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265: Dion DiMucci, ‘Abraham, Martin and John’

Posted by jeff on Jun 23, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week
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Dion — ‘The Wanderer’

Dion — ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’

Dion — ‘Kickin’ Child’

Dion — ‘Spoonful’

Dion — ‘I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’

Back in my playwrighting days I used to tape a short note to the screen (it was the early days of word processors), right in front of my eyes, the key message I needed to focus on (“Put the girl behind the 8-ball! Keep the girl behind the 8-ball!!” or “He doesn’t take the gun out till the third act!” For this piece I resorted to that old habit: “Jeff, move it forward or you’ll never finish.” And of course I didn’t, and I didn’t’.

imagesI had hoped to cover the whole arc of Dion’s career here, but I of course got bogged down in his riveting, obscure years in the later 1960s and managed only the first 11 years (out of 49). That’s alright. Dion’s worth revisiting.

You all know ‘Runaraound Sue’ and ‘The Wanderer’. If you’re of a certain age, you might even know our ostensible Song of The Week ‘Abraham, Martin and John’. But chances are you’ve only scratched the surface. Our SoTW isn’t really about that song, it’s about Dion 1964-68, floundering careerly, knocking out lots of bold, innovative, relevant contemporary music during one of the most interesting periods in pop music – a legend languishing in drugs and obscurity.

Dylan (on “Kickin’ Child”): “If you want to hear a great singer, listen to Dion. His voice takes its color from all palettes–he’s never lost it–his genius has never deserted him.” You can’t always take Bobby’s recommendations at face value. This one I think you can. As a matter of fact, if you look closely, you might just reach the conclusion that Dion was the most respectable and successful and honest follower of his Columbia stablemate, both in covers and in original songs, as well as the entire nascent folk-rock sensibility.

c5dbf8747d64f5323c916ed993630d4eDion DiMucci is a really cool guy. A nice guy, a walking and talking legend who has been consistently (more or less) knocking out fresh, appealing music for longer than anyone else on earth, and deserves a whole lot of appreciation.

How many major recording artists from the 1950s can you name who successfully transitioned through the British Invasion to remain relevant, honest, creative musicians. I can name one. Elvis? He died in the army. Chuck Berry? Fats Domino? The Everly Brothers? No, no, and no.

Was Dion any different from Ricky Nelson or The Everly Brothers or Roy Orbison or Elvis Presley?
They all started as teen mega-idols in the late 50s. Their work has stood the test of time—they were the best of their era (excepting the great Buddy Holly, whose early death appears more tragic with each passing decade). These were never Fabians, but real creative artists (as far as that was possible in the Brill Building/Top 40 culture of the time. When the Brits came, they grew their hair and tried to remain au courant. Unsuccessfully. Each faded in his own way (Rick in a plane crash, Don and Phil in acrimony, Roy in personal tragedy, Elvis in pills and pitiful self-parody.)

dion-60s-2-500Dion sank into drugs in the mid-60s, disappeared from the public eye, struggled commercially for many years before finally attaining some degree of recognition for his ongoing musical achievements in his later years. But those struggles produced almost 30 original, interesting albums between 1967 and 2017!

I’ve been gorging myself on that corpus, but I’ve only partially digested it. He switched recording companies frequently, and some of his best work was never released or only in secret. But every single one is worth listening to (and talking about, thank goodness).

1957-60, Wop Doo Wop

Authentic doo-wop Bronxters, The Belmonts had hits with ‘I Wonder Why’ (“We sang ‘gna gna gna’ because the only lyrics we could think of all included ‘knockers’), ‘A Teenager in Love’ (Dick Clark’s audience painfully clapping on 1/3), ‘Where or When’ (from the 1937 Rogers and Hart musical “Babes in Arms”). In 1959, on tour in Iowa, he gave up his seat ($36 was a month’s rent for his parents) on the plane which crashed, killing Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper (‘the day the music died’).  Young Bobby Zimmerman saw a show from that tour, and if you’re wondering what effect it had on him, listen to his Nobel speech. By the next year Dion was being treated for heroin addiction.

