Scrubby Seweryniak: An appreciation

One of the greatest bands in my purview, Brave Combo, also has one of the most accurate names. Brave because they’re a Texas (Denton) rock band that focuses primarily on polka, and is so good at it that it won a Grammy—when there was a Grammy polka category—and it’s leader Carl Finch was just inducted into the International Polka Association Hall of Fame.

I contacted Carl after finally opening my Les Blank: Always for Pleasure five-DVD box set of the late Les’s great music and culture documentaries, which was released by Criterion Collection in 2014 and includes his wonderful award-winning 51-minute 1984 docu In Heaven There is No Beer?, an examination of the high-spirited polka subculture featuring polka greats including Jimmy Sturr, Eddie Blazonczyk and Walt Solek. Watching it inevitably set me off on watching YouTube vids of my late pal Eddie B, then discovering, to my dismay, that Dave “Scrubby” Seweryniak of legendary Dynatones polka band fame had died on July 22 at 68.

“Yeah, Scrubby’s gone,” said Carl—one of the few people I can talk polka with. “If I had to boil down Brave Combo’s major influences to, say, five or six musicians or bands, Scrubby would be on that list, right there with the likes of [conjunto accordion great] Esteban “Steve” Jordan. We learned so much from him and his Buffalo-based polka upstarts, The Dynatones. He and his band made the polka funkier and gave it a new edge. The Dynatones amazing rhythm section combined with Scrubby’s voice and charisma created a polka shock wave in the 1970s and ’80s. That special sound is beautifully demonstrated by their recording of the Polish classic, ‘Zosia,’ from their Live Wire album. The first time I saw The Dynatones perform live, at Polkabration in New London, Conn., was as good as the first time I saw Led Zeppelin.”

Kinda reminds me of the time I gave up backstage passes at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison for Bruce Springsteen in 1980, I think it was, and drove to Milwaukee to see Slim Whitman. The power move.

“I often bugged Scrubby about doing some recording with us,” Carl continued. “So sorry we never got around to it. He was a very cool, gracious guy. I always thought his story would make a good movie, if the power of the music could actually be captured. Maybe it would be too esoteric for the average person, but there’s got to be a great story there.”

No shit.

“Larry Trojak, The Dynatones drummer, was a left-wing vegetarian, like me. With Scrubby being openly gay, that’s an odd pair for an American-Polish Catholic outfit. Also, do you remember the time we played Midsummer Night’s Swing and we had a Polish accordionist join us? That was Al Piatkowski, who was The Dynatone’s accordionist. That band was full of big-ass talent!”

Big-ass talent, indeed! And yes, Carl, of course I remember! How could anyone forget?

In memoriam, 2013

The pieces I least like writing, yet to me are the most important, are what I call “appreciations.” The New York Times does them, too, but mine are a little different.

Mine are little tributes to artists or other important figures who have died—important, that is, to me, and knowledgeable people I know or can reach quickly for quote. Not obituaries, they’re pretty much comments as to these late luminaries’ significance, strung together in a context that is illustrative, though not first-person personal.

But I’ll get a little personal and definitely first-person here in going through the list of names I wrote appreciations on this past year, if in fact I have something personal to add.

Starting form the beginning, I was a fan of Patti Page and the Andrews Sisters’ Patty Andrews, but I didn’t know them personally. The Troggs’ Reg Presley, on the other hand—and to use a couple words from the chorus of “Wild Thing”—did indeed “move me” in person.

I saw the original Troggs perform at least once—not sure if the original band was intact the second time, at a Cavestomp! garage rock show, after which I got to hang a bit with Reg, who sounded great and was the nicest guy. What always amazes me so much, though, is that besides such a crude sound on “Wild Thing” and other hits, The Troggs somehow yielded one of the most beautiful ballads of the 1960s in “Love Is All Around.”

Sadly, I never met George “Shadow” Morton, but of course I worshiped the records he made, besides the Shangri-Las’ classic hits, The New York Dolls’ second album Too Much Too Soon and Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child.” I didn’t know The Bottom Line’s Stanley Snadowsky like I know his partner Allan Pepper, but no one hung out at their club more than me.

