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On The String: John Sebastian Revisits The Lovin’ Spoonful

John Sebastian

When he was a teenager in New York City, John Sebastian had to travel almost more vertical feet than horizontal feet to reach Washington Square Park, the literal public square of the remarkable and historic Greenwich Village 1950s folk music revival.

“I would have to get in an elevator, go down 15 floors, walk a block and a half. And I'm in the midst of this,” he says in Episode 187 of The String. “In Washington Square on a Sunday afternoon, there was going to be six or seven different genres of music playing in the park. There'd be a little area where the bluegrass guys are trying to learn that Scruggs picking. And there'd be this little klatch of white guys that wanted to be Lightnin’ Hopkins. I was in that group. And then there was the these fellas who would get matching shirts and kind of be more of a Kingston Trio commercial folk music kind of a thing. So all of that was going like mad.”

I’ve spoken to a number of musicians who came of age in the Village folk scene but none who spoke about it with such vivid pictoriality as John Sebastian, founder and songwriter of the Lovin’ Spoonful, veteran of an acid-hazed performance at Woodstock and all around folk rock Zelig, who seemed to pop up in surprising places throughout 20th century popular music. When the chance came to sit down with the fellow who wrote “Daydream,” “Summer In The City,” “Do You Believe In Magic” and “Nashville Cats,” I jumped at it. He was in town talking about his new album, a reworking of Spoonful hits and cuts with his guitar playing friend Arlen Roth.

Sebastian’s musical home was pretty unique in that his father was a classically trained harmonica player who consorted with a range of New York’s top ensembles and artists of all kinds. During John’s Washington Square years, he became a multi-instrumentalist and popular sideman who worked with Judy Collins, MS John Hurt and Bob Dylan. The Lovin Spoonful was built around the partnership of Sebastian and guitarist/singer Zalman Yanofsky, who comes up repeatedly in our conversation. Because for all their zeitgeist-grabbing hits - and there were a lot of them, in direct competition with Beatlemania - the Spoonful was a remarkably diverse and dynamic band.

“We knew what we were doing,” Sebastian told me. “Because we had heard all the records that followed the big hits that were exactly the same ensemble trying to get the same groove and trying to imitate what had gone before. And Yanofsky and I were really devoted to the idea that when we do this next single, we don't want people to know who it is. We want it to be a mystery. And we would do anything it took.”

After he left the Spoonful in 1968, Sebastian got up to a whole range of things. He composed for Broadway and film soundtracks. He had a robust solo career and enjoyed a surprise No. 1 hit with the tv theme for Welcome Back Kotter in 1976. Sebastian also spent many productive years as a member of the great band NRBQ. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008.

The project at hand revives and reinvents Lovin Spoonful songs in an acoustic/electric setting with guitarist Arlen Roth and some friends. The takes are surprising, loose and nostalgic. Some classics, like “Daydream” and “Do You Believe In Magic” are rendered as instrumentals. A standout track features Roth’s daughter Lexie singing “Didn’t Want To Have To Do It.” It makes a fine soundtrack to a career spanning conversation with a natural raconteur.

John Sebastian