John Sebastian

Interviewed April 1, 1999

Here John Sebastian talks about underrated singer-songwriter Fred Neil, whom Sebastian worked with extensively in the mid-1960s, when Neil recorded for Elektra and started moving toward a folk-rock fusion.

How did you end up working with Fred?

It was an interesting coincidence that happened at Elektra Records.  I was recording for Judy Collins that day, if I’m not mistaken.  And the producer was Paul Rothchild, who I had been steadily making friends with, because he had been producing a jug band that I was in.  What happened was that Vince Martin came in.  And Vince and Fred were embarking on some of those early Martin and Neil records at that  time, but I didn’t know Fred at all.  So Vince said, gee, he was listening to me play, and he said jeez, you oughta come down and play with me and my partner.  We’re at the Playhouse Cafe.  Well, this particular coffeehouse was about three blocks from my house.  So it was very easy, even as a, jeez, I don’t know, a seventeen, an eighteen-year-old guy, for me to just kind of go down there and play sets.

Well, I went down and on this particular evening.  This is a club the size of a New York living room.  We’re not talking about anything big here.  This is actually–you know what it is?  It is now the…it just recently became a theater again.  The Playhouse Cafe was on MacDougal Street, just where it changes from Washington Square West.  And it is once again a theater now.  I just can’t remember the name.  But it’s something like…it used to be, not the Neighborhood Playhouse, but something like that.  And so, just in the last few years, it went back to being a theater.  But it was a very small place.

I went in there, and I was bowled over by Fred.  And after a few tunes, he was starting to kind of look around and seemed like he was enjoying himself.  And, you know, as an accompanist, this is the kind of thing that you thrive on, and that you work for, to be able to get somebody’s musical confidence in a relatively quick way.  And Fred and I began a friendship out of that.  In fact, I think Fred and I had more of a similarity of personality than Vince and I.  And I eventually became a very good friend of Fred’s.

The other person that I met that evening, actually, was Felix Pappalardi.  Felix was, he was doing five or six different gigs all in the same neighborhood, and one would happen on one night, and another on another.  I mean, this is a wide-ranging musician, too.  I mean, he was a trumpet player and had a baroque brass ensemble.  And so, he’d play in the baroque brass ensemble.  Then he’d come and play this sort of folk-blues with Martin and Neil.  Then he’d run over to the Cafe that was all middle eastern, and play with an oud player in weird time signatures.  He was really a musician to admire.  And in fact, I kind of became his second, you know, his…I was almost like his apprentice for a while.  Because even though Felix didn’t do solo shows himself, he was accompanying so many people, and our instruments went well together.  The harmonica and the guitar could kind of sandwich a folk performer in a very flattering way.  And it turned out that Paul Rothchild also heard this, and we began to get work as a kind of a team that would kinda rock a little harder on something that was basically a folk arrangement.  Me and Felix.

So our relationship grew simultaneously to this relationship, with–at the time, it was Martin and Neil–but certainly our focus, as far as this amazing songwriter vocalist, was definitely on Fred.  And, as time went by, we began to kind of double-team Fred on Rothchild’s behalf.  Because we were making albums…what began to happen was that Paul would bring us in, and make these Elektra albums that were the material that we’d been playing at the Playhouse.  But Fred is, or he was at that time and I imagine probably still is, a very difficult guy to pin down.  In the days when astrology was a subject on everybody’s lips, I certainly was reminded of the fact that he had a very Piscean personality, the idea being that fish tend to see an obstacle and swim around it.  And I also fall into that same astrological sign, and I kind of felt a camaraderie with him.  But I also had had a professional musician for a father, and so I did kind of know what was required.  If you wanted to work out an arrangement, you had to play it a bunch of times.  And that was where it would be very hard to nail Fred down.  Because he was a, “oh, we’ll just feel it and it’ll work out” kind of a guy.

So it was Felix and my particular lot for many of those years to get Fred in the studio and nail it down a little bit, actually plan where a solo would be so that the guy would be ready when the solo happened.  A little footnote here was that my roommate, Peter Childs, is highly visible on those recordings.  He became another member of this “keep Fred in line” team.  Also a very down-to-earth musician, very capable, but not a kind of a flighty guy.  And he was tremendously helpful as well.  So I guess that’s what the relationship was, was that Felix and I were in some degree or another babysitting these recordings a little bit to help Paul, who we could see had an enormous job to produce these projects, and as I say to nail Fred down.

We were working towards the recordings while we were doing the live shows at night.  So we would start to kind of hedge Fred in a little bit, and there’s ways of playing that indicate when somebody else is going to play lead, for example.  You kind of back off on whatever decorative playing you’re doing, kind of play the rudiments, and it would be a way that we could get the lead guitarist to know that the fourth verse was gonna be where he was going to do his thing, and just little stuff like that.

Do you think Fred was consciously moving toward a folk-rock sound, from the more acoustic folk he had been playing earlier?

