John Sebastian (The Lovin’ Spoonful)–‘Younger Generation’
“…and I sure am glad I got a chance to say a word about the music and the mothers in Nashville.”
Nothing in the world pleases me more than to sing the praises of John Sebastian (b. 1944). John’s not a household name, perhaps. He’s of course best known as leader of The Lovin’ Spoonful, one of the first, best and most successful American groups of the Beatles’ era. (The name comes from Coffee Blues, by Mississippi John Hurt. What does it mean? Heh heh heh. Ask yo’ daddy.)
One must remember that in 1965, there were almost no American rock groups around. The Byrds were just starting up, electric Dylan was a bewilderment, and Haight-Ashbury was just a bohemian neighborhood. The future early rock icons were still wallowing in a variety of musical backgrounds – The Byrds and the Grateful Dead in folk, Blood Sweat & Tears in blues and jazz, Paul Revere in a PR office, and Simon and Garfunkel in college. John Sebastian and his buddies were New Yorkers through and through, products of the jug band (1930s, homemade instruments such as a washtub bass, a washboard, spoons, kazoo, and, ah jugs) revival of the 1950s. They called their bag ‘Good Time Music’, and it certainly was. It was also the harbinger of a renaissance of sex, drugs, love and anti-war protests that changed the face of the world.
Daddy John Sebastion Senior was a virtuoso harmonicist, who once upon a time made an album “John Sebastian Plays Bach”. Junior’s godmother was Ethel Mertz of “I Love Lucy”. Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt were neighbors. He started out as a studio harmonica player in the Jug Band scene, met Montreal guitarist Zalman Yanovsky, and formed an electric rock-and-roll band (Zal: “I became a convert to Reddy Kilowatt because it’s loud, and people dance to it, and it’s loud.”)
The Spoonful recorded a mere four full studio albums and one soundtrack (exactly the same output as Simon and Garfunkel, except that the Spoonful’s soundtrack had four new songs, whereas “The Graduate” had only one). Sebastian wrote virtually all the songs. Their first hit was ‘Do You Believe In Magic’, a paean to a whole new mindset to which the older folks were wholly oblivious (‘It’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll’). No wonder the elders didn’t get it, like when Zal answered Dick Clark in Hebrew. Good times.
Sebastian wrote and the Spoonful recorded a string of stunningly fine rock hits (seven straight Top 10 hits!): ‘Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind’, ‘Younger Girl‘, ‘Daydream‘ (here live solo BBC, 1970), ‘Rain on the Roof’, ‘Nashville Cats’, ‘Summer in the City’ (SoTW 263), the stunning ‘Six O’Clock’, the sublime ‘She is Still a Mystery’. I could write a book about each one, and many more of their lesser-known gems. I’ve already told my story about ‘Girl, Beautiful Girl’ and my meeting with Francis Ford Coppolla (SoTW 052); my hazy memories of the Woodstock festival; and riffed on fatherhood spurred by ‘Welcome Back’ (SoTW 241). And I so love and admire John Sebastian’s music, both with the Spoonful and later as a solo artist, that I might just blow his horn again someday.
I think of John Sebastian as rock’s Cole Porter. He has a wit and dexterity as a tunesmith/lyricist unmatched in the Sixties. And he was so much more than that. A great guitarist; a great singer (when CS&N was just forming, David Crosby said–regarding rumors that Sebastian might join–”John can sing with us any time he wants“); a great guy. A sweetie. The ultimate tie-dyed hippie.
On numerous occasions when I’ve been called upon to explain to people who don’t ‘get’ rock and roll just how good it can be, I’ve quoted John Sebastian’s solo song ‘Younger Generation’ from the Spoonful’s last album, “Everything Playing”.
Younger Generation – John Sebastian
Why must every generation think their folks are square?
And no matter where their heads are they know mom’s ain’t there?
‘Cause I swore when I was small that I’d remember when
I knew what’s wrong with them that I was smaller than.
Determined to remember all the cardinal rules,
Like ‘Sun showers are legal grounds for skipping school’.
I know I have forgotten maybe one or two,
But I hope that I recall them all before the baby’s due,
And I know he’ll have a question or two.
Like, “Hey, Dad, can I go ride my Zoom?
It goes 300 miles an hour suspended on balloons!
And can I put a droplet of this new stuff on my tongue
And imagine frothing dragons while you sit and wreck your lungs?”
And I must be permissive, understanding of the younger generation.
And then I’ll know that all I’ve learned my kid assumes,
And all my deepest worries must be his cartoons.
And still, I’ll try to to tell him all the things I’ve done
Relating to what he can do when he becomes a man,
And still he’ll stick his finger in the fan.