1960-64 Tearing Open His Shirt

Where's 'Rosie'??

Where’s ‘Rosie’??

He recorded a string of hits which still are still utterly convincing today – ‘Lonely Teenager’ (this live acoustic version is so reminiscent of Buddy Holly’s apartment tapes; it’s delicious to imagine how John Lennon would have reacted to this), ‘Runaround Sue’ (time capsule material), ‘The Wanderer’ (more swagger than Jagger), the knockout ‘Little Diane’ (darkest, most manic kazoo ever), ‘Lovers Who Wander’ for the little Laurie label. He then moved to Columbia (their first ‘rock’ signing), where he had a string of moneymakers, including the oh-so-cool Leiber-StollerRuby Baby’ (originally by The Drifters) and ‘Donna the Prima Donna’, despite a burgeoning heroin addiction.

Dion wrote or co-wrote most of his material, an anomaly at the time. No one had yet dreamed of the term ‘singer-songwriter’.

1965-67 The Harbinger Unnoticed

Looking to leverage his pop success, Mitch Miller of Columbia tried to make Dion (“Last of the One-Name Singers”) into a Las Vegas crooner. But he was coming under the sway of producer John Hammond, with a pronounced predilection for the acoustic blues (e.g., ‘Spoonful‘) which he maintains till today.

05813584d5af614f7ff971bf79e73349Then he hooked up with Tom Wilson, the Columbia producer he shared with folkie Dylan. Conventional wisdom says that Wilson made Dion sound like “Bringing It All Back Home” Dylan. It seems at least as likely that Wilson made Dylan sound like Dion. Think about it. Who of the three of them really knew electric blues and rock and roll (Wilson’s background was avant garde jazz)?

On December 8, 1964, with Dylan out on tour, Wilson recorded Dion with the expressed purpose of trying to imagine what Dylan would sound like in an electric context. Here’s ‘So Much Younger’ from that session.

Then Wilson took Dylan’s ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and overdubbed a rock band on it. Dylan liked it so much he recorded immediately recorded the electric tracks for BIABH (January 13-15, 1965). (Wilson would pull the same trick on folkies Simon and Garfunkel, electrifying their acoustic ‘Sounds of Silence’ in abstentia with studio musicians.)

dion050710wDion’s 1964-65 discography is rich, intriguing and murky. Most of it wasn’t released at the time. Compilations were made in 1991’s “Bronx Blues”, 2007’s “The Road I’m On”, the 2015 box set “King of the New York Streets”, and the recently released “Kickin’ Child: The Lost Album 1965” (given a glowing 5-star review by All Music’s Thom Jurek: “It’s absolutely one of the greatest folk-rock records ever”).

During mid-1965, Dion and Wilson (with help from one Al Kooper) recorded the tracks on “Kickin’ Child”. They include some of the most honest readings of Dylan songs I’ve ever heard, some of them obscure gems: ‘Baby, I’m In the Mood for You’ (Dylan’s version), ‘Farewell’ (Dylan), and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ (Dylan). There are also Dion-penned cuts that, to be honest, aren’t all that distinguishable from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ et al, such as ‘Kickin’ Child’, ‘My Love’, ‘Two Ton Feather’.

728b3454c652aa8016efdf36c61414c7You have to remember that Dylan was being heard only by folkies, and there was tremendous pressure by The Suits to capitalize on his potential in the pop market (“Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan”). There was also a desire by some of the more open-minded folkies to explore the lands discovered by The Beatles. Thus was born folk-rock, the dominant aesthetic in serious popular music for the past two or three generations.

Cher, The Turtles, Them, The Byrds – all of a sudden everyone was generating hits from Dylan songs cast in a rock context. They all were of course misdirected. Does The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (also electrified in the studio) illuminate Dylan’s original? I think not. I think it’s a commercially-successful, historically significant but artistically insignificant gesture.

pepperdionColumbia and McGuinn/Clarke/Crosby/Hillman should have understood – let Byrds be Byrds, not Dylan wannabes. Dion was never a bandwagoner. He was a rocker before The Beatles (of enough stature that they’d put him on the cover of “Sgt Pepper”; together with Dylan, the only live Americans to be so honored).  Dion’s Dylan recordings are genuine, honest, and as opposed to all the aforementioned hits—totally legitimate readings.

