When Paul McCartney first noticed John Lennon and Mick Jagger first ran into Keith Richards, these chance encounters changed pop music and popular culture. When Steve Boone first met John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky, it was like the rock and roll version of eharmony.com.
In his charming, and at times chilling, memoir “Hotter than a Match Head: Life on the Run with the Lovin’ Spoonful,” (co-written with Tony Moss) Boone, the group’s bassist, relates that he came to Greenwich Village in December 1964 with no intention other than to share an apartment with his older brother, Skip.
Over the previous two years, Boone, born in 1943, had played bass in an r’n’b/rock and roll band with Skip – the Kingsmen, though not the group that gave the world “Louie, Louie” — and gone on an extended, non-musical tour of Europe with a best friend. He liked to play music, and he liked even more that girls liked guys who played music, but there was no sense with Boone as there was with the leaders of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones that it was rock and roll or nothing.
It was with a kind of bemused acquiescence that Boone agreed to the suggestion of Joe Butler, the Kingsmen’s drummer, to look up these two guys who needed a bassist for the group they were hoping to assemble.
The blind date went extremely well. While there is a Hollywood-like feel to some of the dialogue the authors reconstruct from the initial meeting — Sebastian is quoted as saying “When we saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, we knew this is what’s coming next” — the book effectively conveys the excitement that crackled through the room within hours of Boone’s arrival.
Jamming on rock and roll standards, Boone realized “The more we played, the better it seemed to get, and before I knew it we had spent a couple of hours at the Village Music Hall . . . .” Soon, the trio added the very same Joe Butler as drummer, and one of the three top American rock and roll groups between 1965 and 1967 had formed.
During that span, the Lovin’ Spoonful had seven Top 10 hits in America, two of which, “Do You Believe in Magic” and “Summer in the City” are widely considered among the best rock and roll singles of all time. Though Sebastian was the Spoonful’s chief composer, Boone co-wrote “Summer in the City” — “hotter than a match head” is a line from that #1 record — and also the gentle, sympathetic “You Didn’t Have to be so Nice.”
“Magic” came out eight months after the Village jam session. Eight months after the McCartney/Lennon meeting, the Beatles hadn’t even made it to Hamburg. As for the Stones, I’m not altogether sure Keith and Mick had done more than talk incessantly about the blues during the first year of their acquaintance.
Boone’s story by contrast features blood and tears but not so much sweat. The absence of professional struggle, and the hardening of attitudes and loss of innocence that comes with it, may in the end have proved more a curse than a blessing for the author. Much of what makes the book compulsively readable is Boone’s naiveté and frequent feelings of bewilderment, which he is more than willing to share. Among other telling details, we learn that Boone didn’t even lose his virginity until after he turned 21 — and months after the Spoonful came together — which may be a record for any member of a major pop group from the 1960s.
To the very end, where we find a 70-year-old Boone performing occasional gigs with the newest version of the Spoonful and hanging out with his 38-year-old wife, you get the feeling that he’s never completely come to terms with what others — not only musicians — would regard as a rock and roll fantasy come true. In any field, fantastic luck is invariably followed by the wrenching question, “Why me?”
Boone asked that same question although in a different way in May 1966, a year before the Summer of Love, when he and Zal were busted in San Francisco for possession of marijuana. The cops had stopped Boone’s car — for reasons that remain unclear — after a party and in conducting a quick search, pulled out a bag of weed. Instead of remaining cool, an understandably panicked pair of long-haired musicians pleaded with the cops for a break.
After spending the night in jail, Boone and Yanovsky were brought before a high-powered group that included the San Francisco chief of police and district attorney. The DA offered the rock stars a deal: Help an undercover officer gain access to a party or two, and the possession charges will go away.
In the book, Boone is emphatic that agreeing to the deal contradicted his own personal code of ethics and that of his colleague as well. But Yanovsky, a Canadian, feared deportation, and without its bass player and lead guitarist, the Spoonful would have been all but finished. Whether they did it for the band, for themselves, or both, Boone and Yanovsky (who died in 2002) said yes to the deal.
