Like another fellow who lived in the Catskills, Rip van Winkle, John Sebastian knows what it means to be away for a long time. Until his new album, “Tar Beach,” came out in February, the former singer and main songwriter of the Lovin’ Spoonful had gone 17 years without releasing a record.
In Washington Irving’s tale, Rip indulged in an evening of bowling and brews with a gang of dwarfs, tried to sleep it off and woke up 20 years later to find everything changed.
As he tells his own story, Sebastian casts record executives with small imaginations in place of the dwarfs. The affable singer, who will front a band at the Coach House tonight, says that he spent the 1980s and early ‘90s fruitlessly trying to persuade major labels that he shouldn’t have to endlessly reiterate the bright, breezy signature mood of his lucrative mid-'60s heyday with the Lovin’ Spoonful.
“Every one of the songs (on ‘Tar Beach’) has been on every (record company) desk in New York City. It’s not for want of trying,” Sebastian said of the long gap that followed his 1976 album, “Welcome Back.”
Speaking over the phone recently from his home in Woodstock, N.Y., Sebastian recalled some of the “pathetic stuff” he heard from record companies that turned down what proved to be a strong batch of songs: “ ‘Oh, gee, couldn’t you do anything a little more cheery and Spoonful-ly?’ Record executives by and large are so bereft of imagination, it’s really scary.”
Sebastian didn’t vanish during that fallow recording period. He wrote songs for films, children’s programs and other commissioned projects. He toured regularly as a solo act, playing to fans who enjoyed his renditions of hits from the Lovin’ Spoonful archive but who also were open to the new songs that finally have emerged on “Tar Beach.”
While the new album glows with Sebastian’s customary warmth and bonhomie, the mood darkens at least half the time as he sings about lost youth, relationships in jeopardy, corrupt political manipulators or characters falling into an existential big chill of isolation and depression.
The inventive folk-pop and folk-rock of the Lovin’ Spoonful was almost irrepressibly optimistic and bright. Such hits as “Do You Believe in Magic” and “Daydream” celebrated the joys of making music and the exhilaration of venturing youthful gambits in the game of love. The biggest problem in those days seemed to be how to stay cool amid the steaming urban heat of “Summer in the City.”
“We were in a kind of ecstatic state,” he said of his frame of mind during the Spoonful’s hit-making streak from 1965-67. “It was definitely a wonderful place to be writing from. But I don’t think you could sustain it through a lifetime.
“I’ve lived more, and I’ve been living a much more real life,” he said. “How are you gonna live to be 49, in a modern world, with the agenda set for you by the American record industry, and not be a little (mad)? John isn’t all that goddamn cheery any more.”
These days, though, Sebastian is upbeat. “Tar Beach” finally emerged on Shanachie Records, a small, New Jersey-based independent label known for its traditional folk, reggae and African pop releases.
“I wasn’t expecting anything,” he said. “I was thinking a certain number of people who have heard the songs in my touring the last 10 years are going to say, ‘Hey, great, I can finally get a recording of ‘Tar Beach’ or ‘Don’t You Run With Him'--songs I’d been playing for a long time.
“This album has sold more records than was expected, and it has been rather more well-received than major record companies might have anticipated. It’s a wonderful surprise,” he said. “I guess we had to wait until the world got a little more unplugged.”
Sebastian is looking forward to his first round of touring with a band since 1976, when “Welcome Back,” his schmaltzy theme song for the television show, ‘Welcome Back, Kotter,” was a No. 1 hit.
He recruited guitarist Jim Vivino and drummer James Wormworth from the Little Big Band, a New York City blues band Sebastian has been sitting in with on a weekly basis for a few years. Also on hand is Fritz Richmond, one of Sebastian’s associates from the Greenwich Village folk boom of the early ‘60s, on jug and washtub bass.
