John Sebastian – Magic and The Muses

Featuring :

Do You Believe in Magic, Summer in the City, Darling Be Home Soon & Nashville Cats 

When you’re hot you’re hot.

Sportsmen talk about being, ‘In the Zone’.

A space and time where the reflexes are sharp and the mind is calm and concentrated.

A space and time where everything seems to happen in blissful slow motion as they focus absolutely on the task at hand.

All the endless hours spent training and acquiring expertise are now rewarded in winning performances where no thought is given to technique because it has been completely absorbed into their being.

They see what they have to do and do it oblivious of any distraction using the minimum effort necessary.

And, when you’re in the Zone you can accomplish extraordinary things. You can set records and ascend to the status of a legend.

Think of Joe DiMaggio’s scarcely believable 56 game hitting streak for the New York Yankees which began on May 15 and ran through to July 17 of 1941.

Whatever the opposing Pitchers served up (four of them future Hall of Fame members) Joltin’ Joe saw the ball big and clear and his bat did the rest.

When you’re hot you’re hot.

Think of the imperious Edwin Moses a double Olympic Gold Medallist in the 400 metre hurdles who won 122 consecutive races between 1977 and 1987, four times breaking the world record.

You could have set the hurdles on fire – Ed would have serenely taken that in perfect stride and still broken the tape in first place.

When you’re hot you’re hot.

No one has ever found a guaranteed formula for entering the Zone and no one has ever found a guaranteed formula for staying in the Zone.

What matters is what you achieve in the Zone for once you’re out of the Zone no amount of effort, alchemy or voodoo incantation can carry you back.

In the years 1965, 1966 and 1967 John Sebastian, leading the Lovin’ Spoonful, was hot. Smokin’ HOT.

He was in the dead centre of the songwriting, singing and recording Zone and like a musical Merlin magic flashed from his fingers.

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For that blessed period there can be no doubt that there was magic in him and magic in the music.

And, listening I dare you not to believe in the magic of rock and roll, not to believe in the magic that can set you free!

Zing! Zing! Zing! Go the strings of my heart!

Do You Believe in Magic, a top 10 hit in August 1965, announced John Sebastian and The Lovin’ Spoonful as supreme messengers of Joy.

Now whether you call, ‘Magic’ folk music, jug band music or rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t matter. For its all of those and more. It’s a technicolor head spinning fairground ride through a starlit New York night.

It’s the kind of song you flat out fall in love with. It’s the kind of song that plays in your head as you fall in love.

As your heart salmon leaps along with the ecstatic guitar licks and rousing vocals you want, need, to tell a stranger about the magic of rock ‘n’ roll.

Play that stranger this song and voila! they’ll become zealous believers dancing till morning and arranging to meet up for more magic tomorrow night.

I find four or five plays in row just about right for this classic.

John Sebastian had the rhythm and tempo of New York days and nights flowing through his veins.

He was the son of a musician father and writer mother whose Greenwich Village home became a home from home for artists like Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Lightning Hopkins when they came to play in the Big Apple.

Young John soaked all these influences up and listened hard to the radio picking up on the rhythmic attack and irresistible charm of the music coming out of Detroit and Liverpool.

He added his New York native sensibility and in the irresistible, always going to be a Number 1 record, Summer in the City’ brilliantly and concisely evoked the urban landscape of honking cars, ear blasting jackhammers, street stickball, concrete stoops, echoing air shafts, clanging fire escapes and refuge rooftops.

f there’s a better description of baking summer city streets than, ‘Hotter than a match head’ please let me know.

Sebastian (collaborating here with his brother Mark and Spoonful bassist Steve Boone) summons up the deadening heat of the gritty New York days but knows these are always survivable because of the promise of the cool night when, work done and dusted down from for another day, it’s a different city.

A different city where you want to find a girl and dance, dance, dance until the moonlit still of the night becomes the magical violet hued light of dawn.

A different city where desperate dreams of the strength sapping day become shining night time life transforming realities.

In the summer in the city, the great city, dreams can and do come true.

Most great rock ‘n’ roll love songs concern themselves with the comet like rush of new found love and lust or the gut wrenching aftermath of love lost and betrayed.

It is rare to find a songwriter who can write with captivating tender conviction about the deep but simple pleasures of mature heart and soul nurturing love.

There may be no better example of such a song than John Sebastian’s romantic masterpiece, ‘Darling Be Home Soon’.

Those of lucky enough to have found a true heart’s companion will recognise immediately the deep truth of, ‘I’ve been waiting since I toddled for the great relief of having you to talk to’.

Don’t matter what nobody says all of us are searching for, longing for, the home where our hearts can beat in time with another who has found their home too.

There is a lovely breathy intimacy in Sebastian’s vocal and a sense of sure, surging oceanic feeling in the instrumental accompaniment which always brings glistening tears to my eyes each time I rediscover its enchantment and realise you can, and should settle for nothing less, than to shoot the moon.

And, as far as pop songwriting goes from 1965 through 1967 John Sebastian was practically in orbit round the moon as Euterpe and Terpsichore the Muses of Song, Lyric Poetry and Dance took up residence on his shoulder.

While they rested there wonderful songs filled with emotional insight and droll humour flowed like a river in spate from his pen.

I guarantee that your day will be better if you listen to, ‘Rain on the Roof’, ‘You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice’, Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind’, ‘Darling Companion’, ‘Daydream’, ‘You’re A Big Boy Now’ and ‘Didn’t Want To Have To Do It’.

Its a roster of songs that puts Sebastian squarely in the premier league of 60s songwriters – up there with Smokey Robinson, Carol King and Ray Davies.

For a last example of his pop wizardry I’m going to leave you with his, guaranteed to give you a mile wide grin, backporch pickin’ and a grinnin’, tribute to the expertise of the great musicians below the Mason-Dixon line – Nashville Cats.

