John Sebastian

Monday, May 19, 2003

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded May 19, 2003, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America . I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is a singer/songwriter and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, John Sebastian. Welcome.

John Sebastian: Thanks, Ken.

Paulson: Great to have you here. I’ve already confessed that I have all of your albums and bought them all again on CD. This will not be an objective interview at all.

Sebastian: [Laughs]

Paulson: You know, you probably were born in the best possible circumstance in which to become a singer/songwriter in the ’60s. In your home, you had music all around you.

Sebastian: It was. I mean, beyond just being 16 in 1960, being a kid growing up in Greenwich Village at this wonderful time when — between folk music and rock and roll, there was so much of a fertile ground for anybody to take any of these different influences and incorporate them into something.

Paulson: And you had friends of the family who would drop by, people, as I understood — Woody Guthrie would be —

Sebastian: Yeah. Through a strange series of circumstances, my dad was friends with Burl Ives. And Burl at one point came to him and said — now, this is — you know, they were all, like, barely out of school practically. They’re in New York, and Burl comes to dad and says, “Look, there’s a young guy from Oklahoma. He’s here. He’s going to be — probably, we’re going to be, like, putting him in history books in 50 years. But nobody has any idea who he is, and he needs a place to stay.” And so, Woody Guthrie ended up on our floor for five or six days. And I do vaguely remember it, because my family — the music that you’d hear people playing was classical music usually. And, so, then here was — you know, was Woody. And I remember kind of going, “Gee, is this good?”

Paulson: Now, you’re a kid growing up in Greenwich Village, and the world is changing, you know, in dramatic ways. The ’60s society is shifting. And suddenly, a lot of the pop music of yesteryear, whether it’s Perry Como or Bing Crosby, you know, is not as — certainly not as palatable to a young generation. A lot of young men then picked up electric guitars. You went in a different direction.

Sebastian: Well, I think I went in a series of directions, and they were all pretty logical for somebody my age. By the time I was 14 or 15, I was in a doo-wop group, and I was playing, you know, a guitar that’s pretty much like this, maybe cheaper. And then I started playing electric guitar out of that, as I began to play in sort of Duane Eddy-type bands, you know, with sax and guitar and drums and maybe a bass — and then came back to things like acoustic guitars and autoharps going to summer camp. But at the same time now, you start to hear things like Motown. And, as a New York kid, somebody who was often — because my parents were both working in the arts in one way or another. And one of the — one of the odd little corners of that — and I share this with a number of my contemporaries, New York kids, were raised by African-American women who were working for these various families. And, so, I was also hearing the radio from their point of view. And so — so I was getting that nice New York hybrid music effect.

Paulson: You’ve been one of the champions of jug bands for, oh, almost 40 years. What is jug-band music?

Sebastian: Well, jug-band music is — is pretty much blues before electricity. It is maybe an abbreviated way of looking at it. So, many great blues singers would pass through some of the bigger towns and join into larger groups so that they could play some of the dances and some of the bigger things that maybe as a single performer they didn’t have access to. And a number of groups would have these kind of rotating personnel and a general kind of this bluesy sensibility, but also playing songs out of a lot of different traditions. It was really one of the first kind of — maybe I — I could say that what the Lovin’ Spoonful was harked back to some of these great performers and their mix of music, which I think the Spoonful also was interested in.

Paulson: You then — as somebody who’s established your talent with the Even Dozen Jug Band, you’re around; you’re a player. You — you are in on the birth of a lot of remarkable pop bands, bands like The Big 3 and the Mugwumps. People don’t know those names —

Sebastian: That’s right.

Paulson: — but they, in time, kind of morphed into the Mamas & the Papas.

Sebastian: And the Lovin’ Spoonful, yeah.

Paulson: And the Lovin’ Spoonful. The Lovin’ Spoonful had maybe the best two-year run of any band ever, hit after hit. And a lot of it, what was called at the time good-time music — we’ve had so many people who have recorded music from that era who — who were militant. I mean, David Crosby and others who’ve talked about songs they’ve written that was — that were opposed to the war or the Nixon administration or whatever. And you — you were an interesting band in that you were huge —

Sebastian: [Laughing] We weren’t paying any attention to what was going on around us.

Paulson: — but you were hip — hip but apolitical, which was not very common. Was that a conscious choice? That you stayed away from —

Sebastian: You know, I think that it was a conscious choice inasmuch as so many of those songs that were coming out — now they’ve all been cleared away. But there were more imitation Dylan people and songs and people attempting to be political. But, in fact, it was the same motive that we had, which was 16-year-old girls.

