Steve Boone, bass player for the ‘good time’ folk-rock band Lovin’ Spoonful, known for hits like “Do You Believe in Magic,” “Daydream” and “Summer in the City,” candidly recounts the band’s history to Richie Unterberger and the events that led to their breakup
By Richie Unterberger
One of the first and best folk-rock groups, the Lovin’ Spoonful were also among the foremost mid-1960s acts to play, as one of their songs was titled, “Good Time Music.” From late 1965 to mid-1967, they reeled off nine Top Twenty hits, from odes to the power of rock’n’roll (“Do You Believe in Magic”) and jug band-cum-rock (“Daydream”) to proto-country rock (“Nashville Cats”) and a #1 hard rocker (“Summer in the City”).
While the bulk of the top early folk-rock acts sprang from California, the Spoonful were very much a Greenwich Village band, honing their chops at the Night Owl club and practices in the basement of the Hotel Albert before their breakthrough to a nationwide audience with “Do You Believe in Magic.” Unlike many top folk-rockers, who (like the Byrds) were largely and wholly ex-folkies recently converted to electric music, the Lovin’ Spoonful matched two folkies with two rockers, helping the quartet make the transition with rapid confidence.
The Spoonful’s influence extended all the way up to the Beatles, whose “Good Day Sunshine” bears their imprint. “Daydream” and “Do You Believe in Magic” were even among the portable jukebox of forty or so singles John Lennon took on tour. Yet by 1967, the Spoonful were falling apart. By the late 1960s they were finished, with chief singer-songwriter John Sebastian starting a solo career.
Much of their demise was due to repercussions from guitarist Zal Yanovsky and bassist Steve Boone’s May 1966 pot bust in San Francisco. They were pressured into a deal where they agreed to introduce an undercover cop to partygoers in the city, one of whom got busted. A backlash ensued that damaged their reputation in the counterculture and the underground press, heightening tensions that were already brewing in the ranks, and probably hastening Yanovsky’s early exit.
Boone writes about the bust and the conflicts in his memoir Hotter Than a Match Head: Life on the Run with the Lovin’ Spoonful, co-written by Tony Moss. Yet the book also celebrates the band’s considerable achievements, and unlike so many such rock memoirs, does not just discuss their half-dozen or so big hit singles. In fact, in delves into everything they recorded, down to obscure but interesting LP tracks like “Fishin’ Blues,” “Butchie’s Tune,” “Four Eyes,” “Coconut Grove,” “Pow!,” and “Night Owl Blues.” In the absence of a quality, straight Lovin’ Spoonful biography, it’s likely to remain the best book about the band. I spoke to Steve about the Lovin’ Spoonful and his book after its publication on ECW Press.
“Do You Believe in Magic” performed live at the Moulin Rouge on the Sunset Strip at the peak of the band’s powers:
PKM: It was unbelievable to me that there hadn’t been either a Lovin’ Spoonful memoir or biography before your book. I don’t think it was your intention, but I think it might serve as the best source for information about the group.
STEVE BOONE: It wasn’t my intention at all. My intention was to tell my story, and how it segues into and out of the Lovin’ Spoonful. John [Sebastian] did write a screenplay called Do You Believe in Magic. But it covered such a short span of time it couldn’t be considered a memoir. And it was not very good, so it didn’t get picked up by anybody. Joe [Butler] is talking about self-publishing a book that he has been going at for a long time. But he’s also in the process of launching a one-man play, which is gonna consume his time for quite a bit.
But if this has to be the reference book, I’d stand by it. It’s pretty goddamn accurate. There’s not any punches pulled on this one. And subject to interpretation, I don’t think anybody, John or Joe, are gonna object. John has already objected, but his objection wasn’t factual. It was, perhaps you’re telling too much. But I’m not the kind of person that kind of ducks around the corner when a nasty moment comes up. And as you read the book, you know that.
There are things about the Spoonful that happened that aren’t pleasant. My copy editor said to me, “The only thing that I find with your book that unsettles me a little bit is that you do reveal some negativity that I just never was aware of about the band. And my image of the Lovin’ Spoonful has always been good-time, happy music.” I said to her, whose life do you know, either in business or personal, where it’s just all good-time? Everybody suffers setbacks and unpleasantness. It would not be an accurate telling of the story to leave any of that out for vanity’s sake.
PKM: It’s amazing the speed at which things moved when the Lovin’ Spoonful formed.
