October 7, 1997
by Gary James
As lead singer of the popular 60's group, The Lovin' Spoonful, John Sebastian has made quite a name for himself. The Lovin' Spoonful is labeled good time music and for a two solid years they ruled the charts. It was just one hit after another -- "Daydreaming," "Darling Be Home Soon," "Do You Believe In Magic?" "Nashville Cats," "Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?" "You Didn't Have To Be So Nice," and "Summer In The City." By 1968, The Lovin' Spoonful had broken up. The following year, John Sebastian went onstage at The Woodstock Festival as a solo act and became an immediate hit with the audience. Also, John wrote and sang the theme for the TV sitcom "Welcome Back Kotter." These days you'll find John Sebastian living in (of all places) Woodstock, New York.
His newest recording is titled I WANT MY ROOTS (Music Masters). We're pleased to present an interview with a genuine talent and a nice guy as well -- Mr. John Sebastian.
Q: John, you now call Woodstock, NY home. We always hear if you're in the entertainment business you should live in an entertainment capital like Los Angeles or New York City. Why do you choose to live in Woodstock?
A: First of all I think that is true, if you are a musician, particularly on the comeback that you do have to end up in one of these musical centers somewhere to be viable, salable and so on. I've come to Woodstock because of a series of accidents and friendships. I first came to Woodstock at about 17, invited by Bob Dylan and his manager Albert Grossman. The town was instantly likable to me. It was Halloween and there were lots of artists and artist models having Halloween balls and dressing up. It was very colorful and cool. Then for several years I rented here. Eventually, I bought a place. I guess, I'm not really answering your question, "Why Woodstock?"
Here's why. Woodstock has been an artistic community for a long time because its soil is rocky and is only about 4 inches underneath the ground in most places. It has never been able to sustain itself agriculturally and therefore prices for land have always been cheap. Therefore, just right for poor artists. In the first generation it was visual artists, as time went on, and things changed around here, with the advent of Bob (Dylan) and members of The Band and several other people coming up here, drew others, and there has been a steady drip of urban musicians, who are interested in having a country life and find themselves up here.
Q: You recently played a Borders Book Store in Syracuse to support your latest CD. Is that mainly where you play today, or do you perform in concert at theaters and clubs?
A: All of the above. For example, this year I've gone to Norway and played folk festivals, played rock 'n' roll clubs, played beautiful little 300 seat theaters, played bookstores in support of this kind of a project, played in a ballroom to raise money with Yank Rachell, this wonderful mandolin player who you probably heard on the album. So, it's a fairly wide shot that I have, partially as a result of the fact that maybe I've just been around so long that I get all kinds of offers. I get everything from what you might expect, like a club date to Boston (the city) inviting me to do a concert during the Tall Ship Ceremony. So these things kind of fall into my lap. But, there has been a difference the last 3 or 4 years because of The Jug Band (John Sebastian's current band). I have been purposely seeking out settings which are small and do not cause too much danger to a promoter, because I'm not intending to come in there and advertise myself as The Lovin' Spoonful and play the seven or eight visible songs the Spoonful had, and that's it. I'm interested in more of a new format for me. So, it's a fairly wide group of gigs that come to me as a result of this.
Q: When you put The Jug Band together, were any of the musicians in awe of you because of your past?
A: I think my past stands me in good stead in that it does have a certain strength for musicians. In other words, musicians know that going back to the Spoonful, what we were doing was not copying. It was original. There are all things that stand you in good stead in the long run. You see, there's another part of me that is essentially a musician who enjoys working as both a leader and an accompanist. I have begun a friendship with Jimmy Vivino who's the guitarist on Conan O'Brien, and he's sort of my co- writer on most of the tunes in The Jug Band project. He and I began playing together with me coming along to support him. So, there wasn't any awe there. We played a few gigs where he had come and supported me and now he was asking me to come along and play rhythm guitar and harmonica with his little band, The Black Italians. And then, it was me calling Paul Rishell and Annie Raines to invite them into the band. The setting was not one of awe. It was kind of a camaraderie built out of common excitement about this early country blues/modern hybrid because nothing can truly be old timey, because we're doing it now. We're not classicists. Although we like to think of our work as inspired by these old jug bands. Of course, we'll never have the life these guys had, so our experience can't really draw on that. So, it's gonna be different.
