Friday, April 1, 2022

The Songs That Time Forgot: John Sebastian

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.

John Sebastian onstage in 1970.
Image source: Jim McClearCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Let's go back to the 1971 archives and look at another forgotten long-form tune, this one from a '60s pop star who struggled to fit into a changing music industry.

Depending on when you came of age, you know John Sebastian either as the leader of the '60s band The Lovin' Spoonful or as the singer of the theme song from the Welcome Back, Kotter TV show of the '70s. If you're a millennial or younger, you may not have heard of him at all.

But Sebastian and the Spoonful were everywhere in the mid- to late '60s. Though the height of their fame slightly predated the Summer of Love and the apex of the hippie movement, you'd still be hard pressed to find a group that better represented the relaxed, easygoing side of the peace-and-love zeitgeist of the day, with songs that made you want to hum along and snap your fingers. They were a little bit pop, a little bit folk, blues, and country, and a great big dose of breezy sunshine. "Do You Believe in Magic" put them on the map, "Daydream" was Paul McCartney's inspiration for The Beatles' "Good Day Sunshine," and "Summer in the City" revealed that the Spoonful could rock out when they wanted to.

But their star quickly faded, and by the end of the decade, the Spoonful were gone. Sebastian embarked on a solo career that for all practical purposes began with his one-man show at Woodstock. There as a spectator, he was asked to come up and put on an impromptu acoustic set while the stagehands swept away the rain in preparation for the next act.

That unexpected performance gave his public image a boost, but the momentum didn't last. A string of solo albums in the early '70s didn't make much of a dent, as Sebastian lamented that musical trends and tastes were passing him by. Nonetheless, he got to enjoy one last moment in the spotlight when the Kotter theme topped the charts in 1976. Since then he's been working as a session musician, a TV presenter, a soundtrack writer, a music teacher, and a children's book author.

One step along his solo-album journey was his 1971 record The Four of Us, whose title track, taking up all of Side 2, was a story-song based on a road trip he and his wife had taken with another couple who were their "partners in crime." They "drew a smile across the states" and set off for an adventure.

Though most of the song ambles along lazily with just voice and acoustic guitar, it's the unexpected breakout sections along the way that hold your interest. A Caribbean-flavored detour, with the van abandoned as the gang travels across the sea, gives us a steel drum-infused, party-like tribute to a place called Domenica. (The island of Dominica, perhaps?) A swing through New Orleans treats us to some boogie-woogie piano licks over a rock 'n' roll backbeat. A long swing that ends up in Colorado introduces a reflective mood as our travelers ponder their destination -- not just on the journey, but in their lives.

Ultimately, the song ends as a reflection of good, perhaps simpler, times, the carefree years before you settle down and have kids, get a job and pay the bills. "Paradise is nice, but then you can't stay there forever," Sebastian sings, aware that the show of life must go on. But it never feels sad or resigned, because that's not who John Sebastian is. The warm remember-when vibe that permeates the song isn't trying to romanticize those days from a distance, but rather looking back with a fond smile ("Gee, we really miss those times / Seeing through each other's eyes / Sure was nice") and remembering to carry that mood forward no matter where life takes you ("So go and see and pass it on / Lest you miss it, lest you're gone / Every lover keep your driver / On the road and laughing").

His song took us along for a ride that captured the mood of an era that was fading in the rearview mirror as the world moved away from the freewheeling '60s and into the decidedly more hard-headed '70s. And I think we can see from the mood of his song why John Sebastian's star faded. He came face to face with a musical landscape that would have required him to reinvent himself to stay on top. But what happens if your authentic self is what you put out there for the world to see in the first place, and doing anything else would make you feel like a fraud? I get the sense that John Sebastian is that kind of guy. What you see is what you get. He's friendly, he's upbeat, he knows what he likes to do and what he's good at, and that's enough -- because he's authentic. He can't create a fake image and put it up for sale. And I say good for him.

John Sebastian is the kind of dyed-in-the-wool hippie that I think I would have loved to know. His sunny optimism shines through in the music he writes, capturing the best of the idealistic spirit of what the hippie movement was supposed to be all about. At the end of his Woodstock performance, he told the crowd, "Just love everybody around you, and clean up a little garbage on your way out, and everything's going to be all right." And I think that's John Sebastian's personality in a nutshell: Keep a loving spirit, do what little you can to help, and keep a positive outlook.

That's something I struggle with. And that's we always need people like John Sebastian, to keep us balanced, to keep us going, to put an arm around our shoulder and encourage us to hang in there.

That's the magic of this song. That's what it does for me.

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