Talking Story with John Sebastian

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Backing in the 1960’s, when I listened to Top-40 music on a cheap transistor AM radio, and got my music education from TV shows like Shindig! and Hullabaloo, along came The Lovin’ Spoonful, a pop quartet that formed in Greenwich Village. They had a string of hit singles that featured all different genres – ragtime (“Daydream”), country (“Nashville Cats”), folk-pop (“You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”), hard rock (“Summer in the City”) and orchestrated pop (“She Is Still a Mystery”). Lead singer/writer John Sebastian was the furry one playing the auto-harp. In 2000, The Lovin’ Spoonful were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Sebastian was featured in the 1970 concert movie Woodstock and returned to the charts with the theme song to the 1975 hit TV show, Welcome Back, Kotter.

I interviewed John in 2009 for my book Becoming Jimi Hendrix about the times he crossed paths with the soon to be famous guitarist. When I saw that John was coming to the Big Island to play at the Kahilu Theatre this month (concert info below), I was thrilled and hoped we could do another interview. At first his publicist said he was on the road – busy. But then the phone rang – “Hi, this is John Sebastian. I’m stuck at an airport… You wanna do this interview?” “Of course!” I replied.

Aloha, John. We’re looking forward to your upcoming concert at the Kahilu Theatre. Is this your first time to the Big Island?

It is not. Over the years I have sort of stopped through, but Maui was the kind of central spot for my wife and I, just as visitors, and I do still have a few friends there like Cyrus [Faryar], from the Modern Folk Quartet – MFQ.

In the New York Times the other day, in the music section, I saw that Michael Lang is getting together to do some sort of fiftieth, can you believe it, Woodstock anniversary concert. I guess it’s still in the planning stages. Have they contacted you, or are you going to be involved with that concert?

Michael and I live in the same town, and we do see each other, just, you know, wandering around. So, I had a chance to speak to him a couple of weeks ago when he was saying it’s still at about 95 percent sure [it would happen]. I can’t say, “it’s a go,” but it’s pretty sure. So, that’s where my info stops. We’ll see… granted. Anybody tries to create a three-day festival… I don’t know how many 60 to 70-year-olds they’re going to be pulling in.

Do you have any thoughts about what that experience would be like? It won’t be the same stage obviously, but maybe that same emotional feeling of 300,000 people at a rock concert. Have we evolved? Do you think the spirit of the 60s is still alive? I’m reaching here, John. Help me out. [laughs]

[laughs]Which of these questions should I spend the time on? [laughs]I think we’re really going to have to see how this develops. But my first impulses are good in that people are trying to engage venues that are big enough that have enough port-o-potties and even facilities that would permit a large crowd, and, you know that was kind of part of the difficulty at Woodstock, certainly. I think we already witnessed what a disaster it is when they tried to have Woodstock and substitute alcohol for pot. Obviously, that has some serious shortcomings. I don’t know if anybody will end up being successful at promoting it.

Tell me about what you listen to now. Are there any contemporary musicians or bands that excite you, and that you enjoy listening to?

I must say, I had an invitation to come to Nashville a couple of months ago to record with a really great artist named Tony Jackson. Tony sort of exposed me to a few of the real wonderous players there and it sort of got me on a tilt where I was listening to folks like Mo Pitney. He is a big favorite of mine. Shelby Lynne is somebody special I like. These are not necessarily new artists, but they certainly are people I keep track of. I love to listen to everything Ry Cooder puts out or my old pal Taj Mahal… Guy Davis and Keb Mo… those guys are just tearing it up.

Can you clear up for me one thing that has bugged me for decades and decades now, and I’m sure the answer is out there on the internet… probably you’ve answered this question a million times, but every time I hear your song come on the radio, “Darling Be Home Soon,” it sounds like there’s a false start on the last chorus. It sounds like you came in too quickly, but they left it on the record. Briefly, what’s the story behind that?

There’s no false start on that song, but how about “I Saw Her Again”by The Mamas & The Papas? I’m wondering if you’re thinking of Denny Doherty’s entrance?

No. The part I’m talking about that goes, So darling… My darling be home soon…

 That was done for emphasis.

Tar Beach cover shoot

What are your plans this year, besides possibly the Woodstock Festival? Are you working on some new material?

I just put out a kind of an 80s compilation of children’s material [Short Songs for Shorter People] that was originally on some Canadian cartoons. I also rereleased a pop album from ‘92 called Tar Beach. That was not very available. I am currently working on an instrumental Spoonful album with Arlen Ross. I’m looking forward to whatever other accidents may happen in my moments when I’m back in Woodstock and able to do sessions. It’s always a great surprise.

I was in a session with Earl Slick, who’s an old friend of mine, and both of us are Italians. He introduced me to Ira Coleman, who’s just one of the best bass players I ever met.

I would certainly mention The MonaLisa Twins, who are two Austrian twins who have been working out of Manchester, England, for the last few years. They’re a duo that has that wonderful quality of siblings singing together and they play their own instruments and they can do any Beatles tune you can think of, but they’ve also begun doing their own material and somewhere in there I began getting hired as the “harmonica player from Woodstock.”  I invite your listeners to go on YouTube, and look up “Waiting for the Waiter.” It’s a tune they hired me for and then decided they couldn’t make the video without me. I ended up in Manchester and we went to this really ancient English pub and cut this midnight track together and it was just a lot of fun. So, that was another complete surprise for an old furry guy to get this session. [laughs]

What can folks expect at your upcoming show at the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea?

Well, first of all, it’s one guy, one guitar, or, one guy and a choice of two guitars with harmonica here and there, but primarily I’m trying to go through as much of my catalog as I can get to. I try to encourage suggestions, but mainly I’m getting through the Spoonful catalog and then a few of the successful moments of what was a solo career after that… and on to some of the stuff I’ve come up with in less in less visible periods, like some of this cartoon music. I really just try to give people a cross-section of what it is that I have done and am doing and hopefully will do all right.

John, thank you so much for your time. And we’re all looking forward to your upcoming show later this month. Aloha, and safe travels.

Thank you, maybe we’ll see each other.

If You Go
What:   John Sebastian in Concert
When: Tuesday, January 29, 2019 at 7 PM
Where:Kahilu Theatre
Admission:  $65/$45/$25
Information: Tickets can be purchased at kahilutheatre.org, (808) 885-6868 or at the Kahilu Theatre Box Office located at 67-1186 Lindsey Road, Kamuela


This interview was edited for clarity and length. To hear the full unedited audio interview, click play.


Check out John Sebastian’s official website: http://www.johnbsebastian.com

Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Courtesy press photos provided.

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