It’s that most magical time of year, Movember — and the ultimate spokesperson for the cause, the self-declared “patron saint of facial hair,” John Oates, has just joined forces with the leading men’s health charity of that name. “I remember when I first spoke to the Movember people, when we started talking about being involved, the first thing I jokingly said was, ‘I guess Burt Reynolds wasn't available,’” the Hall & Oates legend tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I do have a wry sense of humor...”
But of course, there’s a serious side to this interview: Oates has teamed with Movember for the nonprofit’s annual fall campaign, when men grow mustaches to raise awareness and funds for men’s health issues like mental illness, suicide prevention, and testicular and prostate cancer. It’s a worthy cause that convinced Oates, who is open about his own metal health struggles while speaking with Yahoo, to grow out his once-lush ‘70s ‘stache. This was a major decision on his part, because there was a time when he so resented his whiskers that he “ritualistically” shaved them off — so he could live his life bare-faced, virtually unrecognizable, and somewhat off the grid for many years. Perhaps only Keri Russell’s Felicity Season 2 pixie chop or Metallica’s drastic Load-era haircuts have generated as much public shock as Oates’s shearing.
“You know, it's just one of those things,” Oates shrugs as he discusses his complex facial-hair journey. “I grew a mustache as soon as I graduated from my school. I guess I was destined to have a mustache somehow or another. Maybe I didn't like the way my lip looked, who knows? There's always a lot of deep-seated, hidden meanings behind things like that. But, you know, it became a thing. And then, interestingly enough, I felt like I became a caricature of myself, and the mustache was kind of representative of that. So in the late ‘80s, I just decided it was time. I needed to change. There was a lot of going on in my life, a lot of stress-induced things, and mental things, emotional things, that I was dealing with. And the mustache, in a way, represented the old guy that I was. And I didn't want to be that guy anymore. So, I shaved it off. I spent the entire decade of the ‘90s into the 2000s totally clean-shaven, and I felt like I was reborn in a sense. It was kind of a cathartic, shedding-of-the-skin type of thing.”
Oates vividly recalls the spontaneous moment when he reached for his razor, in 1990. “Oh, it's a good story,” he chuckles. “Every time I looked at myself during this period of time, the mustache started looking weird to me. It just didn't look good. It looked strange. … Yoko Ono invited Daryl [Hall] and I plus a lot of other artists to perform in Tokyo for a John Lennon tribute on the 10th anniversary of his death, and after the show, I came back to the room and I just looked at myself in the mirror and it had to go. I don't know what it was. I just said, ‘This is it. I'm done.’ And I shaved it off in the hotel room in Tokyo. And it was funny, because the next day I walked into the airport and there's everybody — and Daryl, he did a double-take. He's like, ‘What did you do?’”
But then a random airport encounter that same day with jazz great Miles Davis indicated that Oates had made the right decision. “I mean, if you ever saw [Davis] up close, he's very powerful; he's got penetrating eyes. And he came right up to me, literally came right up to my face, and he went like this,” Oates laughs, making a violent slashing gesture across his upper lip. “And I went, ‘Yeah…’ And that was it. And he walked away. I don't know whether that was approval or recognition; I have no idea. But it was a moment. It was a moment.”
Leading up to this breakthrough/breakdown moment, Oates had been going through a rough patch mentally, emotionally, and financially, and something had to give. “There was a number of things happening. One is that Daryl and I, we had achieved such a high level of pop success — we were everywhere, and it was very, very intense period of time. People kind of assumed that in the ‘80s, because we were so popular with all these hit singles, I must have been just been on Cloud Nine, riding high and loving every minute of it. But the exact opposite was true. It wasn't a very good time for me. I felt like I was being pulled in all sorts of directions. I had no time for myself. … Then, by the end of the ‘80s, something much more serious happened. I was getting divorced, and also our manager had moved on, had stopped managing us. Daryl and I felt like we had really reached the mountaintop, and there was nowhere to go but down, so we basically stopped touring. So, there was this whole sea change of things that I was handling. And things got really weird. I had some money issues, with investments and things like that not being handled for me by people that I had trusted. It was a very, very stressful period of time. And my initial reaction was, of course, to shave the mustache. But that was always symbolic. What I really had to do was I had to change my life.
