Monday, June 21, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: The Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes"

Traditionally, the fool is a figure of merriment, an employee of the high court hired to bring jollity and to provide satire. The most famous of these figures is Yorick in William Shakespeare's Hamlet. In the tragic play, Prince Hamlet asks Yorick's skull, "Where are your jibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning?" Yorick, "a fellow of infinite jest," is the official fool in the scene. But the ahead-of-his-time Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon gives us an early look at the fool of our times, as the hot-headed Hamlet is interrogating a dead skull. What a dumbass! Today, the word means something much different. According to, a fool is "A clumsy or stupid person who is pitied by Mr. T." However, before the erstwhile B.A. Barracus was pitying fools, The Doobie Brothers established their epistemology in the 1978 smash hit "What a Fool Believes."

Prior to the hit, which was co-written by Kenny Loggins and The Doobie Brothers' own lead singer, Michael McDonald, nobody really knew what fools believed or even thought about. For psychologists during the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century, the fool represented their frontier. What did fools do? What did they eat? What kind of clothes did they wear? Did they think their Pet Rocks were actually alive? What did they do when they saw signs that read "Disneyland Left"? Fortunately, "What a Fool Believes" proved to be their manifest destiny, their Key to All Mythologies.

The Doobie Brothers were a well-respected rock group throughout most of the 1970s. In the middle of the decade, their lineup was bolstered by the addition of Steely Dan alums Jeff "Skunk" Baxter--a guitar whiz-kid--and keyboardist Michael McDonald. After they joined the group, The Doobies became an unstoppable force of nature, releasing such powerful recordings as "Takin' It to the Streets" and "Minute by Minute." On "What a Fool Believes," unquestionably their greatest contribution to musical history, Michael McDonald dazzles listeners with his wavering baritone and his oscillating falsettos, which reach up to heaven and tickle sleeping angels. The Doobies also forsake their typical rock instrumental set-up, exchanging their jazzy guitars it for saucy, state-of-the-art synthesizers to more effectively communicate the plight of the fool who is the subject of McDonald and Loggins' insightful lyric. As a result, the group never sounded more vital, or chirpy.

To make the ideology of the fool more accessible to his listeners, McDonald relates the tale of a foolish man in love with a woman who: 1) had no idea he loved her, and; 2) has absolutely no interest in the jamoke. Have you ever heard of anything so tragic? Apparently fools are self-obsessed and have delusions of grandeur, yet have a low self-image and are unable to pick up on even the most basic of social cues. Thanks to Michael McDonald and The Doobie Brothers, we now know what makes fools tick. Furthermore, the song also goes so far as to offer us a totalizing philosophy in which we are all fools. During the chorus, he sings, in a glass-shattering falsetto, "But what a fool believes, he sees / No wise man has the power / To reason away / What seems to be." Even the "wise man" is a fool for trying to "reason" with the fool, which, in fact he turns out to be. Consider your mind blown! As the old saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, blame it on Rio."

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