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John Sebastian Looks Back as Lovin’ Spoonful Semi-Reforms: ‘We Weren’t Matinee Idols’

As the Spoonful's surviving members play together for the first time in 20 years at a charity tribute this weekend, Sebastian recalls their blues roots and controversies and discusses the Woodstock 50 debacle.

Is it wrong to invoke a John Sebastian solo tune — “Welcome Back” — to welcome back the Lovin’ Spoonful this weekend, at a Los Angeles show, for the first time in decades? It is wrong, in Sebastian’s mind, to think of it as a reunion show, with one of the key members long since deceased, and a rotation of 40 other singers and musicians on stage at Saturday night’s Spoonful tribute show at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. But it is historic as only the third time Sebastian has played with the surviving original members — Steve Boone and Joe Butler — since he left the group at the end of 1967, and the first such occasion since they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 20 years ago.

You would think that the lack of reunions over the years might mean that Sebastian is the kind of anti-nostalgist who had to be dragged in begrudgingly. But he repeatedly pronounces himself “delighted” about the tribute, acknowledging that, as ubiquitous as songs like “Do You Believe in Magic” can be on oldies radio (and in synch licensing), the group never really got the respect it was due. That’s partly down to a blaze of glory that had the Spoonful only releasing four albums with Sebastian at the fore in a period of three years (1965-67). That’s not unlike the very brief run of Buffalo Springfield, which was the recipient of a similarly elaborate tribute two years ago from the same host organization, Wild Honey, for the same charity, the Autism Think Tank. Richie Furay had the time of his life when he came out then to make a guest appearance at the Springfield tribute, and Sebastian is giddy with excitement to hear the same lavish recreations of his catalog, as well as sit in on them quite a bit.

Variety got in touch with Sebastian before he got on the plane to come out for Saturday’s Alex show (which is sold out). Among the topics: how happy it’s made him later in life to hear about the Spoonful’s influence on the Beatles and Eric Clapton, last year’s Woodstock 50 debacle, and why we will never see a Lovin’ Spoonful reunion tour.

VARIETY: How are you feeling about the tribute happening in L.A. this weekend?

SEBASTIAN: You know, the Spoonful are the band that does not get this kind of recognition. We delight in this moment. Lest we understate it, we are delighted. I’ve had situations where people will play four or five of the biggest hits, and we love that. But this is so detailed, and they’re going into the deep catalog.

How deep? Typically When Wild Honey does these shows, original members that come and participate are shocked that songs are being played that probably no one on earth has played live in 30, 40 or 50 years.

You got it. How long a list would you like? It’s a 30-song list — let me just try it out on you, okay? “Fishin’ Blues.” “Warm Baby.” “You Baby.” “Welcome Back.” “Butchie’s Tune.” “Jug Band Music.” “Lovin’ You.” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” “Summer in the City.” “Full Measure.” “Coconut Grove.” “Money.” “How Have You Been My Darling Children.” “Younger Generation.” “Didn’t Wanna Have to Do It. “Younger Girl.” “Other Side of This Life.” “Night Owl Blues.” “Stories We Could Tell.” “4 Eyes.” “Blues in the Bottle.” “She is Still a Mystery.” “Six O’Clock.” “Lonely.” “Darling Be Home Soon.” “Daydream. “Rain on the Roof.” “Nashville Cats.” “Never Going Back.” “Darlin’ Companion.” “You’re a Big Boy Now.” “Pow!” “There She Is.” “It’s Not Time Now.” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice.” “Do You Believe in Magic.” [Laughs.] All of us are gobsmacked, as they say across the pond.

It’s for a good cause, so is that part of what helps get you out there to finally play with the guys again?

Oh, absolutely. And the fact that it’s for fun, right? It isn’t like, “Oh, let’s get back together and have a big, money-packed reunion.” This was a terrific situation and it came about very casually. And as I said on my website: I had a kid call me and say, “I live in Wyoming. I’m getting on a train so that I can be in Glendale to see the reunion of the Lovin’ Spoonful.” And I said, “You know, you gotta calm down about this.” Because any reunion of the Lovin’ Spoonful without Zalman Yanovsky (who died in 2002) is more of a get-together. It’s casual. And I also explained to him that these are 40 studio musicians who are going to be playing this material. And you know, Steven (Boone) and I will certainly have a little bump here and there and do a thing. And I know Joe (Butler), man, he sings all of those songs in the original keys, which I haven’t been able to do for 30 years. So it’s great. But it isn’t “Oh, good, because next week we’re going to really get going” or anything.

