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Haulin' Oates: A Rock Star Starts Shredding

The more Jheri-curled half of a blockbuster band moves to Aspen, loses his superstar status, aims to stay relevant, and actually shreds.
posted: 11/03/2008

See more pictures from the Haulin’ Oates story here.

In the spring of ’81, 127th Street was still downright rural, empty and dark, a fine place to make out, drink beer, or make out with a beer. Jane Carolan and I were there one warm night, the top down on my dad’s ’71 Impala convertible, lip wrestling in perhaps the best-ever car for starlit canoodling. The FM radio played the Daryl Hall & John Oates song “Kiss On My List.” It spoke to us, as it did to millions of other kissers in 1981. To Jane and me, “Kiss On My List” was our song. That is until she dumped me the next year, during spring break.

Still, I never lost my affection for Hall & Oates. I taped their LPs on cassettes. I drew their album covers on the spines of the tapes, and you’d be amazed how awesome my depiction of H2O turned out. It might be cool these days to dis a band that was proud of its drum machines. But know this, ’80s haters: Hall & Oates are the best-selling duo in music history. Thirty-four of their singles charted on the Billboard Hot 100. Daryl Hall (the tall willowy blond) and John Oates (the shorter, swarthier one with the mustache) are superstars by any measure.

And now I’m skiing with one. A guy I’ve listened to via turntable, boom box, Walkman, minidisc, and iPod. Oates happens to be a diehard skier, and I’m with him on a Friday in February in the Aspen backcountry, where Oates milks face shot after face shot. When he dips into his tele turn (and he’s a deep dipper), snow utterly engulfs him. It’s like the snowpack is a maneater.

You may not have guessed that Oates can ski. But take it from the media whore tagging along with the guy as he fluffs through the thigh-deepness served by Aspen Mountain Powder Tours: Oates absolutely rips. He bought a condo in Aspen in the early 1980s, and a few years later moved here for good. He mastered the accursed skinny long skis of the era, paid his snowy dues, and like the rest of us now shreds around on short fat floaters. In his case, though, his floaters are K2 Phat Luvs. And aren’t those…

“I know—chick skis, right?” he interrupts. “Don’t bust me on it. But guys’ skis are too long for me. The K2 Coombas only go down to 167 centimeters, and I like ’em shorter.”

Oates has caught lots of shit from Aspenites for his skis but never for his skiing. The rest of his gear—lime-green Patagonia parka, newish Smith goggles, beaten Black Diamond pack—prove he’s embraced the whole mountain-living ideal.

He also refuses to let his old fame interfere in any way. Bob Perlmutter, our guide and the director of Aspen Mountain Powder Tours, says, “John won’t let me play Hall & Oates in the cat.” And later, as the cat churns up for another run, windshield wipers battering still more snow, a guide points at stereo cables and asks, “Anybody got an iPod?”

“I never listen to music,” jokes Oates.

That’s simply not true. He’s still playing live shows and recording. He remains, however, the only known person to make the transition from megaselling rocker to hardcore skier. The way I see it, while shaking half an inch of Colorado’s beyond-epic 2007–08 season out of my beanie, Oates—regardless of his chick skis and status as a reflexively hated musical anachronism unless it’s ’80s night—is an idol.

Think about it. He made a ton of popular, girl-friendly music, probably got laid a lot, and earned piles of money. He then took this cash to a classic ski town and commenced skiing powder whenever the hell he felt like it. Who wouldn’t want his life?

***

It’s funny how skiers come to own 5,000-square-foot houses in Aspen, not far from the former cribs of Hunter S. Thompson and Dons Henley and Johnson. In Oates’s case, it came down to meeting a guy in a service elevator while fleeing gunshots. He and Daryl Hall both happened to be at a Philadelphia concert hall for a 1967 band competition when rival gangs started firing. They both fled to the same lift. It began a friendship that, within five years, landed them a record deal.

The first Hall & Oates hit to rock ’70s skiers’ Bone Fones was “Sara Smile.” Though it came from Daryl Hall & John Oates, an album with a regrettable, two-very-close-guys-in-makeup cover, “Sara Smile” paved the way for other radio staples, like “She’s Gone” and “Rich Girl.” The duo would later conquer the dance-music category, but they spent the peak disco years searching for another monster hit. That finally arrived in 1981, when “Kiss On My List” hit number one on the charts and stayed there for three weeks. The following album, Private Eyes, landed all four of its singles in the top 40. The title track and “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” were nearly consecutive number-one hits, separated only by the 10-week stay at number one of Olivia Newton-John’s gargantuan “Physical.” Interestingly, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” was one of the few songs ever by a white act to go to number one on both the R&B and pop charts.