Paulson: [Laughs]

Sebastian: And — and, you know, that, to us, seemed like, “That’s so wrong. Just be what you really are. You know, step up and be a pop group.” And to us, that was the goal.

Paulson: And despite — perhaps it wasn’t a handicap at all, because what you found was your niche. The public embraced it. When did you know that you were going to be a band that people would be listening to 40 years later?

Sebastian: Well, I think we probably knew it at the point at which we heard “Do You Believe in Magic?” on the radio. We had been working at a topless club in San Francisco bumping a very nice stripper by the name of Topless Maria. And we got word that the Los Angeles radio stations were playing “Do You Believe in Magic?” So we — we got in a car, worked our way down through high school dances until we got to Los Angeles and then — I mean, we rented a car at the L.A. Airport, and the song came on as we were driving towards L.A. And, you know, so, that’s one of those clichéd scenes that you see in all of these band movies where everybody’s punching each other and, you know, practically driving off the road. So — so, yeah, that was a kind of a point of departure.

Paulson: As you approach your own songwriting, what were the dynamics? Where — you know, this was an incredibly competitive pop marketplace. Suddenly, performers — it was not enough to get Carole King’s new song to record. You had to say something that was yours and yours alone. Did you have a model, or did it just come naturally for you?

Sebastian: Well, we had a lot of models. You know, at the time, there was a — [Plays guitar] a tune called “Heat Wave.” And, you know, we thought that this was just such a cool set of changes. And I remember thinking, “Gee, I wonder what would happen if I maybe doubled the — how fast these chords came at you.” And, you know… [playing “Do You Believe in Magic?”] So, that was where that came from. [Sings] “Do you believe in magic / in a young girl’s heart, / how the music can free her whenever it starts? / And it’s magic if the music is groovy. / It makes you feel happy like an old-time movie. / I’ll tell you ’bout the magic. / It can free your soul, / but it’s like trying to tell a stranger / about rock and roll, oh. / If you believe in magic — “ Here’s our message: “Don’t bother to choose. / If it’s jug-band music or rhythm and blues, / just go and listen. / It’ll start with a smile. / It won’t wipe off your face no matter how hard you try. / Your feet start tapping. / You can’t seem to find how you got there, / so just blow your mind.”

Paulson: Yes, that was great.

Sebastian: Yeah, so — you know, but we were already kind of — you know, we had our own little message. And that was this — this jug-band hybrid idea. Because so much of that type of music had combined, — you know, Irish, English, American hokum with, you know, this finger-picking guitar style that came very much out of parlor guitar, not necessarily a blues thing. And the Spoonful were, in many ways, trying to — well, you know, I mean, some of it’s really pretty direct. There was a tune that Gus Cannon wrote. He’s the guy who wrote “Walk Right In,” for those of you who aren’t jug-band fanatics. But you end up hearing “Walk Right In” at one point. And he wrote this tune that goes, [Plays and sings] “Now my head is hanging down / with those prison wall blues. / The white mule made me act a solid clown. / Now I got no time to lose. / When they put you behind that gate, / you wish you hadn’t done it. / Honey, now it’s too late. / I got them prison wall blues / keep rollin’ ‘cross my mind.” So, you know, you can hear that I heard that and had managed to write an entirely original piece of material within a week.

Paulson: [Laughs] Well, you had an endless number of top-40 hits. I don’t think anyone has been as successful in as condensed a way on the radio constantly. And then there’s a strange event in which a couple of members of the band are busted for drug possession.

Sebastian: One member for pot.

Paulson: It was — was it Zal?

Sebastian: I’m always anxious to say, “Let’s talk about this.” We’re talking about a half an ounce of pot in 1966.

Paulson: Was this Zal?

Sebastian: Yeah, but it was Zal and Steven who both got busted. And this is one of the reasons why I — I’m reluctant to talk about it. I always feel like, you know, “Now Zally can’t speak for himself.” But I always feel like it should really be those guys that are spoken to about this. But it was an incredibly unfortunate thing that modern legal practices simply wouldn’t have permitted. We wouldn’t have been in the position. But once we were in the position and, particularly once Steven and Zally were in the position of being under arrest, — and, you know, the equation was simple: “You tell us where you got it, or Zally goes back to Canada and the group is over.” Now, this for a group that not only — that had the Beatles as fans, not just that we were contemporary and that we had a hit or two; we were almost matching them one for one for a year and a half or so.

