“It was simply a matter of ‘What do we have that everybody doesn’t have?’ Let’s see. Bob Dylan songs? Let’s not have any of those. There was all kinds of rules. No Epiphones. No Rickenbackers. No 12-strings. We were on a very strict tear as far as stuff like that goes. But the important thing was that we wanted to reflect our own influences. Zally and I weren’t mono-inflected in our background.”
John Sebastian at length about a half century in the music business, the tricks he learned composing for five-year-olds, the credit that’s still due to Zal Yanovsky, what it’s like to have Beatles, Kinks and Clapton stealing his moves, and the joy in being able to still revel in and perform jug band music as he pleases. Oh yeah, and why Cass Elliot said he and Zal might as well have been a pair of 16-year-old girls …
Well I know it’s been a little while since you were out around Chicago, and you’ve got a few more dates coming up. Is this just an outing to get out and play or is there new work to promote at this juncture?
This is simply the continuing tour that I’m on. I do try to avoid in February and March unless it’s in Florida. [Laughter] But you and I are talking about April, right? So that just talks about the fact that spring has sprung and I’m back on the road.
How much of the year do you spend on the road now?
I spend according to demand, really. It’s kind of a thing where I’m busy enough with my grandchildren that I don’t solicit work. What does happen is that ideas come to the fore, a few gigs might be able to be put together like we have in Chicago, and that is always a bonus. I mean, as a songwriter, I’m sure you know that songwriting royalties have been slashed, so being able to go out and play a show—especially the way I’ve been doing it for the last 15 years or so, which is simply one guy, one guitar, and I try to cover the basic Spoonful catalog as well as some later sort of John B.-era stuff, and play a tune or two that were the source of some of these songs. That’s where the little jug band pitch comes along, and that’s what it is.
To get into the topic of songwriting, I know you come from accomplished musical stock, but when you took up songwriting on your own, what was the instigator there? Do you remember your earliest compositions?
Well, it’s always necessity. I don’t think I’ve ever written along the lines of “I wonder what I’m thinking this morning,” you know? Really, my first couple of songs were putting music to Shakespeare sonnets that were in a high school play. And rewriting lyrics that were too obscene for the 1960s, and that was just, again, out of necessity because I wanted to do some of these jug band tunes. I kind of backed into it. I worked at a summer camp for five summers as a camp music counselor. That kind of got things going where I’d have to make up a song for a little character of some play that we’d all put together. That was a very wonderful atmosphere because it was low stress. [Laughter] Nobody was going to die if you didn’t come up with a song. But I tell you, the incentive of disappointed five-year-olds was too gruesome to consider. You’d end up getting it done anyway.
I’m sure this skips forward a little bit, but going to New York in the early 1960s and that scene that was made famous in “Creeque Alley.” Can you tell me how you and Zal [Yanovsky, Lovin’ Spoonful lead guitarist] hooked up?
It really was a terrific introduction that came through Cass Elliot. I had been an accompanist and Zally had been an accompanist—both to various folk acts. In his case, it was a folk trio from Canada, in my case, I was accompanying a big baritone from Washington, who was opening for a group called the Big Three, which had Cass in it. Cass and I became buddies, and a few months later, she was in New York. She called me up and said, “Come on by. We’re watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Ringo will be here.” This is how much faith I had in Cass. [Laughter] I thought, “I don’t know how they’re doing this”—you couldn’t prerecord in those days. So I was trying to figure what the hell she was talking about. I go to her house, and there is a very tall sort of Ashkenazi Jewish-looking Ringo guy. Zalman and I sit down. He’s a guitarist and I’m a guitarist, and in those days, we were permanently attached to our instruments and never left them anywhere. So we both had our guitars with us, we sat down, watched the Beatles and sort of played recreationally for awhile. That really started it. By the next day—Cass Elliot would later say, “This was so much fun. This was like 16-year-old girls”—but I would call her and say, “That is the most creative guitar player I’ve ever heard.” And then she’d say, “Oh, really? Well, Zal said you’re the cleanest finger picker he ever heard!” [Laughter] It’s really 15-year-old girl stuff. It went on like that for a few days until Zally and I did start hanging out quite “steadily.” Hanging out to the point where—I lived in the Village and Zal’s second home was there because he was a creature of folk environs. He played in John Phillips’ folk group. So he and I eventually turn up Steve Boone and Joe Butler. Joe from a band called the Sellouts that was playing New York. Ironically named, because they were playing rock and roll in an environment where everybody is so stiff—“Oh my God, only bluegrass or old time music,” or blues that is so old that Jack White wouldn’t even know what it is.
