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With a little help from Michael McDonald

My new memoir Laid Bare comes out on September 11 in Australia and one of the things readers will notice is that music plays a big part in the story. Each of the 16 chapters is accompanied with a track listing.

More than anything – exercise, cognitive behaviour therapy, prescription drugs, alcohol, sex, travel – I found music to be the thing that helped me put my life back together after my wife, “Lara”, walked out in me in the autumn of 2007.

AC/DC’s Powerage.

The Black Crowes’ The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.

Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.

The Rolling Stones’ Black and Blue.

But no artist’s work had more impact on me than that of Michael McDonald, the lead singer for the second incarnation of the Doobie Brothers following the health problems of Tom Johnston.

McDonald is well known for his distinctive vocal phrasing, one frequently lampooned by comedians (Family Guy, Yacht Rock, et al). What he should be better known for – and thanked for – is the golden period in his songwriting that roughly takes in the years 1976 to 1981, before he became a solo artist and lost his way pumping out mostly overproduced, middle-of-the-road, AOR fodder for a good two decades. (The songs “I Keep Forgettin’” and “Blink of an Eye” are two notable exceptions.)

Fortunately he’s atoned for those dark years with the excellent Blue Obsession in 2000 (featuring an amazing cover of Neil Young’s “Down by the River”) and his more recent Motown trilogy.

That 1976–81 period saw McDonald weave a distinctive narrative thread in his music: losing out in love, licking your wounds, hoping for a romantic break, trying to get over heartbreak.

The common theme in classics such as “What a Fool Believes”, “Nothin’ But a Heartache”, “It Keeps You Runnin’” “Minute by Minute”, “Losin’ End”, “How Do The Fools Survive?” and “Real Love” (virtually the best tracks from the albums Takin’ It to the Streets, Livin’ on the Fault Line, Minute by Minute and One Step Closer) is being a fool when it comes to matters of the heart. Something I’ve been known for myself and which I candidly document in Laid Bare.

Indeed, I’ve used “Losin’ End” as the opening track in Laid Bare. The lyrics spoke to me profoundly as I’m sure they do to anyone who’s loved and lost and found it hard to “move on”.

Remember me
I was your fool for really quite a long time
’Til I found out how it feels to play
On the losin’ end

Just as the words of “What a Fool Believes” (in my view, the best song ever recorded, a triumph of lyrics, studio production and musicianship) do to anyone who’s ever loved someone, been reunited with them some time later, but found their love isn’t reciprocated or perhaps come to the realisation it was never there in the first place.

He came from somewhere back in her long ago
The sentimental fool don’t see
Trying hard to recreate
What had yet to be created once in her life
She musters a smile
For his nostalgic tale
Never coming near what he wanted to say
Only to realise
It never really was

Yet they go on clinging to hope because the alternative – acceptance they never really figured in their life – is too hard to deal with.

But what a fool believes he sees
The wise man has the power to reason away
What seems to be
Is always better than nothing

As McDonald makes clear in “Minute by Minute”, even when you think you’ve “moved on” and you’re okay with everything, it’s still hard to really let go.

Hey, don’t worry, I’ve been lied to
I’ve been here many times before
Girl, don’t you worry, I know where I stand
I don’t need this love, I don’t need your hand
I know I could turn, blink, and you’d be gone
Then I must be prepared any time to carry on
But minute by minute by minute by minute
I keep holding on
Oh, minute by minute by minute by minute
I keep holding on

You sleep with people as a distraction from the pain, to make believe, even if just for a moment, you’re back where you want to be, that time you thought you had “Real Love”.

Darlin’ I know
I’m just another head on your pillow
If only just tonight, girl
Let me hear you lie just a little
Tell me I’m the only man
That you ever really loved

Then, eventually, as he writes in “How Do the Fools Survive”, it all gets easier for the “fools” among us. We learn to be alone. We even come to enjoy our solitude. We find the strength we need inside ourselves.

Oh, I hand them this life
To do what they will
They’ve got to find their way from here
(Oh, show us the way)
If they only knew
(Oh, show us the light)
Show them what light?
It shines from within
You make your own day
You make your own night
And sometimes you win
(Oh, show us the way)
But you always get through
(Oh, show us the light)

McDonald has been adequately recognised by his peers with Grammy Awards and by audiences with hit records and radio airplay. He’s had a fantastic career and, unlike a lot of artists in their 60s, still has plenty to offer live.

But he’s also helped people through his songs in ways he probably never expected by letting them know that whatever turmoil they’re going through in their emotional lives they’re not the first and they won’t be the last. Their pain is a shared one.

I was one of those people.

On a personal note, Michael, thank you.