From 1981 through ’85, it was hard to turn on FM radio or MTV and not hear Hall & Oates. “Maneater,” the biggest hit of their career, reached number one in November 1982 and remained there for four weeks. They’d released four straight top-10 albums. And 1984’s Big Bam Boom even includes some perfectly listenable rapping.

“We became larger than life,” Oates says. “We played on ‘We Are the World,’ and were the closing act of Live Aid. It’s very rare you can sustain success like that. It takes more than talent. It’s also luck and perception
and work.”

But like my old squeeze Jane Carolan, the public can be a fickle bitch. In the late ’80s, as America seemed to tire of Hall & Oates, the latter went through some profound changes. He divorced his first wife. The band’s longtime manager, Tommy Mottola (later famous as Mariah Carey’s husband), left. Oates essentially looked at his life and said, “I can’t go for that—no can do.”

“I started to reevaluate all I was doing, figured it was time to reinvent myself,” says Oates. “I had to leave New York, which was a radical move, since New Yorkers view Colorado as just a place for a ski vacation. But I realized Aspen was a good place to live. And the tradition of the West is to give people a chance to start over again. That’s what I did.”

It’s no wonder he settled in Aspen. Raised in Pennsylvania, Oates learned to ski as a teenager in the Pocono Mountains. He first visited Aspen in 1968, after seeing a notice on a Temple University bulletin board: COLLEGE SKI TRIP, ASPEN, $125 FOR FLIGHT, ROOM, AND BOARD.

He’s not the first singer to get a Rocky Mountain high, but Oates’s has lasted longer than anyone’s. He cemented the switch from celebrity to skier in 1990. It’s also the year he shed the most famous ’80s mustache this side of Tom Selleck. Two years later he took up telemarking.

“We got invited, along with Lenny Kravitz and Miles Davis, to Tokyo to do a John Lennon tribute organized by Yoko Ono,” Oates says. “It was a time of rebirth. I realized the ’stache was a symbol of my old self, that other guy. So I shaved it. The next day, Miles Davis saw me. Miles looked like the devil—wild-eyed and spooky. He acknowledged my shave without saying a word, just slowly wiping his finger across his lip.”

***

I’ve just rock-starred the rock star. At the base of Snowmass, I made a multi-platinum artist wait 20 minutes for my sorry ass and I’m thoroughly embarrassed. Though it’s a perfect sunny Saturday, Oates takes my delay in stride. With a defined skier’s tan, Oates, now 59, takes the sun well: His mom came from Italian stock and he’s Spanish-Moorish-English on his father’s side.

In no time, we’re traversing up and out Headwall, the double-black gateway to Snowmass’s steepest runs. Trees clog most exits. Commencing a steep pitch, Oates shouts back, “I’m only five-foot-five, so beware of low branches when following!” (Hence his fondness for K2 Phat Luvs.) Then he genuflects deep into the snowpack and disappears.

When he resurfaces 50 yards downslope, Oates unleashes long, thigh-quivering turns, snow billowing past his shoulders. When executing his turns, Oates punches his gloves straight downhill. He unweights quickly, kicking his back foot effortlessly behind him to set up his carves. Unlike intermediate telemarkers, he hurls his leading shin up front where it cuts through tracked powder like an icebreaker in the Arctic.

He skis exactly as he does in the telemark ski video Bliss: Total Telemark II. Oates contributed a song, “Soul Slide,” to another telemark film, Soul Slide. And a still of him skiing at Aspen wound up as a cover of Backcountry magazine.

Though a relocated superstar in Aspen, Oates has somehow become the opposite of a poseur. It’s no surprise that he crushes the field in celebrity ski competitions whenever he enters them. And he’d dominate even if Clint Eastwood were younger than a pope and Don Johnson didn’t dwell permanently in the backseat.

When the Snowmass off-piste thickens in the sun, we bail for the Woody Creek Tavern. Sitting at a table below a wall of memorabilia, Oates brightens and points. “Hey, there’s my neighbor.” On the wall is an old news clipping of Hunter S. Thompson. Oates didn’t do too much fear and loathing with the Gonzo One but he did attend one of Thompson’s notorious Monday Night Football parties. “Hunter kept jabbing me with a bowie knife while shouting, ‘That’s top-notch! That’s top-notch!’”