STEVE BOONE: Everything seemed to fall into one step after the other. I go to New York and meet with John and Zally [Yanovsky] and then two days later, I hear John and Freddie [Neil] and Buzzy [Linhart] and Felix [Pappalardi] and Timmy [Hardin[ at the Night Owl. That was a jaw-dropping experience, hearing those five guys play together. That cemented in my mind that at least I’m gonna give this thing a year, or six months, or whatever it was we decided on. It was like, I’m a fool to pass up having a chance to work with this kind of talent.
The reason I drifted into it so easily was that John had awoken in me a complete love affair with that easygoing kind of roots-type music. Jug-bandy music, I guess you might call it. “Wild About My Lovin’,” I think that’s the first song he played for me when we were starting to work up a repertoire. That was so mellow and easy to play, and it had a nice convenient message to it. It wasn’t learning songs that are just abstracts that you don’t have any participation in, other than learning the chords and the rhythm. It was just easy material to learn for me, and I loved it. It kind of opened a door to a whole new world of rock’n’roll that isn’t just three-chord blues songs adapted to a rock beat.
Only myself and then later Joe had ever played in a gigging rock band. John and Zally – nothing diminishes their musical skills, but they didn’t have the experience of playing with a rhythm section. For it to come together as fast as it did, from roughly March till May [of 1965], three months of playing at the Night Owl and recording the songs that we recorded. And then make our record deal in May, and have “Do You Believe in Magic” come out in July, it was as if touched by the hand of an angel. It was like we couldn’t do anything wrong.
But the only thing that we couldn’t get right was, the record labels all wanted us to have an English accent. Everybody loved the song. Joe Smith [at Warner Brothers] – “It’s gonna be a smash hit, but your boys don’t talk with an English accent!” Which seems so bizarre, but you know, that’s the music business. The pure magic [that] brought a band together that had never played as a gigging band, except for its bass player and drummer, and be good enough to go in front of the Rose Bowl and 35,000 people and bring a crowd to its feet, in three months’ time, is almost unbelievable.
Now were we rough and ragged? Absolutely. But man, the magic was there. It was just bubbling over. From May 1965 till May 1966 was the entire history of the Lovin’ Spoonful in that form. It existed for one year, and one year only. From May 1966 on, it was like a ship with a hole in it that was slowly sinking. And as it sank, the momentum went down with it.
PKM: A lot of people don’t know about your first drummer, Jan Buchner, who had the stage name Jan Carl.
STEVE BOONE: The reason Jan didn’t work out is much more complicated than his drumming. He was six years older; he was my older brother Skip’s drummer when they came up from Florida together. Skip, because he was intense beatnik, more or less fit in. But Jan just didn’t understand what was going on with the smoking dope and all the kind of weird stuff that people shook their heads about beatniks.
So Jan wasn’t a beatnik, he wasn’t a hippie. His looks just didn’t fit in with what was considered a contemporary rocker’s look – long hair and jeans and a T-shirt. It just wasn’t Jan. Jan was raised in a very conservative, I’m pretty sure, a prosperous background. So he just didn’t fit in. And Jan was a great guy. I never saw him after that, ever again. He just completely disappeared. Skip got in contact with him once, but that was it, just one time. Without Jan [who arranged for the Spoonful to rehearse for a few weeks in winter 1964-1965 in an empty inn in Long Island, the Bull’s Head], the band may never have happened.
PKM: There’s actually a tape of the only show he played with you that was supposed to come out on CD quite a few years ago, but didn’t.
STEVE BOONE: Yeah, it was gonna be the Live at the Night Owl album. The only objection to having it come out was John’s. And I’ve never asked him what it was. John is somebody, when he says no, that’s it. He says, “I’ll say no until I say yes.”
PKM: I’ve heard that tape, and I’m a little surprised that the Night Owl’s owner, Joe Marra, thought it wasn’t a good show. You sound pretty good there, and though Marra was upset about the volume, it doesn’t sound too loud or imbalanced.
STEVE BOONE: What Joe didn’t like more than anything was Zally’s volume. Zally played brilliantly on that tape. Jan and I, don’t forget, we’re just coming off three years of gigging three and four nights together every week of the year out in Long Island. I was very familiar with Jan’s style of playing, so we were a tight rhythm section.
Marra’s only objection was not to what we were playing. It was just it was too frickin’ loud, and people were running out of the club with their hands over their ears. It was a small club. Zally, and John to a lesser degree, just didn’t know how to handle electric instruments. They loved them, and it was great, the enthusiasm was what made the band sound so fresh. But they just hadn’t mastered the use of electronic amplification. And we only rehearsed for ten or twelve days out at the Bull’s Head.