Q: How did you avoid the pressure of a record company telling you to record a certain style of music that's popular today? You know, John Sebastian Raps.
A: Right. This kind of thing might have worked or been more tempting oh, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, say about the late '70s. How about a few years after "Welcome Back?" But the fact is that none of that really happened during that era. I was working fairly steadily, but working in the way that America likes to see its older performers working I think (laughs). Nothing too visible, but steady. All of these players that you read about or maybe you haven't read about in a few years, they aren't retired. They are all working. They're just working in slightly less visible ways.
Q: You hosted a series dealing with the History of Rock 'n' Roll for either A&E or the Discovery Channel. I just have to tell you that was well produced.
A: I'm very gratified from the response that's come from that project. I really never expected it when I started it. You have to remember, when you do the narrative part of these things, you don't get the narrative and the film, and then another narrative. You just do narrative after narrative. I've been very surprised. A lot of people saw that thing.
Q: The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia has it that Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie would stay in your parents' home. Were your parents musicians, club owners, agents?
A: My father was a classical musician and my mother was a writer. My mother is still around. My dad has passed on. You gotta remember now, that was late 30's early 40's, they're living in Greenwich Village, they've got this slightly less than conventional life style. He works in nightclubs and she writes for radio. So their circle of friends are more of the artistic community than not. By coincidence, because my father had a friendship with several other people that Burl knew, Burl became a friend of dad's. They were both enthusiastic eaters, and because everybody was broke, and dad was really a good cook, very often they would end up at our house to eat. It just so happened, coming into town, as Burl described it, was a songwriter, a young man from Oklahoma who nobody knew about but was gonna be one of the important talents in songwriting in what was called the folk music field. This may have also come from a friendship with Josh White that had come out of doing a lot of shows together. Barney Josephson ran one of the first inter-racial clubs in New York City. It was the important one but I can't remember the name. Anyway, my dad had a friendship with several people inside this field even though he was a classical musician. Because of an association with the harmonica, very often he would do concerts in which Sonny Terry would be involved. Dad was very often co-billed with Josh White. So there was another friendship in this folk music circle. So it was that when Burl Ives decided he was bringing Woody to town, he ended up sending him over to our house and that's when he ended up staying for about a week. I was almost too young to remember.
Q: You carried guitar for Lightin' Hopkins. Does that mean you were a "roadie" for Mr. Hopkins? Did you travel with him?
A: Yes. My father was invited to play on a television show when I was 17 or 18, that was an early equivalent of educational television. Sunday afternoon kind of variety art show. On this particular show they had my father played harmonica and an actor read Dylan Thomas and some other things, an unknown folk singer named Joan Baez, and Lightin' Hopkins. I sat behind the camera and watched the performance, which incidentally I can still watch today, because that Kinescope survived. So, this was a handshake and a hello and the beginning of being known to Lightin' Hopkins. I wouldn't say friendship because that took time. In fact, I don't know how intimate I could say my life became with Lightin' even though he was staying at my apartment and I was carrying his guitar. Maybe occasionally I would intercede with a white club owner that he didn't feel quite comfortable talking to. But only when he was in New York. I never traveled with him.
Q: Were you once a sailmaker in Marblehead, Massachusetts?
A: Yes, but the primary answer is no. Here's what happened. I went up one summer when I realized I was getting too old to be a camp counselor. I went to Ted Hood's Sailmaking Loft and offered my service as a sailmaker, knowing absolutely nothing about sailmaking and even less about boats. Well, I passed the dexterity part. They asked you to sew a ring into a sail and I did that. They said this is surprisingly good for someone who doesn't know what they're doing. They said a spot would open up in the sail loft but in the mean time you could start in the boatyard. Well, the boatyard work was really rough. It was sanding the rough paint off of the bottoms of ships. Now, I reacted to this rust paint by swelling up, to the point where I had to lie in cold baths, every night for about a week and a half. So, as it happened I hitch-hiked home, arrived back at my parents' house and within an hour got a phone call from Stefan Grossman telling me he started a jug band last week and I was in it, so come to rehearsal. So that week I was suddenly in a jug band. That jug band was a place I met an awful lot of people that I still know.
Q: When you were with The Lovin' Spoonful you were in your mid-20's when the record company came calling. Was it easier for a band to get signed in the mid-60's than it is today?