After tortilla soup, we drive a couple minutes to Oates’s five-acre spread—which reminds me my ski partner isn’t a regular guy. Granted, the house interior has the requisite snow-sport touches—black-and-white Dick Durrance photos, vintage ski posters from the likes of Mont Revard, a snowboard from LibTech named “Haulin’ Oates.” But they are overwhelmed by the musical touches.

Not that the walls sag with gold records: “I have lots, and they’re just too showy to display,” Oates says. More telling is the grand piano in his sprawling, cathedral-like living room, a photo with Madonna, Dylan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Tina Turner from Live Aid, a basement recording studio loaded with the finest from Apple and Gibson. And then there’s his fridge. It bears photos of everyone from Apolo Ohno to Ludacris. There’s Chuck Yeager, the pilot who broke the sound barrier. Fellow rocker Gene Simmons from Kiss. Fellow renowned lip-caterpillar keeper Ron Jeremy, the porn star. Elsewhere there are album covers, awards, and pictures devoted both to Oates and his tall blond friend, Daryl Hall. Memorabilia is the closest Hall ever gets to Aspen, though.

“Daryl’s not a fan of the mountains,” Oates says. “He likes restoring antique houses. We’re very opposite, actually, so different as people. So we don’t get in each other’s way. Since we are the same musically, we get back on stage after a long layoff and it’s like nothing’s changed. Like brothers who don’t need to talk to communicate.”

Aimee Oates, John’s wife, and their 12-year-old son Tanner are both animal lovers. The family lives to adopt abandoned exotic animals, and this leads us outside to a big barn. There’s a giant wild turkey and three dogs. Assorted barn cats. Peacocks. Nine emus, four llamas, and five alpacas. All were rescued. The emus make sounds like banging on Tupperware, a drumming noise that recalls the fact that “Kiss On My List” was the first number-one hit to be percussed by a drum machine.

***

But is John Oates still relevant? To the trend-enslaved idiots at People and Us Weekly and Rolling Stone, probably not. They probably don’t know that the video for Oates’s 2002 solo tune, “It Girl,” starred Paris Hilton; that Hall & Oates notched a number one Adult Contemporary hit as recently as 2003 (“Do It For Love”); and that Oates guest-starred on Will & Grace.

Because Oates is a fun dude to ski with—and he waited for me without complaint and picked up the tab at the Woody Creek Tavern—it’s tempting to defend him and remind the entertainment industry that Oates has sold 60 million records. Have the snarky little bastards at E! ever enjoyed 60 million units of approval in their lives? Don’t think so. Sixty million isn’t just success. It’s phenomenon.

For his part, Oates seems happy ceding the pop charts to the young and overproduced. “I don’t judge my success by my position on the charts,” he says, “but by what my family, friends, and fans think. My music has grown up, like me. I don’t write about teenage things, because I’m not a teenager anymore.”

The grunge movement of the ’90s certainly did no favors to sweetly harmonizing acts like Hall & Oates. And when grunge died, boy bands like the Backstreet Boys sprang from the ashes. “We kind of withdrew in the mid-’90s and tried to come back later, when people tired of boy bands.”

These days, his music is flourishing. Oates drew a huge ovation at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival this year when he sat in with the Sam Bush Band. He’s been sampled by Wu-Tang Clan and referenced by countless bands, from the Killers to Death Cab for Cutie. He performs lots of solo shows, but “rarely under 7,000 feet.” He recently was elected to the board of the Philadelphia Rhythm & Blues Foundation. And he occasionally reunites with Hall for shows with younger audiences who see “we’re not a cartoon version of an oldies group.”

Most important, Oates has just released a critically acclaimed album called 1000 Miles of Life featuring guest appearances by Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and John Popper. “I’m more excited about this than anything I’ve done the last few years,” he says. He looks at skiing’s resurrection after snowboarding allegedly killed it and sees comparisons. Skiers, like musicians, “have to have a thick skin and patience. Hang around long enough and it’ll all come back.”

And all his new music is for his own label, Phunk Shui Records. “We make all the money now. Instead of 15 cents on a dollar, we make a dollar on a dollar. I have a built-in fan base, and that makes it a lot easier. I’m completely independent now,” he says. “I don’t have to answer to anyone.”

Spoken like a true ski bum.

-SKIING MAGAZINE, November 2008

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