“For it to come together as fast as it did, from roughly March till May [of 1965], three months of playing at the Night Owl and recording the songs that we recorded. And then make our record deal in May, and have “Do You Believe in Magic” come out in July, it was as if touched by the hand of an angel.”
PKM: It’s interesting that you went to Cafe Bizarre to play for a bit before returning to the Night Owl, with Joe Butler on drums. The Cafe Bizarre’s most known as the place where the Velvet Underground played a few of their first shows, in December 1965.
STEVE BOONE: It was a strange place. I don’t know how it made any money. They couldn’t serve booze. They served drinks that were called rum and cokes, but they just had rum flavor, there was no alcohol. And peanut butter sandwiches and ice cream. You wonder, how do these places make any money? It’s just a bunch of people sitting around, and they’ll have like a folksinger or something get up there. I guess they did, ‘cause they existed.
PKM: Something that sets your book apart from many rock memoirs is that you don’t just glance over your records, or just talk about the most famous ones. You talk about virtually every track the Spoonful did.
STEVE BOONE: Absolutely. This is one of the reasons I so bonded with [co-author] Tony [Moss] is that he’s not only a music historian, he’s a music lover. One day I went down to his house and we spent the whole weekend doing nothing other than listening to every Spoonful recording ever made, and I’d just talk about it. We did that with the idea that, you know, the Spoonful disappeared without a trace, so to speak. People that were fans of the band got to hear the hits, but there’s not much known about the Lovin’ Spoonful’s back story, or the music that comprises the back story.
I think that with few exceptions, every cut that Lovin’ Spoonful ever did could be an airplay song. Not necessarily to be a hit, but for something that would [get played on] FM radio in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, when FM radio was where people listened to real music, and AM was where they listened to pop music. I think that the Spoonful bag of songs is really quite eclectic, and it’s also interesting because it really touches a lot of bases. So that’s why I wanted to, in the book, enlighten the reader to the fact that if you haven’t ever listened beyond the top seven or nine hits, grab an album and listen to any one of ‘em. And you’ll find some stuff on it that you didn’t know about the Lovin’ Spoonful.
I don’t have the sex life or drug life that a lot of rock stars trade on when they write memoirs. So it’s either gonna be about the music, which it should be about, and my life, in and out of the music, or it’s gonna be about some highly exaggerated over-the-top putting-the-heroin-on-your-breakfast-cereal kind of story. Which frankly I never did, and quite frankly I could care less if somebody else did it.
The Lovin’ Spoonful on Hullabaloo in 1965, introduced by Peter Noone of Herman and the Hermits:
PKM: It’s amazing that your early albums were recorded in just a few days. Why weren’t you able to devote more time to your LPs?
STEVE BOONE: It is hard to believe. I’ve owned a recording studio. I’ve watched major recording artists come in and spend, like Lowell George, twelve hours on getting a drum sound. One drum sound; not the whole kit, one drum.
If we had been given our choice, we would have moved into a studio – Columbia Studio B and Bell Sound [in New York], both of those places we loved – we just loved being there, we loved the engineers, we loved the physical rooms. [But] we were working, and I’m just gonna throw a number out here, 275 days, including travel and gigs, out of the 365-day year, starting in July 1965, and basically not letting up until we quit touring with John in 1968. So we were on the road constantly. So, when we were given four days in LA to record, that was it.
And LA, it wasn’t like Bell Sound and Columbia Studio B in New York. It was in good studios, but people were standing there tapping their toe waiting to get in after you. So you couldn’t run late. You had to get it done. Finishing up the [debut Spoonful LP Do You Believe in] Magic album, we had to go to the studio from an airport. From a red-eye from New York, we’d land in LA and go into the studio, and then be ready to do a gig that night. So we were just being worked liked dogs.
Kama Sutra [Records] was started by, was distributed by, and was owned by guys who knew how to break singles into the AM market. FM was two letters in the alphabet. They didn’t have the slightest idea what FM radio was. We mixed to a seven-inch speaker on the top of the console. There was no thought by the record company given to making some kind of a coherent story out of the titles on the album. And with the exception of the last two, Hums and Everything Playing, we had very little input into what was going on the albums. It was just like, [a] “just shut up and play” kind of mentality.
Because it all happened so fast, just catching our breath from that was using up all the energy. Whereas some people would say, “I’m gonna take a week off before I go in the studio,” and the recording company would just sit there and wait. When Lowell came to my studio to record [Little Feat’s] Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, they took three months plus to record that album. And I say plus, because Lowell came back multiple times after the band had gone on to tweak this and overdub that. And we’ve all heard the legendary stories, Fleetwood Mac and especially the Eagles, of time spent in the studio. We never had [that]. Never ever once, not one single cut on any album.
