Despite the fact that I am a 27-year-old person raised mostly in the Midwestern part of this country, I managed to avoid any exposure to “What a Fool Believes” until about five years ago. Against all odds, perhaps, my carpools to elementary and middle school were not centered around the correct sort of radio stations, or didn’t occur in minivans with appropriately stocked CD changers. In general, my experience with the Doobie Brothers was marginal: the occasional pre-Michael McDonald cut played by a friend’s father at a cookout. By high school, I would be categorically dismissing them as soft-boogie grocery-store wallpaper music, inferior to dozens of other “canonical” classic rock bands who were more worth my allowance money.
I was first confronted with “Fool” in earnest while binging on over-the-top clips of ‘70s and '80s arena-rock bands on YouTube with a friend; for us, the more extravagant the setup and the more outrageous the outfits, the better. The video was from a stadium show in the early ‘80s; the Doobies’ touring formation at the time featured at least five more members than seemed necessary to play the tune: two double-stuffed drum kits (playing mostly in unison), three keyboards, and three guitars. McDonald was centerstage and gleaming, at his most intense moment of salt-and-pepper crisis. His vocal performance here was more gruff and sheathed than usual, possessing a touch of that swallowed, macho rock delivery (see also: slightly constipated “yeeeeah”s) that would dominant rock airwaves, especially in the post-grunge era. The words were reduced to all vowels in the heat of the performance, illogically interrupted by breaths, and occasionally comically difficult to make out.
The chorus of the song grabbed me—in the live performance, its lyrics were the only ones that could be readily understood. Written out, they read like a strange koan, or a send-up of e.e. cummings. The meaning depended, maybe, on how you punctuated it: