In his often entertaining, sometimes flat-as-pavement new memoir, Change of Seasons, John Oates energetically delivers a portrait of an artist as a man in search, superficially at least, of himself. Oates displays his typical manic energy in these pages as he jumps from his childhood and youth in New York and Philadelphia and the early days with his first bands to the moments he meets up with Daryl Hohl, a singer in a cover band called The Temptones, at Temple University, and the rise to success, and the fall (or, maybe better, the energetic depletion—there comes a time when you simply know it’s time to part ways, and to his credit Oates candidly admits that he and Daryl Hall, as he spelled his name professionally, knew they had reached that point by the early '90s) of the band that became known popularly as Hall & Oates. (Oates points out that they never thought of themselves as a duo, but called themselves Daryl Hall & John Oates, and that they always announced themselves this way on their albums.) Oates chronicles the making of the band’s 14 albums, as well as many of their songs, and he provides a glimpse into his own financial collapse. Although he’s not as reflective about those days as we’d sometimes wish, he’s also not quick to blame others, instead embracing his own naiveté, and perhaps a blind excitement over making money from music and securing a record deal. "Musicians made the music, and the record company’s job was to figure out how to sell it, staying out of the way of the creative process,” he writes.
By 1991, Oates was nine million dollars in debt and looking for a “change of season.” The first change comes with his divorce from Nancy, “a good girl from Minnesota … a nice girl from a really nice family … I should have never been married in the '80s. She was a successful model and I was running around the world like I was single. She wanted to start a family and I wasn’t ready,” writes Oates. During a series of therapy sessions, Oates discovers that he’s let too many things get away from him in his life: “I learned that I had very little to show for all I had worked for.” He comes to a series of conclusions: he needs to leave New York City, both physically and psychically; he needs redefine his relationship, now crumbling, with Daryl Hall; and he needs to unburden himself from the excesses of his former life, including his cars, his airplanes, and his houses. So begins Oates’ rebirth, his reinvention of himself, as he sheds the skin of “the protracted-adolescence pop-star life” he’s been living. In the second half of the book, then, Oates starts all over again—to paraphrase the Mel and Tim soul nugget “Starting All Over Again” that he and Hall later recorded—and moves to a condo in Aspen, falls in love and marries Aimee, and they raise their son, Tanner, and become neighbors with Hunter S. Thompson.
In spite of the often frenetic tone and Oates’ compulsion to get it all down, he stops long enough every now and then to drop a gem-like phrase about music or about his life. In his quest to become a better musician—and that restless desire to always improve his musicianship shines through his words—he takes music lessons from the “professor to the professionals,” Helen Hobbs Jordan. He learns from her that “rhythm is the physical, harmony is the cerebral, melody is the emotional part of music.” In his best songs, such as “She’s Gone,” Oates shows us he’s learned this lesson very well.
In the most poetic flight of fancy, Oates reflects on the end of his partnership with Daryl Hall, and the freedom it brings him: “Free to clean up tangled webs. Free to fall down. Free to grow up. Free to discover what really matters in life … Free to rekindle a smoldering ember of a passion left behind but not forgotten and recapture a creative spirit overshadowed by the pop music stardom of the 1980s. Free to change, just as the seasons do.
Just how much fans of Hall and Oates like this book will depend on how much they like John Oates; he admits up front that this is his story of those years, and the years that follow the dissolution of the partnership (a note: Daryl Hall and John Oates will be touring this summer). Hall’s voice—as it rightly should be—is completely absent. Yet, whether fans of Daryl Hall and John Oates enjoy the book misses the point; Oates opens himself to, and shares with us, changes in his personal and professional climates, revealing more facets of a life lived through the ravages of all kinds of weather.
John Oates and I chatted by phone recently about his memoir:
What will readers be surprised to learn about you from the book?
Well, I hope they’ll be surprised to find out that I can actually write. The stories about the early '70s: I was able to go into a lot of detail here and to spend more time on stories from that era in the book.
What’s the source of the book’s title?
It’s the title of an album that Daryl and I recorded in 1990. We stopped working together after that album. It was a time of change for me personally, too, and the book reflects that. That’s when I sold everything and moved to Colorado, married Aimee, and made major changes in my life.
You include quite a few excerpts from your journals in the book. How long have you been keeping journals? Do you still keep them?
No, I didn’t start keeping a journal until the '70s. I had an intuition then that what would happen in my life was going to be important, and I wanted to record it. By the '80s, everything took off, and I just got too busy to keep the journals anymore.
Did you read any other music memoirs in preparation for writing yours?
No. I specifically avoided reading a lot of other people’s writing. I wanted this book to be in my voice and not to be influenced by other people’s styles.
You indicate a couple of times that this book only covers a particular period in your life and that you don’t deal here with your solo career. Is this only the first installment? Do you think you’ll write another memoir?
Yes, I definitely think so. When I hit 400 pages, I thought, “Whoa, who wants to read this much?” But there were more stories I really wanted to write about. My co-writer, Chris Epting, really helped me reduce the length of the book, and kept telling me that I had a story to tell and that I had to get it out.
So, there were stories that you cut?
Yeah, I cut out a lot of stories, but I also knew I didn’t want this to be a kiss-and-tell book; I wasn’t interested in writing a vindictive book.
What were some of the differences for you between writing the book and writing a song?
Well, the most important difference for me was that, unlike writing a song, there is not any immediate gratification in writing the book. As a writer, you’re writing into a void of sorts, writing for a few hours every day without an audience to read your work. You’re not getting any feedback.
What do you lessons do you hope readers take from your book?
I hope they learn about me as a person, and what kinds of things I think about. I hope they get a little inside peek into what Daryl and I were like and what made us work together so well. I hope they’ll see me as a real person.