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Book Review: ‘Hotter Than a Match Head’ by Steve Boone

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In the last pages of his new memoir, bassist Steve Boone ponders why The Lovin’ Spoonful haven’t earned the same measure of respect as other bands of his generation. After all, when John Sebastian (guitar), Zal Yanovsky (guitar), Joe Butler (drums), and Boone formed the Spoonful in 1964, they were very much on the cutting-edge of the coming folk/rock scene. Unlike their West Coast contemporaries like The Byrds, the Spoonful not only wrote their own songs, they played their own instruments on their records. Boone notes his group was never known as a band who issued important albums but rather cranked out a string of highly successful AM radio hits. In fact, between 1965 and 1966, the Lovin’ Spoonful had seven consecutive hits in the American Top Ten, no mean feat in those competitive times.

These chart-toppers began with Sebastian’s “Do You Believe in Magic,” followed by “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind,?”, and their only Number One, “Summer in the City.” This run ended in 1966 with the singles “Rain on the Roof” and “Nashville Cats.” While other singles were released after that, only 1967’s “Six O’clock” enjoyed major popular success.

Naturally, any book designed for Lovin’ Spoonful fans should include an anatomy of these songs, and Boone does just that, taking us inside the studio with the band and their most important producer, Erik Jacobsen. Of course, the Spoonful catalogue reaches beyond the Top 10 with songs like “Younger Girl,” “Jug Band Music,” “Night Owl Blues,” “Butchie’s Tune,” and “Darling Be Home Soon,” the latter written for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1966 film, You’re a Big Boy Now. While Allen wasn’t happy about it, the Spoonful also scored and appeared in Woody Allen’s 1966 What’s Up, Tiger Lily? Clearly, the Lovin’ Spoonful was more than worthy of their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, even if their appearance there was a musical embarrassment.

But, while gaining insights into this hit parade is what is going to draw most readers to Hotter Than a Match Head: My Life on the Run with The Lovin’ Spoonful, this book is full of more surprises and myth-busters than your average rock memoir. For example, while Sebastian has claimed the Spoonful didn’t become one of “those bitter bands” that have carped about internal squabbles after the band’s break-up, that’s not quite the case. One Sebastian-penned letter to Boone and Butler printed in full in the book complaining about a band revival for the nostalgia circuit puts the nail in that claim. One item Sebastian mentioned deserved his ire. The album, Revelation: Revolution ’69, while crediting Butler, Boone, and new member Jerry Yester, wasn’t a true Lovin’ Spoonful project. Butler was the only member on it.

Perhaps the main myth about the band is that it was essentially Sebastian’s group with three amiable side-men. Boone makes it clear Sebastian was indeed the ideal front-man for the songs that, in the main, he wrote. But Boone also credits his fellow players for their contributions, notably Yanovsky who added not only musicianship but a vivacious personality to their stage presence. Boone himself contributed to the song-writing, most notably his “You Didn’t Have to be so Nice,” “Forever,” and “Butchie’s Tune.” He also came up with the organ sections for “Summer in the City.”

The anecdotes go outside the Spoonful, of course. There’s the arguments with the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel about who was going to headline shows. There’s the day at Shea Stadium where the Spoonful thought they were going to be part of the audience watching The Beatles, but had to be shepherded backstage with their fab friends as fans spotted them in their seats. There’s the meeting where the band was considered to be cast as The Monkees. There’s the sadness when the group, touring with The Supremes, witnessed Southern hatred for long-hairs and African-Americans first-hand. There’s the joy of Boone not only meeting his idol, Bob Dylan, but also playing the bass part on “Maggie’s Farm.”

While drugs seem to be an inevitable part of any rock autobiography, they play a most surprising place in Hotter Than a Match Head. Boone reveals the full story about the drug bust that resulted in Boone and Yanovsky forced to work with drug agents to keep Yanovsky from being deported. Then, after the Spoonful began to disintegrate, Boone took his love of sailing into more than risky business by becoming a drug smuggler. These adventures and very close-calls at sea are chronicled in considerable depth for perhaps a third of the book. Had he been caught in any of those endeavors, David Crosby’s incarceration would have been a walk in the park by comparison. Fortunately, Boone found his way back to music, and a new Lovin’ Spoonful has returned to the stage.

Is Hotter Than a Match Head: My Life on the Run with The Lovin’ Spoonful going to raise the band’s profile? It might, if the readership goes beyond those who already love the group. The Spoonful labeled themselves as playing “Goodtime Music” back in the day, and it’s perhaps their poppy fun-loving tunes that have lead to many not taking them as seriously as other groups. In his new memoir, What’s Exactly the Matter with Me? Memoirs of a Life in Music, songwriter P.F. Sloan claimed The Turtles were a group that haven’t earned the credit he thinks they deserve, and the reasons why seem somewhat similar to those for the Lovin’ Spoonful. If your reputation rests mainly on happy together singles, perhaps there’s no shame in being enjoyed and loved for the good times and not worry overmuch whether or not music historians will rank you high on their lists with a bullet. With luck, readers will be prompted to dig into the Lovin’ Spoonful archives and listen to the non-hit songs that they might have missed first-time around. There’s more magic there then you’ll hear on any greatest hits package.

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About Wesley Britton