John Sebastian on the 1960s: "It Couldn't Have Happened Without Pot"

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A Rock and Roll Hall of Famer as lead singer of the Lovin' Spoonful, it'd be understandable for John Sebastian to have seemed a bit peeved that our first question in our 20-minute conversation wasn't on writing and recording hits like "Do You Believe in Magic," "Summer in the City," or "Welcome Back" but rather about his playing the harmonica on the Doors' classic "Roadhouse Blues."

Ahead of his solo show at the Broward Center for Performing Arts this Saturday, Sebastian proved himself just as good-natured and affable as his music suggests. The rock legend was more than game to answer any question with an anecdote from his illustrious past making music with other greats, from Woody Guthrie to Lonnie Mack to, yes, Jim Morrison.

New Times: When did you first fall in love with music?
John Sebastian: My father was a classical harmonica virtuoso. That meant not only was there six hours of playing every day; I was also growing up in Greenwich Village. Folks that were regularly in our little apartment were Burl Ives and a guy Burl talked my father into housing, a young unknown songwriter from Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie. Stuff like that was happening quite regularly. When I'd go over to a friend of my parents' house, quite often there was a classical guitar sitting there or an autoharp. So I had this exposure that was a wonderful thing.

What did your parents think of you becoming a musician?
You have to remember my parents both were in unconventional fields. When my mother was 16, she was a full-fledged writer at a radio station in Ohio. So she was not particularly horrified, because her path had been really unconventional. Same with my father, who had a fantastic college career and took a left when he was studying in Rome, hanging out with artists and musicians, and said, "I want to play the harmonica for life." That was rough on my Italian grandparents, but they managed to live with it.

Did you always want to be a musician?
Not really. I thought being a musician equaled doing what my father did, and I thought that was incredibly hard. You get in a stationwagon and you could be gone for three months. I had very few illusions about the real musicians' life. This was before the Beatles, so people who weren't in a wedding band weren't working very steadily. Luckily, that didn't scare anyone in my family.

You were everywhere in the '60s, from forming the Lovin' Spoonful in Mama Cass Elliot's apartment to Woodstock. Do you think the way that decade is portrayed in popular culture is accurate?
There's a lot of different pieces of that. Who's portraying the '60s? How about the folks who run the museum at Max Yasgur's farm? It's glorious. It's beautiful. They have a lot of cool things, but they stray from the fact that it couldn't have happened without pot. Because who's coming? Third-graders. So it does have to be white-washed. 

What are your memories of playing the harmonica for the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues"?
One of my best friends was Paul Rothchild, who produced not only the Doors but Janis Joplin and the Everly Brothers. Paul described it to me that we have the feeling Jim would behave a little more if you would be there. In retrospect, it's hard to remember, as the Lovin' Spoonful are barely remembered and the Lizard King thing is huge, but the fact was that Paul did know that with me around as an older player, Jim might straighten up. He very much was that day. He did a great vocal and was up for it. Nobody remembers, but Lonnie Mack played bass on that song, and I was much more excited about playing with Lonnie Mack than the Doors.

What do you think was the pinnacle for the Lovin' Spoonful?
1966 was our apex. We were competing quite evenly with the various B's — the Beach Boys, the Beatles — and finding ourselves on the charts quite regularly.

You did music for a Woody Allen movie, Welcome Back Kotter, and the Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake cartoons. Did doing soundtrack work move you?
A guy's career goes up and down, and if you're a musician, you just want to play and create. I was wildly out of fashion in the music world. What's appealing about the soundtrack work is the question is never "What do I think of as the subject of the song?" You have a very tangible answer in the script, because the script is going to tell you two robots fall in love, and that may be the song. One of our great Jewish songwriters, Jule Styne, when asked, "What came first, the music or the lyrics?" His answer was, "First comes the phone call." That is very indicative of what's good about that kind of work. 

What can we expect at your show?
I try to cover as much of my career as I can. Everything from the pre-Spoonful inspirations like Mississippi John Hurt and Gus Cannon, and then move into Martha and the Vandellas. I try to cover most of the Spoonful songs. Then I play the middle-period stuff. I try to cover the whole thing, but there's one thing very different, which is, it's just one guy, one guitar. I don't show up with four younger fellows trying to imitate the Lovin' Spoonful. I try to give a one-guitar rendering of how the songs evolved, and in many cases, what it sounded like before it became a 45 single. 

John Sebastian
8 p.m. Saturday, January 9, at Amaturo Theater at Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $32.50 to $42.50 plus fees. Visit ticketmaster.com.

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