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Payoff Time for John Sebastian : Pop music: The former Lovin' Spoonful leader, at the Coach House tonight, hasn't had a record since 1976, but not for want of trying.

April 02, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like another fellow who lived in the Catskills, Rip van Winkle, John Sebastian knows what it means to be away for a long time. Until his new album, "Tar Beach," came out in February, the former singer and main songwriter of the Lovin' Spoonful had gone 17 years without releasing a record.

In Washington Irving's tale, Rip indulged in an evening of bowling and brews with a gang of dwarfs, tried to sleep it off and woke up 20 years later to find everything changed.

As he tells his own story, Sebastian casts record executives with small imaginations in place of the dwarfs. The affable singer, who will front a band at the Coach House tonight, says that he spent the 1980s and early '90s fruitlessly trying to persuade major labels that he shouldn't have to endlessly reiterate the bright, breezy signature mood of his lucrative mid-'60s heyday with the Lovin' Spoonful.

"Every one of the songs (on 'Tar Beach') has been on every (record company) desk in New York City. It's not for want of trying," Sebastian said of the long gap that followed his 1976 album, "Welcome Back."

Speaking over the phone recently from his home in Woodstock, N.Y., Sebastian recalled some of the "pathetic stuff" he heard from record companies that turned down what proved to be a strong batch of songs: " 'Oh, gee, couldn't you do anything a little more cheery and Spoonful-ly?' Record executives by and large are so bereft of imagination, it's really scary."

Sebastian didn't vanish during that fallow recording period. He wrote songs for films, children's programs and other commissioned projects. He toured regularly as a solo act, playing to fans who enjoyed his renditions of hits from the Lovin' Spoonful archive but who also were open to the new songs that finally have emerged on "Tar Beach."

While the new album glows with Sebastian's customary warmth and bonhomie, the mood darkens at least half the time as he sings about lost youth, relationships in jeopardy, corrupt political manipulators or characters falling into an existential big chill of isolation and depression.

The inventive folk-pop and folk-rock of the Lovin' Spoonful was almost irrepressibly optimistic and bright. Such hits as "Do You Believe in Magic" and "Daydream" celebrated the joys of making music and the exhilaration of venturing youthful gambits in the game of love. The biggest problem in those days seemed to be how to stay cool amid the steaming urban heat of "Summer in the City."

"We were in a kind of ecstatic state," he said of his frame of mind during the Spoonful's hit-making streak from 1965-67. "It was definitely a wonderful place to be writing from. But I don't think you could sustain it through a lifetime.

"I've lived more, and I've been living a much more real life," he said. "How are you gonna live to be 49, in a modern world, with the agenda set for you by the American record industry, and not be a little (mad)? John isn't all that goddamn cheery any more."

These days, though, Sebastian is upbeat. "Tar Beach" finally emerged on Shanachie Records, a small, New Jersey-based independent label known for its traditional folk, reggae and African pop releases.

"I wasn't expecting anything," he said. "I was thinking a certain number of people who have heard the songs in my touring the last 10 years are going to say, 'Hey, great, I can finally get a recording of 'Tar Beach' or 'Don't You Run With Him'--songs I'd been playing for a long time.

"This album has sold more records than was expected, and it has been rather more well-received than major record companies might have anticipated. It's a wonderful surprise," he said. "I guess we had to wait until the world got a little more unplugged."

Sebastian is looking forward to his first round of touring with a band since 1976, when "Welcome Back," his schmaltzy theme song for the television show, 'Welcome Back, Kotter," was a No. 1 hit.

He recruited guitarist Jim Vivino and drummer James Wormworth from the Little Big Band, a New York City blues band Sebastian has been sitting in with on a weekly basis for a few years. Also on hand is Fritz Richmond, one of Sebastian's associates from the Greenwich Village folk boom of the early '60s, on jug and washtub bass.

The four have been working on a new recording project slanted toward the old-time jug band music that Sebastian played before hitting it big as a folk-rocker. Before the Lovin' Spoonful emerged in 1965, Sebastian made his recording debut in 1964 with the Even Dozen Jug Band.

*

None of the musicians who got caught up in the early-'60s folk boom was better situated than Sebastian to become immersed in it. His father, also named John, was a noted classical harmonica player who was open to a wide variety of music. While the elder Sebastian didn't teach his son to play the harmonica (one of the many instruments Sebastian has played well over the years), he did help introduce him to some of his early influences. The family lived in Greenwich Village, the hub of the folk movement.

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