Today, May 25, is kind of special to me. It’s the late Albert King’s birthday (April 25, 1923 – December 21, 1992). Our band, Evergreen Blueshoes (q.v. in these pages) opened for Albert during one of our WHISKEY A’GO-GO stints, June 19-23, 1968.
It was the closest up I’d ever gotten to a great practitioner in the American blues tradition, one that goes back probably to Reconstruction and is paved with the bottlenecks, picks and 78rpm records of all the usual suspects like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson, and less well-known barnburners like Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, Son House and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Btw, these are the guys that ultimately gave us Rock ‘n Roll. “That’s our love child, man. We gave birth to that baby,” one of them once said. Albert King, no relation to BB, was part of that tradition.
Like many of them, Albert was from the One-note Opener school, where a player steps out onto the stage following his introduction and drills you in your seat with a single note. Yeah, no shit, one note. But, oh, what a note.
Albert had a way of starting the set that promised little show but tremendous musical excitement. The band would be on stage setting themselves up, having already fine-tuned Albert’s amplifier to specific, pre-arranged levels, before they started a quiet, rhythmic vamp, drum and bass guitar on the bottom, keyboard or second guitar or both over that. Then Albert would come out, pick up the guitar lying somewhere on stage if he wasn’t already wearing it, put the strap over his head, all the time looking at some point in the middle distance just above the audience’s heads. Then he’d step forward, dig in and play that single, stinging authoritative note that let you know you were going to be in good hands for at least the next hour or so.
It’s hard to explain what that note sounded like. It would be the tonic, i.e., the starting note of the key he was in, played up the neck for richness and hit hard with a vibrato you can only get by fretting the string with your ring finger with the rest of your fingers on the same string behind it, like a loose fist, for control and strength. The amp would be set to just the right amount of reverb and equalization to jump out over the rest of the band like the backfire of a car. I will not do a further meditation on that note.
For the rest of the set he didn’t talk much, and when he did it was in short, pungent bursts of content, like his music. “And now I’d like to play you a medley of my hit,” he’d say before launching into “Born Under a Bad Sign,” his lone chartbuster up to that point. Then he would hit it with a ton of verve and fresh-seeming inflections, aural and visual, considering he’d probably played it a thousand times since its release.
Between shows we’d sit in the Whiskey’s deafening “relaxation” room over the stage, awash in the floor-to-ceiling throb of ‘Sixties overdriven bass guitars and over-miked drum kits and he’d let me watch his hands, which was cool, since I could hardly hear a note he played.
In fact, I don’t know how I ever learned a thing from Albert, since we had to yell to hear each other to make any oral contact at all, but I did. And we always lived to talk about it later at Hamburger Hamlet, a bistro just up the street, where we’d go after the show. No chance of being bothered by our “public” there. It was 1968; we looked just like them and vice versa.
Nevertheless, one nite we started talking to two women there. They acted as tho’ they knew we were performers of some sort and maybe even wanted to “entertain” (Albert’s word) with us. To my astonishment, we made headway. I guess they thought we were players because this was the hottest stretch on Strip, with the Whiskey on that block and several more clubs within a furlong or two from there.
Anyway, we scored. The chicks, who were not prostitutes by the way, said they wouldn’t mind going home with us, “for a drink, but no more; I’m off the pill right now,” said one of them; probably a lie, I thought, but part of the one-nite stand courtship ritual. “Okay,” we said, “just a drink.” No matter how you looked at it, it sounded pretty good for logging a little entertainment for the evening, and if not that nite, maybe some other one.
One little problem, and here it was: “So, where are we going?” said the short, spikey-haired brunette with no bra under the peace sign on her tank top. The other one, a tall, dirty/stringy-blond in elephant bells, also bra-less, looked at us blankly, which I took to mean, “Yeah, me, too; where you gonna take us?”
I lived far away and Albert, instead of sleeping in the band bus, was being quartered by the Whiskey in the “special performers’ suite,” a tiny, single room in the back of the building (the Whiskey was once a bank, so the room was probably once an office) overlooking the parking lot.
