Old Is New

Old Is New

In the 1996 film Big Night, Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub play brothers who own a slowly failing Italian restaurant in 1950s New Jersey. It’s a premise ripe with comedy, and Tucci — who co-wrote and co-directed — takes frequent advantage of those possibilities, playing up the dynamic between his pragmatic Secondo (the floor manager) and Shalhoub’s rigidly idealistic chef Primo. It isn’t all laughs, however; from the opening scene, there’s a thick, bittersweet tension between the humor in Primo refusing to cater to their customers’ unrefined taste (he calls one diner a “Philistine” for requesting spaghetti and meatballs to go with their risotto) and the poignant drama in Secondo’s clearly doomed efforts to keep the business afloat. Their relationship is sorely tested, of course, and by the end, the brothers have pretty much hit the breaking point — but in the final moments, having erupted and torn at each other over years of pent-up frustrations, they meet in the kitchen, sharing breakfast without sharing a word. It’s a scene that says pretty much everything there is to say about the nearly unbreakable bond between siblings.

It’s perhaps my favorite scene from one of my all-time favorite films, partly because I have siblings myself and am a total sucker for stories that manage to reflect the unstoppable undertow beneath the roiling waves of family life. No matter how rough the surface gets, that plangent tide always pulls you back to shore — back together, back home. It can be aggravating as hell when you’re kids, but as you get older, it’s an immense source of comfort. No one else understands you quite like family. You share an unspoken language, an elemental connection. Falling back into it is like putting on your favorite old sweatshirt or getting back under the covers on a cold morning.

Obviously, everyone is different. I know plenty of people who aren’t particularly close with their siblings, who have nothing in common with them, or who actively avoid spending time with them. But for me personally, that bond has been a keystone for my adult life — we’ve all got other things going on and we don’t talk every day or sometimes even every week, but simply knowing my siblings are there keeps me grounded in a way I can’t truly explain and would never want to do without. Again, I’m a sucker for these stories, which is why I found myself feeling unexpectedly emotional when Toto announced the release of its 14th studio album, the sensibly titled Toto XIV, in 2015.

For most people, to the extent that they think about Toto at all, the band members’ family relationships are most likely a decidedly minor concern. At their peak, the group was widely seen as more of a faceless chart-topping mass than a collection of individuals, and any past or present member of the lineup could comfortably stroll down pretty much any street in America without being recognized today. But if you’re familiar with Toto’s story, you know what I’m talking about: when they started out in 1976, two of the band members were literal brothers (drummer Jeff Porcaro and keyboardist Steve Porcaro), while keyboardist David Paich was a longtime friend and creative partner of Jeff’s, and guitarist Steve Lukather went to the same high school as the trio. They were uniquely connected on multiple levels from the start, and the family dynamic deepened further after the recording of 1982’s Toto IV, when bassist David Hungate suddenly quit and was replaced by Jeff and Steve’s brother Mike Porcaro.

This fraternal order helped keep the band together, I think, even as a multitude of factors conspired to splinter the lineup. They were all in-demand session musicians, so simply making time for Toto was more complicated than it would have been otherwise, and they dealt with a series of setbacks both before and after working their way to the top of the charts in the early ’80s — bad business decisions, a tragicomic inability to hang onto lead singers, and the devastating deaths of Jeff Porcaro, felled by a heart attack in 1992, and Mike Porcaro, who passed away in 2015 after retiring from the road in 2007 due to what was eventually diagnosed as symptoms of ALS.

It’d all be more than enough to end most bands, and for a brief period, it sidelined Toto. After Mike Porcaro’s forced retirement, the touring lineup was essentially Lukather, singer Bobby Kimball, and an array of hired guns who — while talented — weren’t Toto. Increasingly dissatisfied, Lukather walked away in 2008, and that seemed to be the end of the group.

Not that anyone asked me, but for me personally, Toto’s disbanding was a long time coming. When I started writing about music for money in the late ’80s, I made a point of publishing what I thought were forceful rejoinders against the prevailing “cool” mentality that Toto and bands of its ilk were lame — one of my earlier reviews was a pointed defense of 1988’s The Seventh One LP, which a number of critics had dismissed as soulless and overly slick. With the exception of 1981’s Turn Back, a record I still don’t love, I’d dug into each of the group’s collections of original material over the years, spending lengthy periods soaking in their evolving aesthetic and collecting a list of favorite cuts.

Some music sticks with you forever, but I don’t think you can hold all of it in your heart all the time. For me, anyway, there are certain artists who simply stop resonating after awhile, for whatever reason. As a young man, I listened to a steady diet of Billy Joel and Chicago, but I rarely turn to either of those catalogs anymore. They just don’t have much to offer me at this point, and by the time Lukather pulled the plug on Toto, that’s how I felt about them too. Those big ’80s productions I’d defended so vociferously had started to feel awfully slick, and the songs didn’t hit me the way they had before. The catalog felt…less than genuine somehow, and I’d come to view those records as a chapter from my childhood.

