“A quarter of my life is almost past”

Not talking about me, I’d need to live to be, um, very old. I’m talking about John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful, a wonderful group from the US, who recorded the achingly beautiful Darlin’ Be Home Soon in late 1966. (They loved an apostrophe.)

In 1966 Francis Ford Coppola commissioned Sebastian to write music for the his film You’re a Big Boy Now. Sebastian said that he wrote the song as “pleas for a partner to spend a few minutes talking before leaving…. but you never knew if the other person was actually there listening or was already gone”.

After the recording was completed, the producer discovered that an engineer had mistakenly erased Sebastian’s vocal track, so he had to re-record it the next day. Sebastian said: “What you hear on the record is me, a half hour after learning that my original vocal track had been erased. You can even hear my voice quiver a little at the end. That was me thinking about the vocal we lost and wanting to kill someone.”

Zal Yanovsky, Lovin’ Spoonful’s lead guitarist, hated the song. He thought it was sappy, and accused Sebastian of going soft. During a performance on The Ed Sullivan Show Yanovsky clowned about mocking Sebastian’s heartfelt delivery. Come on Zal, don’t be so rude. No-one had cancelled the Beatles after Yesterday, or the Stones after As Tears Go By. And Lovin’ Spoonful’s Daydream wasn’t exactly Long Tall Sally now, was it?

Despite these unpromising incidents, it’s the tenderest, sweetest song about missing a loved one. Sebastian wooed the crowd with it at an impromptu performance at Woodstock. It even rhymes dawdled with toddled. But…do you remember being confused by this line from Paul Simon?

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song
I'm twenty-two now, but I won't be for long

Well, Darling Be Home Soon has a line which is just as baffling:

A quarter of my life is almost past

How could he possibly know that? Did he know how long he was going to live? And almost? What spurious precision is this? Did he recalculate the fraction each time he sang the song in his career?

So, John Sebastian was born on 17th March 1944. Let’s say he wrote the song in September 1966, when he was twenty-two and a half. For that to be a quarter of his life, he must live to be ninety. I suppose we can be generous about the almost – after all, almost might be a few seconds earlier. Still, it seems presumptuous to promise yourself ninety years. But he’s doing fine, he’s 78 and let’s hope he’s in good health and gets there – the man who brought us this beautiful song, and the marvellous Summer in the City deserves nothing less. All being well here, I certainly intend to raise a glass to him on 17th March 2034. I’ve put a note in my diary.

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