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.

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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?

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

Posted by jeff on May 28, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

Girl, Beautiful Girl, The Lovin’ Spoonful

One weekend night in 1969 I was working the door at the Ludlow Garage, a rock emporium in Cincinnati, when a party of four hotshots approached. The cheesiest of them asked from behind his sunglasses, “This where Mountain is playing?”

And I answered, “Yeah”. That was me, always ready with a rapier comeback.

And he said, “We would like to bestow upon you the honor of inviting us in.”

“For free?”

“Of course.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Because this,” indicating one member of the group, “is Mr. ***.”

Mr. *** was a young and upcoming director of films from the state of California on the west coast of the United States. I don’t know who the hotshot was trying to impress by dropping that name, because it wouldn’t be recognized by anyone in Cincinnati other than a bored, film-obsessed 21-year old follower of young and obscure directors. Coincidentally, the guy working the door at that moment was a bored, film-obsessed 21-year old follower of young and obscure directors.

So I said over hotshit’s shoulder, directly to Mr. ***, “Mr ***, it would be our pleasure to host you this evening.” (I’m not quite sure from whence I drew the authority to make that decision, but I did.)

Just how obscure was Mr ***? Well, he at that time had two Hollywood films released. The first began as his MA thesis at UCLA film school, but became an $800,000-budget Hollywood release. It was a coming-of-age comic-drama starring a bunch of B- and C-list actors – Peter Kastner (who?) as Bernard, The Innocent; Karen Black (Nicholson’s waitress girlfriend in Five Easy Pieces) as The Good Girl; Elizabeth Hartman as The Bad Girl;  Tony Bill as The Friend; and Method-school bluebloods Rip Torn (born Elmore Rual Torn, Jr., nicknamed “Rip” by his father) as The Father, and Geraldine Page (premier interpretress of Tennessee Williams’ heroines) as The Mother. Bernard’s film parents were married in real life as well (well, ‘real’ in Hollywoodian terms.) Their country estate was named Torn Page.

The story takes place at the boy’s place of employ, the labyrinth stacks of the NYC Public Library, which Bernard traverses on roller skates, shelving books and moaning about his lack of a sex life. His friend incites him to rebellion, drugs, and sex, the latter focused on Barbara Darling (Hartman).

But you have to remember that we’re talking 1966 here, and movies like that weren’t made. Establishment ‘youth’ films were still Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello Beach Blanket Bingos. That’s why Richard Lester’s Beatles Hard Day’s Night and his The Knack (and How to Get It) were so mind-blowing for us. Later, in 1967, the The Graduate used the Mrs Robinson soundtrack precisely and evocatively, but it was background music.

That’s why Mr ***’s You’re a Big Boy Now made such an impression on me, and on the other 2000 people who had seen it. It had the unique quality of taking the rock music soundtrack seriously. Written and performed by The Lovin’ Spoonful, the music actually served as a cinematic tool, organically integrated in the goings-on on screen (even more than in Hard Day’s Night.)

Apparently I wasn’t the only one impressed with the use of The Spoonful’s music in the film. The next year, Woody Allen hired them to provide the music to his film What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, in which he took a grade-Z Japanese spy movie and added his own soundtrack, which became the story of agent Phil Moskowitz’s deadly mission to secure the recipe for the world’s greatest egg salad.

You have to remember, this was 1966. The only American rock bands of significance were The Byrds from California, and The Lovin’ Spoonful from New York. By the time of You’re a Big Boy, The Spoonful already had under their collective belts “Do You Believe in Magic?,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” “Summer in the City,” and “Nashville Cats“. Not bad, huh? And lots of their lesser-known songs are just as good.

But I’m not going to deal thoroughly with The Lovin’ Spoonful here, because I’m such a giant John Sebastian fan. He’ll get his own SoTW. Many of them, I hope, because so many of his songs are deeply engraved in my heart and soul and memory. Here we’ll just mention that the song has some pretty darn funky brass, and even strings, juxtaposed with the raucous rockous almost-song, with Sebastian’s knockout lyrics barely noticeable. (Check them out, down at the bottom here.) Sebastian’s lyrics here, as always, are witty, urbane, sly, goofy, charming, and full of surprising delights. The movie score also included the great ‘Darling, Be Home Soon’ (the video shows why Zal already had one foot outside the band) and the title song, later memorably rerecorded by Sebastian solo.

Anyway, after that movie Mr *** had gotten a hack job directing a real-budget Hollywood musical, ‘Finian’s Rainbow’, a rather embarrassing blurp in his filmography. And at the time he came to see Leslie West at The Garage, he had probably finished making his new film which had yet to be released, a way-before-its time road movie about a pregnant, angst-ridden housewife who just gets up and walks out, drives and drives, picks up along the way a hitchhiking former pro football player with mushed brains. They travel together, two lost souls, Shirley Knight and the young and unknown James Caan. But as I said, The Rain People had yet to show in Cincinnati, and my respect and admiration for Mr *** was based solely on what I had seen in You’re a Big Boy Now.

Meanwhile, back at the Garage, during a break, I went up to tell him that.

“Mr. ***,” I said, “I’m an admirer of yours.”

“Thank you,” he said. An auspicious beginning.

“I think that You’re a Big Boy Now is the first movie ever to really use rock music seriously.” He looked at me.

“Like in the first scene [and thank you so much to YouTube for enabling us to revisit it]. The gut-wrenchingly slow zoom in from the far side of the main reading room of the NY Public Library, so quiet you’re not sure the movie has really started until you hear a background cough, no movement, no noise, no activity other than the turning of pages. As still as a tomb. And then the camera ‘zooms’ (crawls, actually) into those big, staid double oak doors. Painfully slowly. And then, Boom! Zal’s slashing, grating guitar chords, as jarring as the opening chord of George’s in that Lester film, as the doors are thrown back, and Barbara Darling comes strutting in, all the movement and brashness and color and music in the world. I think that’s a really fine scene. Never seen anything like it. That’s the way to make a movie that rocks.”

And he looked at me, and said, “You from around here?”

And I said, “Yes.”

And he said, “Well, if you’re ever in California, come look me up.”

Three years later, Francis Ford Coppolla made The Godfather. And the year after that he produced George Lucas’s American Graffiti, which redefined the use of rock music in films.

But even then California was La-La Land for me. When Mr Coppolla was making those movies, I was already settled in Israel, with a wife, kid, mortgage and war on my head.

Well, you never can tell
But you’re looking so well
That I gotta stop and say “How do you do?”

I know it’s a long shot
But judging what she’s got
I’m hoping that my judgment is true

Girl, beautiful girl, can I look at your insides?
Girl, wrapped up in fur, I’m just mad for your outsides!

Mmm, that’s what my inside says
If only I could walk up and tell her
But it seems so far from me to her
And the ground is so unfamiliar

Well I wish that I knew cause I’d be in a stew
If my little speech sounded like a phony line
I know that it’s doubtful cause she’s heard a mouthful
Of ‘come on up and see me sometime’.

Girl, beautiful girl, can I look at your insides?
Girl, wrapped up in fur, I’m just mad for your outsides!

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

098: John Sebastian, ‘Younger Generation’


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