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Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian On Tie-Dye's Roots: From Woodstock To Kanye West
Chrissie Hynde in the 1980s. Destiny’s Child in the early 2000s. Present-day Kanye West, sporting exorbitantly priced streetwear. Tie-dye, the psychedelic technique synonymous with ’60s counterculture, has reincarnated itself within nearly every genre and generation since Janis Joplin and The Lovin’ Spoonful co-founder John Sebastian played Woodstock covered in swirls of it. In anticipation of the festival’s 50th anniversary, Sebastian -- 74, and one of music’s GOAT tie-dyers -- reminisces from his home in Woodstock, N.Y., where he has lived since 1977.
You wore a ton of tie-dye in the late ’60s. How did you get started?
I had a great instructor in [Capitol music executive turned tie-dye guru] Ann Thomas. Annie really had it down. I met her at The Farm, which was this 46-acre artistic community near Studio City [in Los Angeles] where I was visiting several musicians [in 1969]. It was this last moment when Burbank was still a bit of a stretch. The property had been a hunting lodge back when there were things to hunt in those hills besides coyotes.
And you stayed?
Yes, in a Volkswagen bus tent left at the top of the property by a VW dealer who turned into a hippie. Annie lived in the lower house, and I just watched her for a few days. I started [tie-dying] stuff, and she said, “What you’re doing, your method, I call it ‘guitar fingers.’ ” She could see from the marks that my fingers were strong -- I was smashing the hell out of [the fabric] before putting the rubber band on.
Did you find the colors meditative?
I don’t even know how to meditate, but it is a bit of a meditation. We would have an incredible array of colors that we could make by combining one pot with another. You’d finish whatever you were doing and go, “Well, I still have this fantastic magenta. Hell, I’ll just do my sheets.” After about a year, [my wife] Catherine and I had tie-dyed everything: socks, underwear, you name it. If you look at photos of Pete Townshend right up until the middle of 1970, he was wearing a white boiler suit -- we stole it, tie-dyed it and put it back on the terrace of his hotel room.
Do you still tie-dye?
A couple of years ago, there was an occasion to do a jacket. I used a little bit of procion dye, which was nice but it didn’t have the wham. [At The Farm] we used aniline dye, which is a lot stronger. It reacts with sunlight, so when you’re working with a dye that looks purple, it will suddenly turn yellow in the sun. That’s what made it magic.
What became of your Woodstock tie-dye?
The jacket is on display in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It started out as a white Levi’s jacket and pants that I didn’t intend to make for Woodstock. I was just entertaining myself: One day I would do the tips of the breast pockets, then another day I’d wrap it in a plastic bag and only expose a part of it. Those pants -- I wish I still had those. They were stolen out of a laundromat on Carmine Street in New York. I came back to my laundry and -- it happens.