Kid in the Village who wrote ‘Summer in the City’ looks back

Mark Sebastian, right, in Washington Square with his older brother, John, who would go on to become the lead singer of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Mark said he used to love playing stickball and other games on the road that used to go through the park, and also played a ton of handball against the Washington Square Arch. Photos courtesy Mark Sebastian

BY GABE HERMAN | Perhaps no song better captures the feel of hot New York days, and the edge of urban life in general, than the Lovin’ Spoonful classic “Summer in the City.” The song remains catchy and — with global warming — certainly relevant 52 years after its release.

Mark Sebastian, who grew up as a Village kid, holds a place in music history as co-writer of the iconic song. He recently reflected with The Villager about the tune’s origins and his youthful days in the neighborhood.

“Summer in the City” was released in June 1966 and was a hit during what remains one of the hottest New York City summers on record. It reached number one on the charts that August and stayed there for three weeks.

The track was edgier than the Lovin’ Spoonful’s previous work. Rolling Stone wrote that it “evoked its subject with urban grit and Gershwin-esque grandeur,” placing it at number 401 on the magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

Not only did the song originate from outside the band, but it started with a 14-year-old middle school boy, Mark Sebastian, brother of the group’s lead singer, John Sebastian. The brothers grew up in the heart of the Village, at 29 Washington Square West, at the northwestern corner of the park.

Mark had many musical influences that would eventually lead to writing the first draft of “Summer in the City.” The Beatles were, of course, a big one, but even before that, the younger Sebastian was playing folk songs on guitar, sometimes getting the chords and lyrics from the music magazine Sing Out!

“Because of the circle there in Washington Square, on Sundays I could go out and hear these phenomenal bluegrass pickers,” he recalled, referring to the park’s central fountain.

Mark also recalled “Hispanic or Cuban rhythm sections you’d hear in Central Park. Now they’d be called ‘drum circles.’ Back then, it was a guy with a conga. I’d sit there and listen to that and say, ‘What is this?’”

Both their parents were musical, with father, also named John Sebastian, being a classical harmonica player and mother, Jane, writing radio programs and working at Carnegie Hall when Mark was a child. His mom was also involved in the Washington Square Music Festival.

Mark recalled meeting his mom at Carnegie Hall after class at Friends Seminary, at 222 E. 16th St., where he attended grade school, and getting to hear rehearsals of many great concerts, including ones conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Mark Sebastian, seated, with his brother John, to the right of him, and other members of the Lovin’ Spoonful in the recording studio during the making of “Summer in the City.”

Mark and brother John would occasionally go to one of their father’s recording sessions, one time meeting blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins.

“That was a sea change,” Mark said.

Mark recalled the great influence of his brother, John, who is seven years his senior.

“I was very lucky to have an older brother that would take me out. He’d say to Mom, ‘I want my brother to hear this,’ and then Mom would go, ‘O.K,’” he recalled.

They went to the Village Gate and other local clubs, and heard artists like Nina Simone, Herbie Mann and Mississippi John Hurt.

One influence, though, was especially important.

“The number one thing was listening to your radio,” Mark said. He and his friends would watch the charts and track their favorite songs, listening to disc jockeys like Cousin Brucie, Murray the K and the WMCA Good Guys.

In the house, a lot of blues records were played, including Josh White and Lightnin’ Hopkins. When Mark said that when was about 12, “I started to look at the form of songs. There’s the verse, there’s the chorus. And so I started to write.”

Mark Sebastian grew up on the top floor of this building at the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. The apartment had great views of the Empire State Building and the Hudson River. But it didn’t have air conditioning — which helped inspire “Summer in the City” and its lyrics about dealing with New York’s swelter during a particular brutal summer. Photo by Gabe Herman

He would play on his dad’s piano when they lived in Huntington, Long Island. The young Sebastian would try to play something a little “rock and roll,” with a cool sound, he said.

“I had written a bunch of songs, a lot of not-so-good songs, which is what you do at the beginning,” he said. “As a novice, a kid, you get very prolific because you’re trying to make it through all the rotten stuff and write to get to something good.”

Mark doesn’t remember exactly when he began writing “Summer in the City,” but said it was at least the previous summer before its 1966 release. He recalled being home for the first summer in many years, having been kicked out of one camp and getting in trouble at another one.

“I was very rebellious,” he said.

The songbook in which Mark Sebastian wrote the original lyrics to “Summer in the City.” The band members later modified them somewhat. The writing in the songbook, which was done in pencil, has become faded — but the song remains a classic.

He would often lie on his bed in their 15th-floor apartment, without air conditioning, looking out at the Empire State Building and the Hudson River, while absorbing all kinds of music from the radio and records.

