Wednesday, December 3, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Hotter Than a Match Head: Life On the Run with the Lovin'Spoonful


While British rock bands ruled the charts and airwaves in America during 1963 and 1964, by the middle of the decade, native bands had popped up who were catching up to and in many cases, equaling their British counterparts. One such band was New York City's The Lovin' Spoonful, who emerged from the Greenwich Village folk scene and went on to become one of the biggest and most successful American bands of the mid-to-late 1960s. However, by 1969 they had splintered and were no more, and it would be many years before they would get their due. For a band that counted such heavyweights like the Beatles and Bob Dylan as friends and mutual admirers, the how and why of this story should be fascinating. It is all of this (and much more) that Steve Boone touches on in his memoir, Hotter Than a Match Head: Life On the Run With the Lovin' Spoonful.

***special thanks to Michele and Alexis at ECW Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***



Steve Boone was a military child who moved around quite a bit while growing up, eventually settling on Long Island. His boyhood dreams of following in his father's steps with a military career were scuppered when he sustained injuries in an auto accident in the early 1960s that rendered him ineligible to serve. It was during his time recovering, however, that Steve learned to play the guitar and became bitten by the music bug.  Encouraged by his older brother Skip, Steve learned how to play and began gigging with Skip's band, the Kingsmen (not the band of "Louie Louie" fame), although for Steve it was only a diversion. Intending to study engineering in college after a summer motorcycling trip across Europe, he moved to Greenwich Village in New York City and was introduced to John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky. The three clicked personally and musically almost instantly and with Steve moving over to bass guitar, they formed a new band called the Lovin' Spoonful. After one gig with their original drummer, they brought in an old bandmate of Steve's named Joe Butler on drums and the classic Spoonful line-up was cemented.  Cutting their teeth in the Village and bulding up a following by playing their version of electrified folk, blues, jugband, and rock, they eventally landed a record deal with Kama Sutra records and were off to the races. Their first SEVEN singles all reached the top 10, and Boone had a hand in writing many of them, including co-writing credits on both "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice" and their only #1 single, the classic "Summer in the City" from 1966.  However, a harrowing drug bust in May 1966, where the authorities coerced Boone and Yanovsky to set up some friends at a party with an undercover agent, led to them being labeled as "finks" when word got out to the rock underground, and the band's sales and reputation took a hit. This wasn't helped by the sacking of Zal, who was a fan favorite and had a stage presence that captivated crowds,  mid-1967. Longtime friend and studio arranger Jerry Yester, who had collaborated on earlier Spoonful recordings, was brought in as a replacement but the hits eventually dried up, Sebastian quit in late 1968, and Butler carried on under the Spoonful name with one final, dreadful album before they called it a day.



This is where Boone's story gets really interesting (and weird)! From the early 1970s through to the 1990s, Boone lived the life of a pirate and nomad, and I mean both of those in the literal sense. He spent years in the 1970s and early 1980s smuggling marijuana from the Carribbean to the USA before ditching that life after being arrested and spending a short time behind bars. He spent time living on a yacht in the Carribbean and at one point owned a recording studio on a houseboat docked in Baltimore harbor (which mysteriously sunk a few years later) where Little Feat recorded their groundbreaking album Feats Don't Fail Me. However, his various business ventures (and marriages) during this time all ended in disaster, so much so that it was almost farcical reading about them all. However, reunions with the Spoonful in 1979 (for a scene in a 1980 movie of Paul Simon's) and their 2000 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame brought back the old Spoonful magic, and since the early 1990s, the Spoonful (minus Sebastian, who has declined to be involved, and Yanovsky, who sadly passed away in 2002) have been touring and playing their hits for new generations of fans. Steve seems to be in a good place in his life, playing the music he loves with his longtime friends and in a marriage (to Yester's daughter!) that he is finally happy in.



Hotter Than a Match Head is an enjoyable book for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that Boone is honest and forthcoming about everything in his life. This is especially helpful when he is setting the record straight on his and Zal's bust in San Francisco in 1966, as well as his life as a drug smuggler. He makes no excuses for his past actions and accepts the consequences of them, which is refreshing in a profession where so many of his peers would rationalize every last trangression away and/or feel no remorse for any of them. The tone of the book is very inviting and conversational, and this is a credit to not only Boone but his co-author, Tony Moss. It feels like you're having a discussion with a friend and makes for an engaging, entertaining read. He also sheds light on the interpersonal relationships within the band, revealing that he was closest with Zal, didn't ever quite see eye-to-eye with Joe (although they buried the hatchet later on), and got along well with John although they had their disagreements. He is very honest about the fact that what he details in the book is his take on events and that the others would almost certainly see them differently, but it never feels like a salacious tell-all or a hatchet job and remains enjoyable throughout.  He finsihes the book with some musings on the Spoonful's career and their place in rock history. As he rightly points out, they were the only American band to have their first seven singles reach the top 10, and they were friends with their peers such as Dylan and the Beatles, both of whom were fans of theirs.  Steve even managed to play on a Dylan record during the early Spoonful years, and Paul McCartney has repeatedly claimed that the Spoonful's hit single "Daydream" was his inspiration for writing "Good Day Sunshine." Not a bad career!



Overall, while Boone's matter-of-fact style might seem to some readers as though he's being blasé or even callous about some of the things he discusses, I found it refreshing and enjoyable. More than anything, though, this book sheds some much-needed light on one of the classic American bands of the 1960s and forces an honest reappraisal of their music. I've been a fan of their music for a long time, but after reading this I'm even more of a fan, which makes Hotter Than a Match Head a great rock memoir in my book. 

MY RATING: 9/10 



2 comments:

  1. I always enjoyed the Spoonfuls music too, and have the Everything's Playing album still on vinyl. Once Sebastian went solo his music was somewhat different, like maybe something was missing, and I guess it's the input from the other players. It's still good overall, however. When the British Invasion was going on I'd say the Spoonfuls and the Beach Boys held their own turf, along with a few others.

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    1. I'd throw the Byrds in with those bands, but yeah, it wasn't until psychedelia really flowered in '67 and the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Dead, Joplin, etc flourished that the American bands could hold their own with the Brits. Pre-'67, I agree with you: it was the Byrds, Spoonful, and Beach Boys fighting the good fight against all of those amazing British bands.

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