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John Sebastian Interview
By Lewis Shiner
The following interview was recorded on 8 January 2012 as part of the research for my novel in progress, Outside the Gates of Eden, which deals, in part, with the music industry in the 1960s. John Sebastian rose to prominence as lead singer and songwriter of the Lovin' Spoonful in the 1960s, had great success as a solo artist in the '70s, and continues to perform today with various aggregations of musicians.
I want to start out by just mentioning a few names and getting your thoughts on them. The first is Erik Jacobsen.
Just a really interesting character who became probably my best friend in about '62 or '3, and somehow our aims were so parallel that we were already working with each for quite a while before I even realized it was a pattern. I was doing a lot of sessions all over the place and Erik and I were kind of thinking about what would become the Lovin' Spoonful.
What was it like working in the studio with him?
Erik is a very level-headed, thoughtful producer. And he is also a very instinctive producer. He is very fast to revise what he thought we were doing if something else more obviously terrific shows up.
Was he hands-on in the studio: "Play this, don't play that...?"
Absolutely. I felt like Erik, also, just as a collaborator, was a fifth member of the Spoonful, because the idea was very much in play as he and I started futzing around with records. That energy was sort of supplanted by Zally. And Zally and I had a tremendously, kind of, co-founder feeling about the Spoonful as well. And were constantly talking to each other about how one style of music could play into another and this was the same conversation I'd been having--"well, why not put a sitar on a blues tune?"--with Erik Jacobsen.
Erik didn't want to play in the band?
I think that it was the fact that he was concentrating on producing. There was never a question about him being a player in the band. He very definitely wanted to be the producer.
"Do You Believe in Magic" sounds like no other song I've ever heard, even today.
Turned down by every major label in New York City. And Albany.
I'd say that part of it is Erik's skills in layering, which at that time, as you know, were in the form of tape generations. There was also a way that we were discovering to kind of surrender to it and make it work for you. So, for example, very often--and it would come from either Erik and I or Zally, or any combination, mostly, of those three components--where we would say, "Okay, we want this autoharp to sound bigger than it really is," so my contribution was, okay, we put a ukulele contact mike on the back and it'll sound huge.
So the first time you electrified the autoharp was in the studio?
Well, it was in the rehearsal room before we went in the studio. And then we realized that in order to get it more bottom end, we would need to underdub a piano, and that's what we did. Actually Jerry Yester, who took the place of Zal, contributed this very rudimentary piano part that I had kind of been playing when I was writing the song on the piano. And then the same thing happened with, like the guitar part on "You Didn't Have To Be So Nice." Well, we want this thing to be this chiming, clanging, guitar--well, what if we underdubbed tubular bells. So we did. And it was the same idea, where the recording of the chimes, you put that on first and now, when you're flipping from track to track, you put the guitar in the foreground and the chimes slightly back, and now you have a chiming guitar that is at least a little harder to identify as an electric guitar.
Any one of the three of you might come up with these brainstorms?
Were you always this good on guitar?
The first time I heard Zal was at Cass Elliot's house. Cass was forever the Jewish matchmaker, she was matching up boys to play in bands like a house afire. And she had us nailed as, "Oh, these guys have to work together." So I call her up after this evening of playing and I say, "That is the most all over the place guitar player I ever heard. He's thinking about Floyd Cramer and Elmore James all at the same time." She said, "You scared him because you play so cleanly." Well, that became a kind of a guide point for us. And years later Zally said, "Oh, he comes in with the 2x4s and frames it up, and then I come in and throw flowers."
Can you talk about some of Zal's other non-guitar influences?
Huey "Piano" Smith. Non-guitar players...Well, we had several occasions where he would imitate French Horns, because we always wanted to be the Lonely Surfer, we wanted to be Jack Nitzsche. He evolved this technique of taking all the treble off the guitar, and then playing it through an amp that had the treble quite turned up along with the bass, and the result was this French horn-y sound. I don't know if he was aiming for anything but just the clarion call for the dogs [imitates horn call for foxhunt]. Like in "Rain on the Roof."
Jan Carl was still in the band through early 1965.
How did the decision come about to replace him?
You know, Erik was the most vociferous advocate of Joe. The good reasons were that he had played with Stephen and that they already knew what to expect from each other. That was a good thing. And the other plus was that Joe had some talents as a singer. And Erik was very insistent that we were going to need another voice. In fact Zally and I had a kind of a cool sound together, but it really was a great addition to those early records to have this kind of choirboy voice in the background. It was a real asset. Our reservations at the time were more related to the fact that he couldn't play in very syncopated way. He was very good as a kind of an athletic drummer. Had tremendous forward motion. That was good.
The next name is Michael Lang.
[laughs] Quite an amazing character, who I'm happily still a very good friend of. Michael and I, I think, may have met in Miami, during his time there as a sometimes club owner, head shop owner, he was all over the place down there. To this day, his composure during the critical flame-out moments of Woodstock I think saved a lot of lives. I really do.
My sense of him is that he's an idealist, not in it for the money.
What's he like as a person?
You know, I don't know if I have much insight on that end of him, because our relationship has been mostly professional. We are frequently grouped together for various Woodstock retrospective events. We tend to cluster when we are together. I don't know that I know anything besides the fact that he has a fully operational family, and does the dad job when it's called upon, and has generally always been a good guy.
Next is Hugh Romney.
What a wonderful character. What a great guy. I go back to when he was billed as such--
Doing spoken word/comedy...
That's right, at the Gaslight very often. And actually when his Wavy Gravy incarnation came about, I was also having a very tie dyed moment in a small, somewhat communal property called the Farm, in Burbank, right as you go down the hill to all the television studios. So I met Hugh in that context several times, and then again at Woodstock--again, this was a case of a guy whose conduct and whose instinct for communal living-slash-eating-slash-surviving was so right on. He was the guy who realized, we gotta send Volkswagen buses full of rice back to this site. We're into something really huge.
He broadcast a vibe that set the tone for the whole thing.
What was he like in his village days? It's so hard to imagine him performing in a coat and tie.
Well, yeah, and I think that's not that uncommon, if you think about it--Dick Gregory and George Carlin and all of those people, certainly Cosby were wearing ties and jackets.
His shtick was not just comedy, right?
You know, I don't know that I'm that good a measurer of that, because although he would be finishing up sets and things...I was at that time obsessed with several other people that were playing the exact same room so I would most likely be in a teeny dressing room, trying to coax thumbpicking out of John Hurt or get a harmonica lesson from Doc Watson rather than go out and see what was often the opening act, the comedian. We're separated by a few years. He was part of a, really, a hipper clique.
And the last name is Tim Hardin.
Who Erik and I used to refer to as "Poor Tim." We loved him. He was an incredible character, and almost at the exact moment we were meeting him, he was getting so spun out by heroin that it was occasionally comical, but often really difficult because, in many cases, we were trying to do the best with him and for him that could be done.
In spite of himself.
You used to play together--Tim, you, Fred Neil--
No, Freddy and Timmy would not play together routinely. No, the real tight pairing was Felix Pappilardi, myself, and Peter Childs, who is the guitarist with the sort of vibrato-y Gretsch on those first albums, Tear Down the Walls and Bleecker and MacDougal. And then Felix's successes more or less removed him, but I would still often get an opportunity to play with Peter Childs and Fred, or Timmy Hardin, but with Timmy it was a different grouping, Timmy was jazzier cats, Warren Bernhardt [piano], Buzzy Linhart [vibes].
[Felix, Peter, and me] was very often the combo when Paul Rothchild was the producer as well. Remember that those Freddy records were Paul Rothchild and Paul was maybe a more methodical producer. We used to make a lot of jokes about how many takes Erik would do of a given tune, but then when I got with Paul Rothchild, I went, "Ha ha, this is chickenfeed, this guy really goes in for the detail." But he would splice it up to a point where you went, "Man, that thing really rips right along, there's no dead air. It just really has propulsion." That's very often what we were looking for.
Did Tim ever see you guys or socialize?
Oh yeah. Probably not in our traveling mode--you know, when the Spoonful got out of town, that was a very different game. It had completely different characteristics, it was beginning to get the influences of the Beatles so that people were screaming and stuff, which [laughs] never happened in the Village. Who cared? Timmy would see me in the sort of Greenwich Village context.
At the Night Owl?
At the Night Owl, yeah.
Weren't the crowds getting pretty wild at the Night Owl by the time the first single was out?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. But they'd clap after the tune. [Laughs]
Were you still playing the Night Owl by fall of '65?
I probably would have to look at a timetable to tell you.
You must have been on the road pretty steadily once the single started to break.
To change direction for a minute, are there any secrets of the harp you can share?
Well, you know, there's a combination of factors. One is, styles. And as they came in and out, people would imitate different people. But the harmonica is an instrument that invited amateur players. And so there are an awful lot of amateur players who do what they do very well, but didn't ever really advance.
One of my favorite terrible harmonica players! No, I do, I love his harmonica playing, and the way my father cracked up when I played him--my father couldn't stop laughing--he cried, he laughed so hard.
Speaking of your father, was there a lot of work for a classical harmonica player?
He raised a family solely on that work.
Recording as well as live?
How young were you when you started?
It would be hard to really know. They were already posing us together with harmonicas when I was still a blubbering baby, I mean like 9 months or something. I have a picture from Look magazine of Dad playing a harmonica to me, and I've got a great big 64 chromatic which I am totally ruining with baby spit--I now know. So, yeah, I did start very early. But as far as your question about what do harmonica players know, there was a point after listening to a Sonny Terry "Fox Chase," over and over on a--it was actually a silver acetate, they only had one side. And it was to me, one of the miracles of.... Part of what this is, of course, is understanding what they call cross-harp, which is playing the instrument in the dominant key instead of the tonic key that it is intended to be played in. So that was something that I got a grasp of, but then I think it was another two or three years where I really didn't know where I was going with it, but then all of a sudden I became able to bend it in the ways that I had heard Sonny do it. Remember, my dad and Sonny were friends-- I could approach Sonny at any time and introduce myself as my dad's son, and Sonny was incredibly gracious. I think he was reflecting good feelings that he'd gotten from my dad, and how completely not a snob my father was, so they could have a mutual admiration society.
I would have guessed Sonny as an influence--you guys sound alike.
I agree. And he's one of the few people who I really saw up close. And listened to night after night, too, because I was just haunting the Gaslight Café at that era--remember I lived four blocks from there. That was like, while I was still living with my parents, I lived four blocks from there.
The G. Pugliese alias on "Roadhouse Blues"--was that a reference to Osvaldo Pugliese, the tango composer?
No, that's from elsewhere. When my great-grandfather came from Italy he was Sebastiano Pugliese. And so I was born John Pugliese, and by 1950 my dad had changed his name formally, but before then, he of course was John Pugliese.
Pugliese is, I guess, a common name?
Apulia [Puglia in Italian] is a region, so, a lot of Italian names are just saying, "Louie, from down the block" or "Joey from next door."
Have you been in Woodstock pretty much since the '60s?
Not steadily, but I started visiting in '62. I was told years and years later--quite far into my mother's dementia, so I don't know quite whether it's accurate or not--but, I mentioned Opus 40, which is a land--how can I say this--it's land moving art. You've seen this, everything from guys who cut out parts of corn fields, to people who actually dig up things and alter the terrain, and the landscape. Well, this guy bought a slate quarry, and began slowly what started as a base for one of his sculptures, completely outgrew the original intent, and became like a 12, 14 acre [actually 6 acre] land creation that was quite fascinating, and Mom mentioned that she thought I was conceived there. So that was quite a surprise, especially seeing as I had found this, I thought, totally on my own. But Woodstock has always made sense...I was originally brought up by Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman and I had a feeling--I didn't know it at the time, but I had a feeling that maybe they were sort of subtly auditioning me as a somebody who would become part of Bob's unit. Because he did later ask for me to come along and play bass on a tour, but I was already involved with the Spoonful, so I ended up on the phone with Bob Dylan in a phone booth in deepest, darkest Long Island, turning down Bob Dylan for a job. After I hung up the phone I said, "You fuckin' idiot."
Actually I think you made the right decision.
I did, I did, but I couldn't have known it. So let's see, [my wife] Catherine and I, we began our friendship in Los Angeles, at the aforementioned Farm, and then as we became a couple, we did a tour across the country and then within a year we were sort of splitting our time between New York and LA--we had an apartment in town--and then, as more and more jobs resulted from--especially from--the Woodstock festival, I got an enormous amount of work in colleges. And so I was finding that I was driving the two hours to Woodstock and then the three hours to whatever part of Massachusetts I was heading for, and after a while we both began to say, "Well, gee, let's just stay at the Millstream Hotel. And then we'll sort of work our way out from there." Well, then Albert began to have people on the road who had a house, including Bob Dylan at one point. We ended up spending a winter at his house, while he was somewhere else. Then eventually Albert rented one of his outbuildings to us. See, Albert was a sort of speculative landowner as well as a manager, he was just figuring that this Woodstock idea was going to expand, and so he just kept buying little properties--whatever adjoined his house, and there'd be a little house on it, and if you knew how to cut wood, you could pretty much last the winter without too much expense, so we were doing those kind of things, and as our first son came along, Woodstock kind of was the go-to place for a better quality of life and rearing children. And so it has been part of my life--on and off--I'd say, starting in '62, by '76 I owned a house here. Since '76, this has steadily been our home base. Now, remember, I get to see other places more than most people. I'm not as anxious as some to have multiple houses.
Were you at the Woodstock festival for the full three days?
How did you get there?
I was informed by Paul Rothchild that something quite amazing was happening with this festival, that had started off as just a routine upper New York state festival. He said, "This is not to be missed." If I'm not mistaken, he did miss it. [Laughter] He was always a kind of a culture guru, and so he would always tell you what was really happening and what was going to happen and what the next thing that was going to happen in music [was], and in this case, in festivals. So. I went to the Albany airport--this, remember, is the days when airports were a much more casual affair. And I was actually walking toward what looked to me like a gate that would get me closer to Woodstock, to the festival, when I looked out on the tarmac and I saw a helicopter being loaded by an ex-roadie of the Lovin' Spoonful. Walter Gundy is his name, to this day. And I stood in front of this large window out onto the tarmac until he had turned towards me and I began to wave, and he realized that it was me, and indicated, "here," and he pointed towards what was access down to the tarmac from the building. So I go down on the tarmac and he's finishing loading up, and he says, "You're trying to get to Woodstock." I said, "That's right." He said, "This is your only chance." He said, "There is no access by car any more. It's packed. The road to the town is totally stopped. And there's no more flights, so get in." So that's what I did. And he was schlepping equipment for The Incredible String Band. So I came into Woodstock like it is in the movie, where you fly over it and see all the tents and the VW buses and the...and there was no grass, you could see no green grass. It was quite an amazing sight.
So you never went to the Holiday Inn at Liberty where they were putting up the performers?
No, I never did that. A couple of things happened. While we were still in the first day, I was already backstage just because I knew everybody back there. It wasn't really security like what's become an industry and I'm not talking about just post 9/11, I mean the whole industry of security for concerts really was hardly in place. It was very casual. So I was in and out of that area, and on one of my trips back I said, "Hey, you know out front you guys have a yellow Volkswagen bus tent," and they said, "Oh yeah, God, we've got the Incredible String Band's instruments in there, but we don't know like how that's going to do." And I said, "Well, look, instead of people walking in and out of that tent, put a cardboard box out front and put a sign up that says 'Put your shoes in here.' And then you'll see that the tent floor doesn't get muddy, and those instruments will be pretty okay." At which point Chip Monck turns to me and says, "You're in charge of the tent." And part of it was that I had been living in an identical Volkswagen bus tent in California, because it was a very easy--it was a thing that was at the Farm, and it was already up and I kind of needed a spot in Los Angeles--at the time I was recently divorced and so very kind of footloose, and moved into this Volkswagen bus tent, and so when this tent emerged at Woodstock, I guess that was another thing, various people knew that about me and said, "Well, you're the tent guy, you know how to do this," and so I kind of started supervising that little area.
There was a giant tipi that was the performer's green room, right?
Right, I wasn't spending any time in that, actually. Yeah, so, as I'm sure you've heard that part of the story, that they suddenly needed somebody who could play without electricity, and I was elected.
You were part of a direct line from Greenwich Village to Woodstock. It seems like the idealism of folk music was a major component of the festival.
Yes, I agree.
Do you think that was a deliberate statement on the part of the festival?