Are you participating in the show very much? Will the autoharp be there?

It’s a goodly amount. When autoharps come around, I play ‘em. When harmonicas come around, I play ‘em. And that sort of simple foundation fingerpicking stuff that I used to do underneath Zal Yanovsky, that’s when I have my job with my Les Paul. So there’s definitely stuff to do. It isn’t going to be like, “Oh, he comes up for two tunes – now get outta here.” … So, no, not going to miss the autoharp. I even pre-tuned ‘em so that they only need about an hour’s worth of (re-tuning). [Laughs.] They’re my enemies, in this weird weather, and have been since ’64. They’re challenging.

I was just playing the first Lovin’ Spoonful album for someone, and when the track list went right from “Fishin’ Blues” into “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?,” they asked me if it was still the same band. 

That’s what we wanted! More than anything, that is what we wanted. We wanted to be a band that you couldn’t tell the follow-up single was a follow-up single. Because of course back when we were shooting at the charts, when somebody would have a hit, if it was “Wooly Bully” this time, it’s going to be “Maddy Hatty” the next time — they’re going to make sure it’s the same tune. I don’t know why we got it in our heads that this could be a thing that we were different about.” But I’m really glad to hear that all these years later, people still react, like, “What was the band before this?”

You were into jug-band music and the blues, but also country, with your song “Nashville Cats.” Sometimes people want to give Gram Parsons all the credit for country in rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s, but the Lovin’ Spoonful had its moments too. There was an exhibit about the late ’60s wave of country-rock crossover at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum a few years ago, and they called it “Nashville Cats” — which, even if you didn’t originate the term, they borrowed from your song.

Well, in fact, there is a piece of footage that plays in that exhibit that you’re talking about, in which three of those serious players all said, yes, the song came first. … Somebody from 16 magazine once asked Zally what the Spoonful sounded like. And he said, “Well, we’re trying to make it sound kinda like Elmore James and the Buckaroos.” [Laughs.] I just loved that. I said, “I want to hear that!”

In terms of your influence at the time on your contemporaries, Paul McCartney has acknowledged that he considered “Good Day Sunshine” sort of a Lovin’ Spoonful knockoff.

That was so sweet. I still want to give him a big Italian pinch on the cheek. That was so great, especially to say it years later. There’s been a couple of people who just came up with sentences that I said, ‘God, I wish I could have heard that back then.” One of them was Eric Clapton, who said about I forget which tune, “Oh, totally ripped off from ‘Summer in the City.’” [Clapton wrote in his memoir that “Tales of Brave Ulyesses” was inspired by the Spoonful song.] Oh, and Dave Davies (of the Kinks) was actually quoted as saying, “Well, actually, you know, English bands were more interested in the Spoonful than the Beatles.” It’s like, can we quote you on that?

Davies said “the Lovin’ Spoonful was one of the more underrated American bands.” Now, everybody knows the name of the group and can probably list several hits. But is there a sense in which you feel like you were still underrated or didn’t get your due, even though everybody even now has some kind of sense of the group?

Okay. It was very simple: We were trying something that was a little bit more ambitious than one flavor of pop music.

But, you know, I hate to get you to include the worst part of the Lovin’ Spoonful that everybody jumps right to, which was this bust that happened. But I do have to mention it, because American reporters of the era (blew it up), in this sort of pre-gonzo era, when everybody’s really interested in being part of the counterculture. And so when some guys get busted, and it looks like they turned the dealer in: “Oh, boy. Now we can write all those articles,” which you probably have turned up , saying, “Groupies, don’t f— the Lovin’ Spoonful.” [It was reported in 1967 that ads were taken out in the Los Angeles Free Press “urging people not to buy Spoonful records and not to attend their concerts and, to the girls, not to ball them.”] Well, they weren’t f—ing us before! So why would they do it now? [Laughs.] You know, we weren’t matinee idols, it was clear!

