Every once in a while I am willing to go the extra mile to see a performer in concert.
In the case of John Sebastian, I went about 40 miles north. That is the approximate distance between Boston and Gloucester, Massachusetts where the former Lovin’ Spoonful lead singer performed earlier this month at the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church, the oldest church in Gloucester. The Unitarian Universalists are more socialist than Christian, but they sure know how to book a musical act.
Although I have been to Gloucester twice before, I somehow departed the train at West Gloucester rather than Gloucester. Fortunately, I flagged down a letter carrier from the U.S. Postal Service who was kind enough to supply me with a phone number for a cab. Say what you will about USPS. In this case, they delivered.
A short time later, I was picked up by a nice cabbie named Fred who drove me the rest of the way. During the ride, I told Fred that I first heard of Gloucester as a 9-year old when I heard the Harry Chapin song “Dogtown” which opens with these lyrics:
Up in Massachusetts there’s a little spit of land|
The men who made the maps, yes, they called the place Cape Ann
The men who did the fishing called it Gloucester Harbor Sound
But the women they left behind, they called the place Dogtown
Although Fred knew who Harry Chapin was (and it was fitting that Harry Chapin should be discussed in a taxi), he had never heard of the song. It led me to wonder how many people in Gloucester know that Harry Chapin wrote a song about their town. Come to think of it, how many people in Gloucester know who Harry Chapin is?
After Fred dropped me off in front of the railroad tracks, I was met by my friend George. A former co-worker, George is one of the most unabashed conservatives in the Bay State and likes to boast about his children being homeschooled. We caught up with each other and discussed the dismal state of affairs under Obama over Chinese food at Midori’s.
George then posed this question to me, “So why John Sebastian?”
I explained that 1960s and early 1970s music resonates with me in a way that most contemporary music simply does not. John Sebastian is a part of that equation whether through his work with The Lovin’ Spoonful or his solo work, especially his impromptu set at Woodstock complete with tie-dyed denim jacket. This set was highlighted by “I Had a Dream.” Furthermore, I like attending concerts by musicians from this era because it ensures that I am the youngest person in the room.
This is, of course, a slight exaggeration. But only slight. Indeed, the vast majority of those in attendance were children of the ‘60s. But Sebastian, who turned 70 earlier this year, noted that not only are his concerts attended the by the children of the children of the ‘60s, but by their grandchildren. At a recent concert, an 8-year old boy asked Sebastian why he had two guitars on stage. Sebastian, impressed by the boy’s observation, told him that guitars don’t always sound the way you want them to sound.
Sebastian still has most of his hair but it has gone gray. His voice is also completely shot. Its smoothness has been replaced by a bluesy rasp in the spirit of Mississippi John Hurt, the man who prompted Sebastian to drop out of New York University and whose song “Coffee Blues” would serve as the inspiration for The Lovin’ Spoonful name. When Sebastian summoned the courage to approach his idol at The Gaslight in Greenwich Village, Hurt was ready for him. “I seen you watching my fingers,” Hurt told Sebastian. He also told Sebastian the key to playing guitar was that that the fingers needed to follow the thumb. Whatever changes have happened to Sebastian’s voice, his guitar playing remains intact. Sometimes being all thumbs isn’t such a bad thing.
But if you should attend a John Sebastian concert, do not let him catch you using your thumbs to text or otherwise use your cellphone. He will call you out on it and embarrass you in front of everyone. Sebastian did this not once, but twice during the show. You have been warned. John Sebastian can be a grumpy old man.
Yet he is a grumpy old man with many stories to tell. For instance, I did not know “Do You Believe in Magic?” was derived from Martha Reeves & The Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” and sped up. Nor did I know that “Do You Believe in Magic?” was turned down by every record company in New York City. Sebastian said the rejections only encouraged The Lovin’ Spoonful. “You want more Fabian. You want more Frankie Avalon. Well, you can’t have it,” stated Sebastian in a still defiant tone nearly 50 years after the fact.
Eventually “Do You Believe in Magic?” made it big in San Francisco and soon the rest of the nation. At this point, it hadn’t occurred to Sebastian and company that Kama Sutra Records might want another hit. Bass player Steve Boone came to the rescue with an idea for a song that he based on a romantic encounter he didn’t deserve. The result was “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice.”
Sebastian also recounted the summer The Lovin’ Spoonful spent touring with The Supremes working the Chitlin’ Circuit in The Deep South. In this day and age, this would be like putting together Phish and Rihanna on the same bill. The two groups shared the same tour bus. Now Sebastian explained that this “wasn’t the Kenny Chesney model,” but rather was an ordinary orange school bus.
Many years later, during the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, Sebastian saw Mary Wilson and caught up on old times in which she talked about “Diane,” Shortly thereafter, Diana Ross approached the microphone and saw Sebastian and Wilson. Live on MTV, she asked Sebastian, “Didn’t I sleep with you in a school bus in Alabama?” The cameras instantly turned to Sebastian who had a horrified look on his face. All Sebastian could say was, “It’s not what you think or what I hoped.”
During this same tour, Sebastian recalled a conversation he had with the late Lovin’ Spoonful lead guitarist Zal Yanofsky. Sebastian explained that the Canadian born Yanofsky disdained the process of songwriting. However, Yanofsky was clearly being influenced by what The Supremes were doing and said that musicians serve the dancers. Yanofsky suggested that Sebastian write a song using straight eighth notes à la “Baby Love,” The Supremes hit written by Holland-Dozier-Holland. From “Baby Love” came “Daydream.” What a day that must have been for a daydreamin’ boy.
Speaking of daydreamin’ boys, you’re never too old to remember first love. In Sebastian’s case, it was one Maria D’Amato who was herself an aspiring musician. Sebastian wanted to impress her with his passion for jug band music. So he took her to the Bitter End Cafe, another hotspot in the Village folk scene, where they saw The Jim Kweskin & His Jug Band. Unfortunately for Sebastian, his date was more impressed by Kweskin’s lead singer, Geoff Muldaur. She would later marry Muldaur and become known as Maria Muldaur. In 1974, Muldaur who scored a hit with “Midnight at the Oasis.” Despite his disappointment, Sebastian happily noted that when Woodstock reunions roll around “she calls me.”
Notably absent from Sebastian’s set was The Lovin’ Spoonful’s biggest hit “Summer in the City.” Given that Sebastian was performing solo, the song just isn’t the same without a keyboard. But “Welcome Back Kotter,” Sebastian’s lone hit as a solo artist, certainly wasn’t. “I was a Sweathog,” said Sebastian with pride.
Sebastian performed several songs from Satisfied, the last studio album he recorded along with his former Even Dozen Jug Band bandmate David Grisman in 2007, including the Mississippi John Hurt composition “I’m Satisfied,” “Strings of Your Heart,” and an instrumental version of The Everly Brothers’ classic “Walk Right Back,” which he used to play to serenade his younger son to sleep.
Sebastian would close the show with “Darling Be Home Soon.” The audience howled with laughter when Sebastian sang the line “And now a quarter of my life has almost passed.” Laughter or no laughter, “Darling Be Home Soon” is my second favorite Lovin’ Spoonful song.
My favorite Lovin’ Spoonful song is “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It” (which they would later re-record with the late Mama Cass Elliott). With a few spare minutes available to me before I had to catch my train back to Boston, I had an opportunity to tell Sebastian this myself. He seemed pleasantly surprised by this revelation. “You really dug into the groove for that one,” he told me. I explained that my younger brother Micah had learned the song on guitar. This brought out a smile.
If John Sebastian comes to your town, please welcome him back. Just don’t let him catch you with your cellphone.