“The music business had kind of kicked me in the ass,” Oates continues. “I got to the point where I had some come-to-Jesus moments with accountants who told me, ‘Hey, you've got a lot of stuff, but you don't have much in the bank.’ And that's what caused me to basically sell everything and start over. But the real thing that happened was on my way back from one of these 'come-to-Jesus' meetings, I was in a cab, and it was late at night, and I was driving back from Wall Street toward my apartment in the Village, and I started getting chest pains. And I thought I was having a heart attack. I had never had experienced anything like that in my life. I was still a fairly young guy, and it was really frightening. And I thought, ‘I'm going to die in the back of a cab on my own, at night in New York City.’ I couldn't think of a worse scenario. And it really pissed me off.”
Oates adds with his typical wry humor, “Spoiler alert: I didn't die! I just want make sure it's clear.” On the contrary: He started his life over again. “Literally the following morning is when I began to sell everything I had. And luckily, it was the ‘80s and people had a lot of money and wanted to buy stuff! I sold everything, and I moved into my little condo — the only thing I didn't sell, in Aspen, Colo. — and I lived in the mountains for two years, solo. I didn't have a car. I rode my bike. I skied every day. I just became a mountain man, and I just left the music business behind. So, that was my step in the direction of reinventing myself and rebuilding my life. It's very, very similar to the shaving of the mustache in a symbolic way. It was the symbolism of getting rid of the trappings of the pop star — you know, the fancy cars, the big houses in Connecticut, the apartments in New York. I had a lot of stuff. And it was really just get rid of it all, because you don't need it, and start over again. And so then, when I did come back to music in the early 2000s, I really came back with a different perspective. I'd re-identified myself, I think.”
Oates, who is now 74 years old, hails from a generation of men that were taught to — no pun intended — keep a stiff upper lip, mustachioed or otherwise. “I mean, hell, in the past and maybe even now, men don't even want go to the doctor, much less than talk about very deep-seated anxieties and stress and mental health.” But he’s happy to see that mental health has become less of a taboo topic. “I think things have changed, especially in the younger generation,” he muses. “There's a major change — you see it with athletes, sports figures, performers. They are talking about mental health. They're very much more open about it. … And so, I guess you can say shaving the mustache was a step in that direction [for me]. I went to therapy for the first time, which I had always scoffed at — you know, ‘Who needs therapy, that's for weaklings… for people who can't handle their own shit!’ But it actually was a really revelatory thing for me. I began to see myself in a different light outside of the image that I was perceived as. … I'm not just this MTV guy who jumps around in funny clothes, you know? I'm so much more centered and so much more at ease with myself [now] that let's put it this way: The mustache is not defining me."
So, now that Oates is part of the Movember movement (his involvement with the campaign includes his new solo single, “Pushin’ a Rock”), the big question is: Will he keep this hirsute look year-round, or will he soon reach for the Bic and Barbasol again? “I'm going to keep it for a while and see how it fits on my face after a while,” he says. As for whether bringing back his old look, albeit with “a lot more gray in it,” triggered any core memories for him, he chuckles, “Yeah, it triggered a lot of memories. It's weird — there's something about the right side of the ‘stache that splits in half every once in a while. I remember that from when I was younger. And also when you eat, sometimes you eat a sandwich, you can pull your upper lip down in along with the sandwich, which is something I also forgot about. I'm noticing again, now that it's kind of growing longer.” He also marvels at recent advancements in grooming technology. "Now there's like mustache and beard products for men. I mean, come on — in the ‘70s and ‘80s, no one would even imagined! Now there's like beard balm and mustache brushes and all these cool little accoutrements.”
While Oates jokes about launching his own “Oates Balm” product line, right now he’s just pleased to be able to use his famous mustache for good. “It is important that I've aligned myself with Movember… and I'm not running away from anything,” he asserts. “I just said, ‘You know what, why not embrace it for a good cause?’ … I'm gonna this thing grow out and see what happens.”
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— Video produced by Kyle Moss, edited by Schuyler Stone