With the Spoonful, you bring in all those different elements and do so in a very intuitive way that not a lot of pop groups were exploring at the time. Did you find it personally satisfying to, say, bring these elements of jug band music into the mainstream?
Well, yeah, but also at the time, it was simply a matter of “What do we have that everybody doesn’t have?” Let’s see. Bob Dylan songs. Let’s not have any of those. There was all kinds of rules. No Epiphones. No Rickenbackers. No 12-strings. We were on a very strict tear as far as stuff like that goes. But the important thing was that we wanted to reflect our own influences. Zally and I weren’t mono-inflected in our background. Part of it was what we were exposed to. You go around to all these folk clubs, and by golly, you’ve heard a couple of great male harmony groups, you’ve heard a couple of great female songstresses, all these different bags, Piedmont guitar style, the Mississippi thing. We loved it all, and we also admired the whole bluegrass movement—I mean, the bluegrass delivered by Flatt & Scruggs is pretty upscale, it’s pretty clean, pretty perfect. But that was another thing. Also, our main listening when you’d go home and put on the record player, our main stuff was like Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes. The Staple Singers—the way Pops Staples played the guitar, to me, was a miracle. Then you go to the various blues guys we were following around. In my case, carrying for Lightnin’ Hopkins when he’d be in New York and living four blocks from the club Mississippi John Hurt would play once every six or eight weeks. So our influences were very wide and that’s what we were reflecting.
What was it like to see the reflection of the effect you were having on pop music? I mean for a band like the Kinks—you write “Daydream,” and a few years later, they come out with something like “Holiday” which is a pretty obvious tip of the hat. Or on the Get Back sessions, there’s that tape of John Lennon and George Harrison riffing on “Daydream.”
Yeah! [Laughter into Liverpudlian accents] “It’s a D-minor 7th.” And then John goes, “Fuckin’ tunesmiths.” I love it. I love it! I had to wait 15 years for a compliment like that, but it was just so much fun. And yes, Paul has copped to “Good Day Sunshine” being totally a case of, “What do I do after I hear the Spoonful?” It’s been a long enough time now that some of the effects we had are no longer hidden. The guys are variously coming forward and saying “Oh, no, that was totally trying to steal ‘Summer in the City.’” Clapton said that about “Tales of Brave Ulysses.” That’s the thing—you never know what part really. We were all stealing from each other. That was all part of the fun.
In terms of the democratic workings of the group. Was it “If you bring the song, you can sing it?” Or was it making sure everyone gets a chance to have a vocal on the record? Because you wrote “Full Measure,” but you didn’t actually sing it.
So was it a “spread it around” principle or put the best voice in service of the song?
It was really in service of the song. We wanted to make the best use and take the best advantage of Joe’s choirboy voice. It was really good and it probably still continues to be fairly good. So that was good, and then something like “Voodoo in My Basement,” we went, “Oh, that’s Zal. We gotta have Zal sing that.” There were a lot of tunes that had the singer written all over them even though I was often writing them.
Around the time of Everything Playing, that was when you started your departure. I’ve read that it had to do with you not feeling like it was a band so much anymore, but more that you felt you had to do all the composing at the time. Am I correct in that assessment or was it something else?
