Monday, May 2, 2011

Musical Closure

While the world was learning about the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden, I was undergoing my own bit of closure. As the big news was breaking, I was at the Oneonta Theatre watching John Sebastian open for Roger McGuinn.

Back in 1982, Sebastian opened for Rodney Dangerfield at the Binghamton Arena. Rodney was at the height of his popularity then, post-Caddyshack. Sebastian was a relic. His most recent hit had been "Welcome Back," the theme song for Gabe Kaplan's sitcom. Granted, it was number one in the spring of 1976, but six years later no one cared, not in the midst of New Wave and MTV. It was too early to appreciate how wonderful The Lovin' Spoonful were. In the early '80's, even the greatest acts of the sixties - Dylan, McCartney, et al - were finally hitting a tough patch of readjustment. Sebastian was a has-been, a goofy groovy artifact of a discredited generation.

There couldn't have been a worse match of audience and performer. That crowd was mostly college-aged kids looking for laughs, and the caustic comedy of Dangerfield. They were not receptive to a musician past his popularity and completely unaware of it. I'm sure Sebastian did his old hits; I clearly recall "Welcome Back" introduced with the complete certainty that it would please the crowd; it didn't.

There was much taunting levelled John's way, wry sarcastic cheering, but the worst was saved for a new song that Sebastian introduced playfully, or so he thought. In an attempt to revive the successful theme of The Spoonful's smash hit "Summer in the City," Sebastian explained how urban heatwaves lead to rooftop relief. The song was called "Tar Beach," and he asked the crowd to sing along with the chorus, which meant crooning "tar beach." No one did. As much as the former folk troubadour tried, he couldn't win over that crowd.

Later in the show, during another tune since faded from my memory, the crowd began to sing "tar beach." It was a complete mocking, embarrassing for the artist and, for me, cringe producing, though my discomfort didn't prevent me from joining in. I felt terrible for Sebastian, even worse when he tried to join the joke. It was sad and humiliating. I've never forgotten that moment and my complicity in it.

With that in mind, I dreaded seeing Sebastian last night. Would he suck? He wasn't very good 30 years ago though undeserving of such harsh treatment. How would he be now, his voice somewhat ravaged by time? I'm pleased to report that he put on a good show. See, these days The Lovin' Spoonful are legitimate Rock and Roll Hall of Famers and Sebastian has achieved legendary status. Nothing like a few decades to turn a washout into an icon.

Sebastian's voice was a bit croaky, but he generated much good will with his tales of growing up in Greenwich Villae and his sense of humor won over the older crowd. Sure, his recent songs are weak, and, though he was glib and funny, he had a healthy amount of curmudgeon in him. After chastising cell phones and auto-tune, he actually walked off stage, pissed off about someone behind the curtains listening to a device sans headphones. Johnny sucked all the energy out of the show with this prima donna move, but he regained his momentum. On the whole, he delivered and we all enjoyed his time onstage.

So, I feel better. Of course, there was nothing really that important that occurred on that Binghamton night thirty years ago when a bunch of college kids tortured a former superstar well past his prime , but it bothered me and stuck in my head. Now the harshness of that memory is gone and I'm glad.

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