SECTION FOUR

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COLUMN SIXTY-EIGHT, FEBRUARY 1, 2002
(Copyright 2002 Al Aronowitz)

RETROPOP SCENE:
BACK HOME ON THE STREET


JOHN SEBASTIAN

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.

When 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.  "Far out!"

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 replenishes me."

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."

The Spoonful 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 somebody.

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


'The
shabbiest show
on earth'


person-to?-person.  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."  

They've 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 tired.

"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."  

It 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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