I was just about to lay the problem on Albert when he said, “Hey, ladies, tell y’all what: why don’t you let me and Mr. Al (this was the first time he ever called me that) show you the bus, right Mr. Al?” It seemed like a good idea at the time, so I said, “Right on, Mr. Al” (“right back atcha,” as we would say forty years later).
The bus was parked in the Whisky’s lot. It was a converted Greyhound with flat panels screwed on over the company’s trademark corrugation and “Albert King – The Velvet Bulldozer,” painted in three-foot-high iridescent psychedelic letters on the side.
Some of the lights were on. “Shit,” I said to Albert, “looks like some of your guys are in for the nite, Mr. Al.” I glanced back at the two women. They were still looking at the sign, and seemed to be talking to each other about it.
“What’re we gonna do with them, auction them off to the highest-bidding sideman?” I said.
“Easy, there, Sparky,” he said. “I gave the boys the rest of the nite off,” he said.
“But what if they come back early?” I whined. “What if they score, too, and come back early.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Al,” he said, delivering “Mr. Al” with a leer, “I leave one light on when I’m entertaining. We call it the “smokin’ lamp.” If the smokin’ lamp is lit, I’m smokin’, and they know to split. But even if they did come back with pussy, it’s cool, Mr. Al. The Velvet Bus sleeps six, fucks twelve.”
“Ok,” I said, “Then, I guess I’m down with that.”
“Beautiful, man, ‘specially for you,” He said, “because if they did happen to score, you be the one S.O.L., because the bus does most definitely NOT fuck fourteen.”
“I can dig it, Mr. Al,” I said. Which was fly (his word), because by that time the girls had stopped ogling the sign and the four of us were standing in a purple velvet and velour version of what I guessed would be the interior of Hugh Hefner’s yacht.
Anyway, things went OK. The guys in the band didn’t come back ‘til late that nite, long after Albert and I’d finished entertaining and dropped the two girls back at their crib (again, his word, not mine).
As we were leaving the lot one of the chicks looked again at the big letters emblazoned on the side of the bus, glanced back and forth from Albert to me several times and finally said, “Which one of you is Albert King?” As one, Albert and I pointed to each other.
Albert and I celebrated our good fortune at Leo’s Barbecue on Crenshaw and the Do Drop Inn [look up Selico’s club], in what later would become infamous as South Central, for after-hours shmoozing. Goes without saying they knew which one Al
by Allan Ross
[Part 1 of 2]
See, you’re laughing already, just from the title. But then, usually when I tell the story I make it funny, and after it’s all done I’ll say something about how scared I really was, and sometimes someone in the group knows something about swans and they confirm that there’s a much darker version of the story than the one I’m about to tell you.
Anyway, around mid-spring of this year, a day or so before Memorial Day, I decided it was time for our first semi-familymy wife somehow never ends up on these nature-type excursions with us—canoe outing of the season. I got my two sons, Max and Ben, remembered to get the paddles from under the house, and walked down to the shore of the lake we share with 22 other families to our canoe.
As we approached the docking pier we could see the canoe had been “borrowed,” the lock on the chain that usually secures it to a tree trunk broken, and one of its cane seats partially burned. I was a little angry, but figured I was lucky it had been returned, and decided not to let it spoil our afternoon. No omens here, I decided.
I put the boys in the front and middle of the boat, pushed it out a yard or so into the water, got in myself, and paddled the short distance across and down the lake to an inlet was that connects our lake with two others. There was a rope loosely stretched across the inlet’s entrance, tied on either end to wooden poles about as thick as broomstick handles stuck in the shallow lake bottom. No sign or anything, just the rope slung across these poles a couple of times. It was so casual an arrangement you could almost imagine the wind blew the elements together into a sort of chance assemblage, not meant for anyone to pay any attention to, so I didn’t. I poled us under or around it, I don’t remember, and then it was Dark Continent time.
OPENING TO KILLER SWAN INLET IN HAPPIER TIMES
Going through the inlet that leads from our lake to the lake in the next community is one of the quiet joys of my life. The whole channel can’t be more than a quarter mile long nor is it really wildI mean, it does run through a culvert under a street in a New York City suburbbut it always makes me feel like Bogart in the “African Queen.” It’s a narrow meandering waterway where thick vines and dense bushes with berries and stumpy trees go right down to and over the edges of the banks so that the canal seems almost like a ragged tear in the earth. Forest creatures also come right down to the edges of the inlet, as if their lives, too, were disrupted by the tear. They chirp and call and scream, and make sudden, scurrying movements, and dive into the water almost before you notice them.
There is so much to see and hear that I keep forgetting to steer, so I’m constantly running into some overhanging bush or fallen limb, which intensifies the animal activity which distracts me even further, until it settles back into stasis. I have to admit, it sort of thrilled me to interrupt, and then be accepted, by the fauna of the little preserve; the last time (before the swan incident) I did the inlet I went home and subscribed to National Geographic.
Anyway, we’re slowly, very slowly, poling our way along the channel, stopping frequently, pretending our reveries are important, or at least scientifically significant in an age of shrinking rain forests and disappearing ozone layers, when one of the swans that was in the lake just outside the inlet entrance starts following us.
At a distance it seems to be just a casual reconnaissance on still one more boatload of dumb nature lovers, but as he comes further down the inlet, I see his is a more purposeful mission, and it soon becomes clear he is making right for us. The same thing happened last year: the swan followed the boat into the inlet, hung around it until we had passed a place which had some special significance to him, and then he returned to the lake, so I wasn’t particularly worried.
But this time the swan came very close to the canoe, paddled past it, and posted himself on our starboard side, moving only as fast or as slow as we did.
I figured he was guarding a nesting mate, and in a few more yards I saw the object of his protection: another swan sitting on top of a mound-shaped cone of sticks and twigs that rose out of a small cove created by a twist in the canal’s path—a miniature Sugar Loaf Mountain with a nesting bird for a tophat. We stopped as we came abreast of the roost, and so did the swan, positioning himself about halfway between us and it, and I told the kids that this is what his militancy was all about, and wasn’t it wonderful how nature worked, and how these very same instincts that get mommy and daddy out of bed each day to grouse at each other then go into the workplace, blah, blah, blah. When we were all bored enough with that, we began to paddle on, past the nesting swan and her guardian-mate, to resume our journey into darkest Lewisboro.
The sentry swan seemed to be content that we weren’t going to bother his family. He escorted us a few more yards, then turned around and started to paddle back in the opposite direction. But then, suddenly, he changed his mind.
He wheeled around, and came straight for the canoe, in a move that was faster than I than I had ever imagined a swan could be. And there was nothing casual about it. I had that sinking feeling I used to get on my paper route when a new dog spotted me and started running towards me. Would he stop short and make this a ritual how-de-do, with plenty of growling and barking, but nothing more? Or would this be time I was going to get bitten? Were rabies shots in my future? Would the crazed beast just make it simple and tear me to shreds, making shots and stitches academic?
[THE PHOTO HERE IS OF MAX AND BEN, MY SONS, SHORTLY AFTER THE KILLER SWAN INCIDENT. NOTICE HOW SHAKEN THEY APPEAR TO BE]
The swan came right up to the stern of the boat, where moments before I had been paddling and steering but was now frozen with surprise. He reared up out of the water and began beating the air with his wings and whipping his head and neck around like a short, fat snake.
My breath left me like the last puff of air in a balloon.
I didn’t know anything about swans that had prepared me for this. Also, I had my two little boys with me, and I
never knew exactly how I was supposed to behave in front of them. Do I act like I’m in control when I’m not? Do I try to act like I’m not scared shitless when I am? How do I protect them if the swan decides to go for them, instead of me, because they’re in the other end of the boat which will tip over if I try to get to them without using the delicate place-changing maneuver prior to capsizing a canoe?
The swan had backed off a couple, three feet, but was keeping pace with us paddle-foot for oar-stroke, mirroring our boat’s every little move with his own counter-moves. But at least he wasn’t attacking.
Now, in case you’re thinking, “Well, after all, it is a swan; how dangerous could he really be?” please know that he is now working himself into a frenzy, goaded by the threat to his family we must have posed and is in the water, where he’s at home. Think about being trapped in a small room with an average sized tomcat, agile and sinewy, fortified with rage; or on the sand with a seagull bent on pecking your eyes out (seagulls are much, much larger than you think when they are two or three feet away). It’s the strength that suddenly endows the all-instincts creature, the promise that they will battle far beyond their normal powers, that makes you realize all bets are off if you think your size or ability to reason is any advantage. I remember once being confronted in the kitchen of a club where I worked by a dishwasher who had overheard me call him a violent psychoticwhich he was. I remember his eyes, white with rage, the veins and tendons in his neck standing out like a lizard’s, and he had a meat cleaver in his hand. That’s scary. It’s the sudden threat of violence that you simply can’t talk your way out of, can’t buy or beg out of, and the weirdness, the bad-dreamness, that disorients you, makes you realize you’re in trouble because you thought you couldn’t possibly be in trouble.
I moved one of the paddles to port arms to be ready to defend us in case of real trouble, and my glasses went flying into the water. Now I would have to try to protect my family from an unfamiliar enemy I could hardly see. I remember wondering if this was really an object lesson in respecting other families’ privacy by seeing how I felt having a trespasser with unknown intentions sidling up to my offspring to have a look-see and maybe cause a little mayhem. I was desperately praying he would know that I did simply want to look and not touch. Would he know that? Was there any reason to try to tell him that in some way? What did I used to do with the dogs that chased me? Did I ever find a way to deal with them? I didn’t remember that I had.
Could I yell to anyone for help? Would anybody be close enough to hear me, let alone help? This one I knew the answer to: No. There wasn’t anyone within a mile or so who could hear or help. And underlying it all: this was a swan, for Chrissakes. A beautiful, silent, graceful, ornamental animal associated with tranquility and peace. I was kneeling in a canoe, holding a paddle like a baseball bat, defending self and kin against a swan!
Now he was back again, almost seeming to sense the advantage he gained when I lost my glasses. I was already sweating from panic, confusion, and the prospect of looking like a coward to my kids, two Koreans to whom macho and bravado were very important. Don’t hero fathers ever have fear for themselves?
Or are they only just afraid for their children? Well, I was afraid for all of us, and I couldn’t tell you who I was afraid for more: my kids or me.
The swan was at my right shoulder now as I twisted to try to pole the boat away from him and still be in some sort of defense posture. I was lightheaded with confusion and disbelief: this can’t be happening. It’s all going to stop in a second, isn’t it, and/or turn out to be a dream.
He was bobbing and weaving, like a boxer looking for an opening. Strictly short term thinking and breathing for me now. Very clear pictures of tearing flesh, pecked-out eyes leaving empty sockets, blood all over the place, and other swans hearing the screams and coming to watch or help, getting even for all the atrocities committed against them by treehuggers and other Upper Westside phonies.
Newspaper photographs of us drowning. And being pecked to death while we fight to stay afloat. And my wife’s voice, hysterical, screeching, “What were you doing going into a prohibited area with two little boys? And
what do you mean, wild swan? What kind of man are you, anyway?”
Now he was arching up out of the water again, beating the air, causing a bitter fluid to boil up inside my chest, like hot mercury in a thermometer. I thought I was going to vomit. He was so close I could see the wild-horse fury in his eyes, and he opened his mouth and whipped his head back like a python ready to strike. He was huge. With us low in the boat, me on my knees holding a paddle in front of me, he seemed to tower over me, and when he spread his wings, literally blocking out the sun, I knew I was no match for him at all. Him in the water, fluid, supple, and stable: me in the canoe, awkward and foolish and on the defensive.
