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Interview: John Sebastian on touring, jug bands, Kotter, and Dylan

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What better way to celebrate Thanksgivikkah eve than by getting a phone call from legendary singer-songwriter-musician John Sebastian.

I could have spoken to Sebastian for hours. He was in the Lovin’ Spoonful, and he played Woodstock. He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall Of Fame as well. You know his songs: “Do You Believe In Magic?”, “Daydream,” “She’s A Lady,” “I Had A Dream,” “Nashville Cats,” “Summer In The City,” “You’re A Big Boy Now,” and others too numerous to list here. He’s played with everyone from Donovan and NRBQ to The Doors and The Who. David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash all played on his debut solo album before they were even an official band, and he played harmonica on the title track on the 1970 CSNY album, “Déjà Vu."

However, I decided to focus on a just a few specific topics, as much of the above information has been covered elsewhere.

First of all, his biggest solo hit, “Welcome Back,” the title song from the 1970s sitcom, “Welcome Back, Kotter” (featuring a young John Travolta), can now be heard in a new TV ad for Monk Fruit In The Raw. I asked Sebastian how something like this would come about. When answering, his voice, like his songs, is full of wonder and intonation, and frequently punctuated with laughter.

“Usually it comes through in a very straightforward way. A company or an advertising agent calls and says, ‘We’re interested in this,’ and they mainly talk with my publisher, not to me. And as it gets OK’d, at that point, usually, I get a call to ask, ‘Is this, or that, OK?’ It is actually a very nice gesture the publisher makes that he technically doesn’t have to make. I’ve turned down ... a lot of money when it wasn’t the right client. This (product) is terrific.”

I remembered that the program was originally titled “Kotter,” but was changed when Sebastian was hired to write the theme song.

“You have it right! I asked them to please not make me write a song of that title, because the only thing rhyming I could think of was ‘otter’! It doesn’t make a great pop song. The main thing I had to impress on the group was that I thought of the song, oddly, as a thing that might transcend the television show. This was not a normal thought in those days. It was one of my biggest hits, but just to keep me humble, I got beat out by (Rick Dees' novelty hit) ‘Disco Duck.’”

Sebastian is currently on tour, playing the Bull Run in Shirley, Massachusetts, this Friday, with more dates scheduled on the east coast later this year. (See below.)

“I'm touring, but I’m not tearing up the turf or anything,” he told me. When I mentioned I’d try to rush out the article in order to promote the Bull Run show, he said, “Maybe we should make mention of what what the hell these people are going to see when they come to see me. Not a bad idea! So, here’s what’s going on.

“I, in all of this time, have now begun to really center on playing as a soloist. It as a very unusual thing to have this opportunity to play with Paul Rishell and Annie Raines on the bill, whose vocal and instrumental expertise will astonish you. (See the embedded video clip.) My job here is to try to get around to tunes that folks are expecting to hear, and also to include what we really had been doing for about 15 years now. It was also to pay homage to the music that brought up into this funny obsession.

“And where we all did end up was chasin' Gus Cannon's ghost, and just trying to capture that jug band moment. God knows why we decided to do it?” he asked himself, letting out a big laugh. “I guess it was like an antidote to what was happening as pop music was being absorbed by ... um ... whatever ...”

The bottom line, I ventured? “Yeah ... yeah ... “ he replied, with his voice trailing off.

“Paul and Annie have been involved over the years in my jug band that they participated in. Occasionally, we get these chances to get together and do kind of a jug band finale to our various shows we do together. The way it usually plays out is, I spend a little time getting the Spoonful catalogue out for the folks that came to see that, then Paul and Annie come out and show what a cool little blues duo they are, and then we get together and play pretty much from a set list that started in 1993."

I asked if he spent time speaking with his fans after the show. “I do. I hang around, and sign old vinyl, and sell CDs, and yeah, have a jolly good time.” Some tickets are still available. “My audience is mostly procrastinators! They will mostly wait and go, ‘Look, Daisy, we could go see John tonight!’”

While I had Sebastian on the line, I couldn’t help but ask a couple of question about playing with Bob Dylan in the early-to-mid 1960s. However, he told me, “ I don’t know all that much about Dylan, had very limited access over the years, and don’t want to the portrayed as someone who is going to tell you about Dylan.” As it happens, he doesn’t really remember the specifics of the January, 1965, “Bringing It All Back Home” session on, anyway. When I told him I’d emphasize that, he laughed and said, “That’s a better lead story: ‘Sebastian doesn’t remember!’”

This, however, is what he did share with me:

“You know, to this day, (Lovin’ Spoonful bassist) Steve Boone and I puzzle over who might have been on that album. Because Dylanology is a real thing, people actually do ponder this (stuff)! The fact is, at that point, before that extreme high visibility, Bob and I were friends, back in the Gerde’s Folk City days, and I think he kind of invited me to those sessions, to explore how I might do. And, in fact, he did later ask me if I wanted to come along on some adventure or another and play bass. It was before the excitement of The Band, and all of that. But it was a thing that became a kind of a subject of discussion and dispute among Dylanologists, and Steve Boone and I, who were both at that session, find ourselves totally puzzled as to whether which, or the other, or any of us were on the particular sides that are disputed or described.

“The way that it went down on that session was ... Bob said, 'Oh, here’s this, why don’t you play bass?' Fine, I play bass. Then we do a cut, then Boone walks in, and I immediately tell Bob, ‘Wait! Now we have a real bass player! So why don’t you let Steve play it?’ So, I believe Steve played one time through. And then we’re all standing around, then Harvey Brooks, a prominent session guy, shows up, and both Steve and I go, ‘Jeez, now you’ve got like a triple session guy! We’re not going to stand in your way!’ I believe Harvey, who I frequently played with in later days, did a few takes.

“So I really don’t know, and that’s from the bottom of my heart. It has been questioned a lot of different times.”

I also mentioned that I interviewed photographer-musician John Byrne Cooke, and he spoke about a New England road trip they all took in the spring of 1964.

“We did have a week or so where I had the opportunity to see him play in his really exciting, first burst onto the scene, mostly colleges, and he brought me to tears every night that I saw it. I saw it every night, and the same thing happened. So that was a perfect moment. I thank him for that.”

John Sebastian’s currently scheduled tour dates:

2013

2014

  • March 7
  • Atlanta, GA
  • Unity North Church
  • March 8
  • Holly Springs, NC
  • Cultural Centre
  • April 12
  • Pomeroy, OH
  • Fur Peace Ranch

Keep up with Bob Dylan Examiner news. Just click on Subscribe above, or follow @DylanExaminer on Twitter. Harold Lepidus also writes the Performing Arts column for Examiner.com. Thanks for your support.

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