So that really was so misunderstood, because when you join a band, it’s a blood oath. And you do what it takes to keep the band going. And so when the police totally illegally… In modern times, the case would be thrown out, completely. They had a screaming woman call. They’re driving around; they see two longhaired guys in a rental car. They stop them and they’ve just bought an ounce of pot. Everything grew out of that — an ounce of pot that you can now buy around the corner in California. But none of the reporters ever explored it to say, “Oh, right, so the Lovin’ Spoonful wouldn’t have been poof. Zally wouldn’t have had to go back to Canada. Stephen wouldn’t have had some kind of penalty that he had to live out. And the Spoonful wouldn’t be gone.” I’m sad that I was never involved in this choice. I found out about all of this in Los Angeles when it all happened in San Francisco and they had already cast their die and said, “Okay, we’ll do what has to be done not to go to jail.” … None of that was ever mentioned. All of these reporters were so glad to have: “Oh, we can really explain what cool guys we are by trashing the Lovin’ Spoonful.” So, that is actually the powers-that-be at Rolling Stone, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

You didn’t feel respected when you were inducted into the Hall of Fame?

You should have seen what short shrift the Lovin’ Spoonful were given. Get up there, sing a song. “Oh, our bass drum pedal wasn’t connected. Could we do it again?” “No, no. We’ll fix it in the mix.” I mean, there was stuff that really was helping to reinforce the obscurity of the Lovin’ Spoonful. When a guy’s bass drum pedal flies off, and he’s trying, he’s gesturing, pointing to it, trying to say, “Come help me.” Nobody came.

There have been so few examples of you guys playing together, and that was the last time, at your induction 20 years ago. The only other time was (to film a cameo in the 1980 Paul Simon film) “One Trick Pony,” which was kind of an odd reason to get back together.

I know. And by the way, we played so good that at the end of it, we said, “Oh, man, we should (get) this (tape) and see if we can get a live album or something.” At the end of it, they said, “Oh, well, actually, we’re saving tape now because we’ve got some other project we’ve got to do later.” And so they hadn’t even recorded it. Yeah, Spoonful gets together, 15, 20 years later, and… [Laughs.] Now, these are the jokes, and in some ways, it’s good. It keeps me humble. It’s like going to visit Woodstock and saying, “Oh look, they’ve got a plaque up for all of us!” I look and they’ve misspelled my name. … Go see it. “John SAbastian.”

There have to be requests that come in every year for you guys to play together. If you wanted to, you could be on package tours or playing midsize halls as a headliner, probably. So what keeps you from accepting those offers?

Okay. There’s two things, primarily. Joe has had to have some back surgery. He’s gonna have some elaborate knee work, and the knee is the one that hits the bass drum. So he can’t play a kit. He just can’t. And the Lovin’ Spoonful, whatever reincarnation it is, it’s the typical kind of three lonely 30-pluses and the old guys. And so that’s what you’d get when you ask for the Lovin’ Spoonful nowadays.

But really the core of it is: No Zal. I mean, Zal was the entire flavor. As our old club owners said, “John, you’ve got to stop looking at your feet. You gotta look up.” Meanwhile, Yanovsky’s running all over the stage, crossing his eyes and sticking his tongue out. Even Clapton said it. He goes, “Man, he plays as good as me, and he’s sticking his tongue out, making faces!” There’s a sweet moment actually at the end of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, where we all play “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved By You.” And I’ve got a break on harmonica, and Zal’s got a break on guitar, and Clapton is up there, so we assume he’s going to play. So the tune starts, and I play a verse, and Zally plays a verse, and the camera goes to Clapton. And Clapton has both hands dropped at his sides. What he was showing his audience was, “It’s Yanovsky that’s playing.” I loved it. And I just said, that is one cool guy.

Any lingering thoughts about how Woodstock 50 went down, or didn’t, last year? [Sebastian played at the original gathering in 1969, as a solo artist, and had been booked to play the 50th anniversary festival.]

I’m so glad that that’s over! [Laughs.] It created this artificial excitement, which I was unfortunately the recipient of. All of these various foreign journalists were anxious to talk about the Woodstock festival, and meanwhile, I’m watching it disintegrate, going, “This isn’t going to happen.” So it was very hard to do publicity for! But man,  this last summer was a very busy summer for me. We had a good 40, 50 dates. You may or may not know this, but my life is one guy, one guitar. I go and I play all these tunes, and the only reason they sound half decent is that I was on the original records and know the parts.

