Mark Sebastian Tells the Real Story
He is a kindred spirit. He’s seen the land from coast to coast. Eastern waters and the western, Pacific shores are familiar to him. So is the music, from the soul songs of Detroit, to the urban blues of New York City. The easy pop texture of his brother’s legendary band the Lovin’ Spoonful is there, but so is the lush blue Pacific harmony of the Wilson brothers. He’s played the clubs, bars, and festivals haunting the shadows of legends. He holds his own legend in his story. In the timbre of his voice, it’s easy to hear his brother John, his friend Brian, an admired singer like Smokey… It’s all there in his songs. It is the real story. It goes like this:
Growing up in New York City, during his childhood, Mark Sebastian and his older brother John looked forward to summer camp in New Hampshire. It meant getting out of the hot craziness of the city for a few weeks, into the fresh air. Then, one summer, their mother decided her budget wouldn’t allow it. So, rather, they spent a reluctant summer in the city. Mark brewed a song. He saw himself as a soul singer lamenting the loss of something. He kept it to himself – his own childhood dream song. Later, Mark was gifted with his brother’s hand-me-down guitar. He was 14. That was when the song he had carried with him began to rise into a soul song in ¾ timing. He called it “Summer in the City.” When he played it for his recently crowned pop star brother, John Sebastian, the singer decided he could do something with it. He re-wrote the verses for more punch, added memorable musical interludes from his bandmate Steve Boone, and the rest, as they say, is pop music history.
The only #1 hit of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s career, “Summer in the City” allowed Mark Sebastian into that rare group of songwriters who had major life-altering hit songs while still in their teens. He found himself in the company of artists like Paul Anka, Carol King, and Neil Sedaka.
Since that time, over five decades ago, “Summer in the City” has worked its way into the fabric of America’s musical imagination. It’s been used in movies, television, and commercials. It has the distinction of being the inspiration and title of legendary German director Wim Wender’s first feature film. It can still be heard daily on the radio and over the Internet. It’s been covered by the likes of Quincy Jones, BB King, Joe Jackson and Styx.
For a 14 year-old boy, whose older brother was appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show and other national television shows while charting hit songs on a fairly regular basis, the song, it’s journey into his life, was like a dream come true, a rock & roll fantasy turned reality. As Sebastian himself described it, “it was like I was that kid in Almost Famous!”
Although, during the 60’s, Sebastian would stand in his brother’s famous shadow much of the time, the shade was cool and it allowed more opportunity than most young artists had starting out. His course seemed charted for him and he was ready for the ride.
But, his story is much more than that. He possesses his own unique talent in a way that may be related to John Sebastian – they are, after all, brothers – but it finds its home somewhere in a world of pop-rock that is harmonic, soulful and carries its own brand of song craft. It’s a unique vantage point that has allowed him to keep his art alive while he rode the wave of folk and pop rock from coast to coast over the years.
By the time he was 17, Sebastian had fronted bands on Long Island. He soon enough found himself in the middle of the singer-songwriter boom, opening as a solo performer for artists like Paul Siebel and Eric Andersen. He was a regular at legendary East Coast venues like The Gaslight and the Bitter End.
As the 70’s moved on, some songwriters were signed and others cast aside, Sebastian traveled to England and Italy where he explored electronic music. On returning to the states a few years later, he found himself in the perpetual summer land of Southern California. “I wasn’t signed to a record company, but I kept doing gigs.” He says. “I’d try to get some interest in my own songs, but I didn’t do ‘Summer in the City’ back then. Still, agents would try to sell me as the guy who wrote the song.” On the West Coast, just like back East, he found himself opening for the best in local L.A. venues like the Troubadour and Ash Grove, with artists like Laura Nyro, Maria Muldar, Eric Burdon, and Robbie Krieger of The Doors.
According to his stories, the Beach Boys and especially Brian Wilson illuminate his past and present no less than his brother and the Lovin’ Spoonful. While staying at his brother’s place in Laurel Canyon during the early 70’s, he received a phone call late at night. It was Brian Wilson. One of Wilson’s habits was to drive-by call friends at all hours of the night.
“When I realized it was him, I lost it.” Mark says. “I had been an admirer of his for years.” Brian had written a song and could hear John Sebastian’s voice on it. “After we’d talked for a while, he said my voice sounded a lot like John’s. So he asked me to sing it. He asked me to come over right then. He paid for a cab to deliver me to his home in Bel Air.”
As the evening and the relationship moved along, Mark became part of the scene in the rare days when Brian Wilson was accessible to a select and lucky few. “I became the guy who had to get him out of bed when he had meetings with record executives or he had songwriting sessions,” he says. “Brian wanted to help me get a record contract with Warner Brothers. He wanted to produce my album. But a recording career never worked out. I know Brian intended to produce that album. We had meetings with Warner’s and even with Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnston. Brian was so generous with his time and energy. I’ll always appreciate it.”
Listening to his new album, The Real Story, it becomes clear that the R&B driven pop music of the 60’s is a driving force, but so is style and arrangement of the mid-period Beach Boys. He learned from Brian Wilson and the sound finds its way on the The Real Story. Many of the songs on the new album would fit comfortably alongside Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile. If you listen close to the instrumentation and arrangements on the songs, you’ll hear the whisper of Brian Wilson’s finest melodic and symphonic work. You may hear an echo of Jimmy Webb working out his memorable pop songs. The Real Story is about romantic soul songs, Piedmont blues – including a beautifully working out of Jim Jackson’s “Wild About My Lovin’” once covered by his brother’s band and masterful originals, textured folk-pop tunes that are carefully crafted. Each song on the new album is a gem in its own way.
His vocal similarity to John Sebastian is there. Being brothers lends a similarity that must be tied to genetics in some way, but it’s not identical. He gets funky on the old blues styled tunes like “Howlin’” with brother John on a nasty blues harp, then he turns around and sails into a romantic sunset on songs like “A Time For Lovers” and “Carol Ann.”
So, if the real story is, as Sebastian puts it, the spin we put on the stories of our lives, then his is the stuff of legends. From the Bitter End to Woodstock; from European experimental music to West Coast Beach Boy-infused melodies and arrangement, he holds it all close to his core in a way that is relaxed and real. He’s an artist who has been waiting for decades to be heard, sometimes behind the legends of others, maybe simply waiting for the right time, the way a patient surfer anticipates the right wave. With The Real Story, it seems he’s caught that wave. It’s time for all of us to enjoy the ride with him.