The effortless flow and folk poetry of the song never fails to charm. You want to know how to describe the best Bluegrass playing? How about, ‘Clean as country water and wild as mountain dew’.

You want to describe how magnificently fluent those Southern boys are when they pick? You won’t beat, ‘They can pick more notes than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill.’

Now we have to say that John Sebastian’s tenure in The Zone ended in 1968 when The Loving Spoonful effectively broke up. As a solo artist John Sebastian, apart from, ‘Welcome Back’ has never approached the glories of his heyday.

He has written warm and witty songs and performed them on record and on stage with winning charm.

He seems to me like an Olympic Champion who knows that he will never again take the Gold but who still takes part for sheer pleasure.

Euterpe and Terpischore have moved on.

The records happily remain.

Very few songwriters have ever bottled and gifted us as much joy as John Sebastian.

In in his golden period he produced a veritable champagne fountain of songs which can never fail to skyrocket our spirits.

Believe in Magic!

Notes;

Any Spoonful collection is stuffed with joy. I have and regularly play Rhino Records Anthology which you may still be able to track down.

In addition to his work with Spoonful John Sebastian aided no doubt by his sunny nature was a frequent collaborator with musicians like Fred Neil, Bob Dylan and Crosby Stills and Nash.

John Lennon, Lauren Bacall & Otis Redding : You Know How To Whistle Don’t You?

‘… You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and … blow.’

Spoken by Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart in the 1944 film classic, ‘To Have and Have Not’ these words were delivered with an alluring yet cool erotic charge in Bacall’s wonderfully husky and earthy vocal tones.

There isn’t a man alive hearing those words who didn’t immediately start practicing that whistle!

Just blow. What could be simpler?

After all what is a whistle but a clear high pitched sound created by forcing your breath through a small opening between your partly closed lips and/or your teeth?

Yet, the humble whistle which must surely have been the earliest form of musical communication practiced by mankind along with the handclap can like all forms of human language be freighted and graced with multiple meanings.

There’s, as above, the whistle of erotic appreciation and invitation.

There’s the whistle of almost subconscious reassurance when you summon that favourite tune (in my case Buddy Holly’s Everyday) as you are about to start or contemplate an especially difficult challenge or task.

A whistle can also be an urgent signal – look out! Look out!

As heard in a thousand war films as an opposing soldier looms into sight of the brave resistance band.

In sport the whistle is generally heard as the shrill admonishing marker of foul play – stop that now!

Again, the whistle can be your charm against the creeping dread we feel when confronted by our mortality – we whistle past the graveyard to keep our spirits up and those of the clutching underworld away.

When you’re absolutely sure that no one can find any fault with the work you’ve completed you can say with studied calm, ‘Take a look – you’ll see its all clean as a whistle!’

Of course, if you find as an honest person that corruption is all around you have a duty to become a Whistle Blower to bring the forces of justice and retribution hurrying down to halt and clean up that corruption.

If you don’t do that and just mutter about your outrage to yourself what are you doing but whistling in the wind!

Oh yes, the modest yet heartfelt whistle can communicate remarkably complex and subtle messages depending on the situations and characters of the whistler and the whistled to.

Ruminating on the subject has for a music fanatic like me inevitably called to mind the use of whistling in numerous songs across many genres of popular music. So many indeed that I have painfully limited myself to only four examples from the score or so that immediately came to mind.

Let’s start with the use of the whistle from a man, John Lennon, who had no difficulty with finding words but who did have problems with acknowledging and dealing with the powerful, sometimes deliberately buried emotions swirling around his deep dramatic heart and soul.

I can’t help hearing the whistle here in, ‘Jealous Guy’ as the sound of a man who has experienced too much and made too many mistakes reaching beyond words for the blessing and balm of forgiveness as much by himself as the lover he has wronged.

We may feel, sometimes, that we have the world at our feet yet we know that there will always be a part of us, shivering inside, that needs comfort and care.

Roll on John.

Next a record, ‘Handy Man’ by Jimmy Jones, that the teenage John Lennon would almost certainly have heard as he and Paul McCartney began to fashion songs and dreams of their own in Liverpool before setting out to conquer Hamburg and the known world.

Jimmy Jones, who possessed a fine high tenor voice, really only had two hits (the other being the charming and witty, ‘Good Timing’) but they were songs that still have an emotional heft beyond their undoubted power as vessels of nostalgia for the neon lit diner days of the 1950s.

The whistling here is provided by a genuine giant of popular music, Otis Blackwell, who composed jukeboxfulls of fine songs including classics like, ‘Fever’, ‘Don’t be Cruel’ and, ‘Great Balls of Fire’.

In 1966 John Sebastian the leader of The Lovin’ Spoonful was at the top of his very considerable game.

He had talent oozing from his fingertips and a sunny disposition that promised that the world was a wonderful playground where adventures a plenty were just waiting to be discovered.

He manged to be both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and a songwriter of considerable range and sophistication moving from the euphoric attack of, ‘Do you Believe in Magic’ to the tenderest romantic lullaby of, ‘Darling Be Home Soon’.

Sebastian provides the lovely, easy, hammock swinging whistle here in the drowsily beautiful, ‘Daydream’. May you have such a day soon!

Finally, and poignantly, I have to conclude with one of the signature songs of the 1960s from a voice for the ages. Otis Redding with the first record released after his untimely death, ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’.

The tide rolled away for Otis as it will for you and me but while we have breath this song will be his testament and our consolation.

God Bless You Otis!

 

Footnote:

Sadly since this post was written and published Lauren Bacall died.

I dedicate this post to the memory of wonderful actress and hell of a broad who created more than her fair share of Immortal Moments.