Fred Armisen and Bill Hader’s Netflix comedy series Documentary Now! parodies all kinds of different docs, but its crowning achievement so far is the music mockumentary Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee. Based on the award-winning 2013 documentary History of the Eagles (it’s even broken into two parts, like the Eagles documentary), Gentle and Soft follows the story of the fictitious Blue Jean Committee, and how they perfected the 1970s soft-rock “California sound.”
The documentary features deadpan interviews with real musicians about the fake band, and in it Kenny Loggins says of the Blue Jean Committee, “We’d all tried to capture that thing, but they really got it. It was the quintessential California record.” “Remembering” his first time hearing them, Loggins says, “I was blown away. I said ‘Where the heck did this music come from?”
Well, that’s the joke, as the documentary reveals that the Blue Jean Committee—who sang about surf and sun and the “Catalina Breeze”—were actually meatpackers from Chicago who’d never spent a day on the beach.
It’s funny, for sure, but as Jim Messina—who, as a member of Buffalo Springfield, Poco, and Loggins and Messina really did spend much of the late ’60s and early ’70s perfecting the easygoing sound that became associated with Southern California rock—points out, it’s maybe not as far from the actual truth as it might seem.
For instance, Buffalo Springfield might be associated with a “California Daze,” as one bootleg title put it, for advising “Stop children, what’s that sound” in the protest song “For What It’s Worth,” but the truth is that Messina himself was the only member of the band actually from California.
“Stephen [Stills] was from Texas by way of New York; Neil [Young] was from Canada; Richie [Furay] was from Ohio,” says Messina. He started working with the band as a recording engineer and producer, eventually playing bass on their final album, Last Time Around.
Messina remembers first being drawn to the band in 1967, when he heard an early version of their song “Bluebird.” “Stephen, what an incredible guitarist and stylist he was, and what a unique, soulful voice he has. He and Richie harmonized really well together. And of course Neil had the whole Rolling Stones thing down, that kind of nasty-sounding guitar. It all just worked.”
But Messina, who plays the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on Saturday, Jan. 28, really did grow up in Southern California, and all the famous elements of SoCal rock were very real to him.
“In Manhattan Beach, we were into surfing, and there was music associated with that that I wasn’t quite aware of yet,” he says. “I grew up around a lifestyle that was surf and sand.”
But ironically, it wasn’t until his parents plucked him out of that lifestyle, moving him east to San Bernardino County, that he really started to appreciate it.
“I went, ‘Oh my god, you’re going to take me away from the beach and surfing?’ Suddenly I’d landed on this foreign planet of Colton, California at 13 years of age,” he says. “So I picked up my guitar and I started listening to the Ventures and the Champs and instrumental groups like that. I started learning to play those songs, and then by the time I was ready to go into high school that year, I was playing music at a club at the Air Force base out there. The Air Force people could enjoy their cocktails and deposit their kids by the pool, and they hired me to go down there entertain their kids. I had a little band.”
While still in his teens, he was apprenticing as a recording engineer in Hollywood, which eventually led to Buffalo Springfield. After that band broke up, he and Furay started the landmark country rock band Poco.
“I said to Richie that it might be natural for us, if we want to work together, to think about doing country rock instead of folk rock, because it’s right there in both of our souls. Up until that time, I had been playing bass in Buffalo Springfield, and he didn’t know me much as a guitarist, but that was really my instrument.”
Though his “You Better Think Twice” became the band’s signature song, Messina left Poco in 1970, after clashing with Furay—“we got a little headstrong with each other,” he says.
He continued to work as a producer, and not long after, legendary record company mogul Clive Davis asked him to take a look at a promising new talent named Kenny Loggins. So Messina invited Loggins over, and asked him to play a few songs.
“He said ‘Well, I don’t have a guitar,’” Messina remembers. “I thought ‘Boy, this is going to be something. They want me to produce somebody who doesn’t own a guitar, and doesn’t have any tapes.’ So I went over to my closet and pulled out an instrument and I said, ‘Here’s a stool, here’s a guitar. Sing me your tunes.’ I figured if we could get past that, we’d have something to talk about. So he sat down and he sang “Danny’s Song,” he sang “House at Pooh Corner,” he sang a number of other songs he had written.”
Ultimately, Messina had to choose between producing Loggins or another young talent he had been offered, Dan Fogelberg.
“My choice was between Dan and Kenny, and I chose to go with Kenny,” he says. “Not because Dan was not a talent. The focus for me was I liked Kenny’s voice, and he seemed he could take it other directions. Kenny was capable of ballads, he was capable of singing the blues, he was capable of so many different things.”
Messina was so involved in assembling a band, producing and performing on Loggins’ debut record that Davis suggested they should continue to partner full-time, even suggesting a name for their act: Messina and Loggins.
“I said, ‘I’ll think about it,’ and I asked Kenny, ‘What do you think?’” recalls Messina. “He said ‘Well, it’s working, let’s do it.’ So I went back to Clive and said ‘Yeah, I’d like to do it, but I want to call it Loggins and Messina, because I’m here really to promote Kenny and to see his career shine.”
Messina still marvels at what some of the songs he wrote for the duo became via Loggins’ vocals, like “Piece of Mind.” “He took the ending of that song to new heights,” he says. But when they started out, Messina—as the industry vet—had the final say on their work. As their fame grew, Loggins wanted to pursue his own vision, and their styles were often very different. After six hit albums, the two decided to part ways.
Messina is extremely diplomatic about it today. “There are times when people disagree,” he says. “We just do things very differently in the production process.”
It certainly helps that the Loggins and Messina reunion in 2005 was a huge success, and a positive experience—very different than the difficult slog that was the Poco reunion in 1989.
“The 2005 reunion tour was just a lot of fun,” he says.
The only reunion he wasn’t invited to was Buffalo Springfield’s performance at the Bridge School benefits in 2010, which were followed by shows in 2011—an omission that he admits left him “weirded out.”
“At one point in time I was a little hurt by it, but then I thought, ‘You know what, these guys had a very close little clique, and a sound that was very geared to them and I’m sure that what that was about was trying to keep that alive, and also keep the closest people around them that they were used to working with.’”
For his shows with the Jim Messina Band, he performs songs from every project he’s played in. He sees it as a chance to let people hear the music they’ve enjoyed from all the eras of his life.
And, for the record, while he thinks the idea of the Blue Jean Committee is hilarious, he doesn’t believe in this “California sound” he supposedly helped create.
“I’ve never identified with the ‘California sound.’ I don’t even know what that means,” he says. “But I can see how everyone can lump it together if they say, ‘Oh, there’s Jackson Browne and the Eagles and Loggins and Messina.’”
Jim Messina performs at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28 at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz. Tickets here.