Except for Everything Playing, where we did have the luxury of not having to go out and play the same night we were recording. But we were dealing with sixteen-[track] when we’d walk into Mira Sound [Studios]. There were sixteen monitors; they were so unsure of how to handle sixteen-tracks and playback that they put sixteen frigging speakers up on the wall. Submaster groups and all that stuff was just something they hadn’t gotten together yet. It wasn’t long before they submastered it down to four speakers on the wall.
So really, that last album was a work in progress. We didn’t have the benefit of a knowledgeable engineer. Joe Wissert was a great producer, he produced some real monster hits, but he couldn’t handle the sixteen-track thing. And so, the producer quit, the engineer couldn’t handle it. Jerry Yester had to step up and really, he’s the guy that saved the album from just being a dustbin kind of thing.
So we were A) worked to death and never had the chance to really breathe deep and spend time on the cuts, and B) the label and the way they got records on the air had nothing to do with somebody sitting back and putting on FM 101.7 and smoking a joint and listening to eleven, twelve, ten cuts, maybe with some kind of a sequential order to them. That was so alien to them that I don’t think they could even handle it if they were asked to experience music that way. All they could think was wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Get it on the air, get it in the top of the charts, get it off the air, and get the next one up there.
When that mentality is what’s running your record company, you’re not gonna have any direction from above. We tried to make direction from below, but basically we were given three days to go in and record an album, so you’d go in and record the album, and just hope it comes out as good…
I think Hums could have been as big an album as Sgt. Pepper’s, had we had a record company and a management that was willing to get us off the road long enough to put us in a studio to really concentrate, ‘cause we had a terrific engineer at that time. If we had that, and didn’t have two of the members crippled by having just done something really horrible in the back of our minds, I think that there’s no way you can describe how far this Lovin’ Spoonful could have gone up the food chain.
All said, there’s no villains here. It’s just that Kama Sutra was using its model, which had been successful. Getting seven songs straight in a row in the Top Ten in that case, there’s no denying that kind of power. So you run what you brung, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s how that went.
In the history of rock and roll, I think we had the shortest 100% lifespan of any major act. The whole creative history of the Lovin’ Spoonful was really compressed into one year, with the five hits leading up to “Summer in the City.”
PKM: You were considered to play the group on the series that became The Monkees, but turned the opportunity down because it wouldn’t have been right for you.
STEVE BOONE: It wouldn’t have been. I think that we could have done [it]. Joe and Zally are fabulous actors, and I play my part perfectly, which is the silent, shy, serious guy. John, despite the fact that he really isn’t much in the way of cane and top hat-type showbiz – I think we could have done a great job. Zally was just, “a star is born” – put the camera on him, and he just became absolutely the star attraction. And Joe, with his movie-star good looks, and John, with his very intellectually curious look. He had something to say that would transfer into a television appeal, the same way maybe perhaps Michael Nesmith had in The Monkees. I could have been Peter Tork, and Joe could have been Davy, even though they’re about ten feet different in size.
[But] we already had a hit record. We just thought that there was very little that can stop us now. Why would we want to change our name?
That was the dealbreaker. If we could have been the Lovin’ Spoonful, and had the show be called The Lovin’ Spoonful, I think we would have done it. But because they wanted us to be Stepin Fetchits and change our name, then it was like, “Why? We’ve got a hit record, we’ve got a couple more in the can. There wasn’t any kind of nervousness about where the Lovin’ Spoonful was gonna go. And heck yeah, having a weekly TV show would have sure made us very rich. But as soon as the words “you’ll change your name to the Monkees” came out, you could feel the air go out of that balloon. It wasn’t gonna happen. It was too bad, but that was a good decision I think we made.
PKM: One big surprise in the book is that John was married to the “Butchie” of “Butchie’s Tune,” though that was to protect him from the draft. [Butchie was a resident of the Albert Hotel, where the Spoonful rehearsed in early 1965.]
STEVE BOONE: I didn’t put that in the book as a way to punish John by any means. We all, and Butchie, was very encouraging. It was not at all sleight of hand, or a payoff. I think at the time, it just was a convenience for John; it was an insurance policy for the band and the record company. And I don’t think… nobody was harmed by it. I doubt John would have passed his physical anyway.
Butchie couldn’t have done more for the band. She loved us all, and was a terrific gal. Butchie played a big role in the Lovin’ Spoonful. Not only just being our mother hen and den mother, whatever you want to call her, but stepping up and doing that.
“Butchie’s Tune” off the Daydream album
PKM: You note in the book how “Summer in the City” was different from anything the band had done before, and reached an audience that hadn’t been Lovin’ Spoonful fans.
