John Sebastian excelled in many epochs of American music, beginning with the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene as a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band and The Mugwumps, a band that would split to form the Lovin’ Spoonful and The Mamas & the Papas. Hits like “Do You Believe in Magic,” “Daydream” and “Summer in the City” propelled a blazing run of Top 10 success with The Lovin’ Spoonful. In 2000, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Sebastian scored as a solo artist with the 1975 theme from Welcome Back, Kotter, but many remember him for singlehandedly launching tie-dye as a fashion trend at the 1969 Woodstock festival. Strangely enough, the jovial songwriter’s performance before a half-million people, immortalized in the Michael Wadleigh documentary, wasn’t even supposed to happen.
“I was there as a member of the audience,” Sebastian said by phone recently from his home in the Catskills. Making his way to show was itself a miracle — he’d bumped into a former Spoonful roadie loading instruments into a helicopter and hitched a ride. “My old pal Walter Gundy said, ‘You’re trying to get to Woodstock, right? I’m your only option. You’ll never get there any other way — all the flights are booked.’”
Upon arrival, Sebastian moved between the crowd and the backstage area, “to see a lot of my friends — people who all had recently had me playing on their album or playing on mine,” he says. His pals included Crosby, Stills and Nash, who’d spent some time woodshedding in his Long Island garage earlier that year before recording a debut album.
Torrential rain came on Saturday; when it ended, a mad rush to resume the music ensued. Sebastian was standing nearby when promoter Michael Lang told stage manager Chip Monck he needed an acoustic performer to hold the crowd — though conditions were too wet for amplifiers, live mikes were working.
“So they said, ‘Yeah, acoustic guitar — John, you can do that, you’re elected,’” he recalls. “I said, guys, I didn’t even bring a guitar, and they said, ‘Well, there’s lots of those — go find one!’”
He borrowed Tim Hardin’s Harmony Sovereign, “a workhorse, not the guitar that you would see the English boys play,” Sebastian says with a hearty laugh. He still doesn’t recall his five-song set with particular fondness, even if most fans can’t suppress a smile when remembering his comment about a baby born at the festival: “Man, that kid’s gonna be far out!”
He wasn’t there to sing, but to hang and party.
“I had not prepared, I was not prepared,” he says. “Now if I was going to perform, I would be thinking very differently, but as a member of the audience, I was, ‘Oh sure, I’ll smoke a joint,’ whatever, this stuff going around backstage, [but] because I’m cautious I took very little. Of course, it still affects you; and after that, they wanted me to go on. Moral of the story is never let your guard down. That’s exactly the thing that people are going to remember you for when it’s filmed and recorded.”
After Woodstock, Sebastian became a regular attraction on the summer concert circuit, even as his solo recording career floundered.
“To begin with, the album that I had made to make an opening salvo took a year and a half to get out in an industry that is so short-shelf-life,” he says. By the mid-’70s, he was trying to get out of his label deal when he got a call from his manager, whom he’d hired only a week earlier, about a network sitcom looking for a theme song.
Sebastian had contributed to movies directed by Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, but television wasn’t nearly as fashionable. However, he says, “I was about as far out of style in 1975 as a guy could be … so we had a meeting to talk about the show, me and the producer. He’s from Brooklyn, I’m from Manhattan, and so we start insulting each other. That’s how New Yorkers get to know each other, OK?”
His manager understood — he was also a native New Yorker. But the two ABC executives who’d flown out from California weren’t nearly as sanguine.
“This meeting was going badly, in their opinion,” Sebastian says. “But in fact, the mood of that conversation permeated what became the song.”
The script got Sebastian thinking about his own school days.
“It was about my group, I was a Sweathog!” he says. “I got all those report cards: ‘You know, John is an intelligent boy, if he would only apply himself.’ I had a father who was incredibly good in school — magna cum laude from Haverford. So those frustrations for me were pretty close to the surface and provided me with a lot of material.”
“Welcome Back” became a massive hit well before the label released it.
“It’s the thing that puts fear into the hearts of every record company guy,” Sebastian says. “One just shines right by them … they got caught flat footed. People were calling in requesting the song and I actually had to go in and elongate it with a harmonica break, because the one we had constructed was only a two-minute thing.”
Sebastian’s March 16 show in Manchester will range across his ample catalog — and likely depend on audience feedback. “Being able to react as a solo performer gives me an advantage over guys with a set list,” he says. “I can sense when, for instance, I’m at a place where nobody wants to get too deep, they want to hear the hits.”
He expects perhaps more sophistication from the local crowd.
“When I play in New England, people know about jug bands and the influx of traditional music, how if affected bands like The Spoonful, Creedence Clearwater, The Dead,” he says, “bands who eventually were called rock ’n’ roll but had interest in these other styles. So part of what I’m doing is showing people where some of those songs and influences came from.”