Sasha, Yuri, Valery, Yakov, and Steve Seltzer

I read recently where Sasha Lehrman, a well known professor of Language had died…..did that bring back memories from 1976.

Photo by steved_np3 from stock.xchng.

Did you ever want to manage a Rock and Roll band of Russian immigrants?  Neither did I, but I did.

A good friend of mine, a fraternity brother from Northwestern called me and said he had been at a gathering the night before and had heard two wonderful Russian immigrant folk singers, and because of my affiliation with BASS Tickets and the various music clubs I might be able to get them bookings.

And thus I was to meet Sasha and Yuri.

They had not known each other in Russia, but were able to emigrate, theoretically to Israel, but both came to the US.  Sasha was an expert in the similarities of languages (there is a specific title, but I forget it), and Yuri had been an attorney in Moscow.  I invited them to perform at my son Richard’s upcoming bar mitzvah, and everyone enjoyed them.  They happened to be outside my older son Steve’s bedroom, and they heard him playing the guitar and asked to meet with him.  They listened to him play (we had tuned him out and didn’t pay much attention) and they remarked how good he was…!  Then Sasha said they really played rock and roll “underground” in Russia, because the Soviets only allowed “official” music.

They had met with two other immigrants from Latvia, which was also under Russian control, who wanted to play the music they loved in America.  There was Yakov, who was a drummer, and Valery, who was a singer.  Yakov had wanted to go to the Berkley school of music in Boston, but when he saw Berkeley CA on a map, that’s where he thought it was, so he ended up in the Bay Area.  Yakov was a computer engineer, Valeri an architect.

They had all gotten together as a group, and Sasha, who could play any instrument, played bass, Yuri rhythm guitar, and the other two their specialties.   They needed a lead guitar and asked Steven to join them.  He was 18 at the time.

They had all been in different “official” bands in Moscow which played traditional songs and light rock music (“like the Hollys”, Sasha said).  Led Zepplin, Beatles, Pink Floyd etc records either were smuggled into Russia, or the music lovers taped the Voice of America music.  And what astounded me was there were huge underground rock festivals in the Russian countryside; famous bands (famous to the Russian afficinados) played before thousands…..if the officials came upon them they had to disperse, otherwise they faced prison).

So began the saga of Sasha and Yuri.

Not having anything else to do other than to work with Hal on getting a computerized ticketing company into a profit position, and having returned the previous winter from the Dylan tour, I became the manager of this band.

They actually sounded quite good, Sasha an accomplished musician, Yakov a strong and powerful drummer (he really was into soul and wanted to be in a funk or soul band;  he was eventually), Yuri was ok on rhythm, but drove them all nuts with his insistence on using the fuzztone,  and Steven was a huge surprise as lead guitar and added to the group.  Our explanation for Steven was that his grandparents came from Russia (well almost, a Polish town right on the border;  the joke was the town would be part of Russia one year, part of Poland the next and my grandmother would say quite happily, “Thank God, I couldn’t stand another Russian winter”).

They practiced and were ready to perform.  Valery was the novelty we needed.  Although he was bearded and spoke with a heavy accent, when he sang he sounded like a cross between John Fogerty and Joe Cocker; he sang with animation and would end a song with a standing flip.  Sasha had a great voice and he and Yuri had good harmony together.  And our family friend, Steven Marcus, became the roadie, driver, tuner, and official keep the Russians from killing each other person……all for no pay.

I booked them into my friend Jeff Pollack’s original Old Waldorf club where the popular rock bands played.  Jeff was willing to go along because he knew that the novelty of having the first Russian band would attract people.  And he was right.  I think the audience expected to hear the “Volga boat song” and instead the band opened with a rockin’ version of “A little Traveling Band” and clicked through a set of cover songs, done in their own fashion.  They closed with Sasha’s version of the Beatles “Back in the USSR” which was transposed to “Out of the USSR” expressing their happiness to be in the US.  The crowd was on its feet.

On the second or third night they were at the club, Joel Selvin, the rock critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, came and listened and gave them a very positive review, with some nice things also said about the guitar playing of Steven.  Later on, Joel and I became good friends, and he was responsible for the “uber” party at my house on the hill in Sonoma one night after the Sonoma Music Festival when the Steve Miller band and most of Sonoma’s well known citizens crowded into my upstairs living room and deck, and Joel barbecued and we partied until 3 am.  But I digress again.

Bookings came easy:  the band opened for Elvin Bishop who was so gracious; he talked to the group and told them he was also the descendant of East European Jews; hard to believe.  They also opened for the band that became “Night Ranger”, and in Santa Cruz they were on the bill with “The Band”, featured in the Martin Scorsese film “The Last Waltz”, filmed at Winterland (yes, I was there, too).  And their dream, Bill Graham booked them at Winterland to open for Blue Oyster Cult and the audience which booed them when they first came out cheered them at the end.  And Bill had nice things to say to them.

Since these bookings represented their total income, and I had to pay additional expenses out of my pocket, they were getting disgruntled that they were not getting more income (often the bands just took part of the “door” at the clubs), and since they had added some Russian songs Sasha had written, they wanted to know about a record deal.  A producer volunteered his services and produced a demo which was sent around, but there was no response.  We also sent the demo to The Voice of America, and when they played songs from it and explained the group, all of them heard from friends “behind the iron curtain” who were thrilled.

I decided to take them to Los Angeles and booked them in the famous Troubadour. I invited all the TV entertainment editors and the newspaper critics.  We drove up to the club and there was Tom Waits, sitting outside with a drooping cigarette.  I don’t think he even looked up.  One of the TV stations asked if they could broadcast a song live, and their guy would introduce it on the 11 PM news.   Of course I said yes; meanwhile, Channel 7 ABC was showing it live also and were extremely pissed when the competing newsman introduced them…..I remember the guy named David from ABC coming and screaming at me that I was now dead in Southern California.   Thank God I didn’t run into him when I went down there for 10 years with Fred Rosen and Bob Leonard at Ticketmaster!  While in LA, the band performed on Midnight Special, and occasionally I look at the tape.

So we had interest;  Rolling Stone did a feature, Walter Cronkite news did a piece on them, but no big offers.  We were running into trouble.  Sasha and Yuri didn’t like each other, Yakov needed to make more money so he was going to work down in Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley, Yakov wanted his own band with his own songs…….so of course the band broke up.   Sasha went to become an instructor in his specialty at Yale, Yuri drove a cab for awhile, Valery found his band, Steven went to school, chased a blonde back to New York, where he eventually became sommelier at the Rainbow Room and then at Tavern on the Green.  He is in the wine business today in Connecticut and raises ducks along with the beautiful Saquana, and they just had a wonderful son named Aaron.

If you know a great band that needs help, don’t come to me.