John B. Sebastian by John Sebastian


John Sebastian was born in New York. His father (also called John Sebastian) was a noted classical harmonica player who, along with Larry Adler established the harmonica as a serious classical musical instrument. His mother, Mary Jane Bishir, was a radio script writer. His godmother was Vivian Vance who played Ethel Mertz in “I Love Lucy”. His godfather was Garth Williams, who drew the illustrations for children’s books such as “Stuart Little” and the “Little House” series. Eleanor Roosevelt was a close friend of the family who lived nearby.

John Sebastian learned the harmonica from his father and also played guitar and the autoharp. He became a session musician in New York, appearing on albums by Fred Neil and Tom Rush. He was present at the recording of Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” but his playing was not on the final release. He turned down an invitation from Bob Dylan to be in his new electric backing band in 1965, but turned him down in order to form The Mugwumps, which later divided to form The Mamas And Papas (Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty) and The Lovin’ Spoonful (John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky). Another member of The Mugwumps was Jim Hendricks who is not the same person as Jimi Hendrix. Jim Hendricks was married to Cass Elliot between 1963 and 1968. Jimi Hendrix played at The Monterey Festival which was organised by John and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas And Papas and later became a good friend of Cass Elliot.

The Lovin’ Spoonful were one of the most upbeat, lovable American bands of the Sixties and their hits form part of the optimistic, sunny and forward looking outlook that permeated youth culture on both sides of the Atlantic. “Do You Believe In Magic”, “Summer In The City”, “Daydream”, “Nashville Cats” and “Darlin’ Be Home Soon” never fail to make me smile. “Younger Generation” from “Everything Playing” is one of the wisest, funniest and greatest songs ever written. John Sebastian was twenty three when he wrote it. It starts with him wondering why does every generation think they are better than their parents’ generation? His partner is about to have a baby and he is determined to do better than his parents. I remember Richard Williams writing about this song fifty years ago, probably in “Melody Maker”, wishing that he could ever write a lyric as fine as “all my deepest worries must be his cartoons” – hoping that as a father, he could pass on true wisdom to his son about how to cope with life. What is simultaneously funny and wise about this song is that John Sebastian realises that the life that his son will lead will have different pressures and influences to his own. He imagines a time in the future when his son asking him if he can ride his “Zoom” which flies at 200 mph in the air. Or ever worse, can he take LSD that his three year old girlfriend has given him? “What’s the matter Daddy? How come you’re turning green? Can it be that you can’t live up to your dream?

Zal Yanovsky left the Lovin’ Spoonful in 1967 after he was arrested for possession of marijuana. He gave the police the name of his supplier which led to a backlash from fans including a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Free Press urging people “not to buy Spoonful records and not to attend their concerts and, to the girls, not to ball them.” (This story reminds me of the tale about Gregg Allman who, in 1976, was threatened with a grand jury indictment if he didn’t testify against his dealer. The dealer was also the band’s road manager, Scooter Herring, who had, more than once, saved Allman from an overdose. Herring received a 75 year sentence, which was later reduced to 30 months. His bandmates considered him a snitch, and in 1976 the band temporarily broke up.) Zal Yanovsky was replaced by Jerry Yester who had orchestrated Tim Buckley’s “Goodbye And Hello” and would go on to produce “Happy/Sad”. The band’s last chart entry was “Never Going Back”, a song written by John Stewart, who had included it on his wonderful album, “California Bloodlines“.

After The Lovin’ Spoonful split up, John Sebastian began a solo career and, in late 1968, he recorded the 11 songs that constitute “John B. Sebastian”. However, complex record label shenanigans led to the album not being released until January 1970. In the meantime, he travelled to the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. He dropped a little acid, went backstage to meet some friends but hadn’t brought a guitar with him as he had not been invited to play. However, when a downpour resulted in the stage being unsafe for electrical instruments, the compere, Chip Monck, collared him and told him that he was needed to perform some acoustic numbers while the stage was made safe. He borrowed Tim Hardin’s guitar and played “How Have You Been”, “I Had a Dream”, and “Rainbows All Over Your Blues”, “Darling Be Home Soon” and “Younger Generation”.

“How Have You Been” is one of the most beautiful uplifting songs of all time. In my opinion. The opening line is “How have you been my darlin’ children” but the rest of the song indicates that these are not the singer’s actual children, but are a group of hippies who have given a hospitable welcome to a travelling stranger. In return for their kindness, the singer talks about his travels and shows one or two objects that he has acquired on his travels. He has a 2000 year old necklace that a beautiful woman gave him, he has a strange guitar string that he found on the floor in a bar in Marseilles and he even has a turtle that he rescued from the Long Island Expressway. If this sounds drippy, that’s exactly what it is. Hippy drippy and I love it.

The rest of “John B. Sebastian” is equally charming and lovely. Buzzy Linhart plays a cool laid back vibraphone on the jazz-tinged groove of “Magical Connection.” The album’s opener “Red-Eye Express” is a catchy pop song, “What She Thinks About” is a hard rocking, showcasing drummer Dallas Taylor’s virtuosity. “She’s a Lady,” features David Crosby and Stephen Stills on backing vocals and had been issued as a single two years before the album’s release.

Also included on the album is a slower version of “You’re A Big Boy Now”, which The Lovin’ Spoonful had recorded in 1967. The simple version here, with just an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, allows us to appreciate the simplicity, beauty and power of the lyrics. “The great big world Daddy threw before you with the pretty faces and the claws that tore you and it’s all so different when you get to sources and love will make you strong as a team of wild horses.”

John Sebastian continued to forge a great musical career. He was asked to join Crosby, Stills & Nash but when he turned them down, they recruited Neil Young. (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Sebastian sounds pretty good to me). He played on tracks by The Doors, Keith Moon and Gordon Lightfoot. He can also be found jamming with Jimi Hendrix on Timothy Leary’s album “You Can Be Anyone This Time Around”. (Can that actually be true?). He has been involved in Film and TV soundtrack work, he has presented several TV shows about the Sixties, he wrote a children’s book, he has appeared in sitcoms and he has released a series of DVDs, CDs and tapes, giving advice on how to play various musical instruments.

Everyone loves a trilogy. Well, I love a trilogy. Three posts in three days. Three big bands: The Allman Brothers, The Mamas And Papas, The Lovin’ Spoonful. Three big personalities: Gregg Allman, John Phillips, John Sebastian. Lots of drugs. Lots of fantastic music. One significant difference. Just the two deaths because John Sebastian is currently 78 years old and last year, along with guitarist Arlen Roth, he re-recorded 14 Lovin’ Spoonful songs.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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