“I was really into soul music,” he said, recalling Chuck Jackson as among his favorites. “My vision for my song was a black soul singer…dreaming they could sing this song about how hard it was working at an everyday job.”

One of the original lines was, “I wish I could’ve found a job out in the country, maybe found a little shade,” he recalled, “about this idea of a hardworking black man singing this soul song about summer in the city. I know it sounds nutty. We were already in that idiom because we were listening to blues and Negro spirituals, work songs.”

“ ‘Summer in the City’ is not a Negro spiritual,” he explained. “But in my mind, I was trying to be real and trying not to be just a spoiled private school kid. I was trying to get my head around an experience. But really, it was just how hot it was because it was before air conditioning.”

Mark wrote the original lyrics in a songbook he still has. He said they were written in pencil, though, and are now quite faded.

He recalled the song developing over time.

“I kept polishing it,” he said. “Sometimes when you realize a song is good, you don’t let it be. You keep going back and go, ‘I could do better.’”

By this time he was in eighth grade at Tuxedo Park School, a pre-prep school in Orange County, about 45 miles north of the city. He went on to Blair Academy, but was kicked out by February of his sophomore year.

“I wasn’t really prep school fodder,” he admitted.

Mark recalled not knowing right away that he had written a special song, but noted, “I felt there was a universality because of the seasonal thing.” He added, “Like a lot of things, you don’t know at the time.”

Brother John would end up changing some of the lyrics, and after more work on the song, the final writing credits would include Mark, John and Steve Boone, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s bass player.

Mark, left, and John Sebastian together at The Bitter End, on Bleecker St. Photo by Craig Wallace Dale

Mark recalled the band’s changes and reworking of the lyrics as feeling new and exciting.

“I was kind of in shock,” he said. “I had never been involved in a collaboration before.”

By that time, though, the band had already scored several top 10 hits. He didn’t give a lot of pushback on the changes.

“At 14, I didn’t have quite that much ego to go, ‘Oh, well, I don’t want you to do that,’” he recalled. “I was so excited that it would be part of the band’s thing.”

Mark was surprised at each phase of the band’s use of the song, from recording it to including it on the album to releasing it as a single.

“It was once I was at the session and I heard what it was becoming, I thought it was pretty cool,” he noted. “But I guess maybe it’s the insecurity of being a younger brother.”

The final stage was the song’s massive success through the summer of 1966 and reaching number one on the charts.

“I was totally surprised that it was as big as it was,” said Mark.

Mark would go on to be in various bands as a youth and continues performing music to this day. He lives in California now but moved back to the Village for about 12 years starting in 2001 and considers himself bicoastal.

Some of the changes to the neighborhood he once knew have been hard for him to accept. Mark fondly recalled being a child and playing touch football or a version of stickball with friends in various local vacant lots — some of the bigger ones owned by N.Y.U. and slated for development — or at Washington Square Park.

“I surely have a Spaldeen tucked up in the fleur-de-lys on the inside of the Arch,” he said, referring to the classic pink city handball.

He and friends would play in Washington Square when buses were still driving through the park and around the fountain.

“We often had to let them pass,” he recalled, “then fetch our ball from the other side of the bus.”

His mother, Jane Sebastian, was involved in the fight, along with Jane Jacobs and civic leader Ray Rubinow, to ban buses from the park. He recalled being in grade school, about age 11, at the time.

“And I was there the day the last bus went through,” he said. “It was an eye-opener for a kid at what could be accomplished if you made enough noise about something in which you believed.”

Still jamming! Mark Sebastian strumming his guitar in California, where he spends most of his time these days.

However, Mark found more recent changes to the park to be more upsetting. Although he liked all the plantings that have been added, he was against statues being moved and strongly opposed the fountain being shifted a few feet eastward to align with the Arch and Fifth Ave. He even once confronted the architect of the park’s most recent redesign, George Vellonakis, to voice his displeasure. The six-year-long park renovation project, which cost $30.6 million, wrapped up in 2014.

“I’m not happy with the changes at all,” Mark said. “But I’m philosophic that young people are having new experiences, and my feelings are almost irrelevant, because what, I want it to be the way I had it? That’s the disease of people that have been around on the earth for a while.”

He said he appreciates that the park still attracts characters and artists, and that people continue to enjoy themselves there.

And Mark also appreciates having grown up in the Village, and all of the musical opportunities that brought, from seeing legendary acts to playing clubs like the Gaslight himself as a teenager.

“I was so lucky,” he reflected. Friends often had to travel from far away to get here and try to break into the scene, Mark said, “but I just went down the street from my house.”

“Did I know that was special?” he pondered of that golden era of the Village music scene. “It was just what was happening in my neighborhood.”

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