Definitely. And I don’t need to sidestep issues, because really, once Zally and Steven got busted, that put such a horrible switch on Zally’s life. [Ed. note: Yanovsky and Boone were arrested for marijuana possession in San Francisco in 1966, and Yanovsky was threatened with deportation unless he named his dealer—he did and both his and the band’s reputation took a hit as a result.] And the worst was that people didn’t understand so much about that. They didn’t know that, given the circumstance, when those guys and our managers—I wasn’t in the room when it happened, I found all of this out later—but the original plan was, “OK, we gotta turn [the dealer] in, but we’ve got a lot a money now.” So the plan was to buy a lawyer and get him off. The guy wanted his own lawyer who wanted to make pot legal in 1966 in San Francisco, and so half the case was about that. Of course they lost. It wasn’t good. The guy spent a few weeks away, but I mean that’s not cute. The guy had a family and it was terrible. We had a plan, and there was no getting around the fact that the police had made a very illegal bust, but in 1966, you couldn’t go back and take it apart that way. Folks weren’t interested. So that did put a whole different spell on Zally’s life, and it would eventually drive him away from the public life, really. He began to hate the whole process. So it wasn’t too long before—for many years after, Zally and I would get together and it’d be, “No, no, man. Really. You quit.” “No, man, you fired me!” [Laughter]. But my relationship with Zalman was happily patched up by 1970 when we played together at the Isle of Wight spontaneously. That was great fun.
A hell of a festival to get together at when you look back at what went down.
Well strangely enough, our part really went very well. But I know what you mean. That was chaotic—and I had to follow the ranting promoter yelling at the crowd. I’m on the side of the stage talking to the schleppers, going, “Do you really think hectoring a crowd that’s here to listen to music is really a good plan?” [Laughter]
But you were able to calm them down?
Well I wanted to ask you about the transition into your solo work and writing for albums like John B. Sebastian or The Four of Us, was there a clear break from what you were doing with the Lovin’ Spoonful? Or was it a continuation but maybe the ability to do more—like bring soul singers onto “Baby, Don’t You Get Crazy,” and working with the likes of Paul Rothschild?
Yeah, I worked pretty exclusively with Paul Rothschild during that period. At that moment, we were kind of joyously abandoning the format that I’d honed to. During the Spoonful, we said things like, “No, we don’t want to see Hal Blaine. We don’t want the standard-issue treatment. We want to be our own band and play and be on the record.” That really was an important element. We had clung so closely to that—the only variance on that was when we would do a movie soundtrack, or as Jerry Yester came into the group, he had capabilities as an arranger and symphonic composer that were like a whole other bag. It was a great addition, so that did heavily flavor that project, Everything Playing. In the solo period, the new thing that was fun for me and Rothschild was—now that we don’t have a band, let’s say for song “X,” who would serve this song best? “OK, I confess, I wanna play with Buddy Emmons.” So it was more like composing a band after you’d composed a song. That was really our modus operandi for several albums. Then I had a really nice return to working with Erik Jacobsen, and in that project, Tarzana Kid, we kind of returned to a central unit kind of approach. We had some wonderful instrumentalists available to us at that moment in Los Angeles. It was amazing. I had the chance to work with David Grisman—we’d been together in a band in 1962 when we were 18. But yeah, that was what changed. Not having the strict four-member band format.
Transferring that to the stage—a lot of the performances you did at the time were just you. I know every songwriter’s mantra is that a song’s not worth it’s salt if you can’t perform it with just an acoustic guitar, but having been part of a functioning group as a live outfit and making these band records in the studio, was it difficult or unnerving in any way to have to go it alone in front of audiences?
[Laughter] I’d love to take credit for it being unnerving, but the fact was that before me and Zal got together and that whole trip started, I was an accompanist working mostly in New York with people like Tim Hardin or Fred Neil or Vince Martin. These were situations where the main guy was not that dependable. Very often in this little club called the Playhouse Café like two and a half blocks from where I lived—there were guys traveling four hours to come out from the outer boroughs to be part of the folk scene, and I just had to wash up and walk down the street. It was incredibly easy. But as a result of these guys being a little flaky, I’d been asked many times, “Oh, jeez, he’s not here yet. John, could you just do a couple songs and then when Fred comes, go back to being an accompanist?” So that was a wonderful way to get comfortable with that. Don’t forget that I just had spent five years as a music counselor for kids, and you know, once you can manage five-year-olds, adults are a cinch. They’re just a cinch. So really, I felt like I did have some background by that time. People are always amazed—I guess Woodstock is the high visibility one, but Isle of Wight is the same way. “Jeez, how was it performing for that many people?” The answer is you perform for six people, then you get to 16, then maybe you’re at 30 and after that, it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. It could be a good show, it could be a bad show. I found Woodstock to be a very intimate show. It felt intimate. Now, I can work for a 300-seat audience and it might not feel as intimate as three quarters of a million. [Laughter] In my case, it was already a thing that I was comfortable doing. I didn’t have to reinvent myself out of a rhythm guitarist for a rock band to be able to play by myself.