And, “Hey, Pop, my girlfriend’s only three,
She’s got her own videophone, and she’s taking LSD.
And now that we’re best friends, she wants to give a bit to me.
What’s the matter, Daddy? How come you’re turning green?
Could it be that you can’t live up to your dream?”
Sebastian gave a memorable performance of the song at Woodstock, the compleat hippie. You can’t begin to understand 1969 without studying this clip. It was pretty much the anthem of the festival and the spirit it embodied (till Joni Mitchell, who never actually made it to the site, wrote her song), but I guess it was too nuanced in sentiment and too complex musically to sing along with. It doesn’t have any hooks or gimmicks. Just unlimited intelligence, beauty and depth that belie the simpiness of the Woodstock performance, even if I did subscribe to it back then, wide-eyed, innocent and optimistic.
I’d like to go back to that Cole Porter comparison for a moment. I have unqualified respect for Porter’s wit, his gentility, his elegance. It speaks for an entire era. But I come from a different generation. As entertaining as “And that’s why birds do it, bees do it, Even educated fleas do it” may be, these aren’t sentiments that profoundly inform me or edify me. At best, it’s urbane, ‘cute’. John Sebastian’s song has been in my heart and soul and ears and throat for over 50 years. I’ve visited it over and over, quoted it and taught it and referred to it every time I’m puzzled by the conundrums of how parents and kids can possibly communicate when they share no common language. Well, I’ve made sure my own kids know this song by heart (and in their hearts), and I hope that gives them some insight into where Dad’s head is. John Sebastian explained it much better than I could. And if my children should happen some day to play this song for their children, well, I’ll be one happy, happy aging hippie.
If you enjoyed this posting, you may also enjoy:
061: The Doobie Brothers, ‘What a Fool Believes’
070: Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’
072: Stephen Stills, ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (“Just Roll Tape”)
SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here. Likewise, the photographs used are intended for non-commercial purposes only.
Your passion for JB Sebastion makes me smile (okay, maybe a tiny bit of a smirk…). I’m not really of that generation – I wasn’t yet a bar mitzva when he played at Woodstock – which is probably why I [merely] enjoy his music while feeling no urge to wax philosophical about it. I would have to agree with you, though, that his music still makes me feel good.
I couldn’t agree more that John Sebastian qualifies as his generation’s Cole Porter. As cute and smart as Porter could be, he wrote, ” let the love that was once a fire remain an ember, let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember.”
One of my favorite lines from any Sebastian song is, “for the great relief of having you to talk to.”
A reunion of lovers feeling like physical relief from longing and loneliness.
Sebastian shared the Porter gift, his ability to effortlessly wed words to music.
Urbane sophisticate meets compleat hippie.
Said better than I could have.
It’s only recently that I looked up the last word in a line that I didn’t quite get in Darling Be Home Soon, one my favourite songs of Sebastian’s. Now I realize why I didn’t get it:
“It’s not just these few hours but I’ve been waiting since I toddled”
Toddled? Is he saying he’s waited since he was a toddler? Sure it rhymes with “dawdled”, but for the great JB, it seems a bit a lapse. Poetic licence, I suppose. A tiny, insignificant blip in an otherwise masterful catalog of lyrics.
I know what you mean, but I find the word SO charming, both words, both for their diction (level of informality) and for their meaning that I’ll take the mis-rhyme as a whimsical gesture. He’s a fine lyricist, I agree. A real craftsman. I guess he just couldn’t resist it. I’m glad he didn’t.
He’s terrific, it’s true. But he didn’t produce anything noteworthy after Welcome Back, Kotter, did he? I wonder why. Also, since you mentioned Zal, I wonder if the group they formed was a special kind of stimulus to Sebastian’s composing. Judging from the videos on YouTube, Zal was a live-wire onstage but also, apparently, personally obnoxious. I remember Sebastian saying that Zal attacked him physically in an airplane. If I remember correctly, it was because he accused him of writing sappy songs after he met his wife. And Kris Kristofferson, in another video says that he hired Zal to go on tour with him and Zal warned him that he would eventually have to fire him which he did.
As usual, I have several comments. John Sebastian was and is a brilliant writer and musician. In my opinion, he and Zal Zanovsky were both acerbic and more rough around the edges than their music suggested. I think that’s
why they got along as well as they did even though it eventually caused their disruption. By the way, may Zal rest in peace. It’s been 20 years, hard living,
early death. The “Spoonful” kept our faith in American music alive—how gorgeous. I have seen versions of the band without Sebastian or Zanovsky and they still entertain. I believe John realized early on that he ruined his voice
with too much smoking. He now prefers the sidelines. He is missed.