STEVE BOONE: That was important for me, because when the Beach Boys became popular some years before that, I was one of a very few people out on Long Island, or I guess what I call the East Coast crowd, that liked the Beach Boys. They were pretty much, “Oh, those surfer kids.” Long Islanders were more the rolled-up sleeve, and the pack of cigarettes in their greased hair and all that stuff.
So when the Spoonful came out, we didn’t get any of that respect. One of the first gigs we did away from the Night Owl was at a big club in Long Island where we were literally thrown into the lion’s den, and treated accordingly. [We were] pretty much ignored by the guys. The girls, we were just like a curiosity at a zoo, the way they looked at us. And the music didn’t go over very good at all.
So I knew when “Summer in the City” came out that those people that were my neighbors, friends, etc., were going to look at the Spoonful in a different way. My older brother Skip, his fellow band members kind of viewed the Spoonful as unlikely heirs to a rock royalty, because [we] didn’t play rock and roll. [We] played light rock, or they would like to call it “fag rock.” I felt very justified, ‘cause I knew that [“Summer in the City”] was gonna put an end to those comments. And it did.
One of the things the Spoonful as a group wanted was to not be pigeonholed by a sound or a style. It was just like a nice progression with “Summer in the City.” Having said that, I was very against what followed “Summer in the City,” as far as the single. I still will tell anybody that asks me that “Rain on the Roof” is one of my favorite songs we recorded. For the recording, the guitar playing was superb. I fell asleep on the studio couch listening to ‘em do overdubs, and I awoke on the final takes, and it was like I was sitting at the gates, and the angels were playing for me. It was just so pretty, the guitar playing. The song, it’s pretty maudlin, and kind of sappy lyrics. But to follow up “Summer in the City” as a single [with it], I didn’t get that.
“Rain on the Roof”
“Rain on the Roof,” I guess you’d say, could very easily have been a John Sebastian single, even though there were tremendous backing vocals on it. I think the record company was already starting to maneuver to what would eventually become the Key Man clause in the contract that we renewed in 1967. So I didn’t like that choice as a song to follow up a smash #1 hit. It just brought back another chorus of, “Well, the fag rock’s back again.” I know you’re not supposed to use those expressions nowadays, but I’m just telling you the words from the time; that’s what it was. I thought it was just a bad choice.
But in any event, “Summer in the City” really cemented us. Because we were competing more than anybody with the Young Rascals, soon to become the Rascals. The Rascals earned their bona fides in my turf, out in the Hamptons, on a nightclub on a barge. So there was a lot of my hometown homies saying, “You know, the Rascals are kicking your ass with their songs. When are you guys gonna compete?” And then we did. “Summer in the City” competed with anything. So I felt like that gave us a justification – not justification, but it was like, “Alright, there! You happy now?”
But if you read between the lines in the book, I think at that point, already we were damaged goods. Zally and me were. And without Zally’s 100% gift and mine as well, although I wasn’t as much a performer onstage as Zally was – I mean, it’s hard to describe to somebody who hasn’t gone through it, what an experience like getting busted and then having to do what we did can do to your psyche.
PKM: There’s an entire chapter about the bust in San Francisco in May 1966, and the deal you made with the authorities. Was that the hardest part to write?
STEVE BOONE: It was the hardest part, because it was cathartic. Tony asked me from the beginning, “Are we gonna be candid?” And I said, “Yes we are.” If some people don’t like the fact that I pretty much say we didn’t get as much support as I hoped we would have gotten from our management, well…I didn’t. I think that was a failure on our management’s part.
We were the first big rock band to get busted for weed. There was no playbook in effect. The record company, the management company – they didn’t have an operating procedure for what you do, especially if one of your members has an immigration issue. If it had happened a year later, it would have been a different thing. But it didn’t. It happened then. But still, to never explore whether the stop was legal, whether the chances of continuing a career with one of your members in Canada…If we had let Zally get deported and complained about it to our public, and the weak stop and search [for the marijuana] – they were both extremely questionable legal tactics – I think we could have weathered the storm. Of course we were all 21 years old and nobody really knew which way the wind was gonna blow.
You know, Zally came from a background of having FBI and Canadian authorities constantly surveilling his [Communist] father, and I’m sure rats and finks were everywhere in that movement, the Communist movement. And to have to do that, essentially become a fink – it had to kill him. It had to just drain every ounce of mojo that he had in him away.
“We were the first big rock band to get busted for weed. There was no playbook in effect.”
