Thursday, April 5, 2018

JOHN SEBASTIAN: You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice [1986]

Text by David Ancrum / FFanzeen, 1986
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet
Note: There is no ads on this page, so no profit is made from images or music used on this site

This interview was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #14, dated 1986, by David Ancrum. I’m not sure where I connected with David or where he is now, so if you know him, please let him know this has been republished! While published in 1986, the interview itself took place in 1984.

John Sebastian’s infamous band, the Lovin’ Spoonful, tended to have quite pleasant sounds, which Howard Kaylan of the Turtles referred to as “Goodtime Music,” a nomenclature that would stick. Sadly, more people seem to know him for his solo “Welcome Back” theme song to the overrated television show, “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Even Sebastian wasn’t a fan of the song; I remember on a PBS ‘60s Revival Show, he quipped that he was glad that it was a ‘60s revival so he wouldn’t have to do that tune. I respected him for that.

I also admire that he’s kinda snarky in an honest way during this interview. He takes the author to task for certain wording (something interviewees have done to me, too). His image is squeaky clean, but he has a refreshing bite to him, almost making the title “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” almost seem sarcastic, and that makes me smile. – Robert Barry Francos, 2018.

The best rock and roll songs always reveal a moment in one’s life. Whether it’s the girlfriend who broke your heart in high school, the song that came through your busted, static-filled speakers in your first car, or the songs that your group played in your family’s garage. They develop a universe of meaning.

Like novelists who often mime their late teens and early 20s for the rest of their lives, pop song writers lock into brief moments within an individual’s life and age developments, an epiphanal portrait of those moments.

Watching John Sebastian perform in Connecticut recently, this was never more apparent. Sebastian, leader and chief songwriter of the late, greatly lamented group the Lovin’ Spoonful, showed he still is the biggest optimist in pop music.

“Summer in the City,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” and of coruse the classic “Do You Believe in Magic,” to name just a few, have transcended their limitation, and like the blues, might be with us forgever. Lifting us up in times of trouble, they may not be thick on eschatology, but you’ve got to believe in something.

For example, “Rainbow All Over Your Blues” is a wistful song, delicate and muted with emotions, and as always there’s that hint of nostalgia.

As he performs, one comes to realize that from anyone else, John Sebastian’s approach would be mawkish. From Sebastian, though, the warmth is so real that you believe. His songs are children’s songs – the past as recollected by an adult. They’re like someone looking back into the innocence of youth, the magic of being a child – as he sees it.

Between sets at a recent show, I spoke to the Prince of Optimism.

FFanzeen: What has John Sebastian been up to?
John Sebastian: I have been concertizing pretty heavily over the past couple of years. In some ways, it is one of the problems of being a grown-up in rock’n’roll; the fact that you can work very hard without a record deal and be relatively unheard of to the point where people are asking what have you been doing, right after you have come off an 80-day tour.

FFanzeen: Looking back on the events of the ‘60s, what do you feel were the positive and negative things that came out of that era?
John: I am frequently asked these questions and always unable to find a very meaningful answer. During the ‘60s, I was too damn busy trying to get a group together, making the thing work, getting it recorded and doing all the stuff that goes along with having a band. The band itself was remarkably unpolitical; anything that would put me in a position where I could accurate say, well, this happened and this didn’t happen, and so on. I am perfectly glad to be in 1984 and looking forward to the future. What our old friend Bob Dylan told us back then (that) I think still applies: “Don’t look back.”

FFanzeen: I have a couple of questions about the ‘60s. Do you think some of the ideals are still functionable today?
John: Richie Havens [d. 2013] came up to me yesterday and had a crack that put me on the floor. He said that he had just played a show where he was surrounded by gods of alternate energy; a kind of dispersing, helping and yoga information. He said, “You know, it’s really coming around again. I think consciousness that was a part of the ‘60s and lost in the ‘70s is beginning to come back around.” The source of it, I think this time, is from the Europeans. The Europeans don’t have this fagged-out attitude that has hit the U.S., and by fagged out, I mean tired out. I think that we have been finding the limitations that we didn’t know existed at that time and, in many cases, the resistance is very rich, and that can be very frustrating. This time we are getting our protest movement started again, but it seems to be coming from Europe, and I always find that when I go to Europe that kind of consciousness is very much in our lives and is here.

FFanzeen: What do you think happened to the Children of the ‘60s?
John: They had to go to work. They couldn’t just sit around and smoke dope. At a certain point someone had to pay the rent. It was the realities of living that confronted every generation. It’s a shame that it had to be such a big deal.

FFanzeen: Most of the music today seems to have very little value and yet your must still seem fresh, alive and vital. Why do you think that is?
John: I have been very pleasantly surprised by the longevity of the things that I have written. I never expected it. I was pretty much trying to write for that moment in time, without consideration for the future, but I have been surprised at how many songs have not sold a lot more records than the Spoonful’s stuff I do hear, and so that’s good for me I guess, but I can’t say I would have anticipated it.

