too much technology out there for my pea brain that can barely figure out what’s going on in a Harley. The American technology at least is understandable. There’s a lot of variations on the theme. The technology is applied in different ways but more or less is the same as opposed to the Japanese bikes which to me are so much more complicated. Give me a V-Twin or a Single and I’m good. When you start talking about 16 valves, then … I respect them, I really do, and would never put them down because they’re great motorcycles. I like to tweek on my bikes as much as I can and with the early stuff I don’t feel intimidated to go out there and go for it as long as I keep track of all my parts and put them in the right places. Thank God for digital photography. I can take pictures of the assemblies and stuff and make sure they go back the same way they came out.
Do you have a favorite ride you like to take?
I just got back from the Motorcycle Cannonball with my wife (Motorcycle Hall of Fame Member Cristine Sommer-Simmons who competed on a 1915 3-Speed V-Twin Harley-Davidson Effie and completed 2899 miles, the second-most among female riders. Only Katrin Boehner had more at 3002. Cris was the only American woman competing). That was epic. I wasn’t riding but she was. It was an epic ride for her and I was following in the chase vehicle, so that
was pretty cool. When you said that, my mind immediately went there. We were so far into that thing, you know, we started preparing for it over a year ago and finally did it this summer. We’re still on it, I think.
As far as rides, there’s great rides here in Maui. Unfortunately, there aren’t many straightaways but we cruise to the upcountry here. I go out to Haleakala, which is a crater here and my favorite ride goes to the backside of the island that’s basically ranch lands for a long way which turns into volcanic landscape on the back of the crater where the last lava flows were. It’s like the moon or something out there and is an incredible ride. There are a lot of motorcyclists over here and we do a lot of rides together. We’ve got a ride coming up with a bunch of the local clubs here who get together and do a Christmas Ride and a Toys for Tots ride after that. On the Christmas Ride, we go at night and look at all the Christmas lights and we’ve got a map where people have put up great lights. We all ride together and end up at a restaurant or something and have a few beers. It’s fun. Riding here is kind of cool because it’s always warm.
I know motorcycles played a part about you meeting your wife Cris. Why don’t you tell readers about that story.
We were in Sturgis playing in 1989 doing a benefit for the Muscular Dystrophy Association that Harley’s been associated with forever and came into town. We were in Rapid City doing a press conference there to let people know about the concert and stuff. Some of the motorcycle press was there so Clyde Fessler, who was head of marketing at that time, was a buddy of mine and kind of how we, the Doobie Brothers, got to be close with Harley, as was Bob Klein, who still works for Harley. Clyde got up to give a little speech and then I got up to say something on behalf of the band and afterwards we had a few hors d’ouevres and some drinks. We’re sitting around talking and Clyde turns to me and said ‘Oh Pat, this is Cris Sommers. She’s from a magazine called Harley Women and I think she’d probably like to do an interview with you.’ So I start talking to Cris and I say ‘So, what are you doing here?’ and she says, ‘Well, I came for the food.’ (Simmons laughs hard at this) ‘I heard there was going to be good food here’ so she was kidding around and laughing. We started talking and kind of hit it off. We ended up going into Sturgis. I think it was my first time ever so she said ‘Hey, you want to go into Sturgis?’ so the whole band jumped into the bus and Cris jumped on her bike along with her partner in the magazine and they guided the bus into town. When we got there, she said ‘C’mon, I’ll show you around’ so a couple of us went with her and walked around. I got to talking with her and we just really hit it off and had so much in common. She’s got a great sense of humor, we really hit it off and pretty much have been together since then. That was kind of the start of a long and beautiful relationship. We’re in love with motorcycles and with each other and it worked out. She’s a wonderful person and we’ve just had a lot of good times together. I never thought I’d find a woman who loves motorcycles as much as I do.
How’d you feel about her recent participation in the Cannonball Endurance Run?
I’m the one who suggested it actually. She came to me saying ‘You should do this’ and I said I’d love to but I knew I’d be working during that time period. I already had things that were booked before any of it even came up and just couldn’t see how I’d have that window of opportunity. I could get a few days into it but knew that even then we’d probably book more shows. We already had shows booked for the first of the week so I said that I can’t do it but you could do. So she goes ‘You’re kidding, right?’ and I say ‘No, why not? You can ride as good as I can.’ She’s got more miles on the road than I do. So I asked her what she thought about it and she said ‘I thought about it, I’m ready! I’ll do it.’ She asked me if I thought she could really do it because she had never really ridden a suicide clutch and shift much.