I could have taken my punishment and just walked. It would have been no skin off my ass to spend a month in jail or something. But Zally didn’t have that choice, or we didn’t even think he had the choice. And there was nobody there giving him a little bit of a pat in the back – you do have a choice, we can try the alternative. But the record company had so much invested in us, and the management team had so much invested, and there was so many employees that were all dependent on Lovin’ Spoonful paychecks, that it just was not brought up.
Management and the record company, especially the record company, were just determined not to let this stop their march to wherever they were going. My biggest disappointment, and the reason for being extremely candid in the book, was I thought we got bailed on by our management and record company especially. And I wasn’t gonna let Zally take it by himself. There was just no way on earth that I was gonna let Zally be the only one to swing in the wind.
And I’ll tell you, Zally and I had one of the most soul-searching nights of my entire life when we had to make that decision. It changed my life. And it had to change Zally’s. ‘Cause he, more than me, had the shadow of cooperation with the authorities as a complete failure of all your integrity. I think that it forever branded the band, and specifically Zally, and me to a degree. It was a scarlet letter of “informer.”
When we wrote it, Tony said, ‘whatever you want to put in there, man, we’ll do it. Just go for it.’ So yeah, we tried to be as candid as possible, and no punches pulled.
PKM: The bust is sometimes singled out as the incident that shortened the career of the band. But I think it’s evident from your book that there were other forces working against the Spoonful’s long-term stability.
STEVE BOONE: Yeah, I think it would be fair to say, or speculate, that had the bust never happened, the band might have lasted another year beyond what it did. I do believe the band was destined to become splintered by John leaving to go solo, bust or no bust. Almost from the first album on, John sort of had been complaining about having to write all the material. I was writing as fast as I could up until that night [of the bust in] May 1966. I was learning the ropes at John’s side. I didn’t have nearly the background in writing that he did, nor the education. But I was trying to catch up as quick as I could.
When you have become successful in the entertainment business – especially in something that’s got critical standing, not just made a lot of money – you kind of walk on water. And you can almost do anything creative, and it’ll be successful if you believe it strong enough. Once that night had passed, in my own mind, I felt like there was no hope that this would forever be a hidden secret. I kind of just was like a balloon with a pinhole leak in it. And I didn’t feel like I could walk on water anymore, and it was a struggle to even pick up a pen and try to write a song.
So as progression to album three came on, John was complaining bitterly, almost, that “you guys have gotta step up and write some songs, I can’t do it all by myself.” And I just didn’t have it in me. I think that [manager] Bob [Cavallo] at that point clearly was gonna move John on to solo.
I’ve never asked John in a heart-to-heart conversation about the bust. But you know, walking down Macdougal Street [in Greenwich Village], and people avert their eyes when they see you, when it was just maybe a month before and they didn’t know about the bust, they would have run up and [said] “hey, how you doin’, man, good to see you again.” All of a sudden people were avoiding you or not wanting to talk. It’s got to have affected everybody in the band. LA Free Press, they made it sound like we were Judas. You’d see a record store with our album in the cover, and a big line across it, you know, “Fuck the band.” All of that stuff had to make John feel like “I’m forever tainted as long as I stay in this band.”
So I’m sure in his own mind – as much as he loved Zally, and he cared a lot for Joe and me, I know he did – that he was ready to move on. When a boat is sinking and you know you can’t stop it, you don’t wait around to see who’s gonna be the last one to get off. Unless you’re the captain. And unfortunately, there was no captain in the Lovin’ Spoonful. We were a democratic organization, supposedly.
This thing was like a steamroller, I mean a locomotive, just chugging down the tracks. And there wasn’t much that could have stopped it, except what did. In the history of rock and roll, I think we had the shortest 100% lifespan of any major act. The whole creative history of the Lovin’ Spoonful was really compressed into one year, with the five hits leading up to “Summer in the City.” All done in one year’s time; I think that’s a pretty amazing statistic. You can say that we continued on in ’66 and ’67, and as a live act, yes, we did. And Everything Playing was a great album. The only thing that it suffered from was that it was the first album done by a rock band on a sixteen-track recorder.
PKM: You talk about the financial problems you had with your record deals in the book. In Jac Holzman’s oral history of Elektra Records, Follow the Music, he quotes John Sebastian telling him years later, “If we had gone with Elektra it would have turned out so differently. We would have been paid.” What are your thoughts about that?
STEVE BOONE: I don’t disagree with it. In fact, in the book, I mention maybe the Elektra contract wasn’t so bad, or words to that effect. But my overall comment is that yeah, we would have definitely gotten paid. But Jac Holzman and Elektra, at the time, 1965, I don’t think could have…if we had thrown all our cards in with Elektra Records, I’m not so sure they could have broken “Do You Believe in Magic.” “Do You Believe in Magic” needed some muscle to get on the air.
