“…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.
John’s father was a virtuoso harmonicist, who once upon a time made an album “John Sebastian Plays John Sebastian Bach”. Junior’s godmother was Ethel Mertz of “I Love Lucy”. Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt were neighbors. He started out as a studio harmonica player in the Jug Band scene, met Montreal guitarist Zalman Yanovsky, and formed an electric rock-and-roll band (Zal: “I became a convert to Reddy Kilowatt because it’s loud, and people dance to it, and it’s loud.”)
The Spoonful recorded a mere four full studio albums and one soundtrack (exactly the same output of original material as Simon and Garfunkel, except that the Spoonful’s soundtrack had four new songs, whereas “The Graduate” only had one). Sebastian wrote virtually all the songs. Their first hit was ‘Do You Believe In Magic’, a paean to a whole new mindset to which the older folks were wholly oblivious (‘It’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll’). No wonder the elders didn’t get it. I remember Dick Clark asking Zal a question (live) and getting an answer in Yiddish. Good times.
Sebastian wrote and the Spoonful recorded a string of stunningly fine rock hits (seven straight Top 10 hits!): ‘Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind’, ‘Younger Girl‘, ‘Daydream‘, ‘Rain on the Roof’, ‘Nashville Cats’, ‘Summer in the City’, the stunning ‘Six O’Clock’, the sublime ‘She is Still a Mystery’. I could write a book about each one, and many more of their lesser-known gems. I’ve already told my story about ‘Girl, Beautiful Girl’ and my meeting with Francis Ford Coppolla, as well as my memories of the Woodstock festival. And I so love and admire John Sebastian’s music, both with the Spoonful and later as a solo artist, that I might just blow his horn again someday.
I think of John Sebastian as rock’s Cole Porter. He has a wit and dexterity as a tunesmith/lyricist unmatched in the Sixties. And he was so much more than that. A great guitarist (recently hooking back up with David Grisman 40+ years after they played in a jug band together); a great singer (when CS&N was just forming, David Crosby said–regarding rumors that Sebastian might join–”John can sing with us any time he wants“; a great guy. A sweetie. The ultimate tie-dyed hippie.
On numerous occasions when I’ve been called upon to explain to people who don’t ‘get’ rock and roll just how good it can be, I’ve quoted John Sebastian’s solo song ‘Younger Generation’ from the Spoonful’s last album, “Everything Playing”.
Younger Generation – John Sebastian
Why must every generation think their folks are square?
And no matter where their heads are they know mom’s ain’t there?
‘Cause I swore when I was small that I’d remember when
I knew what’s wrong with them that I was smaller than.
Determined to remember all the cardinal rules,
Like ‘Sun showers are legal grounds for skipping school’.
I know I have forgotten maybe one or two,
But I hope that I recall them all before the baby’s due,
And I know he’ll have a question or two.
Like, “Hey, Dad, can I go ride my Zoom?
It goes 300 miles an hour suspended on balloons!
And can I put a droplet of this new stuff on my tongue
And imagine frothing dragons while you sit and wreck your lungs?”
And I must be permissive, understanding of the younger generation.
And then I’ll know that all I’ve learned my kid assumes,
And all my deepest worries must be his cartoons.
And still, I’ll try to to tell him all the things I’ve done
Relating to what he can do when he becomes a man,
And still he’ll stick his finger in the fan.
And, “Hey, Pop, my girlfriend’s only three,
She’s got her own videophone, and she’s taking LSD.
And now that we’re best friends, she wants to give a bit to me.
What’s the matter, Daddy? How come you’re turning green?
Could it be that you can’t live up to your dream?”
Sebastian gave a memorable performance of the song at Woodstock, the compleat hippie. You can’t begin to understand 1969 without studying this clip. It was pretty much the anthem of the festival and the spirit it embodied (till Joni Mitchell, who never actually made it to the site, wrote her song), but I guess it was too nuanced in sentiment and too complex musically to sing along with. It doesn’t have any hooks or gimmicks. Just unlimited intelligence, beauty and depth that belie the simpiness of the Woodstock performance, even if I did subscribe to it back then, wide-eyed, innocent and optimistic.
I’d like to go back to that Cole Porter comparison for a moment. I have unqualified respect for Porter’s wit, his gentility, his elegance. It speaks for an entire era. But I come from a different generation. As entertaining as “And that’s why birds do it, bees do it, Even educated fleas do it” may be, these aren’t sentiments that profoundly inform me or edify me. At best, it’s urbane, ‘cute’. John Sebastian’s song has been in my heart and soul and ears and throat for over 40 years. I’ve visited it over and over, quoted it and taught it and referred to it every time I’m puzzled by the conundrums of how parents and kids can possibly communicate when they share no common language. Well, I’ve made sure my own kids know this song by heart (and in their hearts), and I hope that gives them some insight into where Dad’s head is. John Sebastian explained it much better than I could. And if my children should happen some day to play this song for their children, well, I’ll be one happy, happy aging hippie.
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