Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Archive for October, 2009

Country Al Rides again + Sveta Maric Part Two

My partner, Gregg Conners, and I are going to try to develop an act, whose form and content I have absolutely no idea of.  Embedded here is our very first performance, at an open-mic op on Sept. 12, in Pleasantville, NY. I’m the one with the guitar. We hope to get better.

In other news…I’m posting Part Two of the “Sveta Maric Award,” a (somewhat) true accounting of weird recording session I had 40 yrs ago, in which Ry Cooder was going to play till I blew it with him [See Ry Cooder and My Copper Mine Blues on this Blog].

The Sveta Mariĉ Award

by Allan P. Ross

Part Two of Three Parts

[The guy was pure fire]. He played the button accordion like Frank Yankovic possessed, punching out the darkly driving notes of the Yugoslavian scale like bullets from an AK-47.

And he had the look. Not that it mattered, because it was a film score and nobody watching the film would ever see him. But boy, did he have the look.

He was a classic, media-perfect Yugoslavian: thick, steel-gray hair pompadoured above a handsome, square face, “would-I-lie” eyes, and boxy torso preceding the rest of his body when he walked. You really could picture this guy in a hunting jacket with a shotgun draped across one arm and Joseph Stalin standing next to him, smiling uncomfortably.

My friend, the folk dancer, introduced us after the set, and I asked Sveta if he was interested in the job. He not only was interested, but he took me into his dressing room where he showed me his entire scrapbook, which consisted mainly of pictures of him and Zsa Zsa Gabor taken during a guest spot she’d done on Johnny Carson years before.

We agreed to meet at my place two nights from then for a collaboration-rehearsal, since I had to learn how to make his sound fit with everyone else’s. I gave him my address and he said he’d be there early to welcome the other players and “wake up” his fingers. I stayed for one more set, marveling at the dazzling, masculine beauty of his playing–part Gypsy, part Mosque chant, part Portuguese fado, part polka.

The night of the rehearsal came, the other musicians showed, but not Sveta Marič. The rest of us went over the material, mentally fitting in the accordion parts wherever they occurred, me hoping he’d show at any minute with a good excuse. But by eleven that night it was clear he wasn’t coming.

I called his house several times but got no answer. The next night I went back to Club Slav, where I’d met him. No, I was told, no one had seen him since the night I was there, and no, he’d never disappeared before, although there seemed to be some disagreement about that.

Stuart, my folk dancer friend, who’d been coming to the club for years, asked the owner for Sveta’s address. The owner was adamant about respecting his employee’s privacy, but a ten-dollar bill broke that silence.

The address was in a run-down part of Hollywood my friend and I knew well. I thought we should go there immediately, and I said so in front of the owner.

“Good idea,” said the owner. “You speak Serbian, of course.”

I looked at him. “Why do I have to speak Serbian?” I asked. “The guy spoke fine English when I talked to him the other night.”

The owner’s eyes went up, the corners of his mouth went down, and he shrugged. “Fine,” he said, and started to walk away.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “When do you get off?”

“I’m sorry, sir, I have to close tonight.

“Don’t you have an assistant?”

“Yes, but I’d have to pay him to close up for me.”

“How much?” I asked. I had my wallet out again.

“It’s a lot of responsibility,” he said.

I thrust a twenty at him.

“I’ll get my coat,” he said.

Sveta Marič lived in one of those six-unit courts they must have built a million of in Hollywood in the ’20’s, two attached bungalows on either side of a narrow walkway, two more bungalows at the end of the walkway. Sveta lived in one of the bungalows at the end.

All the shades in his unit were drawn. The place was dark but not black. It looked as if there was one light burning behind the curling, tattered shade covering the front window, and there wasn’t about the place the abject stillness of honest-to-God vacancy.

I knocked. There was no formal response, but I had the feeling the apartment was suddenly all raw nerve-endings, its occupant ready for fight or flight at any moment.

