Do You Believe in Retro?
In 1970 Steve Boone, onetime bassist for the Lovin' Spoonful, went down to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, bought himself a sailboat, and made it his home. For three years he sailed around the Florida Keys and the Caribbean. He lived frugally, eating mostly brown rice and fresh vegetables purchased at local markets. Meanwhile the Vietnam War grew bloodier, Led Zeppelin topped the album charts, Watergate began to make headlines, and the other members of the Lovin' Spoonful struggled with marginally successful solo careers.
"It was a good time to get the hell out of Dodge," recalls Boone.
Today, almost 30 years later, Boone wants to make a comeback. He and two other members from the band's early lineup have been touring as the Lovin' Spoonful for years, playing old hits such as "Do You Believe in Magic," "Summer in the City," and "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?" But Boone has other plans. He's been writing new material for the first time in a long while, and he thinks today's musical climate is conducive to the Spoonful's cheery brand of folk-rock. He'd like the band to start playing new songs and has even gone as far as toying with the idea of using a different name: Spoonlight.
"I kind of looked at the charts around the country, and for whatever reason I think there's a renewed interest in folk music," notes Boone, who lives with his wife Susan Peterson in Fort Lauderdale. "And the Spoonful was one of the first folk-rock bands."
During the socially and politically turbulent Sixties, the Lovin' Spoonful -- which included Zal Yanovsky on lead guitar, Joe Butler on drums, and John Sebastian on guitar, harmonica, and lead vocals -- made happy-go-lucky music with upbeat rhythms and catchy melodies. At the core of the band were Sebastian's whimsical lyrics ("I'm blowin' the day to take a walk in the sun/And fall on my face on somebody's new-mowed lawn") and Yanovsky's electric guitar. From 1965 through the end of 1966, the Lovin' Spoonful scored seven Top 10 hits. At the height of its popularity, in 1966, the group provided the music for two soundtracks: Woody Allen's spy spoof What's Up, Tiger Lily? and Francis Ford Coppola's debut film, You're a Big Boy Now. The band members make an appearance in Allen's comedy sporting their trademark turtleneck sweaters and cereal-bowl haircuts.
The 53-year-old Boone has less hair today, but he's as tall as ever: a surprising six-foot-four (old band photos downplay his height). He's a frequent sight at Fort Lauderdale's Independence Brewery, where he and his wife have personalized mugs hanging above the bar. A native of North Carolina, Boone speaks with an amiable drawl and has a friendly, easygoing manner. "I'm a pretty contented person," he says over a beer at the Brewery.
The Spoonful was a product of the mid-Sixties, a fairly innocent period characterized mainly by modish fashion and the sounds of gentle psychedelic pop. Along with the Spoonful, acts such as Donovan, the Association, and the Mamas and the Papas (with whom Yanovsky once played) topped the charts with wistful ballads and catchy ditties. But the times were certainly a-changing. The hippie movement grew increasingly political and eventually changed from a subculture into a full-blown counterculture. By 1967 even the hit singles on the radio had a darker hue, notably "Light My Fire" by the Doors and "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield.
"We made it a point to avoid ideology," Boone says. "People tried to enlist us to support this cause and that cause, and we resisted, mostly because we felt that the music we were doing was good-time music. It was intended to be uplifting and not necessarily a political statement."
The Lovin' Spoonful broke up in 1968 for a number of reasons. Yanovsky had already quit in 1967. (A few years later he left the music business, returned to his native Ontario, Canada, and opened the now highly successful restaurant Chez Piggy.) He was replaced by guitarist-keyboardist Jerry Yester, who had worked with the Association. Soon after, Sebastian, the group's principal singer and songwriter, left to pursue a solo career. He played Woodstock in 1969 and eventually wrote and performed music for TV shows, most memorably the theme to Welcome Back, Kotter.
Some might say the band's popularity began to fade as early as 1966. In May of that year, Yanovsky and Boone were arrested in Berkeley for possession of a small amount of marijuana. They were at a party hosted by someone Boone identifies only as a "friend" with ties to the music business. Yanovksy was on shaky ground with the police: Not only was he a Canadian citizen, he also was the most outspokenly political member of the band, and his father was known to hold communist views. According to Boone, the police made the two musicians an offer they couldn't refuse: Turn in the friend who sold them drugs or Yanovsky would be deported to Canada.
