Last night as I walked home from supper in Washington Square, I realized only as a passerby grinned at me that I had been whistling John Sebastian's "Daydream" all the way down 8th Street. Appropriate, I thought: These are his neighborhood blocks, though Sebastian has long been based in Woodstock, New York.
If you've grown up as a music-loving soul anywhere in this country since the middle 1960s, you know Sebastian's monster hit of 1966 with the Lovin' Spoonful. "Daydream" has been covered to bits by everyone from Kermit the Frog to Doris Day. Democratically, the whistling part is one that just about anyone can join in on, whether you know the lyrics or not, and whether or not you can play the guitar like Sebastian can (that would be very few people) — or play the harmonica like Sebastian can (that would be no one).
Sebastian grew up in the Village, and was — despite, or perhaps because of family roots in classical music (his father John Sebastian Sr. was a classical harmonicist) — part of the folk music scene here since his teenage years. He formed the Lovin' Spoonful in late 1964, with Zal Yanofsky and friends who were folk and jugband musicians. They took their name from a Mississippi John Hurt song, though urban-myth speculation has long offered other sources, and set out to write their own songs instead of performing other people's.
Two years ago, Sebastian appeared at the Woodstock Playhouse in a sold-out show that was a fundraiser for the local fire company. He led us through the whole sweep of his career, telling stories of his life and times that were every bit as memorable as the music he has made for more than 50 years.
Guitar in hand, he played the simple chord progressions of hit songs from the early 1960s. Feet and fingers tapped; you waited for it. Sebastian explained the influences on his band, and on him, as a songwriter. He mentioned Martha and the Vandellas' 1963 Holland-Dozier-Holland "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave," and then there it was: the one-two one-two rise and fall of three little chords, slowed down and shifted, with a great big sound. Do you, believe, like I, believe, do you, believe, like I, believe ... "Do You Believe in Magic" was swiftly followed by "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice," and the Lovin' Spoonful had arrived with a resounding crash.
Signed to the record label with a name for the ages, Kama Sutra, the Lovin' Spoonful set out on the road, opening for Diana Ross and the Supremes in 1965. Sebastian's memories of the tour are intense. He recalled the deep joys, and also the difficulties, of traveling and performing in the South and parts of the Middle West: a band composed of young white men from New York with long hair and a band composed of young African-American women.
By the late 1960s, Sebastian was writing and recording on his own. The musical Jimmy Shine (written by Murray Schisgal, with music and lyrics by Sebastian) opened on Broadway in 1968, with Dustin Hoffman in the title role. Sebastian played five songs at Woodstock in August 1969. In concert that night at the Woodstock Playhouse, he spoke movingly of how having children — two sons with his wife, Catherine — changed him and his composing. Laughing, he recalled "that beautiful 19-year-old" he had met, while Catherine, a gifted photographer and artist who is quite possibly even more beautiful now, laughed back. When he spoke about his "television work," Sebastian invited us to join in on the refrain if we knew it. "Welcome Back, Kotter," the ABC television show that began appropriately as the school year did in September 1975, remains something much more than a sitcom. The saga of Gabe Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) returning to his Brooklyn high school to teach a gang of boys who called themselves the Sweathogs is deep in American popular culture. One of the Sweathogs, Vinnie Barbarino — John Travolta — became a Hollywood superstar in Saturday Night Fever in 1977. Travolta's rendition of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" as "Barbarino" remains an epic moment in the show. Sebastian softly sang the theme song he penned, and the whole audience joined in on not just the refrain, but all the verses. He welcomed the accompaniment, and then, though still smiling, ducked his head as if almost embarrassed by the clear affection of his chosen hometown.
Since that April evening in Woodstock, Sebastian has been doing more and more gigs in the area, and across the country. On this rainy Tuesday in New York, I'm thinking about what a pleasure it was to hear him in Woodstock that April night, and looking forward to both his solo shows this spring — and the advent, soon, of what Sebastian has announced on his website: "JUG BAND GIANTS, a new jugband with the original cats, Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, and myself as the annoying younger brother!" Yes, please.
*p.s. a nice exchange with Headley Grainger made me think we all need this Lovin' Spoonful hit today, 2/9/17, to let us recall in the midst of a snowstorm exactly what summer in the city means. Thanks, Headley.