The four have been working on a new recording project slanted toward the old-time jug band music that Sebastian played before hitting it big as a folk-rocker. Before the Lovin’ Spoonful emerged in 1965, Sebastian made his recording debut in 1964 with the Even Dozen Jug Band.
None of the musicians who got caught up in the early-'60s folk boom was better situated than Sebastian to become immersed in it. His father, also named John, was a noted classical harmonica player who was open to a wide variety of music. While the elder Sebastian didn’t teach his son to play the harmonica (one of the many instruments Sebastian has played well over the years), he did help introduce him to some of his early influences. The family lived in Greenwich Village, the hub of the folk movement.
“I had a wonderful early life, which included people like Sonny Terry, Josh White and Burl Ives, who was an old friend of my dad. Woody Guthrie slept on our floor. Burl said, ‘I’ve got this friend and he’s in from Oklahoma and he doesn’t have a place to stay.’ ”
Sebastian was about 5 at the time, and not especially taken with the nasal, twangy voice that inspired Bob Dylan and a thousand others. “All I remember was I was quite annoyed by his singing,” Sebastian said, mimicking Guthrie’s homespun style, along with a snippet of the theatrical bel canto that was his 5-year-old’s idea of proper vocalization. “In retrospect, I go, ‘You (jerk), what were you thinking?’ ”
In his early teens, Sebastian was captivated by Elvis Presley. Then folk music began to take off in the early ‘60s, with its launching pad virtually at his doorstep.
“I lived at 29 Washington Square West during that time. I would wake up on a Sunday morning and listen, and when the bongos started I’d go downstairs.”
Able to play harmonica, guitar and Autoharp, Sebastian became a playing partner of folk-blues performers Mississippi John Hurt and John Hammond. He also started getting session gigs as a duo with the late Felix Pappalardi, who went on to produce albums by Cream and Mountain.
In the wake of the Beatles, folkies began transforming into rockers--witness the Byrds, Dylan and the Lovin’ Spoonful, which Sebastian formed with lead guitarist Zal Yanovsky, bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler.
“A lot of people don’t know about us (compared to) a lot of bands that came later, and in many cases didn’t do as much in moving pop music forward,” Sebastian said of his old band, which concocted a lively, varied mix that drew broadly and imaginatively from blues, rock ‘n’ roll, country and folk sources. Sebastian maintains that the Lovin’ Spoonful even returned service and influenced the Beatles--at least when it came to one of John Lennon’s signature fashion statements.
“When I went to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium, Paul and George were teasing the hell out of John,” Sebastian said, recalling a backstage visit with the Fab Four. “They were saying, ‘You’re into this Lovin’ Spoonful thing; you’re imitating this guy from America.’ He had funny round glasses and big, furry sideburns"--a look Sebastian had sported a few months before when the Lovin’ Spoonful played in London. “Fritz Richmond was the first guy with funny, round glasses. John Lennon got it from me, and I got it from Fritz.”
The composer of father-son songs such as “You’re a Big Boy Now” and “Younger Generation” has two sons of his own, Benson, 21, and Charlie, 7 (Sebastian and his wife, Catherine, have been married 22 years--a relationship celebrated in his new album’s most upbeat song, “You and Me Go Way Back”).
Sebastian also expects to make his authorial debut next month with the publication of a children’s book, “J.B.'s Harmonica.” The book is based on his own childhood, the main character being a young bear with the same initials as John B. (for Benson) Sebastian, and the same love of playing the harmonica. For the illustrations, Sebastian turned to a figure from his childhood.
“I called upon my godfather, Garth Williams, who illustrated ‘Charlotte’s Web’ and half of the children’s books that people in their 40s grew up with. He was a close friend of my dad’s--my first baby-sitter.” Like “Tar Beach,” Sebastian said, the book is a long-time project that is finally being released.
“I was joking with my older son: ‘It’s going to look like I put on a big push this year.’ But all that happened was 10 years of pushes came to fruition.”
* John Sebastian plays tonight at 9 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $19.50. (714) 496-8930.