It’s hard not to think about facial hair when you think about John Oates. The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer had one of the most iconic mustaches of the 1980s while reigning over the charts as part of the duo, Hall and Oates. Yet, there was a time when he had to shave it off – to save himself. “It was kind of a confluence of events that happened all at the same time,” John tells HollywoodLife when discussing his new song, “Pushin’ A Rock,” and his partnership with Movember, the November-long initiative raising awareness about men’s mental and physical health.”
“After Darryl and I were so popular, we were really kind of taking a hiatus. Our manager left for greener pastures. I was getting divorced. Things weren’t going that well for me, either professionally or personally,” Oates tells HL. “I was living in New York City, and I was on the hamster wheel of, you know, doing the same thing with the same people. And suddenly, I had a revelation that it wasn’t going anywhere, and I needed to make a wholesale change in my life. So, it caused me to basically kind of shed my skin, you know, metaphorically and for real.”
That moment happened in a place that no one expected: Japan. “One of the things that Darrell [Hall] and I did in the ’90s was, we went to Tokyo,” shares Oates. “Yoko Ono was having the tenth anniversary of John Lennon’s death, and she wanted to have a benefit concert. We were invited, and it was right after that show, back in the hotel room – it was the night before I was to get on the plane to come home. And I looked in the mirror, and I just shaved it off. It looked wrong. I shaved it off and showed up at the airport the next day, and everybody was just, ‘Woah, what happened to you?’ People had never seen me like that. And I didn’t have a mustache for quite some time.”
From there, John said he sold everything he owned, put New York City in his rearview, and relocated to Colorado to “start my life over again.” Oates tells HL that during the ’90s, he “really lived in the mountains and eventually got re-married, had a kid, built a house — did all the kinds of things that I never did when I was touring. I toured straight for 20 years without stopping. I was single-mindedly focused on my musical career, and nothing else mattered. And I realized there was more to life than that. So it was really kind of a wholesale life’s lifestyle change.”
That sentiment – of getting out of the rut, of making that terrifying step to embrace that wholesale change, as John puts it – is behind both the Movember movement and John’s single, “Pushin’ A Rock.” With Oates’ signature sound, one that seamlessly melds R&B with soul with pop rock, he delivers an anthem for anyone going through it at the moment. “When the road gets rough, and you’ve had enough,” he sings, “When life hits you hard, but you keep standing tough / Lend a hand, try to help a brother… reach out / Reach out to each other.”
There couldn’t be a better anthem for 2022’s Movember. While the growing of mustaches began as a way to raise funds for prostate cancer, the movement also has since expanded to focus on the mental health issues that men clash with every day. For John, his song is a chance to offer a light in the darkness, making it the perfect fit for this month’s campaign.
Oddly enough, Taylor Swift had an unexpected hand in creating “Pushin’ A Rock,” Oates explains. “The core of the song, the first version of that song, was written back in 2015,” he says. “I was doing an album called Good Road To Follow, and the theme of the album was that this musical journey that I’ve been on has taken me to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. And that’s where the idea came from. And it also had a lot to do with my collaboration with Nathan Paul Chapman, who was Taylor Swift’s original producer and a very good friend of mine here in Nashville.”
“And when Taylor moved on to work with different producers, I reached out to him just to see how he was,” continued Oates. “And, you know, it was a very traumatic thing to be this multiple Grammy-winning producer of one of the biggest artists in the world, and then all of a sudden not be so much involved.”
Oates and Chapman pooled their experience to produce the first take on “Pushin’ A Rock,” but something didn’t budge for Oates. “It resonated for both of us back then, but the version we came up with, I was never that satisfied with it, to be honest, although I thought the lyrics were powerful. So, during COVID, when I was sitting around and had a lot more time on my hands, I went back and revisited a lot of older ideas. I realized how pertinent and timely the lyrics were – the original song was called ‘Pushin’ A Rock Uphill,’ and to differentiate it with the new version, I called it ‘Pushin’ a Rock.’”
This new version boasts a musical background that Oates thought was “more contemporary” than the original and that doing so, the song scape “matched the quality of the lyrics a lot better.” With Chapman’s blessing (“he said, ‘Have at it.’”), Oates put together a new version and played it for his friend. “His comment was, ‘this is the way it always should have sounded,’ which I thought was a high compliment.”
While COVID afforded Oates a chance to go back and give “Pushin’ A Rock” the shine it deserved, he tells HL that he isn’t ready to release Abandoned Luncheonette (Oates’ Version). “I always have thought that recordings, they should be left alone because for better or for worse, they represent a moment in time. They are a snapshot of whatever was happening – your mental state, your skill. The people who recruited played on the record, the engineers, the technology involved, it’s really a snapshot of all that,” he says, adding that something was compelling him to at least push that rock up that hill.
It’s taken seven years for “Pushin’ A Rock” to see the light of day. Similarly, John being the face of Movember has been a long time coming. “The people who do licensing and branding for me, JC (Justin Coghlan, one of Movember’s co-founders) is their personal friend,” Oates tells HL. “They had a running joke. ‘It seems pretty obvious, but why haven’t you ever asked Oates?’ And it started that way.”
“I think it’s an important men’s health Initiative, I really do. And I’ve had things that I’ve dealt with in my life, health-wise — both mentally and physically. I just thought it was definitely worthwhile me being involved and also having some fun with it,” he says. Plus, those who decide to embrace December with a clean-shaven face can experience the “shedding of skin” that John experienced when he shaved his mustache off, all those years ago.
“Traditionally, the hair-cutting or hair-growing has been a symbolic statement of sorts in all kinds of cultures across the world,” says Oates. In the years following his shaving, he said he was having “a more fashionable version connected to a goatee. I haven’t had a full-blown stash since the late 80s.”
When asked how it feels to have a mustache again, John Oates says he’s “evolved” emotionally and physically, that his facial hair is less than his identity and more like what it is: “It’s just hair. It doesn’t really matter that much anymore.” As for the pain and trauma that caused him to shave it off in the first place? Growing back a mustache didn’t open any old scars. “I think the scars healed,” he says with a smile.