She’d done it before but never for any distance. So I told her that once she gets it down, it becomes somewhat second nature. If you ride for a day, then you’ll have it. You’ll still have to think about it but it won’t be intimidating. You’ll understand that this is how you slip the clutch and the shifting’s easy because it’s straight up and down and only three speeds as opposed to five or six. The hardest part is stopping on those old bikes. There’s really no brakes on those old bikes because the brakes are really only good at slowing you down at about 15 mph. You can lock them up but you’ll go down. Otherwise, you’ve got to start a hundred yards before you want to stop and start downshifting to let the transmission slow you down. We put a front brake on just to hold it and it kind of helped but you just don’t want to use those brakes much unless you have to. I was concerned about that aspect of it but I wasn’t really concerned about her ability to ride the bike or handle it because she’s done plenty of tours on full-size Harleys.
Do you think you could have made that ride on such slow, uncomfortable antique machinery?
I think I could have, for sure. It was something I wished, the whole way, I wished I was riding but by that time it was too late. I did ride my wife’s bike around and when we’d get somewhere, we’d take it, our little crew (Laura Klock and Athena ‘Chickie’ Ransom were also part of Simmons’ crew) and we’d tear certain things apart, chains and pushrods and rockers. Cris would have a hard time not pitching in. We’d say, ‘Get out of here, go rest’ and she’d say ‘I’ve got to see what you guys are doing’ because we screwed up a few times so she was getting nervous. Laura and Athena really did a great job. The three of us, every night we’d light into that bike and make all the adjustments and check all the fluids and get it ready to go again that next morning. So that’s the way it went every night – ride, wrench, ride.
Who’s a better rider, you or your wife?
She’s probably a better rider than I am. I think she’s safer. I think I’m a safe rider too and at this point we’re pretty equal but because she’s ridden so many times across the country, I always hand it to her.
Why do you think bikers relate to the Doobies?
It started out we were playing a lot of clubs where motorcyclists hung out, a lot of bikers, a lot of club members and we sort of had a connection with them I think because the music connected with those folks. We were pretty much a rockin’ band. We did a lot of original stuff, even in the old days and we were into bikes, too. We dressed, we rode, we looked the part so I think we were a band they could identify with visually and the music worked because a lot of our themes were ‘Rockin’ down the Highway’ and ‘Down around the corner, half a mile from here, watch some old trains run, you watch ‘em disappear.’ That kind of stuff was full of road images and so it really connected on quite a few levels. From there, because we loved motorcycling so much in those days, I still am more in love with it than ever, it was part of mythology and the record company liked it that we had that going for us, so any time a press release would come out it’d always say, the Doobie Brothers, favorites of the bikers and that kind of became part of our mystique. As I got deeper into motorcycling, I connected with people from Harley and I got associated with the biker’s campaign in the fight against muscular dystrophy and it became a part of our image. And then we started getting hired to play a lot of motorcycling events around the country, both through Harley Owner’s Group, Harley-Davidson, independent organizations and it became a thing where we had that connection. A lot of motorcycle people still come to our concerts. There’s always a line of bikes at almost every show we do. It’s something that’s been perpetuated both by our image and probably a little bit through my own interest in motorcycles. It’s my second love, I would say. Music has been my first love but it’s kind of gone hand-in-hand with motorcycling. Motorcycling is something I spend a lot of time with outside of the music world. I’m always wrenching on something or working on an old bike trying to get something up and running. It’s what I do for relaxation really.
In the beginning you guys used to play at the Chateau Liberte in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a popular hangout for the Hells Angels.
That’s where it really all started for us. We had so many friends that were bikers and relatives who rode. It was just one of those accidental happenings. It never really was anything that I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to be a biker’ or ‘I like that image.’ I love the technology and I’ve always liked learning about mechanics, something that started at my first job at a gas station where I asked the mechanic there to teach me stuff. It’s something that’s stuck with me forever. I love the opportunity to get greasy and look inside an engine.
Do any of the other members of the band ride?
John McFee still rides. I kind of turned John onto motorcycling. He joined the band in ‘78 and I had a shop back then in Santa Cruz selling parts and bikes, reconditioning old bikes, selling parts, old Flathead, Knucklehead, Panhead and Shovelhead stuff and I talked him into getting into motorcycles. John bought a bike, Mike McDonald bought a bike, if you can imagine Mike on a bike, which is the antithesis of his image but he had a motorcycle for a number of years and loved it. Chet McCracken, who was playing drums for us back then, Bobby LaKind, and Keith Knudsen, who was our drummer who passed away going on six years now, Keith rode up until he died. He and I really had a deep connection with motorcycles. He loved to ride. John still does, though. Tom rode for years and then one day he just decided he didn’t want to anymore, hung up his motorcycle boots and that was it.