It was a great record, but it sounded so different, and this guy strumming on electric zither. And that’s where those gangsters came in, man. They could get it in the air. They knew how and what you had to do and still stay within the law, sort of, to get a 45 played in enough markets, and create enough excitement, to get us to go out and be on a bill at the Rose Bowl and get half of the stadium to stand up and scream when we played that song. I don’t know how they pulled that off. I know the song was great and all that, but they muscled that song onto the charts. I don’t think Elektra could have done that. I don’t think John realizes that. John doesn’t understand that kind of stuff.
Do I think that we would have gotten paid if we’d gone with Elektra? Yeah, but I don’t think we would have been as successful. They did not understand the singles game. In fact, they looked down on it. The folkie ideal in those days was FM radio, and the album. I don’t think Jac understood the market in ’65, or [Elektra producer] Paul Rothchild. I think they understood how to make a quality-sounding recording, but…granted, they were not good cuts, but the What’s Shakin’ album [an Elektra 1966 compilation LP with a few exclusive tracks by the Lovin’ Spoonful recorded prior to their Kama Sutra releases] didn’t do anything. And it had Eric Clapton on it, it had Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield. They didn’t know their shit about selling records on the big-time level until the Doors. And of course, the Doors were lucky to catch the wave of everybody dropping LSD, and being basically in a trance when long-playing records were suited purposely to psychedelic trips.
PKM: If you could go back in time, I guess the ideal would be to have the hits with Kama Sutra for a couple years, and instead of renewing your contract with them, switch to Elektra and concentrate on albums.
STEVE BOONE: Absolutely. I think you’re spot-on about that. If we could go back and wave a magic wand in 1967 – I guess it was around April – that just as we were about to sign the new Kama Sutra contract, somebody bursts through the door with an Elektra contract…and I’m sure at that point, Jac Holzman would have been willing to pony up a good chunk of cash.
PKM: You started work on a solo album in the late ‘60s, and wrote that it might offer an indication of how the Spoonful might have sounded like had they lasted a few more years.
STEVE BOONE: When I got Charley Koppelman and Don Rubin to agree to let me have sessions, I played this song for ‘em, and had this friend of mine [sing lead vocals], Steve Soles, who went on to some pretty big success with Dylan [and] his Rolling Thunder [Revue], and he was in a band called Bear. He was a very good singer, a friend of mine from East Hampton [in Long Island] that I went to high school with. And Rubin and Koppelman fell out of their chair when they heard this song. They said, “That fuckin’ song is as good as any hit the Spoonful ever had. You record that song as good as you play it for me today, and we will fund your album.” And that song was called “If I Stare.” It’s a big shuffle country-tinged song that could be done either rock or country.
I had my chance to go in the studio, and I very clumsily blew my opportunity by being far too generous with studio time and my friends, and not having a producer. I thought I could, with my brother’s help, produce it myself.
PKM: I’ve never heard the 1970 album you produced by the Oxpetals for Mercury.
STEVE BOONE: Let me put it this way. In the band were some good songwriters. Bobby Webber in particular was a monster. He did write some songs, and pretty damned good ones. But on a keyboard and a guitar, bass, flute, he was a Stevie Winwood, that’s how good he was. What the band wouldn’t do, and unfortunately I played along with it, is they wouldn’t go earn their spurs playing before people in nightclubs, like the Spoonful did.
They gave us an unlimited budget, almost. We had a great Mercury studio to record in, and Gene Kieffer, their manager, did a terrific four-panel cover, one of the nicest album covers you’ll see. The record just didn’t come out good, and here’s why. Steve Boone has to step up and take the blame for this. ‘Cause I was the producer. And I let Skip be my co-producer to work in the studio with the musicians, ‘cause he got along with them better. I was impatient with the fact that they wouldn’t get tight by gigging, so Skip would go in the studio and work with ‘em. But I permitted something like this to go on – the drummer to play a set of trash cans, instead of drums. And I’m not exaggerating here. They were literally different-size trash cans that he put a towel over, and hit ‘em like they were drums. This was just drug-taking gone too far in the studio. You know, go do what you want when you’re on your own time, but don’t do it when we’re trying to make money at a high studio rate.
I permitted that to go on, so I have to shoulder the blame for the album not coming out as good as it should have. Some people still, to this day, like some of the cuts on it. But me, it’s unlistenable, mostly because I feel badly that I sort of fell into the trap of “it’s all cosmic, it’s all gonna work out.”
