ome time back I commented on Jimmy Buffet’s cover of John Sebastian’s “Stories We Could Tell.” It’s time I caught up with the original, and the phenomenal album it comes from.
John Sebastian is most famous for writing and singing the theme song for television’s “Welcome Back Kotter.” A truly forgettable song, it was a far cry from the jug-band roots which led to the formation of “The Lovin’ Spoonful” in 1965. The Spoonful’s finely crafted lyrics and skillful instrumentation still sound good three and a half decades after the group’s dissolution in 1968.
Sebastian’s solo career never really attracted popular attention. It’s incomprehensible to me that “Tarzana Kid” never even registered on the charts. Perhaps it’s just an indicator of my eclecticism, but “Tarzana Kid” is on my very shortest ‘desert island’ album list.
When I sat down to write this, I couldn’t find my vinyl copy; sadly, it’s never been released on CD. Panic ensued; my office was pretty thoroughly rearranged before I discovered it amongst some recently (read ‘during the last 10 years’) played albums. As soon as I replace my tired old turntable, I can build that entertainment center and organize my 1500 slices of vinyl.
“Tarzana Kid” is a slice of Americana, long before ‘Americana’ was a buzzword in the descriptions of bands like Sonvolt. Sebastian combines a delightful selection of his own compositions with country classics and traditional tunes. It’s a testament to his writing and arranging abilities that songs by reggae great Jimmy Cliff and rock icon Lowell George flow smoothly through tunes written for this album to traditional tracks and a new arrangement of a Spoonful hit.
- Sitting in Limbo — written by Jimmy Cliff and Guilly Bright (variously credited as ‘Gully Bright’) for Cliff’s 1972 album “The Harder They Come” which introduced the oft-recorded “Many Rivers To Cross”, this quiet unassuming arrangement sets the pace for the album. It reminds me quite a bit of Lester Flatt’s singing of Johnny and Roseanne Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone.” The two guitarists on this track bring a wealth of experience and tangential potential: Russell Dashiell’s only solo album (“Elevator”, 1978) featured Doug Clifford and Stu Cook of “Credence Clearwater Revival.” Amos Garrett has recorded with Todd Rundgren (on “Something/Anything?“), Emmylou Harris (on “Pieces of the Sky“), Eric Clapton, Elvin Bishop, Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, Jerry Garcia, and Paul Butterfield.
Paul Butterfield’s “Better Days” was the album which introduced me to Amos Garrett’s fluid guitar playing, neatly juxtaposed to Geoff Muldaur’s flashy technical prowess and Geoff’s then wife Maria‘s scrapy-but-perfect fiddle, and anything-but-scrapy-but-still-perfect voice. Another piece of vinyl to be resurrected, this will most certainly resurface here at EGBDF.
- Friends Again — A Sebastian composition, it features the interesting contrast of his banjo and backing (but not background) vocals by the Pointer Sisters. More upbeat than “Limbo”, “Friends” is a nice segue into the “Little Feat” cover to follow.
- Dixie Chicken — Covering a song by a song-writing giant like Lowell George can be a tricky proposition; but when said writer plays guitar and sings on your cover, it provides a certain seal of approval. Include the angelic voice of EmmyLou Harris, and you have a version of one of Little Feat’s best songs which I like even better than the original. The lyrics just seem more at home in Sebastian’s folk-infused surroundings than the original funky/bouncy “Little Feat” arrangement.
Well it's been a year since she ran away Guess that guitar player sure could play He was always handy with a song I guess she liked to sing along Later on in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel I chanced to meet a bartender who said he knew her well And as he handed me a drink he began to hum a song And all the boys there at the bar began to sign along
Lowell George’s lyrics told tales, usually from a slightly skewed perspective. Perhaps it was the influence of his time with Frank Zappa’s “Mothers of Invention.” Zappa convinced George to form his own band after hearing “Willin'” (recently called the best truck driving song ever.) This track is also the first appearance of the tragic Jim Gordon on drums.
- Stories We Could Tell — A simple melodic ballad with lyrics designed to evoke memories of times past and opportunities missed, but with a hope of those still to come. Jimmy Buffet’s excellent cover surfaced here in Paris or Alaska?. Barely discernible background vocals courtesy of Phil Everly.
- Face of Appalachia — With music co-written by Lowell George and John Sebastian, Sebastian’s lyrics weave a heart-rending picture of an old man’s struggle to impart his childhood memories to his grandson; memories of places and people who no longer exist; of an era long gone. With the largest ensemble of any of the album’s tracks, this conveys a larger, fuller sound as well; almost as if it wanted a full orchestration. Songs this good deserve more attention than it ever received. Fortunately, it’s available on Sebastian’s “Best Of” album, which also includes “Sitting in Limbo” and “Stories We Could Tell.” Witty and sensitive fiddle by the infamous David Lindley.
- Wild Wood Flower — Every folk or bluegrass guitarist wants to record a distinctive version of this traditional tune. John injects a definite jazz feeling, swinging just enough to remove this version from the ‘bluegrass’ genre and make it his own. Fun and spritely, unlike the fiery or morose feel of most bluegrass versions.
- Wild About My Lovin’ — Another traditional tune, covered by the Spoonful as well. This version reminds me quite a bit of my father’s jam sessions with his brothers and sister when I was a child. There’s so much joy, and an unmistakeable wry humor. Harder-than-it-sounds guitar opens the track, and holds its own throughout. Mandolin and slide guitar delivered by the venerable Ry Cooder.
- Singing the Blues — Never successful as a singer, this song’s composer Melvin Endsley saw his tunes recorded by such artists as Guy Mitchell, Andy Williams, Paul McCartney, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Stonewall Jackson and Ricky Skaggs. Despite my indoctrination into Marty Robbins’ version as a very small child, this remains my favorite version.
- Sportin’ Life — This sounds more like a traditional tune, and “Wild About My Lovin'” sounds like something the Spoonful would have concocted. In reality, it’s the other way ’round. “Sportin’ Life” was written as a collaborative effort by the members of the Spoonful the year it was recorded. This cover, spare and simple, is about the lyrics; and the lyrics are a bleak blues of a misspent life.
- Harpoon — The second instrumental on the album, this is a fun, albeit slightly disorganized track. The closest thing to a disappointment on “Tarzana Kid”, it sounds like it couldn’t decide whether to be rock, blues, or jazz, and misses just a bit on all fronts. Not unlistenable, mostly because the lead is John’s harmonica, but not up to the fine standards set by the rest of the cuts, and not really in sync with the feel of the album.
The strings on the album were arranged by David Paich, who founded “Toto” in 1978. David is the son of pianist and arranger Marty Paich, who worked with such jazz luminaries as Art Pepper and Mel Torm