(Legal) Career Killers: The Lovin’ Spoonful, Buffalo Springfield and Pot Busts.

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

It might be hard for anyone who grew up at any point prior to the 2010s to wrap their heads around just how little many police departments, prosecutors, and governments care about marijuana now. As of this writing, cannabis is fully legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia and legal for medical use in 25 more (subject to some restrictions in some states pertaining to dosage or types of products).

That’s a far cry from when marijuana was widely considered a gateway drug to hardcore narcotics, like cocaine, heroin or LSD. “Leading medical researchers are coming to the conclusion that marijuana, pot, grass, whatever you want to call it, is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States,” said Ronald Reagan during his 1980 Presidential campaign. “And we haven’t begun to find out all of the ill-effects, but they are permanent ill-effects.”

During the tumultuous 1960s, marijuana was a staple of the counterculture — especially when it came to the music scene. Of course, that drew the attention of the 5-0, and as two major bands from that era found out, Johnny Law isn’t one that you want to mess with.

The Lovin’ Spoonful grew out of the ashes of short-lived New York City-based folk-rock band The Mugwumps. Two members of the band (Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty) went on to form The Mamas & the Papas while two other members (John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky) formed the Lovin’ Spoonful. (Spare a thought for Mugwumps guitarist Jim Hendricks — not only did he miss out on both of these successful spin-offs but he soon became the second-most famous musician with the first name Jim and a last name that was pronounced “Hendricks.”)

Unlike The Mamas & The Papas, who were willing to mine internal dysfunction and relationship drama for material, The Lovin’ Spoonful kept things carefree and fun. Lead singer and songwriter John Sebastian was a master of crafting happy, enjoyable pop songs, combining light, often whimsical lyrics with traditional jug band music, folk, blues, country and rock to create a unique sound that had both an old timey and timeless quality to it. It also helped that Sebastian, guitarist Zal Yanovsky, bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler came across as four genuinely nice guys who always seemed to be having a ball on stage.

The Spoonful really seemed to epitomize the carefree nature of the 60s, and it translated to success on the record charts. Their 1965 debut album, Do You Believe in Magic, hit the Top 40 in the U.S. while the title track peaked at #9. Their next two albums, Daydream (1966) and Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful (1966) hit #10 and #14 on the U.S. charts, respectively, and spawned six Top 10 singles, including classics “Daydream,” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind” and the band’s sole #1, “Summer in the City.” They also released a greatest hits compilation in 1967 that went to #3 in both the U.S. and Canada.

Hollywood even came calling, as producers for the TV series that would eventually become The Monkees thought about building the show around The Lovin’ Spoonful. The band also recorded soundtrack albums for two 1966 movies Woody Allen’s directoral debut What’s Up, Tiger Lily? and Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now.

Despite their success, this period also marked the beginning of the end for the band. Yanovsky and Boone were busted in 1966 for marijuana possession, and the cops put pressure on them to name names. According to The Guardian, Yanovsky, a Canadian citizen, was worried he would be deported if he didn’t cooperate, so he reluctantly agreed. “The band would then hire the dealer a top lawyer,” Richard Williams wrote in The Guardian. “But the dealer went to jail, and, among the burgeoning counter-cultural leaders of Haight-Ashbury, the Spoonful were excoriated as snitches, hastening their eclipse by the likes of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors.”

In fact, in a famous full-page ad taken out in The Los Angeles Free Press, fans were urged “not to buy Spoonful records and not to attend their concerts and, to the girls, not to ball them.”

“Well, they weren’t f—ing us before! So why would they do it now? You know, we weren’t matinee idols, it was clear!” John Sebastian said in an interview with Variety in 2020.

While it’s not clear how much outrage from the hippie community affected the band’s popularity, there’s a pretty stark difference between the band’s chart performance pre-1967 and post-1967. Before, the band’s singles had never missed the Top Ten. From 1967 on, the band never made the Top Ten again — its highest charting single was “Darling Be Home Soon,” which hit #15. Additionally, the band’s two soundtrack albums missed the Top 100, as did its fourth proper studio album, Everything Playing, which was released in December 1967.

The bust also exposed some major problems within the band. According to Boone’s 2014 autobiography, Hotter Than A Match Head: My Life on the Run with The Lovin’ Spoonful, the bassist believed the bust and the ensuing fallout (he noted the West Coast, particularly the hippie-haven known as the Bay Area, became no-go territory for them for a bit) caused Sebastian and Butler to resent him and Zanovsky for putting the band in such a position in the first place.

Boone also noted that drug laws weren’t the only part of the legal system that drove a wedge in the band. Kama Sutra, the Spoonful’s label, offered the band a new recording contract and, according to Boone, there was a “key man” clause in the proposed deal. These clauses are routine and usually refer to an important person at the label so that the artist has an out in case that person ever leaves or is fired. In this case, however, Boone noted that Sebastian, as the main songwriter and singer, had been designated as the key man. In other words, as long as he was in the band, the band would exist. If he were to leave, then the others would be released as well.

“The deal effectively turned us into his sidemen, putting us in a position where every decision was ultimately going to be John’s,” Boone wrote in his autobiography. “If John decided he didn’t like a song choice or an arrangement or really anything else, he could bail and Kama Sutra wouldn’t have to pay us or allow us to make another record.”

