This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 18, 2002 1:57 AM. The previous post in this blog was Well, here's another clue for you all. The next post in this blog is Tanks a lot. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Chief gorglist

When I was a college DJ, and even as a high school kid who couldn't wait to become one, the radio personality I worshipped most was Jonathan Schwartz over on WNEW-FM in New York. This was when album rock was in its heyday on the FM dial, and DJs on that station enjoyed considerable freedom. Schwartz could get away with mixing Chopin preludes in with Crosby, Stills & Nash and Arthur Lee's Love. If he decided that Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" was a good foil for the latest psychedelia from the Jefferson Airplane, he'd play them back to back without any acknowledgment of their apparent incongruity. Then he'd throw a James Brown cut into the mix, and open a mike so that listeners could hear people dancing in the studio with him. It was a heady time indeed.

With all that leeway, what did the renowned Mr. Schwartz choose for the first cut on his first radio show on that station? If I am recalling correctly, it was a moody, languid number by the Lovin' Spoonful called "Coconut Grove":

It's really true how nothin' matters
No mad, mad world and no mad hatters
No one's pitchin' 'cause there ain't no batters
In Coconut Grove
The voice was clearly that of John Sebastian, the songwriting genius who knocked out a string of hits in front of the Spoonful over just a couple of years in the mid-to-late '60s. But this cut was unusual in that the writing credits were shared by the group's guitarist, Zal Yanovsky. His rich guitar work, which haunted "Coconut Grove," was an integral part of the Spoonful's eclectic, ever-changing sound. When "Do You Believe in Magic?" became a national anthem for rock 'n' roll fans, it was Zal's lead guitar that provided the perfect complement to Sebastian's daring (or at least offbeat) injection of the autoharp. So full was the sound the two of them created that legend has it even Phil Spector wanted to record them. The credits on the Spoonful's Rhino anthology list Zal as playing "electric gorgle" and Chinese gong as well as providing lead guitars, vocals, and lead six-string bass.

The Spoonful hit list between "Magic" in August of '65 and "Younger Generation" in December of '67 is mighty impressive. Perhaps the highlight was "Summer in the City," which provided the perfect soundtrack for exactly that in '66, and every summer since. We teenagers took the group's prolific output for granted to a large extent, but we surely relished it. I remember buying a used dictionary at the high school bookstore, and one of the music fans a year or two ahead of me in school had memorialized his admiration by writing "Zal" and "Spoonful" on the bottom edges of the book's pages.

Zal comes to mind this week because he died last Friday just short of his 58th birthday. The New York Times obituary can be found here (at least for a while), but a more thoughtful profile of Zal's life appeared in the Toronto Sun. (Yanovsky lived just outside Kingston, Ontario, where he retired after leaving the music business.)

The Zal story intersects with that of the Mamas & the Papas, as he was for a time a member of a predecessor to that group, the Mugwumps. The history is documented in the Mamas & Papas' classic song "Creeque Alley." Of course, in one of those eerie coincidences, it was just last Friday, the day Zal died, that I found a cassette copy of the Mamas & the Papas' Greatest Hits collecting dust under the driver's seat of my car. And so yesterday, just hours before I discovered the obituary in the Times, the Mamas refreshed me on the story:

John and Mitchie were gettin' kind of itchy
Just to leave the folk music behind
Zal and Denny workin' for a penny
Tryin' to get a fish on the line
In a coffee house Sebastian sat
And after every number they passed the hat
McGuinn and McGuire just a-gettin' higher
In L.A. you know where that's at
And no one's getting fat except Mama Cass

Zallie said "Denny, you know there aren't many
Who can sing a song the way that you do, let's go south"
Denny said "Zallie, golly, don't you think that I wish
I could play guitar like you"
Zal, Denny and Sebastian sat (at the Night Owl)
And after every number they passed the hat
McGuinn and McGuire just are gettin' higher
In L.A. you know where that's at
And no one's getting fat except Mama Cass

Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore,
But she changed her mind one day
Standing on the turnpike, thumb out to hitchhike,
"Take me to New York right away."
When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps
Called John and Zal, and that was the Mugwumps
McGuinn and McGuire couldn't get no higher
But that's what they were aiming at
And no one's getting fat except Mama Cass

Mugwumps, high jumps, low slumps, big bumps,
Don't you work as hard as you play
Make up, break up, everything is shake-up
Guess it had to be that way
Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful
Michelle, John and Denny gettin' very tuneful
McGuinn and McGuire just a-catchin' fire
in L.A. you know where that's at
And everybody's gettin' fat except Mama Cass

The end of Zal's run with the Spoonful apparently was precipitated by a marijuana bust. As a Canadian citizen, he was subject to deportation, and reports have it that as a defensive move, he turned in a dealer, which led to tensions with other musicians. But following his return to Ontario, he was a successful restaurateur and a pivotal force in reviving downtown Kingston. He apparently didn't play music much in public any more, but he did show up with the rest of the band for their induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and you can see him in a nice little photo on stage with Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and Robbie Robertson, the other inductees from that year.

Zal is said to have been the Spoonful's sense of humor. Here's hoping that he's cracking them up and enjoying the peace where "it's always warm like in the mornin'."

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