Do You Believe In Magic? Zal Yanovsky Helped Make It
Zalman Yanovsky died last Friday at his home in Kingston, Ontario of an apparent heart attack. The wire services carried the story across the country: sixties-era guitarist turned chic restauranteur dead at 58. For most editors the report scarcely warranted more than a paragraph or two. Old news; another boomer-era idol gone.
In the annals of pop music history, Zal Yanovsky's name is not likely to elicit more than a passing reference, if that. He was, for those unacquainted with that odd, ethnic-sounding moniker (and that's probably most of you), the lead guitarist in the Lovin' Spoonful, a mid-sixties New York folk-rock group that enjoyed a handful of hits that remain staples of oldies radio today: Do You Believe In Magic, Daydream, You Didn't Have To Be So Nice, Summer In The City. He wasn't the lead singer, not even the principal songwriter, but if you ever saw the Spoonful, even a photograph of them, you knew instinctively that Zal, with that impish twinkle, was the heart and soul of the group
Back in 1965, my hero, bar none, was Zal Yanovsky. Why? Sure, he was an innovative guitarist capable of clever country-flavoured licks and riffs, but it was more than that. Much more. You see, Zal Yanovsky was a Canadian.
In the endless parade of long-haired Beatle-booted wannabes ascending or descending the pop charts on any given week in the mid sixties, most were either of British origin, Liverpudlian preferably, or American. There was the odd foreign interloper: Manfred Mann was from South Africa (that explained the Amish-like beard); Los Bravos was an odd mix of Germans and Spaniards; Them, featuring a diminutive, fiery maned Van Morrison, had escaped from Northern Ireland; the Easybeats hailed from the land down under. But how many Canadians could you possibly spot on a Sunday evening broadcast of the Ed Sullivan show? Robert Goulet? Paul Anka? Wayne and Shuster? Gisele Mackenzie? Hardly the hairy, bell-bottomed variety.
I loved the Spoonful's music from the get-go. Do You Believe in Magic was an infectious affirmation of the sheer joy of rock 'n' roll and a mainstay on my Seabreeze for months before Daydream replaced it. Once I discovered via Hit Parader magazine, which my Mom faithfully bought for me each month, that the Spoonful's lead guitarist was a Canuck like me, that was it. I had found my idol, my role model. Within days I began the campaign to wear down my parents for a guitar. Forget George Harrison or Brian Jones; I wanted to be Zal Yanovsky.
I'm sure I was no different from hundreds of other teenagers up here in the frozen wastelands who came to identify a sense of national pride in that rather shaggy looking fellow with the large nose and the odd-shaped guitar. Lord knows, finding a suitably long-haired Canadian on the pop charts in '65 was rare, indeed, and cause for waving that new flag of ours. If Zal could make it in the pop world then surely other Canadians could too, we reckoned; even someone as peculiar looking as Zal. He became, by default, Canada's first Beatle-era rock star and the inspiration for Canadian kids to take up the guitar, drums, organ, whatever.
In the pre-CRTC Canadian Content world of the early sixties, Zal had, like so many others, fled Canada for greener pastures and paycheques in the United States. He and fellow Canuck Denny Doherty (later to find fame as the velvet-voiced tenor in the Mamas and the Papas, another point of sixties-era Canadian pride) had migrated to New York where, after a few false starts, Zal hooked up with John Sebastian to form the Lovin' Spoonful. The group was, for a brief moment in time, considered rivals to the Beatles and rode the toppermost of the poppermost. I can vividly recall the Spoonful on the Sullivan show, Zally, the clown prince of rock 'n' roll with a rubber frog dangling from the neck of his guitar, mugging to the audience and muscling in on Sebastian whenever the camera swung his way. What a guy! What a Canadian!
The Star Weekly ran a cover story on our favourite Canadian pop star in early 1967 featuring recollections from family and friends including journalist Larry Zolf who recounted the time Zal lived in a downtown Toronto laundromat, or how he had driven a tractor through a building on an Israeli kibbutz. But by the time the story ran, Zal was out of the Spoonful under a cloud of marijuana smoke following a bust in San Francisco. In exchange for not being deported, Zal named the dealer and in so doing incurred the wrath of the burgeoning counterculture.
The next time I heard Zal's name was two decades later in association with a trendy noshery in Kingston dubbed Chez Piggy. The name was pure Zally, the madcap guitarist now an entrepreneur. My publisher, who resided in Kingston, took me to dinner at the popular eatery and promised to introduce me to my hero but, alas, he was off that night. I had brought my dog-eared copy of the Star Weekly all the way from Winnipeg for Zal to autograph. A few years later, in 1996, I was invited by Steppenwolf's John Kay to be his guest at the Juno Awards banquet held to honour Kay, Denny Doherty, David Clayton-Thomas, Domenic Troiano, and Zal Yanovsky as inductees into the Canadian music Hall of Fame. It was a star-studded evening boasting Canada's rock royalty. I mingled with the likes of Robbie Robertson, Ronnie Hawkins, Buffy Ste. Marie, and Shania Twain. As Kay's biographer I was thrilled to accompany him, but I had ulterior motives. I asked Kay to introduce me to Zal and he graciously agreed. I was beside myself with anticipation all evening. I had once again packed my Star Weekly in hopes of an autograph but, at the last minute, left it behind at the hotel fearing embarrassing either Zal (hardly) or myself (definitely). Later in the evening as my wife and I sat at a front table with the Kay's, Zal and John Sebastian ambled over. Zal looked much like he had in the sixties, same long stringy hair, ample nose and mischievous grin, though a little paunchier around the middle, like an aging elf. Kay introduced me. Turning crimson, I stuck out my hand and stammered, "Pleased to meet you." "Yeah, thanks," he smiled, shaking my hand vigourously before moving on to the next table. All I could think of was that Star Weekly magazine.
A few months later I worked up the courage to call Zally at Chez Piggy to pitch him on the idea of a biography. After all, he was a Canadian legend worthy of deification. "Not interested," was his polite but firm reply. I learned from my publisher that Zal loathed dwelling on his illustrious past and did not suffer lightly those who attempted to do so. I still have that Star Weekly. Maybe someday I'll do that biography. But it won't be the same without Zal.
John Einarson is a local music historian, teacher and writer Courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press, 2002.
Copyright © 2008 The Lovin' Spoonful
All Rights Reserved