I knocked again. Nothing. I looked into the little door-in-a-door, a two-by-four-inch peephole all California doors came with if they’d been built before the Watts Riots. I saw nothing but the little hatch on the other side of the rectangle, closed against intruders like myself. “Sveta?” I called quietly. “Sveta, this is Al, the guy that wanted you to play on his–”

I didn’t get to finish. The little hatch snapped open and a harsh whisper, redolent of too many Balkan Sobranie cigarettes and slivovitz, rasped out words I couldn’t understand. I looked at the restaurant owner, who was standing at the foot of the porch inspecting his nails in the porch light. If ever a look said “You need me,” his did.

He walked up the steps, tapped lightly on the door, hissed some words that reminded me of the Polish my father and grandmother used to use when they didn’t want me to understand something. In a second he came back down the stairs and addressed me in a confidential manner, looking both ways before he spoke.

“He’s afraid of Partisans,” the owner said.

I just looked at him. I didn’t know what he was talking about. “What Partisans? From where?”

“That’s the problem,” the owner said. “He doesn’t know. They could be from anywhere. That is the nature of Yugoslavian politics, my friend.”

“But why didn’t he say something the other night?” I asked.

“Maybe something has happened since the other night,” said the owner.

“What?” I said, probably a bit more irritably than I’d meant to. “I mean, you’re Yugoslavian, aren’t you?”

“Serbian, just like Sveta,” he said, puffing up.

“Well, then, you must know what he’s afraid of.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” said the owner. “He comes from Trebonicza. I come from Saloniev.”

I looked at my kolo dancer friend.

“They’re about eight miles away from each other. About a twelve-minute drive,” he said.

I looked at the owner.

He held up his hands. “Yugoslavian politics,” he said.

RY COODER WATCH: Where Have All the Followers Gone?

Had a series of ultimately gratifying phone exchanges w/Ry Cooder last week. I say “ultimately,” because while I didn’t end up with the feature article I wanted to do on him for The Fretboard Journal, the conversations were meaty, and, for Ry Cooder, pretty candid.

For the record, I was the one who decided to 86 the article, not Ry. The first time I spoke to him about it he said he’d do it for me as an old friend, but that he didn’t want to do anything w/media anymore since he got burned by someone or something in the English press, I think around 2007.

Actually, I’m having trouble finding the offending UK Observer interview/article. My guess is that Ry was sucker-punched into thinking his candor (“crankiness”) about the music biz, et al, was off the record, but I can’t seem to find any interview with him that isn’t extravagantly complimentary. So, I’ve decided to come back to this subject when I’ve done a little more research.

In the meantime, we talked about the music business, an upcoming (Nov.) tour he needs to do “for economic reasons,” his seeming invisibility to old fans and even friends—“Al, I’ve offered to give copies of my last few CD’s to friends and I got no action!”—, his disenchantment with his own output…I can see why, when seeing this on paper, he might seem cranky. But that’s not the spirit in which any of his words were spoken.

Ry is pretty self-effacing for someone as over-the-top talented as he is. At the end o’ the day, I think he just wishes the world were a little more generous and less craven with its denizens. But who doesn’t? He’s just more specific and articulate than most.

And he misses the following he’s had for so long.

I’ll come back to Ry at another time. There are just too many unanswered questions I have for and about him, which, as an old and loyal friend, I don’t feel like trying to answer myself.

Ry Update and the Sveta Maric Award

Hi, everybody,

Sorry it’s been so long  since my last post;  I’ll explain when it’s easier for me to type. But please stay tuned, because I’ve had several exchanges with Ry, and I want to tell you about them, which I will do very soon.

In the meantime, would you allow me to burden you with a piece I did many years ago on one of my little adventures of which Ry was a part, something he reminded me of when we spoke last week. I’m going to serialize it into three chapters, and I would appreciate any feedback you feel like giving me.  Thanks.

The Sveta Mariĉ Award

by Allan P. Ross

Part One of Three Parts

A wannabe collaborator with me on a screenplay about Jimmie Rodgers, America’s Singing Brakeman from 1927 to 1933, called last night to ask me to partner with him on another project and, also, to recommend him for an editing job he was trying to get on his local newspaper.