You still have jug band or blues band things that you do on the side, though, right?

I do have this wonderful opportunity to play occasionally with Jimmy Vivino and James Wormworth and Mike Merritt — essentially the Conan (O’Brien) band — and we still get together at Levon Helms’ (former house in Woodstock, where Sebastian still lives) occasionally. And I also am playing a little bit with Johnny Nicholas, who’s a wonderful kind of swampy blues man. He plays with Cindy Cashdollar and I, and we’re going to do some shows this summer. That’s a kind of a release from my job of, like, “Here, play at least 20 Lovin’ Spoonful tunes.”

You’ve made albums with David Grisman and formed new jug bands and done so many rootsy things that are not the career path of someone who is mining nostalgia or trying to make the biggest buck possible. There’s an integrity to how you’ve pursued music that is not a given for everybody of your era and situation.

[Laughs.] I would have loved to be able to do some of this intentionally. But I mean, even the jug band stuff, it happened because it happened. I’d been working with Jimmy and James, and then along comes Yank Rachell (the elder bluesman, who died in 1997). I find out from another guitarist he’s alive, and that sent us spinning. We grabbed Fritz Richmond, and that was a jug band for five, six years. But  it was circumstance. It wasn’t “Now I’m going to make this very cool move.” Jimmy sad, “I never heard Sebastian so excited as when he called me to say, ‘Guess who’s alive?’” This was Yank Rachell. Just to be able to go to Indianapolis and make a record with him, and go back to Brownsville, Tennessee — oh, man, we had fun with that man.

You were covering blues tunes right at the start of the Lovin’ Spoonful, so you had some sense of music that lasts the ages. But you were also writing songs like “Younger Girl” or “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind,” about the kind of romantic issues that are very peculiar to the youthful, that you probably didn’t imagine singing in five years, let alone the 2020s.

I do make a joke, because I do “Younger Girl” sometimes in my set, and they clap; they really enjoy the tune. And after the clapping dies down, I say, “And you know, how could I have ever known all those years ago that I’d be playing that tune long enough for it to be creepy.”

But now the phrase “younger girls” covers a very wide demographic, for you.

They’re all younger, yeah! [Laughs.]

Going back to this weekend’s show… given all the requests that you must get for Lovin’ Spoonful-related things with the other guys, did you have any hesitation about it?

You know, I did have an initial skepticism. And then eventually I got filled in. I didn’t know that they were talking about an autism benefit and all of these things that make everything really righteous. They notified me to say, “We’re doing this. We’d love to have you. And you could even just play ‘Night Owl Blues’ or something for us, and we’d be happy.” And I said, “I will come. I will play ‘Night Owl Blues.’ And you know, I know a lot of these (other) parts.” The guy laughed and said, “Well, how about autoharp?” And I said, “I can do.”

And then this thing came up of playing with (legendary backup vocalist) Claudia Linnear, who I’ve known since 1970, and I was going, “I would kill to play with this woman.” And so we’re working on “You Baby,” which was originally a Ronettes tune. I actually encouraged them to go more towards Phil Spector than the Lovin’ Spoonful on this, because they’ve got 40 people. Don’t waste it! [Among some of the others on the lineup: Micky Dolenz, Marshall Crenshaw, Dave Alvin, Moby Grape’s Peter Lewis, Carnie Wilson, Iain Matthews, the Three O’Clock and too many to mention.]

I’ve already started bugging Elliot Easton (of the Cars, another guest at the tribute), going, “Man, I know you’re like this ironic new wave-o kind of a band and everything, but I know that you’re a finger-picker, because I’ve seen you at Matty Umanov’s guitar shop (in New York, now closed), so I’ve got your number.” He’s going to give me an opportunity to play a few of those sort of two-fingerpicking, me-and-Yanovsky kind of things. You know, that was another thing that was unique about the band: we both played with thumb picks. Now, we used flat picks to (play) that autoharp and a couple other things, but essentially one of the biggest differences was two finger-pickers, because we had both been folk accompanists. And that was part of our dream.

For rehearsals, I’m going to try to just sit around for every minute, even when it isn’t required. Because obviously this is not something that dumps in my lap every day. It’s delightful.

 

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