Tell me a little bit about the newest album. Is it full of vintage Doobie riffs or did you guys venture into new territory? I think it’s probably a little bit of both. It’s called World Gone Crazy which is the title of one of the tracks on the record. It’s got some connections to the past in terms of that sound that we have – Tommy has a rhythmical, R&B style and I’m a more traditional Americana roots kind of player. Together we sort of get this thing going on and John McFee sort of bridges both ends of it because he can play anything, He’s a fiddler, a mandolin player, he’s a great Dobro player and there’s some great Dobro stuff going on in this record, some hardcore electric slide stuff that John plays on some of the tracks. So it’s a little bit of everything, as per usual. Our records are kind of eclectic in that sense. There’s some real R&B stuff with horns and some kind of gospel-like piano playing. There’s some old style Doobies songs built on guitar riffs. There’s some real hard rock, like a song called The Chateau which is a tribute to the Chateua Liberte which I wrote with the producer. The album’s produced by our old producer Ted Templeman who worked on early Doobie Brother albums, all the stuff we did at Warner Bro’s like China Grove, Long Train Running, Takin’ it to the Streets, What a Fool Believes, Black Water. We hadn’t worked with him for 28 years so he came in and heard us rehearsing and said ‘Would you guys be interested in working on something together?’ We had already been writing some songs with recording in mind and when he volunteered to step up as producer we jumped at the opportunity. That worked out really good. There’s some pretty stuff on there, some ballads on there and acoustical stuff and I’m kind of the acoustical picker. I wrote a song with Willie Nelson that’s on the record that he and I sing together. He wrote one of the verses and some of the chorus. Mike McDonald came in and did a little singing on the record as well and it was nice to get Mike in to do some stuff with us. Bill Payne from Little Feat played some nice piano. It’s got a lot of different styles, we cover everything a little bit at a time, Jazz/Fusion stuff to a little country to a little hard-edged rock to some straight ahead R&B.
Why ten years between albums?
You know, just lazy. (laughs) We tour a lot and trying to find the time to do it and not be just totally burnt. In the old days, we probably would have used all our spare time as soon as we got home from the road and we’d jump right into the studio and we just didn’t want to beat ourselves up that way. We love to play and the live thing has been satisfying for us. We’ve worked in a few new things as the years have gone by and trying to find time without beating ourselves up was rough. In order to do it we just had to stop booking shows for a while so we could finish the project. It was worth it. We had a great time doing it and it’s always fun to have some new music to play. It keeps us on our toes.
What do you contribute to the Doobie Brothers longevity in a tough industry?
I think probably the music has kept us alive in terms of having had recognizable songs that people can identify with. We do play a lot, so we’re not one of those bands that people go to see and say ‘Well, they were good back then but they’ve lost it.’ Since we pretty much have been doing 100 shows a year for the past 20 years or so, we keep in shape, we keep it together so when people come to see us, we always live up to their expectations, probably better than what we did in the old days because of practicing and learning our chops more. The technology has enabled us to sound better. We have our inner ear monitors and we can hear ourselves better, to keep our pitch better to sing. We place a lot of importance on our background vocals so we make sure that we have a lot of guys singing to cover all the parts. We usually have six guys singing backgrounds at one time so it sounds pretty close to what the record sounds like in regard to the fullness of the harmonies. I think our reputation is pretty well solidified in that respect. People who have seen us continue to come again and again because they know they’re going to get a good show. We always try to change up what we’re doing so we have some new music or deep cuts from various albums so people get a different show all the time. We’ve been very fortunate in that regard. We’ve had a really good run and appreciate what we have in terms of our audiences and we try to let them know that we don’t take that for granted. Luckily there’s classic rock radio to keep the music out there.
You’ve written and performed so many songs, but do you have a favorite Doobies song of all time?
That’s tough. You know, my favorite album cut has always been a song called China Town on an album called Livin’ on the Fault Line which was probably our least successful records but I always liked the song. I suppose something you write is always going to be a favorite. I always loved doing better known tunes because those are the real bridging moments in our set where you see the recognition in people’s eyes and see them singing along, dancing and clapping. I love playing Long Train Running, that’s still one of my favorites. Black Water is always a fun song to play, totally different from any of the other tunes in the set. Takin’ it to the Streets is another one I’ve always liked.
The Doobie Brothers’ New Album World Gone Crazy Is In Stores Now. Here’s the buzz about it from the official press release.
Rock legends The Doobie Brothers have released World Gone Crazy, their first new album in over ten years. Produced by Ted Templeman, their producer throughout the 1970s, the new album combines vintage Doobie Brothers harmonies with the latest recording technology, keeping the sound both classic and fresh.
“It’s the best thing we’ve done musically in forever,” says founding vocalist Tom Johnston in a recent interview with Billboard.
The album features standout tracks like single Nobody, (a remake of a song from their 1971 debut album), the ballad Far From Home, Don’t Say Goodbye with guest vocals from former member Michael McDonald, and I Know We Won, a duet with legendary musician Willie Nelson. A special deluxe edition of the CD includes a 30 minute, career-retrospective DVD, featuring interviews with the band members and footage from the band’s nearly 40 year career. Both editions are available now in stores and online, with a special deluxe bundle that includes a tour t-shirt available at DoobieBros.com.