Well, I think that whether or not he thought about it, and–let me just back up a little bit and kind of give you an overview of Fred on this subject, okay?  Because Fred had a lot of friends in jazz, a lot of his friends, socially, were jazz guys.  And he had come–you know his background of being a kid whose dad stuffed jukeboxes, and he would travel around with his Dad.  He took in a tremendously wide spectrum music doing this.  And my opinion is that Fred was a natural linkup of these various musical styles.  Gospel very much included, because his early life, don’t forget, that he was one of the singers in a gospel group.  And so he had a very firm background.  And the thing that really was so different about Fred was that he had not only a southern background, but a kind of a–because of the music that he had taken in, he really was crossing–he was one of the first guys that was crossing racial boundaries in his style, in a sense.  In that this gospel music that he had inherited was very much the gospel music of the black church.  As is a lot of white gospel music (laughs).  Shall we say, most of white gospel music.

Some of his friends, like Odetta and Len Chandler and some of the black musicians that were our first real close friends, had an affinity with Fred that they didn’t have with the New York musicians.  ‘Cause we had very much of an Eastern background, and it simply didn’t include as much of that rich musical heritage.  And so, so then here he has this background in the church, but he’s hanging out with these jazz guys.  And the jazz guys’ whole kind–and you know, he’s a good friend of Lenny Bruce’s, and–the downside of these jazz musicians was that they were all very–they equated commercialism with some kind of selling out.  With some kind of a denigration of what they did.  And so this kind of selling out was something that Fred was very afraid of.  And yet, Fred really was this link.  And, I mean, you know, here he’d written “Candy Man” for Roy Orbison, and he was in on a lot of that Tex-Mex stuff.  I think Buddy Holly and him and several of the Tex-Mex, Buddy Knox and those guys, they were all friends.  They all know each other.  Being born in Florida, you have an affinity for Texas.  It’s a coastal kind of a scene.  Fred knew a lot of these guys.

So it was a very odd–he came to this juncture in music with a very odd set of predispositions.  And one of them was that you couldn’t just play rock’n’roll and sell out.  But the fact was, he was rock’n’roll.  He was the best of rock’n’roll, which is the way that rockabilly had inherited so much southern music, of the different races.  It was in him, it was really in him.  But he still was afraid of being tagged a rock’n’roller.  He much preferred the slightly more outcast position of folksinger.  And he was a great rhythm guitarist, but he had very little inclination to use an electric.  I think that was a wise choice, because that 12-string was a certain kind of a propulsion that you probably couldn’t get out of an electric instrument.  So he had no objection to anybody playing an electric guitar accompanying him, but there are certainly both acoustic and electric guitarist accompanying him in the various recordings, stepping back, including the Capitol stuff.  And some of the things I’ve heard just of him recorded at the Bitter End or the Cafe Wha? or several of the clubs around there.  Perry Letterman was a frequent accompanist of his; wonderful guitarist.  But the styles were always just this side of rock’n’roll.  And so whatever we calling it, or whatever he was calling it, it definitely had the qualities of rock’n’roll.

But there was no thought of making this an out-and-out rock record with drums? On his Elektra sessions there isn’t as much electric backing used as there was on his later Capitol sessions.

I couldn’t say there was.  No, I think that we were coming to this with a lack of familiarity about drums.  Because we were, in most cases, musicians who had been trucking in folk music of one type or another.  I mean, I guess I was the exception, actually, because I’d been playing when I was in school.  I went to this prep school in New Jersey, and all the bands were like four-piece rock’n’roll bands–you know, sax, guitar, maybe piano and drums.  Even basses were quite rare at that point.  So I had kind of played with drummers. I can’t say that I never played with any great drummers.  But I had had the experience, and certainly Pappalardi had.  But this just was evolving as what it was.  I think that–I don’t ever recall a discussion where we said gee, are we avoiding drums, or should we have drums?  I really don’t think that drums really ever came into the discussion much.

On his 1965 Elektra album “Bleecker and MacDougal,” it seemed like it was a big step from his previous Elektra album with Vince Martin, like he was really finding more of his own voice, getting more bluesy and soulful. Were those songs he had been holding onto for a while, maybe with the idea of recording them solo?

I think that a lot of them had been written during that time.  And there were still a few to come.  I’d say that maybe, if there were ten songs on that album,  that eight were already there and two were in development as he was making the record.  But yes, I agree with you, and part of that is that the Vince and Fred music was more related to commercial folk music, just by virtue of what you have when you put two singers and two guitarists together.  It’s gonna sound like folk music, especially if the players are–you know, I mean, you know Vince’s background, he had already been a teen idol.  Before that, with a song called “Cindy Oh Cindy.”  “Cindy Oh Cindy” was a huge, huge record in New York.  So Vince’s contribution was not as bluesy, but Vince very much, he provided a lot of the impetus in that group.  You have to give credit, because Fred was very lazy, and it took a kind of explosive Italian personality to kind of burst him out of that sometimes.  In fact, in later times, I sometimes ended up being that personality myself.  I had the Italian linkup with Vince, that certainly helped our friendship.

