30 Mar Donovan et al.

One of the benefits of being a working musician is that I get into places I’d never get into otherwise—the Washington Press Club, say, or Robert Mondavi’s villa. And I get to do it as an insider. Musicians inhabit that gray area between staff and events coordinator. We arrive early, stay late, and get access to everything behind the scenes — the kitchens (some of them are horror shows) and dressing rooms and rear passages. When the guests are asked to leave the hors d’oeuvres table and sit down, we can say to the servers who are shooing everyone away, “We’re in the band,” and keep on sneaking sushi appetizers.

Saturday, my jazz band performed for a fundraiser at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum, the first museum in the nation devoted solely to “outsider art,” that is, art made by untrained artists. It’s a wild place because most of these artists have wild visions, often brought on (or exacerbated by) mental illness. These artists are (or were) janitors or truck drivers or cotton farmers who, in their spare time, made a 1/50 scale replica of, say, the Titanic with match sticks or pointillist paintings done with a darning needle or a collage made from twenty years’ worth of gum wrappers. I never tire of visiting the museum. It feeds the head and heart as few museums can. Check out a sample show: AVAM

The guest of honor at Saturday’s fundraiser was Patch Adams, the medical doctor whose unorthodox methods – using humor to help patients – won him fame and notoriety. Robin Williams played him in the 1998 movie, ”Patch Adams,” which was another of Williams’s mawkish muck-ups. Having seen the movie, I didn’t have high expectations of Dr. Adams. But he surprised me. He’s down-to-earth, funny, and a genuine do-gooder, setting up free medical clinics around the world. He’s visually striking too: a big guy, six-four, with a grey pony-tail to his waist and a bushy mustache, he dresses like the original hippy, vested, multi-layered tie-dyed, necklaced. His best line: “If you have only a week to live, I’m your man.”

As this was the Visionary Art Museum, the two-hundred diners, many in formal wear, were be-decked in strings of blinking lights and funny hats. Some wore costumes. All were here, presumably, because they had deep pockets and were keeping the museum solvent. As you know, it’s hard to keep much of anything going nowadays.

During one our breaks, I was eating a tepid chicken dinner in the corner of the room with my bandmates (we are always grateful and surprised when the hosts give us the same meal as the guests’; usually we get a club sandwich) and I heard the MC introduce a man named Donovan, who would be doing a benefit with Sir Paul McCartney on April 4. I couldn’t see the stage from my seat. But I could hear: Donovan was an Englishman. I figured he was just another rich guy like the rest in the room. Then I turned my attention to my plate, thinking my sautéed French beans were pretty good, though the chicken was predictably dry. This Donovan guy said words were really important to him. Then he began reading a poem. Our piano player said, “He could read a grocery list and make it sound good.”

I might have zoned out for a moment because the next thing I heard was “That’s John Sebastian on stage,” to which I said, “No way.” But, sure enough, it was John Sebastian, the singer/song-writer who led the Lovin’ Spoonful through eight hits in the 1960s, then went on to a solo career whose highlight was the 1976 hit “Welcome Back,” which became the theme song for “Welcome Back, Kotter.” And the guy before him was – or was not – Donovan. Apparently Sebastian and Donovan are good friends and go way back. Leaving my chicken, I got close to the stage. Sebastian has weathered the years well. Though his voice is tired, he remains a good performer, humorous and chatty.

He was joined by fellow Spoonful bandmate Steve Boone. They did three tunes. When they performed “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” I got a little wistful and moony because it’s a gently romantic song, with touching lyrics, and its mood seems to make all of us aging Boomers too vulnerable, our dreams and aspirations framed by the optimism of the 1960s and the confusion of 1970s and now, here we are, middle-aged or more and all we can do is look back and shake our heads in wonder at how far we’ve come and how long it’s been since we first heard that tune and it’s amazing some of us survived.

Here’s John Sebastian’s rendition of “Mellow Yellow” from Saturday’s event.

I never did learn whether or not Donovan was in the room. But that’s what it’s like for those of us in the band. We’re often on the sidelines, pre-occupied with our warmed-over food and wondering when the speeches will stop so we can finish the gig and, if lucky, get home early,

Video: the Lovin’ Spoonful performing “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”

Sound clip of Donovan’s now-classic Mellow Yellow