He arched his neck once again, reared back and opened his beak, big, strong and bent back at the tip like a claw—I half expected teeth—and I guessed this was it: the way swans do it. They freeze you in fear and your own clumsiness and incredulity, then tear your flesh off with sharp, hooked beaks. It had become a full-scale death dream, the kind I always imagined people had as they were drowning or about to be in a terrible car crash, everything slowed down to one frame at a time. That I couldn’t run, couldn’t maneuver, could only twist and jump in the canoe like a hooked fish was just like all those trapped-in-slow-motion dreams that make you wake up in a sweat and ruin your night and the following day and make you wonder what’s the matter with you.
And then, suddenly, it was over.
Maybe I had crossed over some invisible line that took me out of the area of threat to his brood; or maybe he just figured I was scared enough. But he abruptly, though gracefully, turned away, as if from some game he was tired of playing and paddled off in the direction of the inlet’s entrance. I waited with my boys about a half an hour and slowly, very slowly, went back the two or three yards to get my glasses out of the shallow water.
It wasn’t until I actually had them on that I felt a modicum of control return, along with the realization that I was now going to have to make a choice: go back the way we came in, i.e., around the swan, maybe or maybe not giving him wide enough berth to ignore us, or go on to the other end of the inlet, which emptied into a neighboring lake, and portage home from there.
Portage is such an ugly word.
[End o’ Part 1]
I finished my part on the film I’ve been talking about, “Second Hand,” (as it now seems to be called) a few days ago when I re-recorded my lines in the studio in upper Manhattan. This was necessary because the dialog from the location shoot was buried so deep in ambient noise the editor couldn’t get it clean enough to put ambient noise back into it. Got that? You do? Would you explain it to me? Anyway, it seems the wind in our footage made everything else almost unintelligible, so we did it again, in the studio.
Me on location under the Geo. Washington Bridge
Anyway, I thought I did my job really well, and they seemed to think so, too. The task was to sync up the words I was saying…aah, how many different ways can I say it? You do the math. Frankly, they’d been doing it the wrong way: they were trying to get relatively inexperienced actors to watch the film and lip-sync with themselves on the fly. Very difficult to do even for pros.
The way you do it is to look a few times at a short clip–from 3 to 10 seconds long– LISTENING to the lines you see yourself saying, then FORGET the visuals and record the lines as you remember they sounded. It’s not hard. And if you don’t sync up every single word it’s no real problem, because the editor can advance or retard the film to fit around the gaps you didn’t quite duplicate.
I think Jay and Blue Arees, auteur and editor, respectively, were blown away by how quickly the job went when they did it the time-tested way.
No biggie, but I was pleased they were happy with the page out of my half-century-backed book o’ performing tricks and treats. I think this film is for Jay’s Master’s in filmmaking, and I hope he’s successful. I’ve enjoyed getting my feet wet with a whole new generation of filmmakers, and I hope they’ve liked working with me enough to consider me a future resource on either side of the camera.
* * * * * * *
This is a piece I wrote almost 25 yrs ago when the brothers Kim–Ming Gook and Dai Young; last names come first in Korea–deplaned to start their long sentences as our sons.
The picture here is of the four of us, Marion & myself, Max & Ben going into our first winter together.
Fender Mustang, ca 1964
* * * * * *
And now, a little something about my late mother, Florence.
Did a little acting job last Thursday. Portrayed an aging sax player whose practice session under the George Washington bridge is interrupted by a wayward yuppie running from the cops. It’s an indie, with all the hopes and heartaches that will probably come with it, but the writer/director/producer, Jarrett Robertson, seems to have some chops, is charming up the geez and totally could make it.
The film will be very short, probably no more than 10 minutes, but Robertson hopes to get it seen by someone who will take it to the next level and/or recognize his talent and underwrite his next project.
I played alto sax in the scenes, Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave” to be exact, and if Jarrett chooses the right take I may not sound half bad, considering I haven’t picked up the instrument in nearly 20 yrs. But there are many choices he can make, including ones one that work for him as auteur but not me as player. But that’s OK, I was there to act, not play, and they seemed to be happy with my performance. As George Burns said, “Fooled ’em again.”
ANOTHER SERBIAN EXPLOSION (working title)
By Allan Ross
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, pronouncing it casually, Svay-tah Mah-reetz, as if he said it every day. “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.
