Fifty years ago this August, a half million people descended on a small farm in upstate New York for what was billed as “Three Days of Peace and Music.” There also was a lot of mud, drugs and free love to go around.
Woodstock, as it was known, quickly became a defining moment for the youth of America who were rising up and speaking out against the war in Vietnam and injustice around the world.
One of the musicians who performed at Woodstock in the long-ago summer of 1969 was John Sebastian, legendary front man for the Lovin’ Spoonful, whose hit songs include “Do You Believe In Magic” and “Summer in the City.” He also had a solo number-one hit in 1976 with “Welcome Back,” the theme song for the TV sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
While Sebastian is tentatively scheduled to perform in August at Woodstock 50, a three-day concert marking the milestone anniversary of the original, at this point it appears it may not happen. Originally planned for August 16 to 18 in Watkins Glen, the loss of initial financial backing and a lack of venue permits are just two of the problems facing festival organizers, who vow the event will go on … somewhere.
“I was scheduled for the 16th,” said Sebastian in a recent phone interview from his home in Woodstock, New York (really). “I’m reading the Woodstock Times, and they say the goal is to now recoup money that has disappeared and get some strategy to have the festival go on.
“I’ve been paid, so it could happen.”
But even if Woodstock 50 implodes completely, this is one musician who still has plenty of gigs on his plate this summer, including a concert on Friday, June 28, at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.
In many ways, his visit here will be something of a homecoming for Sebastian. That’s because in the late 1960s, Sebastian lived on the South Fork and was responsible for bringing David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash to Sag Harbor in the winter of 1968-69 so they could write and rehearse the music that ended up on their legendary first album, “Crosby, Stills & Nash.”
According to Sebastian, he and then-wife Loretta Kaye had bought a home in North Haven, on Sunset Beach Road, from longtime resident Lovelady Powell. It was there that rock ‘n’ roll history was made when Crosby, Stills and Nash came to town in 1968.
Sebastian found a nearby rental for the trio, who were living in Los Angeles at the time, and throughout that winter they all made music together.
Among the other visitors who came to Sag Harbor that winter was singer Judy Collins, who was dating Stills at the time. The Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is named for Collins, who will, herself, be performing at WHBPAC on August 25.
“Days were spent at my house. I had the rehearsal home, essentially,” Sebastian recalled. “I had converted my garage into a rehearsal room … They worked in two stages — one was the composition and actual harmonizing, which I stayed out of most of the time. Then there was a little playing, and I’d come in and help out on the drums occasionally.”
Though Sebastian had lived in Huntington on Long Island as a young child, his introduction to the East End can be traced to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s bass player Steve Boone, a 1961 graduate of Westhampton Beach High School — and a former newspaper delivery boy for The Southampton Press.
“We had a couple of band houses along the way in East Hampton and Quogue,” Sebastian recalled. “Steve’s mother was a Realtor, and we would get in these houses and rehearse. Eventually, we ended up in Sag Harbor.
“It wasn’t all chic, which was part of its charm,” he added of Sag Harbor in those days. “There wasn’t much of a situation where I had nearby neighbors, though we did accumulate them fast.”
Sebastian’s younger brother, Mark, was a high school student at the time and he moved in with Sebastian and his wife and attended Pierson High School. But the singer himself soon began spending less time in Sag Harbor
“I was beginning to get absorbed by touring and being a professional musician. Once my wife and I split up, Mark stayed on,” said Sebastian. “He was in a couple of local groups, including one called the Smugs — I came up with that name out of my addled brain.”
When asked what prompted him to invite Crosby, Stills and Nash to spend some time on the East End, Sebastian explained that he felt it would be good to get them away from the distractions of the West Coast scene. He also felt the isolation of a Sag Harbor winter would help them gel, musically speaking.
“That was my reasoning. They were going to get sucked into this vortex of Los Angeles before they were as cool as they wanted to be,” he said. “I said, ‘Come out to Sag Harbor and you can woodshed.’”
By the spring of 1969, a few months before Woodstock, Crosby, Stills and Nash had left Sag Harbor and returned to the West Coast, bound for bigger things.
Sebastian was not far behind.
“As ’69 comes around, I move to Los Angeles, and the boys all go to back to L.A. Now we’re all hanging around Hollywood,” he said. “Right around then, I am pursuing my current wife, Catherine Barnett — an L.A. lady and one of those who’s hard to capture. We’re together 50 years next year.”
Also coming up on 50 years, of course, is the anniversary of Woodstock, and while many people who were there, both on stage and off, may have fuzzy recollections of the event due to various psychedelics that were going around, Sebastian claims to have no such trouble.
“I remember everything about Woodstock,” he said. “Anyone who interviews me says, ‘How high were you?’ I’m a New York guy — I experiment very slowly. After three days in the rain, I felt I’d do nothing professionally at this concert, so I chipped off a little edge of something. It did have a slightly psychedelic effect, but nothing that was lasting.”
And it was during the deluge of rain that Sebastian suddenly found himself center stage at Woodstock, literally.
“That was an era when security was nonexistent,” he said. “I had gone from the audience to the stage, and back, several times. All my friends were backstage.”
At one point, Sebastian found himself standing near festival promoter Michael Lang as he expressed concern over the large amount of rainwater that had pooled on the plywood stage, given the number of bands that were using electric amps. He wanted to get someone to sweep the water off the stage, but he didn’t want the music to stop.
“He said, ‘Find a guy who can hold their attention with an acoustic guitar,’” Sebastian recalled. “I turned to the right and the left — it was like a Marx Brothers’ bit. I said, ‘You’re talking about me? I don’t have an instrument, though I may have a thumb pick.’
“Michael said, ‘You have five minutes to find a guitar.’”
He added, “My luck was with me — Jimmy Hardin was backstage with his Harmony Sovereign, a very playable guitar from the era. I said, ‘Can I borrow this?’ I was back out on stage and playing.”
Sebastian played five songs at Woodstock, three from his soon-to-be-released album and two Lovin’ Spoonful songs.
“It was like a thunderbolt. It’s one thing to be at the back of the stage, but when you’re up and on, that’s another thing,” he added. “When I did get up there, it was remarkable. The performances that day were as good as they could be under the circumstances.
“It’s hard to imagine it’s been 50 years.”
But so it has been, and while his performance at WHBPAC will no-doubt be a little more intimate than it was 50 years ago at Woodstock, fans can count on the fact that many of the songs Sebastian performs will be from the era.
“Sometimes, I’ll skip over stuff I have trouble with psychologically or vocally. I mostly start at Mississippi John Hurt,” he said. “I’m not a ‘let’s neglect the big hits’ guy … I try to cover as much territory as I can.”
John Sebastian performs at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 28, at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach. Tickets $51 to $61 at whbpac.org or 631-288-1500.