The decision continues to haunt Boone, in part because he believes negative fallout through the years has harmed the Spoonful’s standing with critics and fans of 1960s rock and roll. In his book, Boone states, “Remember that the American rock press — in particular Rolling Stone — grew out of the San Francisco counterculture, and during the period that followed the bust there was definitely an understanding and shorthand among those types that the Spoonful were finks.” Boone maintains that that contemptuous attitude is part of the reason the Beach Boys and Byrds are typically ranked ahead of the Spoonful in lists of the top American bands of the mid-1960s.
The Spoonful played its last gig with John Sebastian in June 1968. Aside from the inevitable personality conflicts, driven by ego, creative differences, and Sebastian’s gooey relationship with a woman none of the others could stand, the Spoonful, like many other talented rock groups from the period, were not well-prepared to make the transition from singles to albums, from AM to FM, and from pop to art.
Ex-rock stars are not so much boring as they are bored, which can lead to exhibitionism, self-destructive behavior, and really dumb choices. Boone started out the 1970s well. He lived on a boat with his wife — readers who enjoy sailing will especially appreciate this section of the book — continued his recreational use of drugs, and was on the lookout for new artists to work with. There was every reason to think that he would ease into his 30s and 40s.
But then Boone’s wife had an affair, his best friend died of an overdose, and he encountered difficulties landing work in the music business, though he spent several productive months in the studio with Little Feat.
Heavily in debt and lacking steady employment, Boone agreed in 1975 to sail from the Eastern Seaboard to Colombia, pick up drugs, and deliver them to a house back in the states. For a time, the drug-running life was as much of a rush as was being a member of the Lovin’ Spoonful.
“Being a pirate gave me everything I wanted. An opportunity to sail, all the free weed I could smoke and more money than I’d ever seen in my life.” Boone kept at it for another four years, avoiding several close calls with the authorities until he was finally arrested, though the charges were dropped.
A year after Boone retired from drug running, in October 1981, he was arrested again, this time due to information provided by his cheating ex-wife: She too had gotten into the drug-loading business. In 1983, Boone pleaded guilty to a single charge of felony conspiracy for which he received a sentence of 30 days in confinement and another four years and 11 months on probation.
The 1980s, which began with the John Bonham’s death after a drinking binge and the murder of John Lennon, were not often kind to rock stars from 10 and 20 years earlier. In Boone’s case, he became addicted to the drug Dilaudid, which he describes as “a medical-grade form of morphine,” and a few years later, after a traffic accident, he became hooked on the painkiller Percocet. Add copious amounts of cocaine, and toward the end of that dismal decade, Boone weighed 145 pounds. “It was right there that I had a talk with myself,” writes Boone, “Boy, you’d better get a grip.”
With the exception of an ill-advised marriage — wife # 3 — to a kooky woman who fancied herself a mermaid, Boone has mostly stayed true to that advice. He got sufficiently sober to successfully pursue royalties owed the Spoonful from way back and has split much of his time the last 15 years playing concerts with the current version of the group — sans Sebastian — and working as a freelance carpenter/handyman in Florida, where he lives with his current wife, Lena.
In 2000, the Spoonful was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Whether Boone’s band was as good as were the Beach Boys and the Byrds or, as the author would argue, far better than the Doors, the Lovin’ Spoonful released a series of exceptional singles during what many rightly regard as the greatest five-year period in rock history. Like the sound of Roger McGuinn’s 12-string and the harmonies of the Wilson brothers, the Spoonful’s blend of Yanovsky’s brief, brilliant guitar lines, Sebastian’s songwriting talents and beguiling vocals, and the good-time groove of the Boone/Butler rhythm section defined American rock and roll in the mid-1960s.
It’s a great story, and Boone tells it well.