COLUMN SIXTY-EIGHT, FEBRUARY 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 Al Aronowitz)
BACK HOME ON THE STREET
John Sebastian talks about the
street as if he'd never left it. Walk
with him down Bleecker and you can still hear the echoes of his footfalls from
seven years ago.
John leans forward as he walks, his hands in the
pockets of a great, big furry coat that fits like a bear hug.
His feet bounce off the pavement the same way his music dances, joyous,
light and easy, bubbling up like the fizz of something to take your blahs away.
he sings, it's through a wrap-around smile, his voice soft and sweet and
lullabyish. John walks the street
by choice these days. He has already made the journey to those avenues where
footprints transcend time.
Take away a hundred years and it might have been
John to write Oh! Susanna. Add a hundred, and, they may still be
whistling Daydream. Walk with him down Bleecker and you can hear his
seven years on it tinkling after him like happy tin cans tied to a wedding car.
It would take hours to sing all the favorites John has written.
He's only 25.
"You hate loving New York and you love hating
it," he said. He had just
finished the first set of a 10-day appearance at the Bitter End and he kept
talking about his mounting exuberance. Over at the Gaslight, his kid brother
Mark was opening that same night in the first appearance of his career.
"We've really got Bleecker
and MacDougal covered, us Sebastians," John said.
He lives alone now in a tent on a farm outside L.A.
He doesn't have to. Warner Brothers
has just given him a $700,000 record contract. Even when he was with the Lovin?
Spoonful, their deal with MGM was for a million.
"The farm is rest and contemplation for me,?
he said. "I've lived in that
tent 10 months. When it got cold, I went out and got a catalytic heater, and
that's enough for me. I think the location contributed to my state of mind.
I don't know why, but I think the farm serves as an energy pool that
When he first
hit the street, it was as an accompanist. Everybody
was playing guitar, so John learned harmonica.
For two years, he was an invisible man, playing behind every star that
passed through the Village. He had written only three songs in his entire life
when he teamed up with Zal Yanovsky, Joe Butler and Steve Boone to form the
Spoonful. Out of nowhere, they
turned to him and said, "You're the writer."
became one of the best groups in America, certainly one of the most popular, but
they couldn't keep it together. There
was a dope bust in San Francisco and two of the group ended up leaving to rat on
Then Zal quit.
It got to a point where Joe would be at his drums talking to the audience
and John would have to start playing the guitar as if to shut him up.
They didn't really get to know one another until it was too late.
"When I left the group I thought I'd just get a couple of sidemen," John said. "Then it ended up just me. Now I just want to keep writing my songs and playing them
I never sat down and worked before people before, and that's been a
revelation to me. I been a long time on the stage having no idea how easy it
was, preoccupied as I was with things like musicianship and attitudes and all
kinds of crap!"
At the Bitter End, John kept telling the
audience that it was seeing the shabbiest show on earth.
"It's a low-budget production,"
he said. "I do all my own schlepping."
He couldn't play his harmonium because
one of the keys was broken. When he
started whistling in the middle of Daydream, the amplifier whistled back
at him. When he switched to another amp, that didn't work either.
He kept asking for requests and telling
stories. When he finished the set
with Darlin' Be Home Soon, the song seemed to start him thinking about
something else. He wrote that song
for his wife, Lori. As the song
says, he wrote it "for the great relief of having you to talk to."
broken up now, Lori and John. When
he came offstage, he said it was a bad set.
I told him that even at his worst, he's great. We
took a walk down the street and had a bite to eat.
"I'm still writing love songs," he said.
"I'm just as inspired about love as I ever was."
He started talking about tie dying. That's his hobby
now, and he has become, an artist at it. I
asked him about his house in Sag Harbor, the house where Lori and he had lived,
and he said he's selling it. He took off his glasses and his eyes looked
"When I was out in Sag Harbor, I used to miss
the street," he said. "I used to crave it. There's a margin of
excellence here you can't get anyplace else. It's true. The minute you're
unplugged, you're. . . unplugged."
was time for him to go back to work. At
the Bitter End, the house was packed. John
got right up on the stage and sang Lovin? You. . .
" She can even get me up on my feet
when I got to take care of some business on the street. . ."
The set was heavy. Walk with John Sebastian down Bleecker and you walk with someone who is at home there. ##
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