Interview by Cynthia Reeser
For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 5.3, September 2011
I am always interested in cross-genre artists, or those whose work encompasses more than one spectrum of the arts. Allan Ross is both a musician and a writer. He has played music all his life, professionally during the 1960’s, when he performed, wrote and/or recorded with the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, the Mamas and the Papas, Ry Cooder, and others not dead yet. Allan has written prose all his life, usually articles and interviews for magazines, as well as nonfiction short and flash stories. He recently finished a novel, Seizure, about Nazi looted-art recovery, and is working on a collection of stories for a book he will entitle Growing Up Jewish in L.A. An intriguing biography, no? Which is exactly why I decided to sit down and ask Allan some questions about what makes him tick— about writing, music, and if and how the boundaries between the two might converge.
Cynthia Reeser: You are first and foremost a musician. Could you talk about your background in music?
Allan Ross: Spiritually, yes, I am first and foremost a musician. But running a close second to that, among my very modest gifts, is humor, which is at the core of my writing, which is the only thing I’ve ever really made any money at. And I’m talking about my advertising writing, by the way, for which I make no apology, and would trot out as my best work, in the way an archaeologist would think of finding a grocery list in Amenhotep’s garbage pit as his greatest accomplishment. It’s not like we get to decide what is or isn’t important or funny. Other people do.
But, to talk about music for a minute: my background is just about half-and-half classical—I played clarinet as a kid—and pop/folk/rock—I started playing guitar when I found out it could get me laid in high school. I got fairly good at the clarinet, I guess, because I was first chair in my junior high school (Bancroft, in L.A.) and played in various teenage orchestras and ensembles around town. Then came Rock n’ Roll, Elvis and Chuck Berry and Bill Haley, not to mention Bebop and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and I was Audi 5000 with classical clarinet.
My initiation into guitar-playing was through folk, actually, left-wing folk, you know, like Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger whose brother, Mike, played in a New York group called the New Lost City Ramblers who did Old-Timey Music and turned me on to American roots music, especially Bluegrass and Blues and finger-picking.
Folk and roots music was off-campus but huge at Cal ( University of California, Berkeley) in the early ‘60s, and led directly to the West Coast’s contribution to the Folk-rock explosion of the mid-‘60s. Along with the Ash Grove, a club in L.A., folk and roots music was also my entrée into professional music-making, not to mention, with the one exception of Johnny Cash, the wellspring of all the people I knew and performed or recorded with: Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Taj Mahal, Mama Cass, Jose Feliciano, Clarence White, Ralph MacDonald a few more, many of which are still alive.
I was working and playing at the Ash Grove, when a guy came in and asked if there was anyone around specializing in Bluegrass music who might want to start a rock band with him. This was Skip Battin, a one-hit (“Cherry Pie”) ‘50’s phenom, who wanted to make music for the Turned-On generation, and the picker was, obviously, me. We put together a band which we—it was actually Kim Fowley, a famous music business character in Hollywood, who named us—called Evergreen Blueshoes which made a couple singles and an album and played around town in some sexy venues before it exploded, as most bands in those days did, after a couple years.
Skip went on to play bass for the Byrds and I became a studio guitarist and documentary film score composer. In the studio I played on some advertising jingles and, for some reason, seemed to have found a niche here, both as a player and writer. Sometimes I think I’m just a natural-born shill.
Anyway, I moved to NY in ’75, where the real ad business was in those days, opened a jingle factory, then became Music Director for J. Walter Thompson, a real white-shoes ad agency. After I left there I moved to Westchester, north of the city, started a family and my own ad agency—Allen, Colucci and Ross—which tried to provide all advertising services, music and humor being our specialties. Frankly, it was the humor that turned the dime for us, but I always insisted my clients use musical tags for their radio and TV spots, partially because I’m in SAG and AFTRA and I wanted to keep my benefits packages. You asked me to be honest, didn’t you? You didn’t? Too late.
I still write jingles, but in the Internet age they seem to have outlived their usefulness, and in order for me not to do the same thing I play a lot of live gigs, both as a clarinet-doubling-guitarist and woodwind ensemble performer. I try to tell jokes to both audiences. I like the fruit they throw.
CR: You are also a writer, having published stories in Crawdaddy, Broadcast, the Village Voice (reportage), L.A. Free Press, High Fidelity, MD, and in Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 5.2 ( nonfiction) and forthcoming in the Prick of the Spindle print edition. As a musician, can you talk about how you moved into writing, and whether that move was a natural step or something you’ve had to work harder at than, say, playing bluegrass music.
AR: That’s an interesting question. I never moved from music into writing or vice versa. Whatever I’ve done in either of them, it was independent of the other. I played clarinet as a kid, guitar as a rock star—well, asteroid—both of those things out of school, and learned to write in college. Different processes entirely. Period. End of story. I don’t see one growing out of, or leading to, the other. In fact, I don’t really see much connection, for me, at least, between the two.
Whenever I’ve talked to my wife about this, she’s said, “What about songwriting? And jingle writing? If you cut them, do they not bleed words?” Or something like that. Yeah, I can see why those things seem like they bring music and words together. But they still feel like they’re coming from different places. Music is very visceral, writing’s mental. However, my wife may be partially right. Sometimes a word or phrase and a riff seem to come together at the same time that feels very natural.
