The Lovin' Spoonful's Magic Man - Rolling Stone
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The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Magic Man

John Sebastian talks about his generation

There are seventy- and eighty-year-old people who need to be honored here, so, the urgency for me just wasn’t there, John Sebastian says laughing. “I wanted to see Johnny Johnson in there and Earl Palmer!” The fifty-six-year-old co-founder of the Lovin’ Spoonful may be cavalier about his band’s recent induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but it was one of the nominating committee’s more astute decisions. Though the phrase “America’s Answer to the Beatles” emblazoned the press releases of any number of stateside bands that arose in the wake of the British Invasion, only the Spoonful’s Sebastian-penned tunes consistently measured up to the songcraft of the Fab Four, while remaining firmly rooted in American musical traditions.

The Spoonful formed in 1965 amidst the incestuous Greenwich Village folk scene that would later be immortalized in the Mamas and the Papas’ “Creeque Alley”: Sebastian and fellow folkie Zal Yanovsky were members of the Mugwumps with future Mama Cass Elliot and Papa Denny Doherty, when they were galvanized by the arrival of the Beatles to put their fates in hands of rock & roll. Searching the Village for like minds, the duo fleshed out their ranks with bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler. Honing their skills with rehearsals in the basement of New York’s Albert Hotel and a residency at the Village’s Night Owl CafT, they hit upon their singular sound: a blend of blues, country, folk, and, particularly, jug band music, all distilled into the three-minute pop-song format. The group racked up seven Top 10 hits from ’65 to ’66, as well as three albums and two soundtracks, for then-budding auteurs Woody Allen (What’s Up, Tiger Lily?) and Francis Ford Coppolla (You’re a Big Boy Now). But in ’67, Yanovsky left the group. The Spoonful carried on for a final album with replacement Jerry Yester (who will not be honored as part of the band’s induction) before Sebastian left to go solo. Still, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “good time music” has transcended their relatively short run, and songs like “Do You Believe In Magic?,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” and “Daydream” can still inspire a smile that, in the words of Sebastian himself, “won’t wipe off your face no matter how hard you try.”

What was Greenwich Village like at the time the Lovin’ Spoonful came together?
Greenwich Village at that time was a very fertile area for music. There was everything from bluegrass to old timey to deep Delta blues to jug band music. I was an accompanist, more or less. Zally was kind of the Canadian version, I guess. We met at Cass Elliot’s house and pretty quickly began to hatch the idea of an American band that wasn’t aping the English, but that was still drawing on American sources, which is pretty much what they were doing [laughs]. I don’t how much this fine line really matters in modern times, but to us it seemed like a giant division.

How did you and Zal get the Spoonful together?
When the Mugwumps began to fragment, everybody was living in the Albert Hotel, so we’d sit around and talk about it all day. It wasn’t, like, people going off to their separate corners and moping. There’s something about musicians that is similar to lovers, which is that very often you will spy somebody and say, “Well, I’m currently involved, but if I weren’t involved, that would be interesting.” And so it was with me and Zally. We both had jobs, but I think we were both interested in working together. It was only when the Mugwumps broke up that suddenly we caught the fever and we said, “Now we can do something.” We got together as soon as the group was obviously disbanded, amidst worrying about Cass and Denny, which, in retrospect, is really funny since they went on to have a group that outsold the hell out of us [laughs].

How did the folkies react to the Spoonful?
We were really encouraged by how badly they reacted. We could see it was a period of transition — maybe one of our only moments of clear vision as far as trends and everything [laughs] — but we could really see that audiences were changing. We also knew that we didn’t care about the people playing chess in the Night Owl CafT. We wanted those girls from the Bronx that were coming in and looking through the window. We went in there and played, and we were terrible and got fired. So, we went and played at a cheesier club and practiced in the Albert Hotel. So it took six months or so. Then all of a sudden we began to see those girls. “Do You Believe in Magic?” is about the moment when we looked out in the audience and suddenly there was a sixteen-year-old girl dancing in front of the speakers and we went, “It’s here! They’ve found us!”

You had some problems finding a label for that song.
We certainly did get a thorough turn-down from every major and minor label in New York City. It didn’t sound like anything they could identify. I know this sounds like boasting, but that was another thing that encouraged us. Every time we got turned down we would say, “Remember, these are the guys who want Fabian. They want Frankie Avalon. They understand that.”

When did you know that you guys had the sound?
We thought we were great about twenty minutes into this project, when we first played the Night Owl and we were really terrible. I think this is a characteristic of rock & roll bands, kids thinking they’re great whether or not they are. Your ego kind of carries you for awhile, and it gives you the time you need to get good. But I think it was the usability of the idea that seemed so obvious to us, this idea of mixing idioms. We were big fans of Howlin’ Wolf, but we were big fans of Buck Owens. We were big fans of Elmore James, but we were also big fans of Floyd Cramer. We were drawing from these influences, especially the jug band thing. We were re-writing so many of those old jug band tunes, and I think that the original material that came out of us simply happened out of desperation — we were beginning to run short on Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers’ tunes [laughs].

Around this time Phil Spector came to one your Night Owl shows. Did he have any interest in producing the band?
He came down one night and spent the whole night with this ear to the wall — somehow this was part of his listening process. He was really enjoying himself. But my impression was that there were no real intentions on his side to produce us. In fact, he did tell me later that he really didn’t seriously consider people that [generated] all their ideas for themselves; he liked it when he could have an artist who didn’t have an agenda of their own so that it could be his agenda. He was very clear on that, and to this day I applaud him because he really didn’t bullshit me. Even if he did want to produce us, our relationship with Erik Jacobsen was already forming and Erik had already begun to produce demos of us. I felt that [Jacobsen and the Spoonful] were of like minds, and I had a feeling that Phil Spector wasn’t of a like mind. Because when you get right down to it, he wasn’t a Greenwich Village folk-listenin’, dope-smokin’ hippie guy. We make fun of it now, but this was the beginning of hippiedom in the best sense of the word.