It goes quiet for a little while and then Welcome Back comes along. The other thing about that album, is that obviously you revisit a Spoonful song or two, but there are some other great songs on there—“Hideaway,” “She’s Funny,” “Let This Be Our Time To Get Along.” Were those things that were laying around in the meantime that now had a vehicle to find their way out, or was it a case of, “Oh, now we have to write an album because we’ve got a hit single?”
No, the former. I’d been trying to get a record made. I’d been trying to get to get Warner Brothers’ attention, you know, “Look! Alice Cooper’s great! Just give me five minutes!” [Laughter] And so it was that I was fairly well-prepared to create that album. I did not have the kind of time and attention that Erik Jacobsen and I or Paul Rothschild and I would apply to our projects, but that was because they were already caught with their pants down. They had an artist who they were practically ready to release, and suddenly he’s got the biggest 45 in the country if we can only get it out there. The television show spawns the much bigger sales.
As the 1980s and 1990s came along and the recognition for what you’d done in the 1960s started to become more apparent—you alluded earlier to how you’d have to wait 15 years for some of these compliments—but to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or be able to induct Zal into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame—what was that validation like for you?
I’m delighted Zal could get some of that recognition and it was delightful to do it in his home country as well. As to whether Zally got anything like the recognition he still deserves, no. No. [Laughter] No, he can’t have that one. No. People just like forget how guitar-istic the records we were making—however we managed to make it vary from tune to tune—that double fingerpicking thing that came out of it. Fingerpicking with anyone else is usually horrible. Two fingerpickers can really take the groove out of a thing, but Steven noticed it immediately. He said very early when we were in sessions, “I don’t understand it. It’s like one thing when you guys play that way together.” So that was a delicious aspect of working with Yanovsky.
To be able to return to jug band roots at this point in your career—and I assume you don’t have to rewrite lyrics at this point because they’re too risqué or anything—but to be able to come full circle like that and still do what you’d loved originally, what does that mean to you?
I’m delighted that my physiognomy is permitting me to do that. I’m very grateful is all.
It’s interesting. Yesterday as I was driving home, “Give Us a Break” came up on shuffle, and I sat there listening to it and thought, “God, it came out in 1974, but it sums everything up right now.” Did you ever envision that things you wrote would still be relevant almost 50 years down the line?
[Laughter] We were always trying really intensely for the next two months. That was our measure. If it got to Billboard, a couple months on the charts, “Thank you, lord.” “Give Us a Break” was an odd one for me, because I had no rep as a politically conscious songwriter. I’d never written anything like that. But it was just, “Wow.” And what we’re doing now dwarfs where we were then. Or I should say the trouble we’re in now dwarfs the trouble we were in then.
Well at least we can still put the song on.
Thank you for that. I appreciate you letting me know.
Upcoming John Sebastian tour dates:
March 7 // Largo Cultural Center // Largo, FL
March 8 // Crest Theater // Delray Beach, FL
March 10 // BIG Arts // Sanibel, FL
March 13, 14 // Theatre Zone // Naples, FL
March 24 // Bull Run // Shirley, MA
March 25 // Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts // Patchogue, NY
March 26 // Daryl’s House // Pawling, NY
April 7 // The Dakota // Minneapolis, MN
April 8 // City Hall and Auditorium // Waupun, WI
April 9 // Space // Evanston, IL
April 10 // Park Theatre // Holland, MI
Check out John’s answers to our Five Questions here.