FFanzeen: Are there any groups today that impress you? What kind of music are you listening to today?
John: First of all, I don’t agree with your generalization that there isn’t much meaning in stuff today. It is still the same mix of glopped and great stuff. The stuff was always there. In the ‘60s, people talked about what a time it was and so on, but there was this whole commercial folk music boom that was just a bore. We forget why the whole thing got started: it was Frankie Avalon records. I don’t want to get too specific, but there was a lot of junk then, too. As for stuff that I listen to, let’s see, I find myself playing Thomas Dolby’s new record (Flat Earth) a lot; I like a lot of the groups that people like now. The Police are doing wonderful things. Men at Work; I really like the Eurhythmics’ approach, and I think that it is a very different mood than the music of the era we are talking about, but not of less value. People say there was disco and that was such a bore, but the fact was engineers were learning how to record the shit out of the bass drum at that point, and that was something the Spoonful was dying for; we wanted to have a heavy bottom, but the equipment just wouldn’t give it to us at that point in time. Recording techniques were not that strong. I would think if the Spoonful were together today, we would be right in there with our little sync-drums and all the equipment of modern recording.

FFanzeen: When The Spoonful were together, did you think it was something special, or was it something as the years went by you get on to see that it had more significance?
John: No. Without false modesty, I knew right then that it was hot stuff. I was really glad to be doing it. I felt that we were the premiere American group and sort of an answer to the English Invasion. Other groups had more publicity and we were better organized from a business standpoint, but when you put them in a club against us, it was bad news. We were a hard act to follow when it came to live performances. We had such a ball and thought we were pushing it over; it was like the biggest joke in the world.

FFanzeen: Every year, Al Kooper gets the Blues Project back together and there has been some talk about Felix Cavaliere and the Rascals getting back together. [The Rascals are back together and getting ready to tour! – ed., 1986.] Have you ever thought of getting the Spoonful back together if for nothing but a tour?
John: Every time somebody offers me millions of bucks to do it, of course I always have to consider it. The fact is the guitarist for the Spoonful (Zal Yanovsky, d. 2002 – RBF, 2018] is very happily in Scotland* doing something else. A group is not the kind of thing that you can casually do on weekends or suddenly jump off and gouge the public on these $20 tickets for a month, and then go back to the work you were doing. It doesn’t really work that way. I am perfectly happy to pursue my own career and let Zally not be forced back into entertainment when he doesn’t want to do it. The fact is that I end up playing. In fact, only a week ago, I was playing with Steve Boone (bass) at a show at the Key’s, Key West, Florida. That is always a lot of fun. Steven keeps his chops up to a point where we can easily do that kind of thing.

FFanzeen: I’d like to ask you about some of the classic songs that you have written. One that got a great response tonight as “Darlin’ Be Home Soon.” How did that come about?
John: That was a reflective song that I was experiencing being away for a lot of the time, and rather than write a song about being away, because everyone was writing songs about being away and everyone was having that experience, I decided to turn it around and take the position of the one what had to stay home. It just seemed like an easy way to write the same song without it being the same song.

FFanzeen: A personal favorite is “She’s Still a Mystery to Me”; how did that come about?
John: That was very much reflecting on my early sexual life. That’s really what it boils down to; that moment when romance was so intense that even waiting for the girl was unbearable, let along actually getting to it.

FFanzeen: And, “Do You Believe in Magic?”?
John: That came about mainly because we had suddenly changed the clientele of this little night club in New York, The Night Owl Café, from basically a beatnik hangout to little girls running around there, and it was very exciting to have this complete change of clientele over a period of two weeks; it was an exuberant feeling.

FFanzeen: It seems so many musicians from the ‘60s who were successful are having trouble getting a record deal now. Why do you believe this is happening and what alternatives do they have?
John: The Popular medium is not famous for the longevity of its stars, something that I had to learn watching my father’s development. He worked a lot harder at his music than I do. He would practice classical music 6 to 8 hours a day. I noticed that his popularity had nothing to do with his achievements or how hard he was working, so I always take that as a kind of clue as to the fact that all of this is going to come out in the wash, and I may not even be around to see it. I want very much to be able to record. I hate the impression that it conveys that somebody is not capable of recording simply because they don’t have a record out. These frustrations are shared by better men than myself, and so I guess I will have to put up with that until such time as it comes around. As to why, I don’t really have an answer.

FFanzeen: What can we look for from John Sebastian in the future?
John: Well, over the last couple of years, I did an adaptation for the musical version of Charlotte’s Web that should be out. Last year I did three different soundtracks, one of which has come out: the sequel to The Jerk – The Jerk, Too (1994) that was on TV a while back. And there were two other movies: one Michael Richie move called The American Snitch [1983] that I did the soundtrack for, I think that should be coming out soon. Also, I did the music for a Nixon-era political thriller called The Act. We are awaiting the release of that [he did the music to the recently released full-length cartoon, The Care Bears’ Movie in 1985 – ed., 1986]. And besides all that, I hope to record as soon as the tide turns a little bit.

* Zal Yanovsky would eventually open up a restaurant in Kingston, Ontario, titled Chez Piggy, where he was the head chef. He and his wife would travel to different parts of the world, and then change the menu entirely every few month to reflect where they had been. I had the opportunity to eat there a couple of times. Once, I bought one of his cook books and asked to meet him, but he refused; however, he did sign the book, and yes, I still have it (and no, I have never used any of the recipes). – RBF, 2018 

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