Mojo began as a Cuban seasoning made from garlic and oranges and somehow somewhere evolved to become an international symbol for good fortune. Music is also a universal phenomenum that freely crosses the borders of culture and politics, and the combination of music and blessings perhaps began when mothers learned that singing for their children brought peace and happiness into a home. Many musicians love to create myths about themselves, and when Jimmie Smith sang “Got My Mojo Workin’ in 1965, it became true for him and helped his career out in a big way, so it makes sense to sing about good luck in order to make it happen.
My own music career started in the 60’s at a pizza place called Giuseppi’s and my first gig there was a combination of playing with my band Manna, and making pizza. I had to time my breaks so that the food wouldn’t burn, and get off the stage in time to serve patrons. Some nights this wouldn’t work out, and I had to make a choice or lose my job and get kicked out of the band. So I decided to become a musician, and gave up making pizza to earn my bread with Manna.
Manna is also defined in the dictionary as “Something of value that a person receives unexpectedly.” It’s the kind of thing that might happen if you can get your mojo workin’. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like the beginning of much, but I believe it is from the truth that the best lies are spun as well as some of the worst jokes.
1980 was a year of magic for me and it started when I was hired to play piano and be musical director for a Second City review at a nightclub in Edmonton called Lucifer’s. I got to work with Catherine O’Hara who was moonlighting from her day job as a star of SCTV to direct our live comedy revue, and it was the beginning of my connection to the world scene of improvisational comedy which remains a strong thread the fates have woven into my life’s path. That year I also got to be one of two Turkish border guards busting Abbott and Costello for hashish on the third season of SCTV.
Our Second City dinner show was followed by a music act that changed once a week. These acts included Ray Charles, Fats Domino, and a young rocker from Vancouver named Bryan Adams who was waiting for his first big break. I even had Bryan Adams buy me a scotch, and I think I tried to give him some tips on how to improve his songs. Six months later his first record exploded onto the world scene and I couldn’t believe how quickly someone could move so far from complete obscurity. It was a magical surprise out of nowhere.
In 1990 I had a similar encounter in Santa Monica with Colm Meany. I was playing piano for a Second City review there, and I noticed Colm drinking by himself at a bar one night after our show. At the time, he was a regular extra on Star Trek, Next Generation. I went up to him and said, “You must be a great actor, because I always want them to give you some lines!” He laughed, bought me a scotch, and sure enough, within six months his character Miles O’Brian was picked up as a lead on Deep Space Nine, and he started getting big roles in movies like The Commitments.
Ten years later I was playing piano for a weekly comedy show in another nightclub in downtown Edmonton called the Sidetrack. Another decade had past, and it was time again to get my mojo workin’. Some of the actors that were turning up for this show had decided to go to L. A. to see if they could meet some people, maybe get a big break. On a semi-drunk impulse I decided to tell one of them, Ron Pederson, about Bryan Adams and Colm Meany. I explained that in order to pass my incredibly good mojo on to him, he would have to buy me a scotch and allow me to give him some lame-assed advice.
Not surprisingly it worked- many actors love attention- it’s part of why they became actors in the first place. Deep down I thought that I was just conning Ron into buying me a free drink. When Ron went flew to L.A. he did some skit comedy at a comedy club as a kind of showcase along with the other five actors from Edmonton. In the audience was SCTV alumni Martin Short, and out of all of the talent that was there that night, it was Ron that really impressed him. After the show, they hung out for a bit, and Martin decided to introduce him to the producer of MAD TV. An audition was arranged, and Ron was hired.
When Ron returned to Edmonton, he acknowledged that our little mojo game had mysteriously turned out to be real. The other actors tried to buy me scotches, but I had to tell them that the next magic scotch would occur around the year 2010. Though this news was disappointing, it gave an honest edge to the story. The legend of once a decade mojo was no shallow scam just to get free drinks or claim credit for the success of others.
It is now 2005, and over the summer I was hired to play piano for a comedy show that reenacted Ron’s trip to Hollywood and his meeting with Martin Short. It was written by a group called Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie and it involved puppets, a green screen and songs about its theme, which was about a complete and utter lack of mojo. The show was called “All Washed Up” and centered on how everyone but the Three Dead Trolls seemed to be making it. So the point wasn’t so much that luck was passed on to friends like Ron, but that it was never passed back. Martin Short tells Ron in this show that they should go meet a big shot friend of his named Dick Blasucci. I had never heard of Dick Blasucci, but an Internet search confirmed that Dick was the MAD TV producer that Martin had introduced Ron to. To my amazement, GOOGLE also brought up a search result that had my name right next to Dick Blasucci’s. This was because Dick Blasucci was the other Turkish border guard in the SCTV skit I had done in 1980.
I thought it was me that was lucky when I picked Ron Pederson as the candidate to validate my mojo theory. Chances are he would have made it without my blarney mojo story, and it felt like I was just cashing in on his good fortune. This cynical way of looking at it fails to explain how Dick Blasucci weaseled his way into both ends of my story. It couldn’t have been easy. Meanwhile Arlo Guthrie, a completely forgotten force in my life, resurfaced by way of a genealogy chart sent to me from my Uncle Aaron. In it, was the surprise that Arlo was my third cousin.
I found out about my blood connection to Arlo Guthrie shortly after the Ron Pederson mojo was spent, a result of reconciliation between my father and his estranged family from Philadelphia. Perhaps the energy spent keeping me and Arlo apart all these years was the other half of the same force that caused me to keep reconnecting with other people against all conceivable odds. Why sure, that makes sense, because a decade before Manna got together, my family moved to Edmonton from Philadelphia, and there was a rift in relations that kept me from knowing who else was in the family. That’s what must have caused all this.
In the year following the news from Uncle Aaron’s chart, I was invited to a cousin’s reunion in San Francisco. We all went to see Arlo in concert, and hung out with him for a bit backstage. One of the cousins said to Arlo, “Hey, Jan here is a musician too.” Arlo looked at me, sized me up with my short hair, and said, “You should grow your hair long.” He also forgave me for moving to Canada when I was nine.
I believe if we hadn’t moved from Philadelphia, I would have met Arlo way back when and kept my hair long, Maybe then Brian Adams’ first album would have bombed, Colm Meany would have never moved beyond beaming crew aboard the Enterprise, Ron Pederson would be waiting on tables in L.A., and the year 2010 would just be another ordinary year for everyone. Perhaps that’s stretching things a bit too far, but if you’ve ever listened to Alice’s Restaurant, you would know that some things sound exaggerated even when they are told straight up. For now, I think I’ll just see if I can arrange for Dick Blasucci to let me buy him a scotch.