Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.
I was recently ogling a photo of young, long-haired and bearded Bob Seger and said to myself, “They sure don’t make enough men like this anymore.” Then I remembered being a toddler in the late 70s/early 80s, when I found these men terrifying. There was this one dad down the street — tall dude with an endless mane that seemed to swallow his face. I wouldn’t go near him ’cause I was sure he was gonna gobble me up. But I clearly got over my fear, as a quick glance at my dating history and my spouse will show. I like lots of hair, on the head or face, ideally both. The question is, when did I get free of my hirsute he-man phobia and make room in my heart to admire these bearded beasts?
The answer hit me immediately — it was the Doobie Brothers episode of What’s Happening!! I loved What’s Happening when I was a little kid because at that age, no one in the world was cooler than teenagers. But I especially adored this precocious group of high school aged Black kids. Main character Raj, with his thick, nerdy glasses and writing aspirations, was a glimpse at my future self. But I also loved his scheming, deadpan little sister Dee, with all her witty wisecracks. Raj’s best friends Rerun (of the rainbow suspenders and killer dance moves) and Dwayne (“hey hey hey”) rounded out the teen boy crew who always seemed to be getting into silly scrapes as Dee mocked them mercilessly. I looked forward to this comedy gold every afternoon on TV 50.
Yet the two-part episode entitled “Doobie or Not Doobie” struck me so weird back then. Here was this famous rock band I’d never heard of playing at the kids’ high school (supposedly their alma mater). I remember trying to process the notion that these three Black kids would be so pumped to see a bunch of scraggly white dudes play 70s rock music. My younger self had a lot to learn about Black influence in popular music genres (including country and rock), and how the creators and audiences for this kind of music were never strictly white. But even if I couldn’t understand a classic rock group appearing on a show about Black teens, I did learn one big lesson — just because a dude has some scary facial hair doesn’t mean he won’t join forces with Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne to defeat a scumbag bootlegger!
I rewatched “Doobie or Not Doobie” this week and still found it absolutely charming. Has it aged perfectly? Haha, definitely not! Nevertheless, I’m sure it not only helped younger me get over my fear of hairy rockers, it also laid the seeds for future fandom. I’ve loved the Doobies for years, but never so much as I do now.
Watching the opening scene, with Dwayne and Raj grooving to “Long Train Running” at the soda shop, I immediately felt giddy. Such a jam. When they later visit the band’s rehearsal so Raj can interview them for the school paper, Rerun and Dwayne bust out amazing air guitar moves for “Echos of Love.” So much joy. With six live songs between the two episodes, it’s like a mini concert film’ set in a high school auditorium.
The Doobies and the kids engage in lots of silly banter. When an unimpressed Dee first meets the group, she says, “The Doobie Brothers?” Then she approaches bassist Tiran Porter (the sole Black bandmate) and asks, “What are you, a half-brother?” Tiran explains, “We’re not really related, we just sort of depend on each other.” Foreshadowing! When Raj asks the band what their biggest problem is, the Doobies all agree on bootlegging. According to Michael McDonald, the record company makes no money from bootleg recordings, which means they make no money, and the listener gets stuck with a crappy product. Oh please, as if bootleggers exploit artists anywhere near the level that record companies do!
Alas, What’s Happening is not ready for a Marxist analysis of labor, especially when guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is literally wearing a Warner Brothers label on his shirt like a daggum race car driver. Anyway, by this point in the story the audience knows Rerun has already agreed to record the show for bootlegger Al Dunbar, who bribed him with front row tickets. So when the band claims anyone caught redhanded will “go to jail for a looooong time” (geez, guys), Rerun is shook.
Rerun tells the other boys about his scheme. The three young men inform Dunbar they’re no longer interested in the tickets, but he threatens violence. And before you know it, Rerun is strapping a toaster-size tape recorder to his belly.
The concert itself is phenomenal, just one hit after another. Vocalist/guitarist Patrick Simmons does a spotless performance of “Black Water” (one of my karaoke favs). He also does jokes between songs, delivering the absolute cringiest line of the episode; reflecting on his high school years, he says, “I learned in PE how to wrestle a girl into the backseat of my car.” Ugh, why’d you have to make this rapey, dude? Still, he has a lovely smile and comes off as a genuinely nice guy despite having the second-worst facial hair in the group (Skunk is the winner).
The kids’ spectator reactions are so funny, especially when the band performs the outro from “I Cheat the Hangman” and drummer John Hartman bangs a gong with a giant flaming torch. This yields some extremely psychedelic images of the kids’ beatific faces superimposed upon the pyrotechnics. No doubt watching this as a young child also laid the seed of interest in other activities I would later enjoy.
Following the “Takin’ It to the Streets” finale, Rerun jumps elatedly, causing the hidden tape recorder to fall to the floor. When the band confronts him, a mortified Michael McDonald asks, “How could you guys do this to us?” Gasp! I adore Michael McDonald. “What a Fool Believes” is one of my favorite songs ever. Can you imagine the devastation of having the best soulful voice + bushy beard combo in popular music call you out that way?!
But once the kids explain Dunbar coerced them, the band hatches a plan. We next see the boys meeting Dunbar at the soda shop, where they stall him. Raj runs through a funny, frantic medley of Doobie songs as Rerun jumps on a chair and starts doing the funky chicken. Just as Dunbar is about to leave, Michael and two of the other bandmates cut him off. Dunbar heads for the kitchen, and then Patrick and a couple other guys stop him. That’s when someone in the live TV studio audience screams “YEAH!” And OMG, I was totally feeling this too!! Finally Skunk and the rest of the crew walk out of the restroom with a cop (ugh), who promptly arrests Dunbar. Because that’s how that works. The kids and the Doobies celebrate their triumph over the evils of concert bootlegging as everyone jams to “It Keeps You Running” on the jukebox. Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne have joined the sacred brotherhood and all is right with their new beardo buddies. Wins all around!
For a long time I thought I was the only person who recalled this pop culture oddity. Times were tough before the internet and video streaming made it possible to watch weird old shows that had long fallen out of syndication. But a few years ago I experienced a lovely moment of shared recollection with a hotel shuttle driver in Durham. He told me how he’d once driven Michael McDonald around when he was in town for a show.
“He was the nicest dude. I was like, ‘Oh man, I remember when you were on What’s Happening!’” I giggled with delight as he continued, “He said I could have free tickets and backstage passes for the show the next night, but I had to work. Then I saw him in the hotel lobby the next morning and he said, ‘Hey Darryl, you coming to the show tonight?’ When he remembered my name, I knew I had to go.” Darryl smiled big and added, “I called off work that night and got two points on my record. But it was worth it.”
The brotherhood is real! It honestly warms my heart to know my hairy faced idol is a truly kind gent. That’s why, at the end of the day, beardos are just alright with me.