But I think you’re very right in that once Fred was sort of on his own on a record, it was–whether he was doing it consciously or not, and I can’t even say that he was–but what would naturally come out would be more of the southern musical hybrid.

I would guess that Fred had some influence on your own songwriting? I’m thinking particularly of “Coconut Grove.”

I was living in his house.  My wife and I were staying at his house at the time, and yes, it (“Coconut Grove”) was definitely Fred-inspired. I can tell you that, as a songwriter, the natural way that he could combine these various styles just by being who he was.  It wasn’t any kind of an alchemy thing of “we’re gonna pour a little of this, and a little of that.”  It was just who he was.  That was very inspiring.  And it also was a real lesson in how to let a lyric sound like it just fell out of your mouth, like you hadn’t really labored over it.  Fred always had that quality about his songs, and as a songwriter–at that time, I maybe had written two songs.  But I certainly was taking note of how effortless these songs sounded.

As a matter of fact, in later years, I began to get a little critical about them.  And say well Jesus Christ, you had this genius two verses, why didn’t you write the third verse, for god’s sake?  And in fact, that was the only place that I could actually say I had any influence on Fred, was that occasionally I did get up the nerve to say, gee, we’re kind of going back to this first verse faster than I really feel like doing it.  Couldn’t we have another verse, Fred?  And so that was part of the pincer movement that Felix and I were helping to apply.  As I say, it was sort of on Paul Rothchild’s behalf.

Did you keep in touch with Fred after you were involved with the Lovin’ Spoonful and he left Elektra?

Did keep in touch but not on the recordings.  And, I hate to be the only nay-sayer here, but I’ve always felt like the Capitol Recordings were a real letdown, and a real, “Oh, let’s just give up and let Fred have his head and underachieve.”  And recently that compilation come out in which the, I don’t know, I felt that the impression–I even wrote some of the liner notes for the thing–when I listened to it, I was reminded of that Capitol material and how it really didn’t have that tautness that was created by having Pappalardi and I bugging the hell out of him about these arrangements and things.  I think that it was inferior to the Elektra body of work, simply because it did not have the effort.  This unfortunately involves somebody who has since passed away, this guy Nik Venet.  When he writes about Fred and those sessions, he makes it sound like this was a real accomplishment to kind of let Fred have his head, have his way.  But in fact, I thought it was a lazy man’s approach.

I have tried, in fact, to keep in touch with him by sending postcards to his accountant.  But I have lost track of him.  I don’t know where he is.  I think he’s in Florida, I do occasionally talk to his son, and I have occasionally spoken to his wife from that era.  She’s no longer his wife. I know that there was a tragedy that befell him in the middle years between when we worked together and now, where he lost a woman that seemed to be the really important love of his life in an awful kind of a car mishap.  She was trying to change a tire on their car or something, and it rolled on her or something, it fell on her or something, and she died.  I only know about that very second- and third-hand, so that isn’t me telling you about something I witnessed.  That’s very third-hand.  But I have always assumed that it might have really contributed to a style of life that was already part of him at that time, which was that he would tend back off from these commercially successful things.  Again, this is this kind of jazz mentality, this effect of having all of these friends that were in jazz.

Did you also cross paths with Dino Valenti, a contemporary of Fred’s? It seems like they were both key underrated figures in the folk-rock transition.

Fred was a little older than me.  He actually had more of a friendship with Dino than I did.  From what I knew of him, he was socially a very, he had a lot of friends.  He was somebody whose social life was important to him, I think.  He was the opposite of Fred.  He was totally non-reclusive.  And a lot of people–I could see that a lot of people would mention him to you, or think of him in connection with these conversations.

Fred and Dino.  I think that there’s a connective link there, which is Bob Gibson.  Now I’m sure you’ve noted on some of those Elektra albums, there are thank-yous to Bob Gibson.  There’s a mention, and in fact there’s a picture of Bob Gibson’s daughter. All of those guys were very influenced by Bob Gibson’s guitar style.  Gibson was the first guy to take a 12-string and kind of knowing Leadbelly had done with it, and knowing how to jazz up a folk strum a little bit, Gibson was a masterful strummer with a very, very light and agile touch.  And when he played, he sang very light and easy, but the 12-string was really slammin’.  He wasn’t using drums, but he was getting the effect by just the use of accents and things in his guitar style.  And I know that it affected Fred.  Fred was very clear and very open on the fact that he learned a lot from Bob Gibson’s style of playing, and it influenced other people as well.  It influenced Richie Havens, I think. I think if you asked Richie about Bob Gibson, he would probably, that would be one of the people that he heard coming up that influenced his style.  I think that, like I say, both Dino and Fred were influenced by Bob Gibson.

Richie Unterberger
http://www.richieunterberger.com

Fred Neil & John Sebastian at Rolling Coconut Revue, Coconut Grove Playhouse

Fred Neil & John Sebastian at Rolling Coconut Revue, Coconut Grove Playhouse