A: Yeah, I think it was. It was an open field. I say it was an easier thing to get a record deal back then. However, I conveniently forget that we were turned down by every record company in New York City, alright? That's a lot of record companies. That's a lot of big ones. We were playing them "Do You Believe In Magic?" and looking across the desk and seeing a lack of recognition. You have to remember that was minutes after Fabian, Bobby Vee and that kind of thing. That was the last thing that many of these business guys had noticed.
Q: I don't understand. This, at a time when you had The Beatles, The Stones, DC 5, Herman's Hermits.
A: You only had a little bit of that when The Spoonful were looking for a deal. By the time they had the record out, then everything was much clearer.
Q: What strikes me about The Lovin' Spoonful's songs is they were so upbeat. You genuinely sounded like you were having fun recording them in the studio. Did you in fact enjoy these recording sessions?
A: We were very intent on getting whatever fun we could have on tape. We were trying for that very hard, but part of the credit is due to Ernie Jacobson whose talents as a producer were considerable, and still are. He produces Chris Issak and is still a visible producer. But it was hard fun. It was the kind of fun that comes from being under pressure, but it was fun.
Q: And the material is timeless. "Daydream" sounds as good to me today as it did when it first came out in 1966. Did you realize at the time, these songs would stand the test of time?
A: We had no way of knowing what a nice long shelf life some of that material was gonna have. At the time, we were certainly aiming only for the next few months. That's really what we were trying for, a Top Ten record right now, right then. Everything else is unexpected.
Q: Your music was termed "good time music." Do you like that term?
A: I didn't object to it when it was first used because I understand there's a need for a verbal shorthand to describe things that you can't hear. It's hard.
Q: Are all the original members of the Spoonful still alive?
Q: So, what if anything would stand in the way of a reunion tour?
A: Simply the different paths everybody has taken. There is a semi-Spoonful that travels around. I have never really been interested in participating in that kind of a thing. When I left the band, I said, "Look, I'm ready to move on." I was interested in playing with some of the other people that I had been a studio musician with.
Q: You performed at Woodstock in 1969. Was it hard to go out on your own after having been part of such a successful group?
A: You have to remember now, I was not being terribly successful at going solo. I was making a nice transition. At a crucial moment, I had to wait a year and a half while two record companies fought over my recording. MGM claimed The Spoonful still owed a record that they intended to put out as a Lovin' Spoonful album and me saying this would be incredibly dishonest. There's only one out of four members on this thing. Having to wait out that time, I certainly didn't get the feeling of setting the world on fire. But, what did happen is I did go to Woodstock as a member of the audience. I did not show up there with a road manager and a couple of guitars. I showed up with a change of clothes and a toothbrush. It just so happened that because most of my friends were musicians I ended up backstage. There was a moment when the stage had filled up with water, and it was impossible to put electric instruments onstage. At that time Chip Monck (Woodstock announcer/stage coordinator) said to me, "Look, we need somebody who can go out there with an acoustic guitar and held them (the audience) while we go out and sweep the water off the stage and let it dry, and you're elected. So, I had to run and borrow a guitar from Timmy Hardin and go on. But it was not anything that I had planned for. It was just one of those nice accidents, and it resulted in my career then taking another step forward. Now, I was the summer concert guy. I played every summer concert there was.
Q: And then there was the "Welcome Back Kotter" song.
A: Yes, but you have to remember that there was a long wait between that first success and so on. I was mildly out of style when that television theme song suddenly pushed its way onto the Top Ten. It was certainly not the record company trying to make that happen. It was record buyers going into their record stores saying I want to buy the "Welcome Back Kotter" theme song. That's an audience-driven single that record companies pray for.
Q: if you didn't have the Jug Band, what would you be doing?
A: Boy, that is a hard question. It might be thematic work. It might be theatrical. I enjoy that kind of work. That's really a difficult question for me to answer. The Jug Band was exactly what I wanted to do, and it wasn't originally my idea. There was a guy from SONY who called up, quite unsolicited, and said "John, I bet you could put together a really good jug band." This was about 1993. I said I could put together the best jug band that you could get in 1993. Somehow after hanging up with the guy, the idea really started to catch fire with me.
Editor's note: Gary James files his interview from Syracuse, NY.