Paulson: And the only reason it’s worth bringing up this late in the game is, that does appear to have been a turning point in the history of the band, and —

Sebastian: Oh, it certainly was. It altered the chemistry completely, and, — it was a tremendously unfortunate thing.

Paulson: It — the counterculture turned on the Spoonful?

Sebastian: Yeah, it ruined Zally’s chances of feeling the way he had felt the day before.

Paulson: Spoonful was a respected and hip band. You know, this was not an Ohio Express we’re talking about here.

Sebastian: No, and this is because we had worked harder than many of our contemporaneous bands and had become better at being a group. There [were] no substitutes. There was no, “Oh, we’ll call in the wrecking crew for this session.” It was us all the way.

Paulson: So, now you’ve got this really difficult situation. And in time, you leave the Spoonful. And by the way, the classiest departure, I think, in the history of rock and roll: where you left the band and said, “You can keep the name.” And to this date, there are people out there playing — I guess Steve Boone and others, who are playing as the Lovin’ Spoonful. And you have no objection to that?

Sebastian: Well, I can’t tell you that I’m a — you know, I’m a rabid yea-sayer or anything. And I must admit that my motives may not be quite as — as, sweet as you might portray them. I simply thought, “What can you do with the name without me and Zally?” And I — but what I completely underestimated was the power of nostalgia and how an enormous generation could continue to feed a number of bands that — that lacked a lot of their core members for a long time.

Paulson: Well — and I appreciate your candor, but there’s a large gap between your relationship and the former members of the band and, for example, the Creedence Clearwater situation, where — with the litigation and rancor and anger and all that. And you’ve managed to stay away from that. And there are a couple of places you can hear your compositions now live. And there is a generation of the Lovin’ Spoonful band that goes out and plays. And then, of course, now you tour as well, which brings us to maybe your biggest challenge: stepping out onstage as a solo artist at Woodstock. That had to be intimidating.

Sebastian: Well, you know, it was funny. You have to remember that the setting was so comfortable backstage. I was among friends. Now, I came as an audience member, but I was — within minutes of being there, somebody said, “Hey, you want a ride to the backstage area? Here, get in.” And it turned out to be a guy who was a former roadie who was now working for the Incredible String Band and, so, this was such — a much smaller world in 1969 as far as the musical components. Everybody was — everybody knew each other. And what happened was, I was asked to play during the rain, because they couldn’t put electric instruments onstage during that time. And they said, “We need somebody to hold ‘em with an acoustic, and you’re elected.” And I said, “Well, I don’t even have an instrument.” They said, “Well, you know, could you find one?” Luckily, Tim Hardin was there. And Timmy lent me a Harmony Sovereign, and I was in business.

Paulson: And you went out. And if the film is an accurate account, you charmed tens of thousands of people that day with an acoustic guitar. And then, I think, when people had pretty much decided they would not hear you on the top 40 again —

Sebastian: Yes, [laughs] absolutely.

Paulson: There you were with the theme to ”Welcome Back, Kotter.”

Sebastian: Never was I more out of style than when that record came out. But just about when that record came out, I had visited Warner Brothers Records. And I couldn’t get any telephone calls back from them. And I went up to the main desk. And over the desk, this, you know, really huge poster size is a picture of Alice Cooper. And I remember thinking, “It could be a while before there’s room for a John Sebastian-type guy now.” So, it was a wonderful surprise, but it came in a very logical way. A guy from Brooklyn — was producing the show. He’s sort of the de facto producer, a guy named Alan Sacks, and — his feeling was that he wanted to get a New Yorker to write the theme. So, in fact, later I found out that Dion DiMucci had been — had been drafted as one of the potential people, and I was, too. And I said, “Look, please don’t make me write something with the word Kotter in it, because it doesn’t rhyme with anything, and it’s not a beautiful word in and of itself.” So, I wrote this song that was mainly about what I felt was part of my life as well as part of the story being told, which was that of a group of underachievers who are now being counseled and taught by a guy who was formerly in the same — in the same bag. He was an underachiever himself.

Paulson: In addition to being a very successful songwriter, you’ve got an education in the music business. You had all kinds of headaches involving labels —

Sebastian: [Laughs] Yeah. My education is totally out of school.