As with many band breakups, Toto’s demise ended up being more of a hiatus — they were back on the road in 2010 — and like a lot of reunions, it was significantly driven by financial concerns. But rather than a cynical cash grab, it turned out to be a full-circle moment for a group of guys who grew up together, sweated and bled together for decades, and came out the other side with a newfound perspective. Even after losing a pair of Porcaros, they remained a band of brothers — in fact, arguably more than ever.

By the time Toto XIV arrived, I was working for the website Ultimate Classic Rock, and was one of a couple of people on the staff who were better suited to write about the handful of west coast AOR bands still big enough to earn coverage, so I ended up covering a handful of stories around the record’s release — I interviewed Lukather for a comprehensive overview of Toto’s history during their 35th anniversary in 2013, then talked to him again the following year when Toto XIV was still in the works; the year after that, I spoke with Lukather and singer Joseph Williams, who handled lead vocals for the group between 1986-’88 and stepped up to the mic for the 2010 reunion.

The recurring theme during all these conversations was one of love and gratitude, all stemming from that sibling bond. Motivated to take Toto back on the road in order to raise money for Mike Porcaro’s medical care, Lukather insisted that Paich commit to remaining part of the touring lineup. Down a lead singer after original vocalist Bobby Kimball left in the 2008 split, they recruited Williams, who — while only officially their frontman for a brief period in the ’80s — had a friendship with Lukather dating back to the days before Toto even existed. Steve Porcaro, who quit the lineup after The Seventh One, was lured back to active duty. Even David Hungate, gone since 1982, returned for one more round. It almost didn’t matter that Toto XIV didn’t end up moving me like the story behind the band getting back together; for a group of guys who’d frequently been derided as mercenary hacks, the obvious emotion behind this unexpected new chapter in their story was sufficiently poetic.

In the moment, Toto XIV ended up being a bit of a letdown for me — the type of record I dug into the first time with a great deal of anticipation, but rarely returned to in the months immediately following. It wasn’t until reading Lukather’s 2018 memoir, The Gospel According to Luke, that I found myself drawn back to the album and started hearing the stuff I’d missed the first time around — noticing the ways in which time and age had seasoned the band members’ songwriting perspectives. Now it truly sounded like a triumph, albeit the type life tends to deal us after youth is gone: deeper and richer in some respects, while diminished by inevitable attrition in others. There’s a sadness underscoring the whole thing, but it’s one that feels wholly appropriate and earned.

At the time, Lukather, Paich, and Williams all hinted that Toto XIV could end up being the band’s swan song, and when a round of reissues was announced to coincide with Toto’s 40th anniversary in 2018, it looked like the type of placeholder event that could either tide fans over between projects or put a capstone on the catalog for good. As I write this, I still don’t know the answer to that question, but the reissues — which included a best-of set titled 40 Trips Around the Sun and a deluxe limited-run box called All In — came with a cool twist: going back to the vaults to clean up their masters for the campaign, they ended up completing a series of older demos, using modern recording technology to seamlessly tie the current lineup into the past. The result is heard on songs like “Spanish Sea,” which was initially tracked in 1984 with Jeff and Mike Porcaro and now features lead vocals from Williams:

“Spanish Sea,” first featured among a handful of previously unreleased cuts on the 40 Trips compilation, also appears on Old Is New, an album of newly completed material in the same vein that saw its initial release as part of the All In box. It’s joined by “Devil’s Tower,” a song that was originally demoed for Toto IV but remained incomplete until Williams added lyrics and lead vocals:

I can only imagine how strange this process must be for Lukather, Paich, and Steve Porcaro — not to mention Williams, being handed the opportunity to put his fingerprints on material that existed before he joined the band. For these guys, I have no idea how much of this process stems from business obligations or creative stasis or just a desire to give the fans some kind of gift. For me, though, as a listener, it’s downright moving — another surprising page in what is, in all likelihood, one of the closing chapters of a long career that’s been shadowed by more than its fair share of frustration and heartache.

I don’t want to oversell this stuff. I’m not 100 percent clear on the provenance of the other previously unreleased cuts on Old Is New, but anything that didn’t earn a spot on an album before had its reasons for staying in the vault all this time, and as a complete listening experience, the New LP definitely has its ups and downs. On the other hand, it does manage to pull off a tricky balancing act: although there’s a definite time-capsule element to these songs, as a whole, it doesn’t sound fully of the past, nor does it sound like a self-conscious attempt to recapture past glories. I came away feeling like I was hearing the sound of a band simply doing what it does, free to explore its current identity while embracing its past. Speaking as a writer who has a hard time practicing patience and maintaining focus long enough to consider a proper second draft, that’s an impressive feat and an incredible gift.

Since adding the Old Is New files to my library late last year, I’ve actually found myself going back to Toto XIV yet again, and blending both records together with a hybrid playlist featuring my favorites from each. I’d like to think I can hear the sound of a band that understands how lucky it is to still be making music after all these years — and not only that, but creating songs that still have a lot of that old spark while addressing themes like the loss, loneliness, and winnowed opportunity we struggle with as we age. I’d like to think we’ll hear more from these guys — that there’s another album or two (or three) out of this presumably final incarnation of Toto. If not, I have a feeling I’ll find myself drawn back to some pocket of the discography or other eventually. I’m a sucker for this sort of story, after all, and sometimes, old really can feel new.