Phil Ramone, however, I knew very well and for a very long time. We served on committees together, worked on projects together. He was every bit the national treasure everyone said he was.

Although I never met Annette Funicello, like any other guy my age I was in love with her. The great music documentary maker Les Blank, I met several times in Eunice, Louisiana, with Marc and Ann Savoy and the kids, whom he documented in Marc And Ann (1991).

Jonathan Winters goes without saying. I met George Beverly Shea, and saw him perform at Gaither Homecoming shows and Billy Graham Crusades.

The great English rock album graphic designer Storm Thorgerson I didn’t know, but legendary Australian rocker Christina Amphlett I knew well, and loved deeply—from the moment I saw her on The Divinyls’ first U.S. tour. Such a special artist, and I still ache thinking about her.

I met Richie Havens a few times—such a nice guy. I knew George Jones a bit, and always like to tell how I was the one who was drunk when he actually did show up sober in the late ‘70s, at Bunky’s in Madison, Wisconsin, and did a whale of a show before a handful of people, and how I grabbed him backstage after and told him about this incredible “new wave” singer-songwriter in England, Elvis Costello, who in one of his only interviews, said that he was one of his favorite singers. George said that, “what was his name? Elvis?” had sent him a song that was on his desk in Nashville, but that he hadn’t listened to it.

“George!” I shook him more emphatically, being totally smashed. “You must listen to that song, record it—and get Elvis to sing it with you!”

Which is exactly what happened, that song being “Stranger In The House.” Of course, whether or not it happened because of me, I can’t really say, except that when I first met Nick Lowe–again after a show at Bunky’s–and told him this story, he said, “You’re probably the reason he did the song!” And many years later, in Nashville at a Columbia Records luncheon for media radio and retail accounts during Fan Fair, I went up to George and recounted it for him, sure that he wouldn’t remember. But before the end of the lunch, he came back over to me and leaned over and said, “You know, I kind of do remember! If you have any more songs, send them over!”

Turns out I did have a song that I did send to George, but I don’t know that he ever got it: New York Doll David Johansen’s “Heart Of Gold.” Would have been perfect for him. And while I’m at it, I sent Hank, Jr. The Doors’ “L.A. Woman,” which, Bocephus, you really still should do.

And speaking of The Doors, I knew Ray Manzarek a bit, too. Wonderful guy, full of energy and genius. “Fifth Ramone” Arturo Vega of course I knew, having written the first book on The Ramones.

But Chet Flippo’s death really hit home. He was my music journalist role model, ever since I discovered that he was also a fan of both Dolly Parton and the Rolling Stones. And he was kind enough to respond to a fan letter I sent him from Madison, and sit down with me at the Rolling Stone office when I came to New York on a vacation. I was never luckier that I became friends with him and even got to work with him when he ran Billboard’s Nashville office. He’ll always be my role model—and hero.

I was lucky, too, to have met Slim Whitman—and see him perform. If I remember correctly, I gave up backstage passes for Bruce Springsteen at the Dane County Coliseum and drove to Milwaukee to see Slim at the Performing Arts Center. If so, it was one of the smartest choices I ever made, as close to hearing heaven on earth as any of us will ever get.

Bobby (Blue) Bland I didn’t know—besides his classic records. I knew the great guitarist/songwriter J.J. Cale a little, more so legendary country music man “Cowboy” Jack Clementmainly through another late and dear, dear friend, Steve Popovich, who brought us both to Cleveland for a polka music festival.

Eydie Gorme I didn’t know—but sure wish I did. Met Beatles’ promoter Sid Bernstein a few times, but didn’t really know him. And I was so lucky again to know Lou Reed as a friend, mainly because we both loved Doc Pomus and trained in martial arts—both of which he loved to talk about.

That leaves Ray Price, whom I didn’t know but revered—and was lucky to see perform with Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Asleep At The Wheel during the 2007 The Last Of The Breed tour—and porn king Al Goldstein, whom I also revered, knew closely, and will miss always.

[For more on Al, hit the link, and also see the piece I did on him on this site.]