Lovin' Spoonful's Sebastian hits town
05:00 AM, Dec 04, 2013
If you go
What: John Sebastian, co-presented by the Golden Link Folk Singing Society and Cafe Veritas.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: First Unitarian Church, 220 S. Winton Road.
Tickets: $25 advance, $28 at the door, available at cafeveritas.org and goldenlink.org. A Golden Café Pass, limited to 40 people, is available for $50, which includes choice seating and a wine and cheese meet-and-greet with Sebastian immediately after the concert.
The band was taking a break, and John Sebastian was in a phone booth outside the rehearsal hall. Phone booth: That signals long ago, 1965 for our purposes. Sebastian had played bass on Bob Dylan’s first electric album, Bringing It All Back Home, and now Dylan was on the other end of the line, putting together a band for the tour.
“I told him, ‘Bob I really am not going to be able to do this thing,’ ” Sebastian recalls. “I’m committed to these guys, and we’ve accidentally written a few good tunes.”
Whether an accident, or a fortuitous merging of influences, those guys did indeed write a few good tunes. “Do You Believe in Magic,” “Summer in the City,” “Daydream,” “Nashville Cats,” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” With all that Sebastian also had a No. 1 solo hit in 1976 with the theme song for Welcome Back Kotter The Lovin’ Spoonful was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
“I’m very proud of the work I did with the Spoonful, I stay in touch with all the guys still walking the planet,” says the 69-year-old Sebastian, who plays solo Saturday at the First Unitarian Church. Just him, a guitar and his signature harmonica. “But I like the independence, it doesn’t tie me to a certain performance or venue. I can dip into the old stuff when needed, and not be tied to it.”
Sebastian grew up in New York City’s Greenwich Village, as a child playing on the floor of clubs while blues musicians played onstage. In the 1950s and early ’60s it was a hothouse of creativity and thought, with Sebastian feeding on jug bands and watching unknown comedians like Richard Pryor work out their acts. An edge was in the air.
Sebastian does retain a bit of that. Ask him a question with a political thread to it, and he responds accordingly. “Really guys, every time we can make a smart decision, we’re going to shoot ourselves in the foot again?” he says, his voice filled with bemused cynicism. “The cowardliness with which our people govern, it’s frustrating to watch a democracy get diluted by money.”
And of course Sebastian was at Woodstock. He wasn’t scheduled to play, but was pointed toward the stage and asked to fill some time between a set change. He even got two songs on the album. Big change was at hand those days, with protests on behalf of civil rights and against the Vietnam War, and recreational drug use becoming a cultural signature. “In some respects it did work,” Sebastian says of the era’s unrest. “Especially compared to now, as we watch our political will go flaccid.”
But Sebastian and The Lovin’ Spoonful really weren’t bellwethers of change.
“I understand that I’m readily grouped with a lot of really motivated people,” he says. “Sure, I was watching Bob Dylan sing ‘Masters of War,’ when nobody had ever heard it, in a crappy club in the Village.” It was a revelation that some of these people were operating at a much higher level. “In that biz,” Sebastian says, “there were people who treated it like it was a biz.”
For most though, the biz was, ” ‘Oh, you can get 16-year-old girls, just like the Lovin’ Spoonful,’” Sebastian says. “So they must have gotten the girls and quit after that.”
In fact, The Lovin’ Spoonful always considered itself to be good-time music. Just like the jug bands that were such an influence. And the drugs; was it just playing along with the times, a willful ignorance, or simply no concern over what the effects might be 30 years from now?
“I’ll check the box, ‘No Concern Over What The Effects Might Be 30 Years From Now,’ ” Sebastian says laughing. “A lot of it was your own personality and what you come to the project with. My father was a musician, so very little magic of being a musician was attached to me.”
Sebastian was born into this. His mother wrote radio shows. His father, John Sr., was a noted classical harmonica player. He played Bach flute sonatas on the instrument. Heiter Villa-Lobos, the renowned Brazilian composer, wrote for him. In the Sebastian home, the harmonica was not, as Sebastian calls it, a “five-cent toy.”
“This was an evolved instrument. But it wasn’t like he said, ‘Son, I’m going to teach you the harmonica.’ He practiced six or eight hours a day, you’re going to take something like that in through the pores.”
And his father didn’t always agree with the jug-band direction that his son was taking. “There were comments like, ‘So, are you intentionally going for that thin, sharp tone?’ ” Sebastian says. “There were arguments. I remember saying things to him like, ‘If it’s old and German it’s OK, but not if its old and the Mississippi Sheiks?”
His band’s lack of respect for boundaries didn’t sit well with others. “There was a faction of people in the Village who were angry at the Spoonful,” Sebastian says. ” ‘They’re fingerpicking a Les Paul Gibson over there!’ I was surprised by what fuddy duddies I was surrounded by. I called them the Cambridge Contingent, who thought Appalachian death ballads could only come out of Appalachia.
“We felt like the band that was influenced by anything, from old blues to gospel. ‘Do You Believe in Magic,’ that has kind of a gospel sound to it. That mix of white and black, I can’t help it. It’s all components of my childhood, and it’s what I dig like crazy.”
New songs are slow in coming, but they do appear. “Nothing too far afield,” Sebastian says. The most recent one, he says, is about, “A dead lover. That good-time music, it just keeps rolling along.”