PKM: When your studio sank into the Baltimore Inner Harbor in late 1977, you noted that some of the tapes that couldn’t be salvaged were eight-track Lovin’ Spoonful outtakes. Do you know what those were?
STEVE BOONE: It hadn’t been gone through. It was about 30 boxes of tape, and what was on ‘em was never reviewed, because I didn’t have an eight-track player. I sold [my] eight-track and two of my echo chambers, and the sale of those two machines financed the purchase of the studio at auction. So I didn’t have an eight-track player. I was just storing ‘em [the tapes] there for safety’s sake.
They were thrown in the trash by the studio that was keeping ‘em. That’s how I got ‘em. This is how the entire Spoonful’s been handled since 1967, or ’68. There’s been no care whatsoever.
So I couldn’t really say what was on ‘em, but what was probably on them, and what I know existed, was the outtakes [of] “The Dance of Pain and Pleasure.” [Never released on a Lovin’ Spoonful record, this Boone-Yanovsky composition was not received well by Jacobsen and the band when Steve and Zal played it in the studio, as detailed in the book.] More than anything else, that night in the studio clearly showed me that the handwriting was on the wall. There was no empathy for Steve and Zally to be found anywhere, except perhaps from John. Butler, to this day, calls it garbage, and Erik Jacobsen just walked out of the room. Knowing what they all had to know Zally and I were going through, to not even try and say, “Let’s see what we can make out of this, it really sucks like it is.”
‘Cause it did. It was real raw. It consisted of a guitar riff that Zally would play. Every [time] he’d pick up a guitar, he’d play that riff. And it was a winning riff. It was really a hook, just the sound of it. The lyrics only consisted of one verse, and sort of a semi-chorus. But everybody had to know that for Steve and Zally to bring a song into the band, to want to make something out of…to just blow it off like, “Don’t waste our time.”
And it wasn’t wasting time. ‘Cause it was really the story of, in a song, what Zally and I had to go through. But everybody just bailed on us. John stuck around, and he tried to play something along with it, but it was obvious that it was dead in the water. So from that moment on, I know Zally was toast. And it was it for me in terms of knowing that there really wasn’t any future in this Lovin’ Spoonful for Steve Boone, because you don’t even want to try to experiment with something that I’m interested in, much less see it get to be a completed project.
“My Gal” by the Lovin’ Spoonful:
PKM: My favorite Lovin’ Spoonful cover is a pretty obscure one. The Sorrows, a British band that never made it in the US and only had a bit of success in the UK, did “My Gal” on a 1967 single. I know John and Zal learned it from the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, but the Sorrows’ version is obviously based on the one from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s first album. What do you think of their version [which I sent to Steve when we did this interview]?
STEVE BOONE: You know something? That captures the same magic that we had with that song, but in almost entirely different instrumentation. It’s very similar, but they’re playing it with a much younger sounding – it sounds like it was made in the ’90s or something. The energy was just what like we had. It’s really nice, I love the energy of it. I hadn’t heard it. I’ve never heard of the Sorrows, either.
That song was our jam tune. Almost from day one. “My Gal” was so easy to play, and so much in my beat. But when John first broached the song, I just loved the way it was easy to flow into it, with that bass sound. I loved playing it with John. John has this real loose open rhythm guitar style, and it’s very easy to play to.
I’m a bass player that’s on the cusp of the new era of bass playing. When I started playing, most of the guys graduated from a standup or upright bass to electric bass. They were older. Electric bass had been around for a long time before I started playing, but really, most of the players I knew transferred their style from upright to electric fretted. But what I did learn from those guys was that it’s such an invaluable lesson that the bass player is married to the bass drum. And make sure it’s a good marriage. You don’t want to be fighting with the bass drum. So that bass line in “My Gal,” it’s so easy for the bass player and the drummer to hook up on. And yet it still keeps the beat moving along.
There was that huge controversy about whether I ever played on a Dylan session or not [Boone played on a session for Bringing It All Back Home, before the Lovin’ Spoonful had even played a show]. And “My Gal” and “Maggie’s Farm” have essentially the same bass line. Different riffs, but the same feel. That’s why when I listen to the Bringing It All Back Home album, I know that the bass on “Maggie’s Farm” is Steve Boone playing. There’s nobody that plays like that, or if they did, they copied my part exactly. That was my style. And “My Gal” is what developed that style, because I loved “My Gal” from the minute I heard it.
Steve Boone web site: steveboone.net
Richie Unterberger web site: richieunterberger.com
An interview with the Spoonful in Toronto, in which Zal and his father are reunited: