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  1. Music

Toto's Steve Lukather talks 'Africa,' Weezer, being a punch line and more

Toto, with guitarist Steve Lukather at left, will perform at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Oct. 24. (Photo by Kevin Albinder)
Toto, with guitarist Steve Lukather at left, will perform at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Oct. 24. (Photo by Kevin Albinder)
Published Oct. 16, 2018

Laugh. Go on. Snort and retweet with the crying-eyes emoji.

Steve Lukather has heard all the jokes. Heck, he was often the first one telling them.

"Self-deprecation is my game," the Toto guitarist said. "We don't mind if people make fun of us and s--- like that. We've had to develop a super-thick skin. We've been beaten up more than any band in history."

But this new thing? The thing that happened this summer, that once again thrust his band of 40 years back into the viral spotlight?

"This thing has come so out of left field to us," he said. "I never could have written this, or planned any of it."

If you don't know what Lukather is talking about, go online. Or just walk outside. There's a decent chance that somewhere off in the distance, you'll hear the drums of Toto's Africa echoing tonight.

How Africa evolved from reviled radio earworm into "a legit standard in popular music," as Lukather has called it, is a mystery. How this summer it became a No. 1 alternative rock hit for Weezer, even more so. And how it is now the enduring legacy of the most important rock band you've spent your whole life making fun of, well, Lukather can't explain that, either.

When it comes to the magic of Africa and Toto, who play Ruth Eckerd Hall Oct. 24, it's probably best not to overthink it. Which might be why the world can't stop doing just that.

"This is the summer of 2018," Lukather said. "Who would have guessed in 1981, when we cut the track, that I'd be having this conversation right now?"

RELATED: After Weezer's 'Africa,' here are 5 more '80s covers we'd like to see

• • •

Lukather — everyone calls him Luke — is profane and hilarious, forthright and irrepressible. He's had to be, given the critical drubbing Toto has taken since their debut single Hold the Line in 1976. They are far from a one-hit wonder — Rosanna and Toto IV won Grammys for Record and Album of the Year in 1983 — and have sold 40 million records worldwide.

But to every "smarmy New York rock critic who wishes he could play music instead of write about it," Lukather said, they were always a contender for Worst Band Alive.

"When it first started happening, it really stung," Lukather said. "It was like, 'What the f---, man? They hate us that much? Is it that bad?' When you're a kid, you go, 'Wow, our record's on the radio! The dream!' And then all of a sudden, somebody kicks you in the balls while you're sleeping."

The worst of it was that during Toto's prime, they doubled as some of L.A.'s most respected session musicians. That year Toto IV swept the Grammys, they had played on upwards of 50 nominated songs. Lukather's credits include Stevie Nicks' Stand Back, Don Henley's Dirty Laundry, Randy Newman's I Love LA, Cher's If I Could Turn Back Time and a third of Michael Jackson's Thriller, including Beat It. In his new memoir, The Gospel According to Luke, he recounts recording, touring or just palling around with Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and three of the four Beatles (alas, John died too young).

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"Greatest times of my life, man," Lukather said. "There's many times where I've been sitting in a room and I just gaze around at the musicians and the artists and the level of talent on both sides of the glass, and go, 'Wow, this is a f------ trip, man.' "

And then, across the ocean, there is Africa.

Written by singer-keyboardist Dave Paich and late drummer Jeff Porcaro, the song sticks out on Toto IV for its looping, then-unusual blend of world-beat and synthpop. If you can make sense of the lyrics, you're one up on Lukather.

IT'S GONNA TAKE A LOT TO DRAG ME AWAYYYY FROM YOUUUUU ...

"I thought it was a throwaway album cut," Lukather said.

THERE'S NOTHING THAT A HUNDRED MEN OR MORE COULD EVER DOOOOO ...

"As a production, we were really proud of it — four 24-track tapes in sync, man, that was pretty bold back then. But then the lyrics crept in, and it was like, 'Oh, no, Dave, what are you doing, man?' "

I BLESS THE RAINS DOWN IN AAAAA-FRICAAAAA ...

"It became really kitschy to me. I'd go, 'This is a great track, but the lyrics? C'mon, man!' "

But in the long run, it all worked to Africa's advantage. It is strange and specific and endearingly un-self-aware, all qualities Extremely Online millennials can't get enough of. Perhaps you've clicked on the a cappella cover by Angel City Chorale (11.4 million views), or the clip of Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake in a Tonight Show summer-camp skit (7.8 million). Maybe you heard Africa on Stranger Things, Family Guy or Master of None, or saw Skrillex drop it into a live festival set. If not, you can head to Bristol, England, in late November, where a nightclub DJ will spin the song for five straight hours to raise money for an African charity.

The Weezer cover came via the modern equivalent of the double-dog dare: a Twitter campaign, fueled by the hashtag #WeezerCoverAfrica. It would be a perfect union of ironic pop staple and ironic rock band, an Ouroboros of hipsterism conceived to break the internet. After dropping in May, it spent three weeks as Billboard's No. 1 alternative song, Weezer's biggest hit since 2008. A vinyl single released through Urban Outfitters sold out almost instantly. (It will be re-released as an Africa-shaped 10-inch on Black Friday.) Last month, Weezer released a video starring "Weird Al" Yankovic as singer Rivers Cuomo. Clicks: 3.5 million and counting.

"I'm sure Rivers was like, This is a joke!" Lukather said. "And look what happened! Now they've got to play it for the rest of their life, just like I do!"

Toto repaid Weezer by covering their hit Hash Pipe. It didn't take off the same way, but it didn't matter. They had already gotten more free publicity than a hit can buy. All of a sudden, younger fans started turning up at Toto shows, eager to bless the rains themselves.

Were they coming to see some of the greatest studio musicians of their generation? Or were they only there ironically, co-opting their uncles' yacht-rock subculture for the 'grams and RTs? Lukather doesn't care either way.

"I don't give a f--- what label they want to put on us," he said. "They're buying the records and showing up at the gigs, man. Thank you! Go ahead, laugh all you want! I'm howling all the way to the bank!"

• • •

All LOLs aside, for Lukather, there's something more to this moment. He'll be 61 on Sunday. Long gone are the days when he was getting calls to cut tracks every morning. He quit smoking and drinking a decade ago, and in 2016 seriously injured his left arm in a bus crash, forcing him to play guitar "more from the heart and less from the brain."

He often thinks about the night he met Tom Petty, just a couple of years ago, backstage at a Jeff Lynne concert.

"Man, they're still paying us to play the guitar," Petty told him. "Isn't that cool?"

"I'm almost 45 years in," Lukather said. "I've taken my punches. I've gotten up every f------ time, and still do, and say, 'Thank you, may I have another, ma'am?' Because that's what it takes to be f------ long-term in this f------ business. People can laugh at our music; they can say, 'Yeah, I hate that f------ song,' and yeah, I get it. But to sustain a career against all odds? ... Everything we got was never given to us. We had to fight for it, pay dues for it, hang in there and take the f------ punches. So to have a little success on the back nine of our lives and careers is just astounding."

He'll have more than that. After 40 years, Toto's laughing last, and probably louder than anyone. As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti, Africa will outlive us all.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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