The guy, an old friend, had turned out to be a non starter on the Rodgers script, failing to write a single line of dialog in six months, and though I still love him I have no intention of trying to co-create with him again. On the other request, I felt funny recommending him for a job I didn’t know if he could do.

I sidestepped the writing project, saying I was polishing a script for the next six months, and tried tapping my way through the recommendation for the editing job. But he was persistent, so I told him, “You know, you did win the ‘Sveta Mariĉ (pronounced Svay-tah Mah-reetz) Award.’ You should tell the newspaper that.”

He was silent a moment. “What’s the ‘Sveta Mariĉ Award?” he finally asked.

“What does it matter?” I said. “An award’s an award. Nobody ever really cares what it’s for.”

“Yeah,” he said, “you’re probably right. But just in case they ask me, what’s it for?”

“Well,” I said, “the whole title, I mean the long-copy version, which I don’t think anybody has actually ever–”

“What’s the award, bubba?” he insisted. My friend lives in the South, and though he is not a Southerner by birth, he’s absorbed much of the vocabulary.

I sighed. “It’s called ‘The Sveta Mariĉ Award for Non-Cooperation in Pursuit of a Common Goal,'” I said, running the words together as best I could. “But don’t be too quick to put it down. You won against some real heavyweights: Ariel Sharon, who insisted on praying at the Temple Mount during a big Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire and Chuck Knoblach, the Yankee’s banana-fingered infielder.”

“I don’t think I want that award. Who’s Sveta Mariĉ, anyway?” asked my friend, let’s call him George. “And are you gonna recommend me or not?”

I tried to tap again. “Actually, George, it’s not ‘Mah-REEZ,’ with a ‘z,’ it’s more like–”

“I know where you live, bubba,” he said.

I heaved a theatrical sigh. Don’t you hate it when people ask you to lie for them?

In 1969, when I still lived in Hollywood and idolized Henry Mancini for the film scores he wrote, I hustled a job doing some cues for a little documentary called Bisbee, Arizona. It was a modest 16mm film about what happens to a one-company mining town when the company closes the mine.

The producer was either Churchill Films or Encyclopedia Britannica Films, I don’t remember which, and the budget was small. But there was one thing about the project that was very attractive to an unknown film score composer on the make: the ethnic mix of the mineworkers was equal parts Cornish, Serbian and Mexican-American, and the producer wanted the music to reflect that.

I saw possibilities for a film score with “character,” maybe something kind of Paul Simon-y, as I look back on it. I began rounding up the elements, i.e., the musicians, I would need.

These included a stand-up bassist, a mariachi trumpet player, Ry Cooder, to play specialty guitars and tipple (a sort of cross between a guitar and a mandolin), and an accordion player, but not just any kind of an accordion player, a button accordion player.

A button accordion is just like a regular accordion, except instead of a keyboard along the right side it has buttons, and they seem to be more percussive than keys. Maybe that’s just the kind of music people play on button accordions, or the kind of people who play button accordions, I don’t know. But I did know this was to be no “Lady of Spain”-er; I wanted the real South Slav deal. I wanted a squeeze-box player who could march his countrymen into battle, like the Highland Scots pipers of yore, but could still play a polka.

With these instrumentalists I’d be able to cover three musical traditions: Welsh epic ballad, Serbian line dance and Norteño Mejicano folk. Only the button accordionist could be a problem locating, and that, probably, a small one. This is Hollywood, after all.

I asked a friend in a folkdance troupe if he could help me. He didn’t hesitate a second.

“Sveta Marič,” he said, leaning on the final consonant, something between a “tz” sound and a lisp, “there is no one else. We’ll go there, to the club where he plays, Wednesday night. It’s kolo night,” he said. A kolo is a generic Yugoslavian line dance.

Came Wednesday night and Stuart and I went to the club, a corny, pleasant Yugoslavian restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. We got in, but I think only because they already knew Stewart. If ever there was an émigré “social club,” as the Italians call it, this was it. I don’t think I heard a word of English other than what Stew uttered, for the first ten minutes I was there. Fortunately, you don’t need any other language than music’s own in order to understand it. The squeezebox player was pure fire.