What were the best elements of that?
The dope smoking! [laughs] A sense of community. A sense of shaking off some of the tethers of the Fifties. A sense of the presence of a bigger world than New York or Ohio or wherever. In the Fifties, when I showed up at a prep school with long hair because I had been living in Europe where it was acceptable, people went nuts. I was forcibly given a haircut with the total approval of the faculty. It was pretty regional, pretty xenophobic. These are some of the things that the early stages of hippiedom were very much [refuting]. It came out of the Beat generation: Jack Kerouac, being on the road, seeing new stuff, walking into a place where you had no frame of reference. All of these things were beginning to happen to us, and now, with the event of some success, they were really starting to happen. One of the first real memorable and visible tours the Spoonful did was going on the road with the Supremes. I want to tell you, those girls did some shows. They didn’t screw around; you get on the bus with them and you’re gone for three months. So we were really seeing other parts of the country and finding other places where people wanted to kill us for having long hair [laughs].

I understand that’s where you wrote “Daydream.”
On the Supremes tour, yes. I was imitating “Baby Love.” I was so sure that we were going to come out with a song that was just like “Baby Love.”

Each of your singles was in a very different style. Were you consciously trying to avoid a formula?
Very consciously. It was a way of distinguishing ourselves. It was a period when, if you had a hit singing [sings “ya ya ya ya”] you had to come out with another song that had [repeats same line] or you were dead. So, we were vehemently trying to sound different with every single, even to the extent of exchanging instruments with each other to try to make it sound different.

You were probably the first band to do rock music soundtracks. How did you get hooked up with Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola?
The Woody Allen connection came through management. We didn’t actually spend much time at all with Woody talking about the project. It was more that Woody’s manager came to us and said, “We’ve got a wacky, goofy, mod, crazy kind of a thing and we want a wacky, goofy, mod soundtrack. So you’re the guys.” That happened in a very business-to-business way. On the other hand, at that time I think all Francis Ford Coppola had done was Dementia 13. [But] there was something about him that made me believe it was gonna work. He was one of us, if you will, in the fairly polarized world of that moment.

Is it true that the Lovin’ Spoonful was considered as the band for what eventually became The Monkees?
I believe that we were considered. It was such a different world. To comply with television was equated with selling out. That’s why we turned down a Coke commercial that probably would have made us visible through half the country. All kinds of visual medium that wanted us, we turned down because we’d say, “Look, it’s about the music. It isn’t about four mop tops.” That was what was left of our Greenwich Village folkie aesthetic. We were out of step in our own way.

Did you consciously avoid letting your music get bogged down in politics or psychedelia, like many of your contemporaries?
I’m a second-generation musician. So, I had watched my father’s successes and failures, and I’d seen that in many cases his greatest personal successes did not reflect themselves in sales or audience and that some of the things that he tossed off without thinking were tremendously successful. As a nightclub performer he had a very secure living, and then he began to take chances. As the classical world began to appreciate him, he began to go to Europe and other places and he could see the crowd was very much in step with him, and then he’d come back to America and they’d be out of step. I think all of this was helping me to know that whether or not the world was going into a period of self-examination and protest music, we had to know that what we did was light. We weren’t going to tell everybody “where it’s at.” What we had to contribute was this funny hybrid that we were cultivating and as time went on we’d find new ways [to experiment with it]: let’s electrify the auto harp, let’s string the guitar like a banjo and play it through a huge amplifier, odd combinations like that. So, that was our job. It wasn’t to look at our navels.

But, it does kind of come down to drugs at this point. Although you’d probably have to say the Spoonful dabbled in psychedelia occasionally, personally, I was terrified of LSD. I’m a chicken. So, in that regard, we would go out to California and look around at the bands and go, “We’re gonna kill in this town, because we can keep the continuity of an hour-and-a-half set going, whereas these guys get lost and start playing one tune for thirty minutes.”

How did the counterculture receive that kind of philosophy?
That was our more or less successful period. Whether or not some of our contemporaries were on the same path, they loved the path we were on. For example, to me the only really great protest writer — and he hates the nomenclature — is Bob Dylan. I’d been playing with Bob in the basement of crappy Gerde’s Folk City for months before the Spoonful thing got going. And he called me up in the first week of the Spoonful’s rehearsals to ask me to go and play bass with him. This is by way of saying that we had the approval of Bob Dylan. And Phil Ochs was best friends with Erik Jacobsen, and he thought we were a riot. I think part of the delight of the period was that there were so many of these areas that were unexplored and this diversity was possible.

The Spoonful only lasted three years. Why did it end so quickly?
I think it ended because eventually as Zally quit, and Erik Jacobsen got fired, this original chemistry was screwed with. At that point, Zally wanted it to be more rock & roll. What was happening was that as I was developing as a songwriter. I started to get a little introspective myself and these things like “Darling, Be Home Soon” and “Younger Generation” began to come out, and Zally hated that [laughs]. To this day, I can start “Rain on the Roof” and I can see him get pissed off. All I can tell you is that these are the components that make great bands. There’s one guy going, “We gotta rock, we gotta rock, we gotta rock.” And the other guy’s going, “Yeah, but I want to able to think.” It’s sort of like milk: You come one week and it’s heaven; you come another week and these same ingredients are starting to produce a third enzyme, and all of a sudden you’ve got cheese.


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