According to Boone and Sebastian, Yanovsky had long been disenchanted with the band, believing they had become too popular and wishing they could go back to the early club days. Yanovsky also disliked Sebastian’s evolution as a songwriter, as the band had started recording more personal, mature and introspective songs. During a 1967 performance of the intimate, earnest love song “Darling Be Home Soon” on The Ed Sullivan Show, Yanovsky started acting out, goofing around and mugging for the camera like in the old days. This time, though, the act fell flat since it didn’t go with the tone and tenor of the song being performed. “On footage of the show, you can clearly make out the audience’s laughter at Zally’s antics,” Boone recalled. “Not the emotion we were going for out of this song. John was furious. The single stalled on the charts at No. 15, well below expectations, and was our first single to miss the Top 10. I wondered, and I’m sure John did too, whether the bizarre performance during a prime promotional opportunity on Ed Sullivan hurt the chances of the single.”

So, Yanovsky quit/was fired by the band and was replaced by Jerry Yester. Sebastian quit the following year to embark on a solo career, where he had limited success but managed a fluke #1 hit in 1976 with “Welcome Back,” the theme song to Welcome Back, Kotter. The remaining members actually tried to continue without Sebastian and released Revelation: Revolution ’69. The album didn’t chart and the band officially broke up soon after its release.

At around the same time, an LA-based band called Buffalo Springfield got signed to Atlantic Records. If The Lovin’ Spoonful represented the idyllic qualities of the 60s, Buffalo Springfield personified the chaos and tumult of the era.

For one thing, Buffalo Springfield was an eclectic mix of personalities and music sensibilities, led by the three-headed monster of guitarist/vocalists Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay. (Coincidentally, Stills had previously auditioned for The Monkees and, obviously, didn’t get in. He did tell his friend, Peter Tork, about the auditions though and encouraged him to try out.)

Stills and Young had more rock leanings while the latter was already showing his penchant for experimentation, coming up with the sorts of unique guitar sounds that would eventually become his trademark. Furay, on the other hand, was more of a country rock artist. This versatility meant they were capable of creating a wide range of music including protest anthems, introspective meditations, love songs and all sorts of other things.

But it also resulted in a band chemistry that could best be described as “volatile.” The band always seemed on the verge of breaking up and members drifted in and out depending on legal and musical issues. Young, for instance, had a foot out of the door for months leading to his ultimate departure, even no-showing the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 — an event that indirectly led to the formation of Crosby Stills & Nash since Stills asked David Crosby, then of The Byrds, to fill in for Young during their set that night.

Unlike the Spoonful, Buffalo Springfield experienced limited chart success during their time together. None of their albums cracked the Top 40 on the Billboard 200 charts (although their last two albums, Buffalo Springfield Again (1967) and Last Time Around (1968) came close, hitting #44 and #42, respectively. The band only had one Billboard Top Ten single — “For What It’s Worth,” which peaked at #7. Their next-highest charting single was 1967’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman,” which went to #44. If you define a “one-hit wonder” as an artist with only one Top 40 hit, then Buffalo Springfield, technically, fit the bill.

Of course, that only tells part of the story. Buffalo Springfield were critical darlings and their reputation has only been enhanced in the years since their breakup, which occurred in 1968. The previous year, bassist Bruce Palmer had been deported back to Canada for marijuana possession. He snuck back into the country and rejoined the band, but another drug bust led to a second deportation in 1968. He was replaced by Jim Messina, who would go onto greater fame as a member of Poco and half of the duo Loggins and Messina.

Another bust in 1968 ensnared Young, Furay and Messina as the band was jamming with Eric Clapton in Topanga Canyon (Stills managed to escape before the cops could arrest him and he called lawyers on behalf of his bandmates). Their road manager even got caught trying to flush large amounts of pot down the toilet.

“They took me down to the Sunset and Clark, the police station. Took me inside. We were inside that cell. The cops were calling us names and everything. The one cop had real short hair, like sticking up, he had big horn-rimmed glasses and he kept calling me ‘animal’. So I called him a grasshopper. They came in and knocked my tooth out; they did this other stuff and banged us around. It happened really fast. That was kind of the ambience, you know?” Young recounted.

Obviously, the drug busts weren’t the sole reason the band imploded. It was clear the creative tension was getting to be too much, as Furay wanted to do more country-oriented stuff while Young and Stills wanted to rock. Plus, Young is infamous for never staying in a band for long, and Stills seemed ready for the next step.

Nevertheless, the busts took their toll and prevented them from functioning as a band during a time when they were already splintering and moving away from one another.

So it was no surprise when the band officially broke up later that year. Stills would form the supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash, with Young joining in 1969. Meanwhile Furay and Messina would start country-rock band Poco along with future Eagle Randy Meisner. Dewey Martin actually tried to continue with a new version of the group. Either he or management decided to call the new group “New Buffalo Springfield,” which got them a call from Stills’ and Young’s lawyers.

Eventually, both The Lovin’ Spoonful and Buffalo Springfield got their due as two of the most important and influential musical acts of all time. Despite the brevity of their respective careers (Buffalo Springfield lasted less than 3 years while The Lovin’ Spoonful made it to 4), their impact was undeniable and inspired legions of followers. Both bands were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, with Buffalo Springfield being honored in 1997 and The Lovin’ Spoonful getting their moment three years later.

Both bands have also staged reunions over the years. Stills, Young and Furay played a handful of shows together in 2010 and 2011 (Martin and Palmer had died by then) with the intention of staging a full-scale in 2012 before Young bailed.

Meanwhile, in 2020, Sebastian, Boone and Butler (Yanovsky died in 2002) performed together for the first time since the Hall of Fame.

No word on whether either band partook the sticky icky during their respective reunions, but if they did, they probably didn’t have to worry about getting busted by the cops anymore. At this rate, they’ll be able to demand it in tour riders in a few years time.

Leave a Comment