"And that kind of choice is really no choice at all," Boone sighs. The music press reported that Boone and Yanovsky set up a meeting between their drug contact and an undercover narcotics agent, but Boone claims they only revealed to police the name of their contact (who was arrested but never went to jail).
The episode became a blotch on the band's sunny image. Antiestablishment sentiment ran high in 1966, and the Lovin' Spoonful was branded as a group of finks in the music press. Only Ralph Gleason, the legendary pop critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, defended their actions. To this day Boone wonders if the fallout from the drug bust has prevented the Lovin' Spoonful from being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"It was a situation none of us was proud of," Boone says frankly. "By the time it got into general circulation the story had ballooned to proportions that were just unimaginable. So the only thing you could say was nothing. You just made it worse by commenting. I think Zally felt really bad, and I know I felt bad. When I look back at it, it was just a minor blip on the radar screen, but people chose to make it otherwise."
Boone began to feel increasingly estranged from the hippie movement. The underground press at the time -- mostly upstart publications like the Berkeley Barb and the L.A. Free Press -- was stridently left-wing and vehemently antiwar. "I was very turned off by what appeared to me to be a very rigid culture of idealism," Boone recalls. "I thought, 'This is music, guys, this ain't politics.' I got into this because I like to dance, I like to write songs about going out with girls and having fun, and stuff like that. I didn't get into this because I'm a political commentator."
So he got out. After spending three years in the Caribbean, he moved to Baltimore and, along with his friend John Armour (heir to the Armour meat fortune), set up a recording studio on a renovated houseboat in that city's harbor. Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, and Earth, Wind and Fire recorded there. On Christmas Day 1977, while Boone and Armour were out of town, the bilge pumps gave out and the boat sank halfway underwater, saturating the equipment and the tape library. That was the end of the studio business for Boone.
In 1980 Paul Simon asked the Lovin' Spoonful to make a cameo performance in his low-budget film One Trick Pony. The band members had already turned down million-dollar offers from promoters to do reunion tours, but a brief get-together sounded appealing. Simon rented a hotel in the Catskills, paid the band $400 per day during filming, and invited a few hundred music-business insiders to serve as the "audience." For the occasion the Lovin' Spoonful performed its very first Top 10 hit, "Do You Believe in Magic."
The concert helped thaw out the chill between some of the band members. Boone elaborates: "But we could never quite find the time, or the resolve, to get the band together and say, 'Look, this is silly. Other bands do it. They make an album every two or three years. Some are successful, some aren't. But let's take a crack at it.' I always felt that we were really missing an opportunity here, you know? None of us, in our solo careers, has done spectacularly.... We did okay. So I always felt there was some unfinished business with the group."
That was certainly true financially. For more than twenty years the Spoonful received no royalties on record sales. The money lost is impossible to estimate accurately. For two decades the band's master tapes were passed from company to company; as each company was sold (or went bankrupt), the band found that it could not collect royalties. It wasn't until 1991, after the band hired a high-powered lawyer, that the domino effect was halted and the current distributor of the Lovin' Spoonful's product, Essex Entertainment, promised to pay future royalties.
Encouraged, Boone tried to get the band back together, but Yanovsky and Sebastian declined. Throughout the Nineties, Boone has toured with Jerry Yester on guitar, Joe Butler on vocals, new drummer Mike Arturi, and Yester's daughter Lena on keyboards. Boone has been collaborating with Lena on some new songs (and dusting off old ones he wrote during his sailing years) for Spoonlight. This month the Lovin' Spoonful will be on the road playing its old hits, and Boone has already scheduled a meeting with Bob Cavallo, the newly appointed chairman of the Walt Disney Music Group, to discuss Spoonlight.
Whether Boone and company can find a place among neofolkies such as Dan Bern, Ani DiFranco, and Jewel remains to be seen. "I think the timing is really right for us to be doing this," Boone maintains. "We were very fortunate to have seven Top 10 singles in a row. Our names are still familiar to younger people thanks to oldies radio. There's a lot of good will for the band.
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