Most of the recordings went unreleased at the time, so Dion reunited with The Belmonts on ABC records in 1966-67 for another musically ambitious album very much of the era, “Together Again”.  The album tanked in the US, but generated a number of charted covers in the UK, including the flower-power ‘My Girl the Month of May’ (covered by The Bunch, including Sandy Denny and Richard and Linda Thompson) and ‘Your Own Backyard’ (a minor 1970 hit, a confessional account of his ongoing struggles with H, successfully covered by Mott the Hoople).

Thought I saw him walking along a hill...

Thought I saw him walking along a hill…

In 1968, following another period of cleaning up his habit and getting reacquainted with the Church of his youth, he went back to the little Laurie label to record a mix of (again) forward-looking contemporary covers. It includes a soft, acoustic ‘Purple Haze’; a very cool ‘Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever’ (this is years before James Taylor or anyone else gave intelligent, gentle white readings of Motown power classics); songs by Canadian brand-newcomers Joni Mitchell (‘Both Sides Now’) and Leonard Cohen (‘Sisters of Mercy’); and a mash-up of the Dylan gem ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ with Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’ (a year before Nilsson’s version), as well as a few respectable originals – very similar to Judy Collins’ influential album of covers from the year before “In My Life”.

But little Laurie had a caveat – Dion had to include ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, inspired by Martin Luther King’s and Bobby Kennedy’s assassinations (tied to those of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy), perhaps the last patriotic song to come from ‘our’ side of the fence before the shit hit the fan several weeks later in Chicago.

hqdefaultThe song was written by Dick Holler and produced by Phil Gernhard, who had worked together back in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, where Dick led The Rockets (later The Holidays), a local band that included at times Jimmy Clanton, Dr John Rebennack and Johnny Rivers. Holler had a minor hit with ‘A Double Shot of My Baby’s Love’ (better known as the cover by the Swinging Medallions) and a major one with ‘Snoopy vs. the Red Baron’ as recorded by The Royal Guardsmen.

‘AM&J’ was a major hit, still covered today. Perhaps not Dion’s most typical song, but respectable, touching. (Who among us is not profoundly saddened by those assassinations and the change they wrought on our world?) Okay, that harp is just a bit gushy (Dion added some classical guitar just to class it up a bit–gee, we never even got to talk about what a fine guitarist he is.)

Ah, there’s so much more to tell. But my time has run out, as I’m sure has your patience. So I’ll just have to leave y’all cliffhanging till the next installment of that long, tortuous road Dion has travelled, and the fine music he’s made along the way.

We hope to continue the Dion saga. In the meantime, you can keep yourself busy with his unknown masterpiece, SoTW 082, “Sit Down, Old Friend“.

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264: Folk’Avant, ‘9th of August’

Posted by jeff on Jun 9, 2017 in Nordic, Song Of the week

Folk’Avant – ‘9th of August’

Folk’Avant – ‘Gryningsland’

Folk’Avant – ‘Toivo’

One disc has monopolized my virtual turntable now for 12 days consecutively, non-stop. It has the sound palette of a magical kingdom hidden deep within an endless forest, replete with intrigues and yearnings and 21st century relationships.
It’s “Gryningsland”, the debut album by the Swedish-Finnish ‘folkmusik trio’ Folk’Avant.

Wait! Do not X me! Watch this! Trust me.

Is that not magic?

Folk’Avant – ‘9th of August’
FolkavantSilently, so that no one could hear us, we sneaked into a house where everyone else was asleep. Staying awake all night, until you finally packed your bag, closed the door, leaving a resting body behind.

I just keep playing the disc over and over and over, 12 days now. And I’m not getting tired of it. That sound. The girls (sorry, that’s a word I still use, with all the respect and affection in the world) tell me that that’s what the trio actually sounds like live.
That warm, resonant fiddle. It feels like the strings being played are still in my own gut.
Those magical bell-like tones. Fantasy and fancy, pristine and elegant, precise and timeless.
That Swedish contralto voice – strong, knowing, uninflected, unflinching.  Confident and independent. Unafraid of being vulnerable.

A gossamer walk through an endless, enchanted forest. 2017.

Know what it keeps reminding me of? ‘Guinevere‘ or ‘Legend of a Girl Child Linda‘, 50 years old—Scottish psychedelic folk. Donovan, from the very wonderful 1968 album “Sunshine Superman”. Separated by 50 years, 2000 miles, and millennia of disparate folk traditions. Welcome to the internet. Welcome to the human soul.

1-13-av-32I think I’ll call “Mellow Yellow” Cembalo Rock. I guess that makes “Gryningsland” cembalo rock without any rocks.

Although ‘Budapest’ sure has some rock sensibility deep inside, doesn’t it?
You say you’re a simple, roving person traveling with only your backpack and big words. Always on the run. You say I’m brave, beautiful, loving, independent, dangerous and strong. You say we only exist on this earth for a little while, yet nothing you said was true. But we will always have our Budapest.

1-12-av-32And as far as I remember, Vikings didn’t have the ‘Instagram’.
I sold myself cheap and paid a high price. But you don’t own me. You have to move, there is no room for my words. You’re last in line, we are no longer in use.

Folk’Avant’s music is all original, written by the three lovely young ladies themselves. Brave, beautiful, loving, independent, dangerous and strong.

Swedish Anna Rubinsztein still plays classical violin alongside her traditional fiddle.
Swedish Anna Wikenius comes from the worlds of contemporary a cappella and jazz.
Finnish Maija Kauhanen plays pop music when she’s not weaving enchanting tapestries on the concert kantele.
The what??

KanteleThe kantele is a Finnish folk instrument that starts with a 5-string zither-ish thingie and works its way up to a 38- (or 39- or 40-, depending on which version you believe) stringed instrument which is held on the lap and plucked with both hands, like a harp (its first cousin once removed), except when you use the left hand on the stops to dampen the tintinnabulation. Gosh, I love using that word.

The girls say there are classical influences in the seriousness with which they approach the material and the focus on structural details.
They say there’s a big difference in the the melody/beat connection in Finland as opposed to Sweden. “In Sweden we stretch the melody a lot, while in Finland you play quite straight on the beat. That’s been very interesting in Folk’Avant.” Full disclosure: that kind of talk really gives me a very certain kind of thrill.

09-06-2017 11-02-32For us non-Nords, the border between Sweden and Finland ain’t always clear. But for them: “Of course traditionally folk music has had a function. The music has been used in every aspect of life– weddings, parties, funerals, calling in the cows, lullabies and so on. In Sweden the tradition of dancing has lived on and there’s dancing at almost every folk music event. That’s not the case in Finland, where the dancing is usually only on stage on different special occasions!”

I’ve written in the past about Nordic roots music and about my ever-growing fascination with all things Scandinavian, especially Nordic Noir TV mini-series, the best stuff on camera in the world today. Best known are The Killing and The Bridge (the originals, not the US or European remakes). Typically, a damaged female detective and her male partner (who has lost his wife and is trying to raise a trouble-prone teenaged daughter while the bodies are dropping like prehistoric flies by the hand of a deranged perp).

MG_3754That’s the convention, the default premise. But you also get glorious landscapes, the best cinematography and set design and production values in the world, searing human interactions, and a real insight into the most highly evolved sense of womanhood and ecological responsibility in the world. The style has spread around the world: Iceland (Trapped) Belfast (The Fall), rural New Zealand (Top of the Lake), Dorset (Broadchurch), even the Louisiana Bayou (True Detective).

Some of the best of the breed – especially the second Swedish Wallander and my personal quirky favorite Annika Bengtzon – I’ve watched 3 or 4 times over the last couple of years. If you’re satisfied with House of Cards and Walking Dead, I wish you well. My wife, who is not an effete snob like her husband, recently said, “Jeff, you’ve spoiled me. I just can’t watch American TV anymore. It just can’t hold a candle to that dark Scandinavian stuff.” Nicest thing she’s said to me in many a decade.

FE1jpgI’ve read 6 of the series of 10 Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I’m in the middle of “The Long Ships”, a 1944 picaresque Viking novel by a Swedish professor of old literary forms, a adventure story the likes of which I haven’t read since I was 15.

I’ve organized myself a whole playlist of the new old Nordic music, with the kanteles and the accordions and the hurdy gurdies and the beautiful blonde singers. It’s going to keep me cool all summer. Check this. Or this. Or this.

What’s the connection between Folk’Avant and all these serial murder TV series and novels? Well, it’s got all that modern Scandinavian sense of style and panache and sophistication, and roots as deep as an eternal, enchanted forest. I don’t pretend to understand it. Hell, I don’t even have the letters on my keyboard. But I’m perfectly contented to settle for being enthralled.

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098: John Sebastian, ‘Younger Generation’

Posted by jeff on May 30, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

“…and I sure am glad I got a chance to say a word about the music and the mothers in Nashville.”

Nothing in the world pleases me more than to sing the praises of John Sebastian (b. 1944). Except maybe singing the songs of John Sebastian.

John’s not a household name, perhaps. He’s of course best known as leader of The Lovin’ Spoonful, one of the first, best and most successful American groups of the Beatles’ era. (The name comes from Coffee Blues, by Mississippi John Hurt. What does it mean? Heh heh heh. Ask yo’ daddy.) One must remember that in 1965, there were almost no American rock groups around. The Byrds were just starting up, electric Dylan was a bewilderment, and Haight-Ashbury was just a bohemian neighborhood. The future early rock icons were still wallowing in a variety of musical backgrounds – The Byrds and the Grateful Dead in folk, Blood Sweat & Tears in blues and jazz, Paul Revere in a PR office, and Simon and Garfunkel in college. John Sebastian and his buddies were New Yorkers through and through, products of the jug band (1930s, homemade instruments such as a washtub bass, a washboard, spoons, kazoo, and, ah jugs) revival of the 1950s. They called their bag ‘Good Time Music’, and it certainly was. It was also the harbinger of a renaissance of sex, drugs, love and anti-war protests that changed the face of the world.

Read more…

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263: Lovin’ Spoonful (John Sebastian), ‘Summer in the City’

Posted by jeff on May 26, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week
Photo Henry Diltz

Photo Henry Diltz

The Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘Summer in the City’

The fascinating quotes from Sebastian are taken from an interview in Paul Zollo’s fine “More Songwriters on Songwriting”, a fine book by a nice guy. Go buy it and read it. Tell them Groucho sent you.

The Good Fairy came to me on gossamer tiptoes this week and asked me what rock star I’d like to be reincarnated as.

Even before I’d rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I shouted out: “Mickey Mantle!”
“Sorry,” said the fairy, “He can’t carry a tune. It’s gotta be a real musician.”

“Shoot,” said I, profoundly disappointed at having missed perhaps my only chance to ever be The Big Mick. A real musician? That’s pretty easy. John Sebastian. Who wouldn’t want to be John Sebastian?

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He’s sweet. He’s funny. He’s aw-shucks brilliant. He writes more great songs than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill. (Back in the day when I played guitar, I did a whole program of about 20 Sebastian songs.)

He created (okay, ‘arguably’) the first American rock group, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and composed a million great hits for them.
He’s got a musical vocabulary the size of the Big Noise From Speonk (folk, country, blues, jug band, rockandroll, and a whole bunch of personal dialects).
He’s rock’s answer to Cole Porter, more deft with a couplet than anyone else on the block (‘And I could feel I could say what I want/I could nudge her and call her my confidante’.)
He’s one of the best harmonica players in the business (his dad was a pro on the instrument).
He politely declined the invitation to be part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Sebastian.
And he comes across as a warm, sincere human being.

The band that never was.

The band that never was.

When the Spoonful hit the scene in August 1965, America’s answers to the British Invasion were The Beach Boys (circa “Party!”), The Four Seasons and The Supremes. Like I said, America’s first rock group. They had a string of seven straight Top Ten hits: ‘Do You Believe in Magic’, ‘You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice’, ‘Daydream’, ‘Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind’, ‘Summer in the City’, ‘Rain on the Roof’, and ‘Nashville Cats’, the latter three from their third album, “Hums”.

But not just seven straight hits. Seven straight great songs that became hits.

Photo Henry Diltz

Photo Henry Diltz

And I can think of no better way to spend Friday morning than to sing his praises, but there are so many of them that I hardly know where to begin. C’mon Jeff, just throw a dart.
‘Summer in the City’ it is.

Upon his return from England (jamming with George on sitar), Sebastian’s 15-year old brother came to him with a bossa nova tune that included the chorus “But at night it’s a different world, go out and find a girl…”.

John decided to write a verse (“Hot town, summer in the city/Back of my neck getting’ dirt and gritty”)  “with a  whole bunch of tension in the front part so that when we come to the chorus, it’s going to be like falling off a cliff.”

Wheezin' like a bus stop?

Wheezin’ like a bus stop?

“So I tried to write this angular thing in a minor key that then opens up like a Jewish folk song by going to the subdominant chord in a major way. Like “Exodus”. And “Evening of Roses” – from which it was stolen. So the idea was to start with something that has that minor mode and then move into the major for the chorus.”

That means that the context of the chorus is A minor, our ear expects the subdominant (IV) to be D minor, but instead you get D major. This is what it sounds like in “Exodus”, written in 1960 by Austrian-born half-Jewish Ernst Sigmund Goldner (father of Andrew Gold), who at the behest of director Otto Preminger ‘spent time in Israel’ in order to write the sound track for the movie. (The lyrics, which we’ll spare you here, were written by über-goy Pat Boone).

Zally, John

Zally, John

“Evening of Roses” (“Erev shel Shoshanim”) is indeed an Israeli folk song, written in 1957 by native-born Yosef Hadar, the best-known version of which was sung by The Dudaim duo. It is still a staple in Israeli folk dancing circles (if you’ll pardon the pun), summer in the city of Tel Aviv.

Sebastian: “So the idea was to start with something that has that minor mode and then move into the major for the chorus. And it worked. Then we had the verse and the chorus. And in the process of recording it Seven Boone, the bassist for the Spoonful, had a fragment that he played constantly in rehearsals. And I thought this could be the bridge. And it was also in a different time signature, so it did a thing that was almost classical in really taking you from one mood to another. And between that and just a nice accident, then it started to sound like Gershwin, like “American in Paris” to me. And in that he was imitating traffic. So let’s imitate traffic. Let’s get some traffic!”

John_Sebastian_1970_300Thanks, John. You’re doing my work for me this week. Here’s Lenny Bernstein himself conducting the New York Philharmonic playing Gershwin. I can sure here that traffic, can’t you?

Sebastian: “So we hired this old radio sound man who came in and helped us find traffic and particular car horns. And then we ended it up with that pneumatic hammer.”

Original legendary Columbia trash can

Original legendary Columbia trash can

The recording starts out with session man Artie Schroeck playing piano and a whack-o drum smash. Engineer Roy Halee (the undercredited 3rd partner of all of Simon & Garfunkel’s great recordings): “They had a great garbage pail at the Columbia studio. You put a microphone inside this thing and whack the side of it and it was a gigantic explosion. You could never duplicate that wound with some of the synthesized stuff. Everything The Spoonful did was a little bit different and I loved recording with them because of that.” According to Zally, it had “some of my best chakka chakkas” on guitar. And that piano riff. And John’s vocals. And his lyrics! (“Hot town, summer in the city/Back of my neck getting’ dirt and gritty…Cool cat, looking for a kitty/Gonna look in every corner of the city”).

So there you have it – an entire 3-movement urban rock symphony in 2:45. I was a Midwestern teenager in August, 1965. But thanks to Sebastian and the whole crew of merry pranksters, I could feel the heat of scorching New York days and breezy New York nights – a year before the summer that everything exploded.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

241: John Sebastian, ‘Welcome Back’

098: John Sebastian, ‘Younger Generation’

052: The Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘Girl, Beautiful Girl’

 

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