CR: Can you give me an example?
AR: No. Yes. I’m working on sort of a jazzy clarinet version of BB King’s “The Thrill is Gone.” Now, it is a minor blues, which tells you a lot about the mood of the music, but the words themselves seem to tell me where a new melody line might want to go. You know, what they say about a guy knowing that, as far as his lover is concerned, the bloom is off the rose. And the rhythm of the phrase. Though that may be more about music than words. Hmmm. Maybe, maybe not. If you get into the rhythms of Shakespeare you start to hear words as sounds and visceral impulses, sort of like music.
As far as shleppy labor goes, though, getting the two to come together, a lyric and a melody, has always been hard for me. And, frankly, I don’t think I’m that great at it. Why do I think that? Because I know how well Paul McCartney or Billy Joel or Richard Rogers do it. Or did it. When you hear the real deal, if you’re honest with yourself, you know where your talent is in relation to it.
CR: Could you talk about Seizure, the novel you recently completed? What inspired you to write this book? Was there a lot of research involved in it? How did you balance the research/fact-based aspects of the novel with the story itself, and was this difficult?
AR: Wow. You’re really asking me to talk about what was at the core of my being for almost five years. And nearly killed me. The last time I looked at this project—Hah! Punishment is more like it—was right after the big agent—whose name I can’t think of at the moment, ha ha—at William Morris shot it down with two lines of rejection under the agency’s letterhead. It’s been too painful to get right back into selling it this moment, but I know I will before long.
I got passionately involved in the subject as art stolen by the Nazis in World War II gradually crept into the news. At first, it was just in New York, maybe because New York is so Jewish, and so much of the looted art had been owned by Jews. But as the rest of the world —California, Austria, Paris, Tokyo—started to get into it I began to think in terms of a book with wider appeal than just the art market alone.
The personal part of it was that I’d begun collecting in the early ‘90’s, mainly because I’d always wanted to and because a little bout with cancer said Do it Now! So I was really ready to go when the New York City Attorney General, Bob Morgenthau, confiscated some drawings by Egon Schiele from a private collection that was on loan to the Musuem of Modern Art from a collector in Vienna. This was in the late ‘90s.
Yes, I had to do a lot of research in order to not look like a horse’s ass to anyone who read it and knew anything about art—like Dan Brown didn’t do about Church history for the Da Vinci Code—and for verisimilitude. I learned a lot about that word and details and accuracy and description and most of the other tools you need to write good fiction. At least I think I did.
To a certain extent the research helped write the story. When an obvious place the heroine and the hero could discover each other was the Tate Museum in London, where they were looking at a display comparing some Turner fakes with the real thing, I had a good, meaty site for a first encounter. I know that city fairly well, and keep travel journals wherever I go, so I had a lot of personal, detailed material I could pull atmospheric stuff from.
AR: Okay, like when a yeoman warder in the Tower of London yelled at a Spaniard who asked if the tour was ever translated into Spanish, “This is England! We speak English!” Or a London lady dressed to the nines leaning out of a taxi and barfing in the street—the Brits do like to drink, you know. Or an auction where someone stood up after the gavel fell to say that the government was pre-empting the sale of a painting because it was deemed to be a national treasure. Well, that was actually Paris, but you get the idea. That kind of thing. Not easily found in books, you know?
CR: Yes, I do.
AR: As for the love story itself, well, I have a rich and, I guess, pretty erotic, fantasy life. I see lots of opportunities for romance and sex wherever I look: a darkroom, the stacks in a library, a bell-tower, a Channel crossing, during a thunderstorm while being stranded in a Rouen suburb because your car broke down, etc.
And, frankly, I went back to a hot and deep affair I’d had a few years before and some of the feelings from that and the settings and the time and the details of the person and other things that stayed with me. I needed to create that kind of heat, and I used the same kind of sense-memory I use in acting to bring believability to the characters and their actions. It helps if you can remember what it was like to be with someone on the subway and be suddenly and helplessly aroused by their smell.
CR: Can you talk about any current projects you are working on?
AR: Well, I mentioned to you that I’m putting together a collection of short stories I’ve already written and some material from my blog, Power-Pickers of the ‘60’s, into a something I’ve tentatively titled Growing Up Jewish in L.A. It’s really a catchall for my peculiar worldview, given where I came from. I’m paranoid, I admit it. New York, where I live now, is not like L.A. Especially L.A. in the ‘50s, with the Rosenberg Trial—you don’t know what that was? It’s worth looking up, child—and McCarthyism, the Hollywood Ten, etc. This is where I learned to use humor to avoid uncomfortable encounters. If you make a joke about who you are when you enter a room—Uh oh, here comes a Hebe, everyone out of the pool—you can save yourself a lot of grief, often from people who are more thoughtless than malicious.
So, it isn’t always about L.A. experiences, but it is always about being Jewish in Gentile world. There’s a pretty good story about writing a jingle with Johnny Cash, when I was at J. Walter Thompson, that sort of wedged me into his, and his band’s, lives because I could play country guitar, and they all thought it was fun that “this New York [read: Jewish] guy can play our music like almost he was from here [ Nashville].”
CR: How far along are you with that?
AR: I guess about half way, more or less. I mean, I gotta believe the research is done, don’t you?