You have to remember that there wasn't that much else that was on the scene at the same time. I mean, he [Lang] wasn't really in touch with the blues community, and that was the only really neglected part of that, I'd say. But I do think that it really was what was on the scene at the time.
Do you see Woodstock as a kind of apex of 60s idealism?
Well, it represented that to a lot of people. Of course, as you know, it was also the dawn of the understanding on the part of what we could at that time easily describe as "the squares" to realize that this youth movement was the largest single economic incentive in the world, and after that, all of a sudden everybody was making roach clips and tie-dyed shirts and all of the accompanying paraphernalia, and now everybody who had a T-shirt thought that they were part of the same thing.
My own theory is that the end of everything was the election of Reagan in 1980.
Tell me about it. My father moved to Europe.
What were the '80s like for you? You were doing soundtracks for animation.
That was called being wildly out of fashion, but still being a musician, and, you know, my life had not revolved around star power, and so I had also had the experience of my father, and seeing how he dealt with his various periods of high visibility and low visibility, so yeah, I found that, okay, so here's a little niche, 'cause no matter how tough and cool and detached everybody is when it comes to songs, they still want 'em in movies, so I was finding that movie work and cartoon work was actually taking more of my time than my own kind of "what John thinks about every day."
Did you have your own projects you couldn't sell during those days?
What did you think of the MTV pop music of the time--Thomas Dolby, Duran Duran?
Loved Thomas Dolby. Fucking "Prisoner of the Rain Forest"--the coolest! No, that was the other thing, that I could sense that a lot of people thought that I would kind of not be for this or something, but I totally--you know, that period achieved some things that Zally and I had been trying so hard for. Zally kept saying, "No, the snare drum has to be lower--no, wait, we want it so sound more like a garbage can--no, let's try a garbage can and run it through a huge echo, let's get..." and it would just go on and on, and one of the by-products of all that is the backbeat on "Summer in the City," which was 8 floors of stairwell, a snare drum going through 8 floors of stairwell.
The Steve Lillywhite trick, but you beat him to it.
I guess, but actually that wasn't our trick, that was [Roy Hallee, engineer on "Summer in the City"].
So you used to watch MTV?
Yeah, I did. I was actually in New York a little more than normal for that period. I was working a lot with Phil Galdston, a songwriter that--he's the guy that wrote "Save the Best for Last" and a couple of other...shlagers [Yiddish for "hits"]. "The guy writes shlagers, I'm telling ya!" And yeah, it was very often work that would not come out to be that rewarding by the time we were all finished with it, but it was a real learning experience for me.
Are you doing okay financially? If I can ask that?
Ask me in a couple of years, I just tore down a house and rebuilt it, so I'm still limping--but I may be surviving.
How's the album with David Grisman [Satisfied] doing?
I couldn't tell you that I've received remuneration one from it yet.
Was it fun, anyway? It sounds like it.
Oh, fabulous fun. I have so much fun with him. I really do. And we think alike, and we are impatient about the same things, and that style of recording terrified me at first so there was a big learning curve. But I've become more of a convert.
It was just live in the studio, right?
Yeah, but live as fucking shit, is what I can tell you. It was really live. It was so live that I'd go back in between takes and say to the engineer--his name is Dave too--"Uh, Dave, I'd like to hear just a little bit more of my guitar," and he'd look up at me and smile and say, "Play louder." [laughter] Fuck! You know, it was like that. And there was no engineering after the fact. It was direct to tape.
Did it feel like a kind of completion, to return to the stripped down folk style after having taken it in such weird directions in the Spoonful and after?
It was lovely fun. As far as currently, [laughs] I haven't seemed to stay in that eddy very long because me and Jimmy Vivino got this idea to be an electric duo, and went off and did a gig in Teaneck in a nasty blues club, had so much fun that I know we're going to end up doing more of it. And I also have been in steady touch with David so I could do that as well. But there's no doubt, man, that's medium gauge strings and [there's] nothing that's harder. I'm sure that I'll be doing both of those kinds of projects--one where it is, just by the nature of David's approach, tremendously unaltered from its point of recording--to projects with Jimmy where we're always trying to say, you know, "That guitar doesn't sound shitty enough yet." So you're just kind of trying to hit that balance.
© 2014 by Lewis Shiner. First published in Fiction Liberation Front, July 2014. Some rights reserved.