Tuesday, September 30, 2014

John Sebastian at Woodstock: Peak hippie

When you think of Woodstock, any number of iconic musical images leap to mind: Jimi Hendrix electrifying the national anthem, Sly Stone taking everybody higher, Country Joe McDonald spitting curse words that still carried some shock value, even Sha Na Na pioneering ironic anachronism to the delight of the of the hippie hipsters. One performance that failed to enter the national zeitgeist, though, was that of one John B. Sebastian. And that's something of a shame, because John Sebastian's performance at Woodstock may be the moment when America attained maximum hippie-dom, for better or for worse.

Maybe more so than any of his contemporaries, John Sebastian could only have been a product of the 1960s. He was an unapologetic dork who somehow maintained a certain level of counterculture cred throughout his tenure with the Lovin' Spoonful, despite specializing in catchy, frivolous folk-pop tunes that made his Tin Pan Alley forebears sound edgy. Heck, one of the heaviest numbers the Spoonful ever laid down was a blues-rock track urging parents not to buy their children unfashionable eyeglasses.


Obviously when the newly solo John Sebastian made his unexpected entrance at Woodstock, the crowd couldn't have been anticipating anything too hard-hitting. Coming on the heels of a scabrous Country Joe performance, the prospect of Mr. Sebastian's lighter stylings probably felt like a welcome breather. No one could have known they were about to be swept under the most powerful wave of '60s stereotypes ever to hit the stage.

Let's start with Sebastian's stage banter, as captured on the Woodstock soundtrack album. Just before firing up a pleasantly gauzy rendition of "I Had a Dream," an audibly excited and unmistakably intoxicated Sebastian looks to the crowd and yelps:

"Far out... Far around! Far down! Far up!"


That’s John Sebastian in a nutshell, addressing a half-a-million strong crowd and using a once-in-a-lifetime pulpit at his generation’s defining music event to launch a volley of weak wordplay straight from the dad-joke handbook. But that’s not all. He follows up his multidirectional treatise with a truly inspired run of stoner babble that would make the most hardcore drum circles blush:

“I'd like you to hear a tune about... I guess about those discussions I was talkin' about that I seem to have had in so many small circles of friends around living rooms, around pipes when they weren't sellin' no papers on the street and we weren't walkin’ around this beautiful green place, smokin' and, uh, not bein' afraid. This is about... all of us. I love you people."

And the thing is, you can believe he really does love all us people, both those gathered at Yasgur’s farm and by extension the rest of us theoretically listening at home somewhere in the future. (In his defense, to the extent that he needs one, Sebastian has since said that he wasn’t expecting to play at all and was wrangled onstage by the show’s disorganized organizers not long after smoking a ridiculous amount of weed and popping a pill of unknown origin – although not, as listeners might reasonably presume, dropping any acid.) You could make the case that John Sebastian at Woodstock, or at least his stage persona, was one of the purest embodiments ever of the hippie philosophy.

Of course, there were plenty of problems with the hippie philosophy, as evidenced in the most famous segment of Sebastian’s Woodstock set, the performance of “Younger Generation” featured in the concert film. 


Resplendent in his tie-dye jacket, bleached-out jeans and sandals, Sebastian delivers what initially comes across as a sweet if idealistic dream of eliminating the generation gap and treating children as equals. But it doesn’t take long for the scenario to slide into extremes.

And I know he’ll have a question or two
Like, “Hey Pop, can I go ride my Zoom?
It goes 200 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

Now I’ll admit on the surface that looks a lot like John Sebastian is advocating letting little kids try hallucinogenic drugs, but… Well, I can’t actually come up with a but. He’s totally endorsing adolescent acid trips, and the crowd seems to be with him on that topic. After completely blanking on the next verse and enlisting the audience’s help in remembering his lyrics, Sebastian doubles down on the “more drugs for kids” message:

And “Hey Pop, my girlfriend’s only three
She’s got her own video phone and she’s taking LSD
And now that we’re best friends she wants to give a taste to me
But what’s the matter, Daddy?
Why you lookin’ mean?
Could it be that you can’t live up to your dreams?”

At this point Sebastian has moved into openly fretting that he won’t be cool enough to let his theoretical pre-schooler drop acid with his fast-living toddler girlfriend. But don’t worry – he quickly tells the crowd that, “No, it’s not true, because we’re doin’ it!” Thus reassured that they won’t subject their children to the same nightmare of a drug-free early childhood that their parents put them through, the masses give Sebastian a hearty farewell as he ambles off into the gathering dusk.

Now clearly I’m being a little unfair here. Those were different times, and the light of modern context makes a lot of previously acceptable things look rather untoward. Truth is, I kind of love ‘60s John Sebastian and his dweeby sincerity. For all the eye-rolling hippie-isms, it’s oddly refreshing to see someone so cheerfully dedicated to a mostly noble, mostly doomed movement.

Still, John Sebastian at Woodstock is as good an illustration as any of why punk had to happen.

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