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.
[It’s hard to find a map of Yugoslavia that shows how Sveta and his friend were probably seeing it. These are “Antient” maps from an antique book I have. One shows where Serbia was in relation to Italy (just to the right of it across the Adriatic); the other one zooms in on the area, tho’ you’d never know it. I know these maps are worthless, but they are atmospheric]
“Can’t you help me?” I whined. “I mean, can’t you get him to realize there’s no danger rehearsing folk music in the Hollywood hills?”
“But that seems to be just the problem, my friend,” the owner said. “He thinks there are Partisans wherever there are hills. He is not worried about the recording session, in a big, glamorous, well-lit studio on Sunset Blvd. It is rehearsing in the hills that he fears.”
The little hatch snapped open again, as if whoever was behind it had been listening to the conversation. There was a loud hissing and spitting sound behind it, and the owner excused himself from his conversation with me to confer again with Sveta. Again, the sibilant exchange. Again, the owner walking down the three steps to confide in me.
“Sveta says if he can see the music now, he won’t need to rehearse.”
I looked at the owner. “But I need him to help me write it. And I thought he couldn’t read music.”
“Oh, he can read, all right,” the owner said. “He just doesn’t want anyone to know it. He feels it detracts from the, how do you say–”
Now there came an even louder hissing from the little hatch in the door. The owner listened, then continued.
“–primal authenticity of the music,” he explained, “its earthy spontaneity, its–”
“Okay, okay,” I said, “I get it.”
I had the music with me, the conductor’s score, and I went back to my car to get it. I figured I’d call Sveta’s bluff. But when I came back, Sveta refused to open the door. “How can I show him the music?” I said to my two companions.
There was another exchange of hisses. Then, from the owner, “Hold the musical score up to the door.”
I looked at him in disbelief. “What’s he going to do, mental it through an inch and a half of oak?”
“No, no,” the owner said. “Hold it up to the peephole. He can see it that way.”
I began to understand why history teachers always tell you “You can’t study Yugoslavia, it’s too complicated. All you have to know is, when Marshall Tito dies the Balkans will fall apart.” For the first time in my life I began to feel bad for Marshall Tito.
My patience was growing short, and I knew a house of mirrors when I was caught in one. But I’d come this far and I figured I might as well see the thing through.
I went to the door and held the score up to the peephole.
Sveta said something, and the owner told me to hold the music even closer, and to stand to the side of it, as I was blocking the porch light, which the accordionist needed in order to see the music. I felt like an idiot, but I did what he said.
Sveta spoke again, and so did the owner.
“Closer,” he said. Now the score was right up against the peephole. I started to pull a face to make it clear that I really wasn’t falling for any of this crap and that we’d all be getting back in the car and leaving in–
“KAH-WWWHHHUUMMPPP!!” went an explosion so close to my head I thought it was inside it. So close, in fact, I didn’t know which way to dive. It so completely filled the space in the universe that, up until then, I thought I alone filled, I didn’t jump anywhere, because why bother?
So I just stood there, ears ringing, holding up this musical score with a big, shredded hole in the middle of it and the barrel of a 38 revolver poking through it. I have a feeling I looked like someone in a newspaper photo with a caption reading, “Found Wandering in Subway After Bender,” or something like that.
Both my companions had hit the dirt and stayed there for some time. Finally, the restaurant owner looked up and said something like, “Perhaps this isn’t a good time for Sveta.”
My dancing friend agreed, and the three of us walked, double-time, close-order drill, across a little alleyway that led to a side entrance of the complex not visible to the bungalows in the rear.
I was petrified and still could not hear a thing. Stuart had to drive my car, a broken down stick shift Plymouth which he mastered in seconds.
For the recording session I got another accordionist, not a button player, but a traditional keyboard accordionist, and told him to think hora using just the black keys. It sounded fine.
I don’t know what happened to Sveta Marič, if the Partisans got him or what. I never went back to the restaurant. As far as Yugoslavian politics are concerned, I think it’s true what our Poli Sci professors always told us: all bets are off when Marshall Tito dies.