Paulson: Yeah, you had a number of challenges especially after the breakup of the Spoonful — and arguments over who owned the rights to your music. Over time, you have also become an advocate for copyright law and the enforcement of it on behalf of songwriters. And this is one of the great misunderstandings I think people have about copyright and free speech, is that, you know, the First Amendment is in the Constitution, but so is copyright law. The founding fathers said, “You can say what you want. You can write what you want. But, you know what? If we’re going to encourage people to do these things creatively, there ought to be a reward for that. And people won’t write songs and won’t write books if other people can steal from them immediately. And, in a rich society, you’ve got to have protection of copyright.” And, so, you’ve been an advocate to remind Americans about that, haven’t you?

Sebastian: Yes, and, well, specifically, going to Washington was really exciting. And it was as if the very first question was the pivot point that I didn’t expect to being able to explain what the problem was, ’cause my first question was something like, “Now, Mr. Sebastian, let me understand this. I send my two cents to Paul McCartney, and — and then” — and I said, “Right — right here, let me — let me just stop, because, yes, you are sending pennies to Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson and, in fact, Michael Jackson when you think you’re sending them to Paul McCartney. And — but the fact is that there are also a number of us songwriters who aren’t going to be spending this money on a new llama. They’re going to be spending it — it’s going to be the difference between being able to put a kid into a special or a specific high school. To the — you know, hell, to be able to get out of a Pontiac Parisienne and, you know” — [laughing] “into a different car. But — but it isn’t always the millionaire scenario. It is very often a subsistence level.” When I think of people like some of the great jug banders — now, our copyright problems are dwarfed by the copyright problems that that generation of musician endured. And, to this day, his daughters wait with bated breath for that royalty check to come through. And more and more effects in American life are gnawing away at that check. OK, so maybe I can afford that, like, I’m still going to be able to pay the heat with that little bit of gnawing. But when you come to somebody like the families of some of the great musicians who came out of Brownsville, Tennessee, their — their children are in tough circumstances. And to eat away at their royalties is — is tremendously — it’s a crime.

Paulson: And arguably the greatest threat now is actually technology, isn’t it?

Sebastian: Well, technology is a threat, but there’s another threat. And the greater threat, I think, is the American mind-set that — that is, is — it’s currently becoming more and more difficult for a guy who writes a song — and, heaven forbid, that you’re not Elton John or somebody who can at least call the right guy and make the right deal, because our message to American — to our fellow American songwriters is, “What you do has next to no value. It has no value, because we have corporate — responsibilities that mean that in order to accept your music, we really have to castrate your contract first. And that what you’ll be left with will be enough that — we’re not taken to jail. That’s — that’s about the best that we can assure you.” So, whatever promises a wonderful English teacher, who inspired you to say, “Go ahead and read some of these Greek guys. They — they have poetry in them, and you’ll get some.” And, you know, you might come out with something great, and you get an A, and, you know, you’re coddled and encouraged. But the minute that you’re out in the public sector, you — you find out that the American way of life is — it is so — we are compromising our liberties so severely that even something as modest as a songwriter’s two cent royalty is — is being attacked.

Paulson: A lot of people who loved your work and the Lovin’ Spoonful were gratified to see you named to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. And that was a night in which you and Zally and others in the band were able to get together again. Was that a great night?

Sebastian: It’s a little skewed, because money comes into it again. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame has to appeal to the people that might come to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. They assume that that must be youth. And, so, when they said, “Who would you like to be your presenter?” I said, “Fats Domino or Johnny Johnson,” some of the people that really had the “roll,” ’cause, you know, as much as we’ve started calling this music “rock,” the Lovin’ Spoonful was about the “roll.” Those were the people that we admired. We’re not the blustery, you know, chest pounders as much as the guys who had that thing that could move your shoulders and your butt in a different way, in independent ways. That was — that was what appealed to us.

Paulson: We only have a few minutes left. Could we hear a little bit more of that roll?

Sebastian: I got the good closer, because this is — this is John Hurt’s tune, and it’s the tune where we got our, our name, but also where we got a lot of our training as fingerpickers and — [Plays and sings] “I woke up this morning / thinking ’bout my brown, / looking for my baby. / She ain’t nowhere ’round. / My lovin’ spoonful. / I love my baby, / my lovin’ spoonful.

Paulson: Thank you very much. John Sebastian.

Sebastian: Thank you.

Paulson: Pleasure.